A sunny February afternoon, I met with Fran, one of the leaders of Bristol Swing Riot. We sat outside Bristol Harbourside and talked about their upcoming workshop for International Women’s Day.
I have to say, before I sat down with Fran, I was slightly disillusioned as to what swing dancing was. I knew what it looked like from the TV, but my conversation with her opened my eyes completely to what it actually stood for. Bristol Swing Riot is about respect, consent and being comfortable with feeling completely free. Fran’s passion for swing is infectious and I couldn’t help but be totally taken with her when she starts talking about it.
Read more about Fran, swing and consent:
B: So I’ll start with the basics, what is it you do?
F: So, we are four swing dancers who got together a couple of years ago who had all been teaching for a little while and now we teach in Easton and Clifton! In Bristol, the swing dancing community is made of around 200-300 people and pretty much every weekend you have gigs, so there are loads of times you can just go out dancing! For example this weekend, I’m going to Brighton for a massive festival, they have swing teachers from Sweden and other places. But you just dance, with other people – it’s just super fun!
B: That sounds so much fun! So, did it start as a childhood hobby which has grown into your own club?
F: Yeah! So when I was really young, I wanted to start swing dancing. I saw a TV show about it and just thought ‘that looks really fun’ and just remembered that throughout my entire teenage years. I then started doing modern jive when I was in uni because there wasn’t a swing class back then. After that, I started swing dancing and just thought ‘this is amazing’ – that was probably when I was about 19.
I had done dance before, we used to do these big shows and my dance teacher (who used to work on a cruise ship) used to run these enormous shows, 2 hour long shows with costume changes, running on and off for the scenes! So I’ve always loved performing. Because swing music is really happy and there’s a sort of relaxed feeling to it, it actually came about during the war and during a period of segregation. It’s an African American dance form, so was danced with people of different races. In some venues they would only have performers who were black, but they wouldn’t let them in as a member of the audience, so you had these amazing dancers and performers who couldn’t actually go into the venue. It was developed at a time where people were beaten down, swing is sort of, you go, you dance – there’s not this strict complicated thing with it – you just relax and let it all go.
B: So ‘riot’, that’s such a strong word – where did the riot come from?
F: We used to teach with the other swing dancing school, but we had a very amicable split so it ended up with us four together. We were trying to come up with a name, we had a few different ideas. But ‘riot’ came from the idea of just having fun, being expressive and free. The other name we came up with was The Academy of Swing, which wasn’t ideal as it didn’t seem to be what we stood for. One of my favourite things about it is sometimes we’ll have a dance circle, and the band will play an epically fast song, one couple will jump in and everyone will form a circle around them so you can jump in and out! There’s a little bit of ‘showing off’ but it’s mainly that we all have this moment, like a jam! There’s an amazing energetic, electric feeling. And that’s when it’s at its most fun.
(At this point I was seriously considering signing up) B: Was it important for you to perform at IWD?
F: Yes. So, the dance is partnered, and there’s still the assumption in quite a few places that a man will lead and a woman will follow because it seems that what we see everywhere and that’s how we’re brought up. You see shows like Strictly [Come Dancing], or Dancing on Ice, they still haven’t had same sex couples yet. I started leading dances around 5-6 years ago, and the more I lead in the dance, the more I started understanding feminism. It didn’t like how I was being treated, I didn’t like how a lot of people were assuming I would follow. Occasionally in classes, a guy will see a woman leading and will walk up to them and try and ‘help them out’ or offer to dance with them. There’s still an attitude where it’s a little bit of a novelty idea, and it isn’t taken seriously, almost as if if a woman is dancing with another woman, it’s because she can’t find a man to dance with. So I had never thought of feminism before I started leading, it just changed everything.
B: So, the 1920s when this dance was up and coming, women really started gaining their voice. You had the flappers, Woolf and Shelley. Is there something about that era that empowers you when you dance?
F: Well, there’s currently a discussion on the online swing community about how white the dance is at the moment which has sparked a debate on whether it’s cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation. I’m very aware that I am a white woman from Surrey, so it’s difficult for me to talk about. But swing dancing was invented on the social dance floor, so it was never actually written down. A lot of ballroom dances are studio dances which means they have rules that mean you can only do specific moves and that’s just how the dance works. Swing was never like that, partly because it’s come from some African dance styles that are much freer in the way you move. So, within that both the leader and the follower have a voice, and have expression that means sometimes you can lead half the dance and follow half the dance. It’s moving away from the leader leads and the follow just has to make him look good, it’s more two people having a dance together. It’s a conversation. And I don’t think it’s ever been that way, it’s never been ‘man tells woman what to do’.
B: Do you think that’s why women felt liberated by this African American dance? As a rebellion against oppression?
F: I suppose, I’ve never really thought about tracing it back in that way…
B: Does it make you feel liberated?
F: It makes me want to make some sort of positive change, even if it’s a small one. For example, we’re coming into classes and we are asking people to touch other people, so we work a lot on consent. We work a lot making sure people are asking before they touch, and encouraging to ‘invite’ your partner and not just grabbing people for a dance. And when you see people in clubs, they’re yanking women across the floor and that is not how you dance with someone. It relates massively to relationships, if you don’t respect someone as a dancer then you’re not going to respect me as a person. And when you dance with someone, you definitely get a vibe. The way in which we teach can hopefully, spread a message that says ‘we’re all people, we all have a voice and we need to respect everyone’. Me and my partner will usually switch when we’re dancing which means the gender boundaries are often broken down so a lot of men follow, and a lot of women lead. Just a couple of years ago, I was the only women leading in most of my classes so when the class would split between lead and follow, the men leaders would ask whether I was on the right side! But now it’s changing.
Catch Fran and the team at 12PM on 2nd March where they’ll be giving a taster workshop, showing you a few moves and teaching you what swing is all about. Catch them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (@BristolSwingRiot) or visit their website bristolswingriot.com