SwingCal 10 year, and a lesson on giving ourselves permission

Last night, swing dancers filed into the same gym class at UC Berkeley that students have been doing so for the past 10 years.  Then the group of students, joined by more dancers from the community, packed into a new studio space on campus for social dancing.  Together, we celebrated one of the longest running DeCal (student-run course) classes in the history of the university.  We also celebrated the coming-together of many people - more than merely dancers - that kept this community growing over the years.

In preparation for the special SwingCal 10 year history lecture, I dug up old pictures and clips.  Making into the lecture slide was a snippet of Fall 2004 swing performance from The Movement, a UC Berkeley student dance group that planted some of the seeds for the scene today.  At the dinner that night, I was talking to Jean Ma about this old clip, and we just busted out laughing.

Why? Because we know we didn't really know what we were doing back in those days!

Us kids from the early Berkeley swing scene were full of excitement, but lacked in knowledge and guidance.  Funny thing is, had we knew what we know now, we may not have given ourselves the permission to go around and choreograph swing routines and start swing classes.  Should these silly kids with twice hand-me-down swingout techniques who dance to Mah Nà Mah Nà be organizing shows and teaching dance?!

I wondered how many times in my life I had shied away from doing something bold because I was afraid of how other would judge me.  Afraid of making a fool of myself.  Afraid of agitating the authority.

But there we were, never asking for any permission, built our scene with the spirit of an innocent yet sometimes naive kid.

Naw, I am not particularly proud of our dancing or teaching back then.  But when I look through the big history book of social dances, my biggest lesson doesn't come from the chapters written on what or how people danced.  It comes from the fact that the chapters are written by people who gave themselves the permission to be who they are, and do what they do.

In the world of hip-hop, there was Don Campbell, who created the foundation of locking dance by accident when he struggled to do the "funky chicken" move.  There were the bay area dancers who imitated the arm movements of traffic cops and ROTC rifle drills and later created the fillmore strutting dance.  Before lindyhop, there were the black dancers who emulated or even mocked the formal partner dances of the whites, and ended up creating the cakewalk dance that crossed the racial divide.  The list went on and on.

Had any of them stopped to ask for permission, what we would be missing out on today?

Of course, we didn't create any new dance style at Berkeley.  But we danced and shared boldly with the simplest intentions, and that were connecting people and building community. Over time, this attitude allowed the growing scene to develop its own character and write its own chapters.  Some of us explored the common roots of hiphop and lindyhop and lead to showcasing at events like the Bay Area Diggs Deeper.  Many more embraced the joy of partner role switching, establishing it as a trend and kicking off the switch workshop this year.

This same spirit also followed us beyond the student community, into founding The Breakaway in Oakland.

So last night, we celebrated what we created together many years ago. And we hope to continue to do what we do with the same fearless and pure intention, for many more years to come.

Shawn Chiao1 Comment