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Last Thursday evening, as we made our way to our first blues-dancing class in Arthur’s on Thomas Street, my friend Siobhán and I reminisced about our previous experience with dance lessons.
A hip-hop workshop in transition year of secondary school. Twitchy moves and flailing limbs. We’ve clung to more academic pursuits since.
These memories trigger some niggles and doubts. What even is blues dancing? Will I be able for it? Am I dressed right for a dance class in a bar?
A New Take on an Old Dance
Unsure how I’d get on, I climbed the stairs with Siobhán and ducked under the heavy red and gold curtains into the upstairs lounge.
The atmosphere was laid back. Our fellow beginners chatted with pints as the advanced class came to an end. There was a mix of genders and ages, and regular pub attire.
The dance club Downtown Blues has been teaching Dubliners how to slink and slide along to blues music for two years now. Still, most of the newbies who walk through the door are unsure of what exactly blues dancing entails, says Rosie Van Den Broeck, one of the founders.
It dates back to the early 1900s and developed alongside blues music. Like the music, it takes different forms and styles.
Instead of a standard set of moves, blues dancing is supposed to directly reflect the music. This leaves room for plenty of interpretation and improvisation.
Often associated with Lindy hop and swing dancing, an important feature of blues dancing is working with and responding to a partner. It isn’t unlike what you’d see in Dirty Dancing.
In the last few years, there’s been something of a revival of the dance style.
Back in its heyday, people just listened to the blues and responded to it. There were no classes to learn how to do it. Now though, a trend of classes is emerging, having originally started in the US.
“It’s only in Europe the last five years or so,” says Van Den Broeck. “It was quite popular there, but then as dance teachers traveled to Europe, they brought knowledge of blues dancing.”
“Blues dancing itself, obviously, has always existed, because people would dance to it,” says another founder, Marta Martinho. “But the structure [which allows for teaching], it started fairly recently . . . Our research is based on the old movement and old videos.”
Martinho, who has a background in contemporary dancing, likes the fact that blues dancing is fairly new, as this leaves plenty of room for interpretation. “It gives space to express your movement through the music,” she says.
Both Van Den Broeck and Martinho learnt the style abroad, and hankered after it when they moved to Ireland.
There was plenty of blues music in the city, says Van Den Broeck. Somebody just needed to add the dancing.
So, two years ago they held a beginners class and a party to see if there was any interest, and about 80 people turned up.
Soon after, the weekly classes began.
Perfect for the Pub
At first, classes started in Against the Grain. Later, they migrated to Sin É, and then on again to The Pint. Now, Arthur’s is Downtown Blues’s home.
“We saw upstairs and it was just perfect,” says Van Den Broeck. The pub has blues bands playing there at least once a week. So it was a good fit.
The €5 price tag covers the hour-long drop-in beginners’ class, and two hours of “social dancing” afterwards, so you have time to practice what you’ve learnt. One Saturday each month, the group also organises a live band for the night and charges €10 at the door.
This social side of blues dancing is one of the reasons why Van Den Broeck loves it. After some dance classes, everyone just goes home, she says, but here you can socialise and go out after.
“Most of the time, blues dancing is done later at night. People are tired so they want to dance slower,” she says. “There’s no competition or showing off. It’s very cool. It’s all just about the interaction between the music and the dancing.”
Blues That Will Make You Smile
We start with a warm-up by walking in time to upbeat, instrumental music. It’s a blues walk: confident strides to the beat.
We split up into leads and follows, and switch partners every couple of minutes. With introductions, it becomes clear that most people are new to this too.
Tara and Vincent Lonij, our charming instructors, demonstrate each move to tunes like “Ain’t No Sunshine”.
The first half-hour is spent learning the basics of posture, hand placements, changing tempos and turns. The next is about learning to add flair and style to the movements. “It’s all about looking cool,” says Vincent Lonij.
It’s so flexible, it seems like it’s hard to go wrong. You can hold your partner’s hand. Or leave it by your side. Or click your fingers. Want to add a touch of style? Put in some well-timed pauses between moves.
“Just care less!” jokes Tara Lonij.
All it really takes to keep up is a good sense of rhythm.
Different Shades of Blues
Though the beginners’ class takes place every week, classes are constantly changing.
“We want to make sure that the people who come every time will learn something different,” says Van Den Broeck.
The class always starts with a warm-up and some basics steps. But then you could be dancing solo stuff, in an open embrace, a closed embrace or it could be just turns, she says.
Switching teachers helps with this too. Even simply changing the music to some punchy blues will change things up.
For the more advanced dancers, there is also a monthly improvers’ class.
Martina Callanan is now an organiser for Downtown Blues, but she didn’t know what blues dancing was until she attended her first beginners’ class with Martinho two years ago.
“I just fell in love with the movement. It’s grounded, it’s sensual, it’s quite playful, and I love the music,” she says.
Plus, the follow, which was traditionally the woman’s part, has a role to play, she says. In other dance forms, they are restricted, as the lead decides everything from tempo to turns.
Later this month, Downtown Blues will be hosting a two-day workshop focusing on New-Orleans-style and country-classic blues. Next month, 160 blues dancers will descend on Dublin for the annual Fair City Blues festival.
After class, we grab a drink downstairs, and, when we return and push back through the heavy curtains, it is like stepping into a different era.
The floor is packed with pairs practicing what they’ve learned, to the accompaniment of a slow blues track. A few advanced dancers are doing some swift-moving twists and turns.
It’s like a scene from an old black-and-white film.