Care to Dance?

D ifferent partners offer different advice, but ultimately it all comes down to one thing: the dancing. Tuesday night’s style is fusion, “a sort of modern improvisational blend of a lot of different dance styles,” explains Tina Su, treasurer for Yale Swing, Blues & Fusion, a graduate student club that’s open to the public. “A lot of it is based on how you’re feeling at the moment, your connection with the music, with a partner.”

I need a lesson before I get out on the dance floor. Su starts me out with a simple blues step: left, together, right, together. Even if that’s a challenge for you, Yale Swing, Blues & Fusion will welcome you on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, when they offer their free practica.

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House of Naan

Club member Anne Carroll arrives and steps in to teach me some more. Her advice is to keep a consistent space between us as we move backward and forward across the room. We’re in the carpeted hallway upstairs in the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, where we’ve been getting acquainted, but now it’s time to move into the dance hall, where a member named Isha is the evening’s DJ. Pairs of dancers are “fusing” to the mostly mellow tunes, which run the gamut from jazz to Bollywood, always aiming for a danceable tempo under 140 beats per minute, Su says.

On the dance floor, two more partners throw in their advice as we dance. One emphasizes our weight: as long as it’s on the same side, we’re dancing together, no matter what we do. Another shows me how to “switch”—to shift from follower to leader—by executing a move that swaps our arm positions. Or, he says, you can flip hands to signal a switch, with the leader’s underneath and the follower’s on top.

The club wittily describes itself as “ambidancetrous.” There are “no explicit gender roles,” and partners typically switch after every number. Dancers are expected, when they ask someone for a dance, to also ask, “Lead, follow or switch?” The first time you dance fusion with someone, Su adds, it’s good to ask whether your partner is okay with “close contact.” A no to anything, even the dance itself, is always okay. The club takes the issue of consent so seriously that there’s a safety committee, with a designated safety coordinator present at every event in case someone needs to lodge a complaint.

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Ignacio Berroa Trio presented by Yale School of Music

On Tuesday night, the lights are low and the dancing dramatic, with improvised moves from disco to tango. Thursday night is half swing, half blues—a different vibe. The lights and the tempo are both up, and dancers cover more ground as they step out to a swing beat. The club’s chief coordinating officer, Kevin Chou, who finished a PhD in physics at Yale a couple of years ago and now works for a local startup, has brought a playlist heavy on Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie with some new bands thrown in. Along with PhD student and club president Renee Wasko, he’s ready to go. A few more dancers trickle in as Chou and Wasko take to the floor, sneakers squeaking, faces beaming.

Over the course of the two evenings, about half the dancers I meet aren’t Yale students at all. There’s a researcher from the School of Public Health, a couple of engineers working for local industry and someone who simply jokes he’s “not smart enough to go to Yale.” Su says many of the Tuesday and Thursday regulars come from off-campus, and sometimes YSB&F itself heads off-campus. You may find the group on the floor at Cafe Nine or at shows where the band Olive Tiger is playing; band member Jesse Newman frequents YSB&F.

The club also organizes special events, including an upcoming Swing & Blues Beginner Bootcamp for $30 ($20 for students). “We’re very beginner-friendly,” Su says. “We do a lot of teaching, … and it really is just a space for self-expression, for connection, for community.” She had never danced until she came to graduate school, where she’s studying immunology. Before then, she thought it was just something she wasn’t good at—a belief stemming from a Chinese dance class in which, at the age of five, she was relegated to the back row for not moving gracefully enough.

“Coming to grad school, it was a super isolating time, so it’s like, let’s find something social to do and get good exercise with great people,” Su says. “That’s what attracts me to the dance community.”

Yale Swing, Blues & Fusion
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Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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