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Hooked on Swing Dancing

Cynthia Overstreet (right) and Shealyn Otto (left) dancing with their partners at the front end of the dance floor. (Photo Courtesy of James Murphy/Ithaca Week)
Local Swing Dance Group Keeps Tradition Alive

Every October the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Ithaca is bustling with people. However, this group of devotees haven’t gathered for a religious service. Rather, a different sort of ritual has called them: swing dancing.

The Ithaca Swing Dance Network has served as the main organization for swing dance in the area since 1988. The network promotes swing, teaches lessons and hosts live musicians to play at the dances.

“Ithaca is full of great musicians so we’re very lucky that way,” said Cynthia Overstreet, chairperson for the Ithaca Swing Dance Network.

The Ithaca Swing Dance Network often has live performers at its dances. The Hot Foot Club, a band that specializes in swing music, performed at a recent event. (Photo Courtesy of James Murphy)

The organization started at Cornell in 1985, around the same time that a national swing dancing surge was underway. From there the network expanded to host several dance-related events over the course of the years.

Eventually, it found a permanent home at St. Paul’s after several years at a loft over Bool’s Flower Shop. The slight give of St. Paul’s wooden floor makes it easier on dancers, allowing them to keep going for longer periods of time. According to Overstreet, the floor is a lesser-known, but important factor for experienced swing dancers.

“You might not know what’s going on if you’re not an experienced dancer, but for those of us who have been doing it for a while, we’re very conscious of that,” she said.

The network also provides support for the Ithaca College Swing Dance Club as well as the three swing dance clubs at Cornell. Each of these group’s levels of activity can vary from year to year. The Ithaca Swing Dance Network serves as the steady provider for all things swing.

“You’ll have a great set of dancers and they’ll all graduate and then it dies down again,” Overstreet said. “So we’re one of the steady pieces that tries to keep things going throughout all of that.”

Attendants of the Ithaca Swing Dance Network’s semester dance on October 4. (Photo Courtesy of James Murphy/Ithaca Week)

Mary Sze-Tu, who travels just under an hour from Endicott to come to events, was first told about the Ithaca Swing Dance Network by several of her friends. For Sze-Tu, swing dance provides a unique way of communicating with others that she said you can’t find anywhere else.

“I love live music and the way it creates interactions with people that further develops relationships,” Sze-Tu said.

Rich Andrulis has been involved in swing dance since 1991, when he was a student at Cornell. After graduating he left the area before coming back to Ithaca. Andrulis has been a board member for the network since 2009. For him, the biggest perk of being a swing dancer is the community it creates.

“It’s something that makes me feel good when I get out of the house and actually go dancing,” Andrulis said. “People always ask me when I’m dancing, it’s like ‘How are you doing?’ I say ‘Well, I’m dancing. It’s a good thing.’”

Some younger people are also getting hooked on swing. Shealyn Otto, a student in one of Overstreet’s classes, grew up watching older movies and listening to artists like Ella Fitzgerald, which sparked her interest in swing dance. For Otto, swing dance is a way for her to stay connected with an important part of history.

“Once you’ve gotten to a certain level of skill, all of a sudden it just clicks,” Otto said. “You’re with someone and you’re dancing to actual music and all of a sudden you’ve just done a perfect turn and it feels so amazing.”

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