It’s a Friday night in La Crosse, WI and as a 43-year-old who isn’t into the bar scene culture we have here, I went searching on Facebook for anything I could do. Much to my surprise, I found it… “learn how to swing dance” was the title of the event and it was being hosted by the Riverside Swing Addicts. Bonus, it’s free for the public! Plus, the event said there is no partner needed which for me was clutch. I was so giddy and stood up and said, “let’s jitter bug baby.” Why you ask, well that’s really all I remember from watching black and white movies back in the day. I grew up on the farm with my grandma, who was born in 1921 and she would twirl me around her living room, and we would dance and sing to some very upbeat tempo music all the time. I have been to other workshops for dancing and felt like a fish out of water. Whether it was a Zumba or Barre class for cardio, or an intro to dance class to learn and have fun. I always felt like I was being watched or judged, garnered by my own insecurities, and yet I wasn’t ready to give up on myself just yet.
Swing dance was always a very interesting but seemed very complicated. Professional dancers who flip, swing, and twirl their partners all over the dance floor. I am NOT one of those people, but I was drawn to it. Now my 2023 era of thinking was swing dance had literally died off decades ago. I’m here to say it mostly certainly has not. It’s thriving here locally in La Crosse!
Swing dance got its name around the 1920’s but it is believed that it had been around for many years prior. There are so many variations of it, different cultural aspects. It breaks down the barriers that we often find in life and lets everyone join at their own pace. There are so many renditions of the dance from West Coast to East Coast Swing dancing, and they teach a bit of both. Swing dance is roughly 100 years old, so I figured this must be a class with only older adults who have kept the dance alive. I was absolutely wrong. Let me tell you how blown away I was by the entire experience.
To my surprise, it filled the room with college students and a few older adults, including myself. I entered a big meeting room that looked like a cafeteria in the basement of Roncalli Newman Center. It can accommodate around 50 to 200 people. I hadn’t a clue what to expect, but there were only 5-10 people there. I put my stuff down by a table and waiting for the class to begin. Gabriel Oakes is the man behind Riverside Swing Addicts and the dance instructor who was leading the group. He introduced himself and his wife Leah before explaining swing dance. They offered to help learners of any level. By the time he called us to the floor, the room was filled with at least 50-60 people. Gabriel had everyone form two lines facing one another. One side leads and the other side follows. A very interesting side note is there are females that are leads which as well isn’t what some are used to seeing, but it was actually very refreshing. Gabriel starts in with what he is going to teach us. He’s great at teaching swing dance basics, breaking down each step for everyone to learn individually. He then shows how the lead steps off with one leg and the follow with another. Now some would say that this is intimidating or awkward, but it was anything BUT that. When you realize everyone is learning and willing to help you, it all falls away! It’s at this point that you meet someone who also just learned the pattern, rhythm, and timing of the steps. Laughter and “the excuse me” for stepping off on the wrong foot or from trying the steps multiple times together. Gabriel compliments the crowd for trying it on their own and it is at this point that eyes are glued back on Gabriel and Leah as they pleasantly glide across the floor slowly with the next dance step to try. They do this a couple times, pointing out certain aspects along the way like hand placement or posture. Then he directs us to try it all together as he counts out the steps 1-2-3-4 5-6-7-8 and continues to repeat this for a few times.
Gabriel and Leah met at a dance only a year and a half ago and were married a year later. You wouldn’t guess it, but Leah wasn’t a dancer. She accredits the skills to her dance master, her husband. Gabriel started this only 6 years ago. His primary motivation is teaching dance in an inclusive, fun, and supportive environment. Giving colleges students eager to learn a place to go for a sober Friday night. Gabriel also teaches dancing at weddings, bachelor/ette parties, employers city-wide events as well. When the students go home for the summer, the events move to Riverside Park… hence the Riverside Swing Addicts.
Sometimes there is the thrill of themed events, like the Masquerade Ball they had recently. There was roughly an attendance of at least 70-100 or more people. Once again, this empty gym turned into excitement, nerves, and wonder. They set the ballroom ambiance with dim lighting, ivy decor, and masks available. They also provided snacks and refreshments on the tables. From ball gowns to workout leggings, everyone came to the gym for dance instructions and a mixer. Fittingly so, at the ball Gabriel taught Ballroom dances – the Rumba and Waltz. Each one of those lessons gets a half an hour worth of detailed instructions, practice and Gabriel’s’ jokes of, “well me made it back together that’s a good thing,” and really it is!
One instruction I heard each time I attended was to switch partners often. Don’t let that intimidate you though. The reason that is, is you never want to get used to one partner and how they lead or follow. It teaches you to be fluid and open to the frame and moves of someone else. So, the remaining time until 11 pm is open dancing. Once again, the inclusiveness of everyone and the judgement free zone here is astounding. My last partner, during instructions, was a beautiful young and kind college student Addy. She was so patient to teach me the steps, and she was great at being a lead and a positive motivator, even when I was screwing up. Addy has been dancing swing since she was 13. She started in the Masonic centers’ basement and moved here to the Roncalli Newman Center. Once we had danced a few songs, it was time to switch partners again.
Cory is a sweet seasoned 90-year-old man who has more stamina than half the college students. The event started at 7:30pm and I didn’t see him take a break from ballroom dancing until almost 9:30pm. If he doesn’t have a line waiting for him, he will move to asking another person to dance. He was very kind to teach me how to merengue and told me how it’s likely bullpucky but he has a story about how it came to be. The story was quite amusing, so if you go and get a chance to dance with him, just ask him. Cory actually wasn’t a dancer either. He started learning to dance only 15 years ago and proudly proclaimed if he knew it was going to be this much fun, he would have started decades ago. I really thought he had been a dancer by the way he was swinging those college students around. Cory’s newest friend, Karen, new to the event, looked like they had been dancing together for years. A testament to Cory, or Riverside Swing Addicts, and their willingness to teach people of all ages.
The Facebook event posts say that the events are free and open to everyone, regardless of their skill level. There is so much to these events that even if you want to come and watch you can. My favorite is watching them do the Charleston Swing Step Dance. It absolutely dynamic in both its energy and coordinated rock steps, kicks, the sounds of the stomps, slides and Gabriel signaling the next move. The pure joy on everyone’s face, is something you must check out and become a part of.
Whether you are looking to learn to swing dance, line dance, ballroom, salsa, Charleston, to get a workout in, or heck, just socialize and meet someone new. Look up Riverside Swing Addicts or Gabriel Oakes for events, dates and times.
Writing and Photography by: Riley Hunter