YBOR CITY – Robert Taylor, 88, doesn’t lack for dance partners.
He smoothly moves around the floor of the Don Vincente Historic Inn, holding a partner’s hand as he swings her out and back as if he has been doing it for a lifetime. However, he only began “swing dancing” three years ago – but hasn’t missed a beat since.
“I know how to dress and I know the steps – and the ladies come,” said Taylor, who was among about 100 dancers, ranging 20s to 90s, at the hotel on a recent night for a Mad Men theme dance.
The dances are promoted by Swing Gang, a 15-year-old dance club that is part of Artist Agency, owned by Carson Berry. It sponsors dances, open to the public, Tuesday and Sunday nights. Some attendees are regulars who have come for years; others are new and never danced before; no regular partners are required and dance partners often change with each song.
Swing dancing developed in the 1920s, 30s and 40s to American Standards music and in nightclubs of the era. Forms include the Lindy Hop, shag and Charleston, but also can be combined with the cha-cha, ballroom dancing, waltzes and regional styles.
Some men dress in hats, suits and vests; many women wear skirts that flow with each twirl of their dance partner. For many, it is a chance to interact.
“I lost my wife after 65 years and I was lonely,” Taylor said. “These are great DJs and the hotel is super,” Taylor said.
Randy Teets has been one of the disc jockey for Swing Gang for five years. His music runs the gamut from The Beatles to Jerry Lee Lewis to ol’ Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra. It changes as the night progresses – older dancers from their 50s to 90s tend to come early while the younger ones come about 9 p.m.
“The first couple of hours are rock ‘n’ roll, big bands; the later crowd want more jazz,” Teets said. “They are some really nice kids in that group.”
Amy Barker, 28, a speech-language therapist, and Lindsey Harris, 26, a kindergarten teacher, are among the younger crowd. They said the group is as much about making friends and socializing as it is about dancing.
“I felt I needed something fun in my life,” Harris said. “I got addicted instantly.”
Michelle Johnson, 54, a New Tampa resident, has attended the dances for five years. “It’s just a very friendly bunch, like family. My kids were gone and I loved to dance. I googled swing dancing and found them.”
Sometimes Swing Gang dancers attend other events where they encourage others to get out on the floor or add to the atmosphere.
Colin Claypool and Katie Dehetre greeted guests as if they were paparazzi at the recent Celebrate Sinatra event at the Cuban Club which featured big band music in a nightclub like setting. They later danced with guests.
For Jeila Alai, 28, the dancing helped her shape her identity. It also resulted in her working as a dance instructor for the Sunday night classes and organizing special events for Carson’s company.
“I’ve always been into the clothes, the culture, music from the past,” Alai, a University of South Florida graduate student, said. “I took a dance lesson and realized this whole thing I have loved all my life is swing.”
Angela Hudec, 37, also likes the clothing of the period, finding dresses, hats, jewelry and more at vintage clothing and antique stores.
“It’s all about dressing up and dancing,” Hudec said.