Two weekends ago, I attended one of the most memorable and enjoyable events I’ve ever signed up for: PittStop, a regional lindy hop exchange. If you’ve been reading along for a while now, you’ve probably picked up that I’ve been swing dancing for about six months now and LOVING every second of it. Even though I have been dancing consistently ever since, it was still intimidating to sign up for an exchange, where you’re likely to be surrounded by advanced dancers. The theme of this year, however, has been pushing myself out of my comfort zone and I can say with confidence that it has been worth it every single time.
What’s a Lindy Hop Exchange?
Lindy hop is a form of swing dancing, apparently named after Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris in 1927 when the newspaper read “LINDY HOPS THE ATLANTIC.” It has a lot of quick footwork and involves the infamous “swing out,” which may take me my entire life to master! Check out some impressive advanced lindy hop in this awesome video.
An exchange is an opportunity for dancers in all different cities to come together to dance and enjoy one another’s company. Since many locals host visiting dancers, it often serves as an “exchange program” of sorts, encouraging fellowship akin to summer camp. Since most exchanges offer this free housing, this allows for relatively inexpensive traveling. What sets exchanges apart is that they typically do not have workshops or lessons; they mostly exist for the sole purpose of social dancing. Lindy exchanges can range in terms of size, but PittStop is one of the largest on the east coast with about 400 dancers, attracting visitors from all over.
The schedule is intense, this particular exchange featuring seven dances in a period of two and a half days, including two late night/morning dances from 1-5 AM. We were also fortunate enough to experience several nationally renowned live bands, including Gordon Webster, The Boilermaker Jazz Band, The Fried Bananas, The Downtown Shimmy, and Jimmy Sapienza’s Five Guys Named Moe. The daytime and evening dances featured swing music while we slowed things down for the late night sessions with blues music.
An exchange is a great way to explore a new city, too. PittStop featured a few really unique and gorgeous venues in our lovely city, such as the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum and Pittsburgh Opera. Our mayor, Bill Peduto, even made a PittStop Proclamation.
My First Exchange
Going into PittStop, the only expectation I really had was that it was going to be exhausting and fun. And I was definitely right. But it was so much more than that. I ended up attending the exchange on my own, something I never would have done months ago. (I wasn’t persuasive enough to convince my friends to do the whole weekend with me–can’t say I blame them since it IS intimidating, but so worth it.) While I certainly knew a good handful of dancers from the Pittsburgh swing scene, I didn’t have anyone to fall back on or someone to hang around with the whole time. This solo scenario isn’t for everyone, but it really allowed me to talk to a lot of new people and gave me complete control over my schedule. In any case, you really do bond with those you meet or share the exchange with. I really enjoyed meeting people from West Virginia, Michigan, Virginia, Ohio, and D.C., for example, and have even become Facebook friends with a bunch of them. It was really awesome to build on the friendships I’ve already made, too.
Since I consider myself an “intermediate” swing dancer, I didn’t feel too intimidated or nervous about being surrounded by such talented dancers. My brave friend and colleague Melissa and my talented college buddy Will joined me on Saturday night for the incredible Gordon Webster evening dance with little to zero swing experience; while they were such troopers and learned a lot, it may not have been the best first experience for them since there wasn’t a formal lesson to practice first. I so appreciated them coming out and having fun regardless! It’s not an impossible feat for first-timers, but I would suggest you at least learn a few basic steps before attending an exchange. (Pittsburghers, I know a guy.) Keep in mind, you WILL get infinitely better by the end of the weekend, no matter your skill level.
Photo credit: Ralf Brown (who is not only a great photographer, but a phenomenal dancer, too!)
One of the biggest surprises of the entire weekend was my newfound love of blues dancing! I had danced to a few blues tunes in the past, but really did not know what I was doing or what to think. The best thing about blues is that you really don’t need to have prior experience; you do, however, need to have some confidence and feel comfortable getting closer to your dance partner than the typical dance. As a follower, I was lucky to have some strong leads who guided me (both for lindy and blues) and made it so much fun. It was the perfect way to relax after a long day of lindy hop without crashing. I even attended a house party at the very end of the exchange where we blues danced in socks and dragged out the experience as long as we could. Too much fun.
Now that I’ve attended PittStop, I plan on attending other exchanges and dance workshops for years to come–hopefully getting the opportunity to travel! It’s so exciting to see things I’ve always said I wanted to do come to fruition. Next “stop:” Steel City Blues Festival. Join me?
How to Survive (and Thrive)
Should you be crazy (and awesome) enough to attend a lindy hop exchange, here are just a few tips to help you not only get through 30 hours of dancing without getting sick but also to help you make the most of your experience:
Pack multiple outfits (and shoes) per day.
No matter how much deodorant you use, you will sweat. A lot. Do yourself and your dance partners a favor and bring a hand towel and an extra shirt, as you’ll likely need to change during the dance and most definitely in between dances. Make sure you have a few pairs of comfortable shoes (with the appropriate socks or tights) and bring a few bandaids to prevent blisters. Your shoes should have soft soles that will allow you to spin easily, such as Keds, oxfords, or flats, but make sure they have laces or a strap so they don’t fall off. I wore these slip-on Keds, these fake classic Keds, and a pair of character shoes throughout the weekend, occasionally putting a strip of duct tap on the sole to make it easier to turn.
Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate.
Drink more water than you think you need and fuel your body with Emergen-C and Gatorade. You will need it. On this same note, be sure you’re eating foods that will give you sustainable energy.
Attend as much as you can.
The only way to get the most out of your experience is to really be present in as much as you can. It may be exhausting, but you never know who you will meet or what you will learn. Keep in mind, you still need to be careful and…
Only you know your limits. Take breaks throughout the dances–you don’t need to be dancing for every single song (or your feet will kill you). Take a water break, sit down, stretch out before and after dances, and get as much sleep as you can. I ended up leaving a dance early on Saturday afternoon to rest up for the evening dance and I’m really glad I did.
Ask people to dance.
In swing dancing, there are no rules. Guys ask girls, girls ask guys, guys ask guys, girls ask girls. Just dance! Don’t be afraid to ask someone you don’t know to dance. You’ll never grow unless you push yourself. Dancing with someone is one of the easiest ways to break the ice without the awkwardness of small talk and nothing to do. You’ll always have something to talk about if you find a break in the conversation. Besides, you’re bound to make a ton of new friends.
Dance friends–what would you add to this list? Give your best pointers in the comments below!
I would highly recommend PittStop (or any lindy hop exchange) to anyone who wants to try something new, make friends, dance for fun, and have an incredible and memorable time. I am so grateful to have found a hobby that fills me up to the brim and to have so many opportunities ahead to grow, learn, and enjoy. Push yourself to give it a try and then let me know how much you love it, too. (And then let’s go dance!)