We pushed through The Oval’s doors,
lifted aside a velvet curtain – and immediately smelled whiskey. Candles
illuminated the back bar and dozens of bottles glinted in the dim light. Six
musicians squeezed into a large corner booth at the entrance, their instruments
close by and pints even closer. But no fiddles or flutes were in sight – this
was no ordinary night of traditional
The group burst into the 1928 jazz standard, Digga Digga Doo, a banjo,
bassoon, trumpet and trombone playing alongside a tuba. A brunette with two
braids sang, her voice a throaty, sexy sandpaper. My partner
used the narrow space between the barroom and the next room to toss me into a swing out, the basic step
of lindy hop. No
Irish jigs could be seen.
The band had come for October’s Cork
Jazz Dance Exchange, one of the many opportunities in Ireland to experience
Irish hospitality, see the country’s verdant beauty – and dance to jazz until
morning. As both a swing dance hobbyist and a traveller looking for a unique
way to see Ireland, I had hit the jackpot.
Lindy hop, a
style of partnered swing dancing that originated in New York City in the late
1920s, saw a worldwide renaissance in the 1990s, partly thanks to the advent of
an updated breed of swing music, dubbed neo-swing. But it wasn’t until the
early 2000s that it began gaining traction on the Emerald Isle.
Today, five distinct swing scenes exist on the island: Cork, Kilkenny,
Dublin, Galway and Belfast. Although each swing community developed
differently, they all share the same enthusiastic welcome to newcomers. This
spirit struck me immediately in Cork when a local dancer offered me a guest
room after the Dance Exchange. The caveat? That we’d go dancing as often as
possible. I’ve never paid a better rent.
By day, I toured the Cork City Gaol,
surfed in Kinsale and explored the surrounding counties, taking advantage of
Ireland’s small size and navigable bus network. At night, we’d find a place to
dance. Perhaps surprisingly, travellers can often find live jazz in pubs, generally
for the cost of a Guinness.
Throughout the year, meanwhile, cities host workshops, classes and dance
exchanges, combining both social dancing and sightseeing opportunities. Galway hosted
its first exchange in August, and is
home to the country’s only Lindy Hop Championships
(21 November). Dublin hosted its
sixth exchange in September, and Cork now presents three annual shindigs – Lindy Express (February), The Mooche (June) and the Cork Jazz Dance
Exchange (October). More than 150 students participated in the 2014 Mooche, the
majority coming from outside Ireland. Two even flew from Australia.
Dancers and coordinators alike recognize that visitors also look for a
bit of local culture. Sometimes traditional Irish dance classes are available,
like Sean-nós (pronounced “shan-NOSS”)
at The Mooche, or céilí (“KAY-lee”) at
the Dublin Lindy Exchange. In
true Irish fashion, The Mooche also offers a whiskey tasting.
“I love the way [swing] brings people together,” said Daragh Regan,
managing director and co-founder of Lindy
Vice, an Irish duo that arranges workshops. “It’s easy to harness that good
feeling and focus it outwards.” At last year’s Cork Jazz Dance Exchange, a single
dance fundraised enough to run a school for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon
for a month. This year, the organisers plan to unite Palestinian and Israeli
dancers, “to get to know each other and meet members of the bigger community on
neutral ground, where all comers are treated as valued guests,” Regan said.
After Cork, I headed onward to Kilkenny, where Rory Vaughan runs
Wednesday lessons at Left
Bank, an 1870 bank turned trendy bar. Although I had only met him a week
before in Cork, every evening we’d cook dinner, go to a pub, listen to live
music or find a spot to dance, making more friends along the way.
Through Vaughan, I met Shane Hennessey, who hosted me in Dublin. And
these warm receptions were far from unique. Marie-Eve Fleuchey, who moved to
Cork from France, said swing became a way to settle into her new home. “I was
welcomed like I always belonged there,” she said. “I have now close friends and
a few of us are travelling around the country and abroad for workshops.”
Swing has also provided Belfast dancers a way to connect with the
broader community. “There’s just something about dancing that blurs perceived
divisions either in age, nationality, or indeed religion,” said Carolyn
Timpany, a Belfast native. “Perhaps our politicians should take a few dance
Six weeks after that night at The Oval, familiar faces surrounded me on
yet another dance floor. By then, I had danced through Kilkenny, Cork, Dublin
and Galway, and Vaughan had convinced me to compete in Galway’s Lindy Hop
Championships. I was nervous. But as the first bars of Barney Kessell’s Moten
Swing played and the crowd started clapping to the beat, I looked around at the
many dancers who had unquestioningly made me part of their lindy hop family. My
butterflies flew away. I just danced.