Swing dancing for the first time is similar to a first kiss: awkward and sloppy, but oh so sweet.
Upon arriving at Zendah Grotto at 4109 N. Lauber Way, it was obvious we had entered a foreign world full of slicked back hair, fedora hats and red lipstick that we had no idea existed in Tampa. It felt as if we had stepped back in time to the days where swing dancing was the norm and Benny Goodman was an ace.
After entering the Grotto and paying the student fee of $6, we sat at an empty table and excitedly watched the swinging. On the wall to the right, there was an old black-and-white movie playing that featured classic swing dancers from the ’40s. Music reverberated from the speakers, reminicent of times long ago. The atmosphere made us want to tap our feet and sway to the music.
Around 7 p.m. we made our way to the wooden dance floor, ready to get our swing on. The Napoleon Dynamite-esque instructor, equipped with his hands-free microphone, separated the females from the males. There were more girls than guys, so for the first round we danced alone between couples, feeling rather dorky.
Originally, we just wanted to dance foolishly together, but that was before we learned that the boys were the leaders and the girls had to learn the different dance steps from them. We learned the rock step and hop while repeating “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.”
The instructor called for the guys to switch, and we got the chance to dance with a partner. However, it was awkward to dance with so many different men ranging from ages 14 to 60. We found ourselves turning the wrong way and stepping on toes. The hour went by slowly since we repeated the same three steps over and over again.
At 8, the lights dimmed and the more experienced dancers came out for freestyle. It was all about dancing from how you felt. The people on the sidelines tapped their feet to the music, while guys came up to women and asked them to dance. The disco ball seemed out of place, shining down on the groups of people bouncing to swing music.
We both got the chance to dance freely; at first we took it seriously, looking down on the floor trying to mock our partner’s moves. However, once we let go of all the notions of getting it right, the dancing became more fluid and natural. We even noticed that our dancing began to have personality, which our partners caught on to.
We found other USF students who were regulars of the Grotto.
“It’s sort of a chemical thing, because you’re dancing and the pheromones and endorphins are there,” said Jessie Newman, a sophomore majoring in mass communications. “It’s feels really good chemically. It’s a great time just kicking your legs around and doing whatever you want once you get the hang of it. It’s just a blast.”
We also had the honor to meet Frank “Mr. Smooth” Katzenmeyer, who has been swing dancing for 58 years. He said that in order to understand swing’s past, you have to go back to the jazz age.
“The jazz age in the ’20s and ’30s developed into swing because jazz cannot be danced to, so you had to put a beat to it,” Katzenmeyer said.
He said that not much has changed in swing dancing since he was 14 years old.
“Just some new routines, different types of music. New artists on the market such as Brian Setzer, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies – stuff like that – but we’re still dancing to old music such as Benny Goodman and Glen Miller,” Katzenmeyer said.
We saw that everyone knew each other; it was a very close knit-group that welcomed newcomers.
After we left the Grotto and re-entered the modern world, we both made plans to come again. We felt excited that we found this hidden treasure in Tampa.