Return of Lindy Hop to the Savoy Denver

When visitors enter the newly remodeled Savoy Denver, they notice a lush mix of Art Deco and Victorian furnishings. The upstairs ballroom also features showy light fixtures and rich gemstone hues, welcoming guests to a generous expanse.

For most of its life, the building, erected in 1889, hosted social clubs and dances in the upstairs ballroom. Co-owners and sister-brother duo Meghan and Scott Frank, who acquired the Savoy in 2020, plan to use it as a cultural center, where their nonprofit Artibus Theater will perform and other bands including Swingin’ Denverorganization of classes and social events, can involve the community.

Through the partnership, Kenny Nelson, founder of Swingin’ Denver, began teaching Lindy Hop, an energetic partner dance, at the Savoy in March. Bringing the dance style back to the building (it had previously been taught and practiced there by other groups) is a chance to honor Lindy’s story, as well as make the scene more culturally inclusive in the Mile High City.

There are deep historical parallels in the return of Lindy Hop to Savoy: It was at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, where black legends such as George “Shorty” Snowden, Mattie Purnell, Frankie Manning and Norma Miller created many classic Lindy steps. and styles. The Savoy Denver, named for the New York site, is located at Five Points, known as the “Harlem of the West,” where jazz greats including Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed .

“It should be recognized and honored that [Lindy] came from the black community,” Nelson says of the vernacular dance that originated in the early 1900s. According to Jaqui Malone, author of Steppin’ on the Blues, “vernacular refers to the dance performed to the rhythms of African-American music; dance that makes these rhythms visible.

Brittney Caraway, a friend of Nelson’s and a longtime Denver dancer and jazz singer, has a deep understanding of vernacular meaning; it is his story. Her grandparents danced the step and also shared their love of jazz music with her. “It’s just in me. It’s in other black dancers, because it’s part of our lived experience,” says Caraway.

When she started dancing Lindy Hop 18 years ago, Caraway said it “saved her”. She was dealing with family turmoil, but found friends in the dance communities of Las Vegas and Denver who helped her feel accepted.

Although he found a community, Caraway also struggled at Lindy Hop events. There were rarely other people of color. And it was expensive to participate in competitions, as well as some social events. She often had to volunteer or work to participate. Nor could her hair be done in a Victory roll, a 1940s hairstyle that was romanticized by dancers and event planners – an example of Eurocentric beauty standards against black dancers. The night Philando Castile was shot and killed by police on Facebook Live in 2016, Caraway went to a social dance to deal with her emotions. No one invited her to the floor.

In the summer of 2020, Caraway almost stopped going to Lindy Hop events. She advocated for changes; for example, she spoke in an online forum called Moving together: dancing towards an inclusive community and global social justice. But for her, it’s not about activism. It’s about making people feel comfortable and the history of dance being recognized. During the birth of Lindy Hop, racial violence was common and legal segregation kept black people out of white ballrooms. “(Lindy Hop) came out in the black community because of the pain and because of the way the music moved us,” Caraway says.

Caraway believes more steps can be taken to acknowledge this history. She would like to see ambassadors greet new faces at events at places like the Savoy, Mercury Cafe and Denver Turnverein. Partnerships with organizations such as Cleo Parker Robinson Dance could foster the connection between African dance and Lindy Hop. She also thinks scholarships for people of color and community service efforts, like street cleaning or barbecues, would help show that Lindy Hop is something that really should be shared with everyone, and not just something drawn from black culture. “I always refer to Savoy [in Harlem],” she said. “Everyone was welcome… so let’s embody that.”

Nelson and Caraway, who have been dancing and working together for years, have discussed these issues before. He is keen to include the historical roots of the dance on the Swingin’ Denver website and at the start of classes. But he also wants to make the courses more culturally inclusive, including increasing collaborations with local businesses, especially those with greater black and brown representation. He also plans to focus on connecting local bands with gigs to help the music gain more of a foothold in the Mile High City.

Meghan Frank also recognizes that the Savoy Denver can play a role in promoting the inclusivity that Caraway is calling for. She wants to be sensitive to what the surrounding community wants the dance hall to be. “We have the ability to offer space,” she says, “and still partner with those who have a vision for what to do with it.”

If you’re going: Swingin’ Denver’s next six-week beginner and intermediate sessions will take place June 29 through August 3. They’re currently on sale for $75, with student discounts and scholarships for those in need. Don’t miss a live musical event at the Savoy with SmokeTone Swing Band, May 4 from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Admission $12.

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