Experiencing the Sublime: Swing Dancing at the Wabasha Caves
I was born in 1998 in St. Paul, Minnesota and I don’t like Garrison Keillor. My life before swing dancing was largely uneventful, centering mainly around three epiphanic events (commonly referred to as epiphanies, but I wanted to use two words): learning to read, discovering Eminem, and realizing shortly after that Eminem wasn’t the paradigm of humanity I sought. I’ve been looking for beauty in its purest form since.
The perpetual search by man for divinity has led me to cities and lakes, under bridges and in gas stations, through forests and up mountains, among the blue notes of Coltrane and the orange ones of Mahler– and now, to the Wabasha Caves’ on Thursday nights. I was first pulled to the Caves by the hand of God as He works in the physical world; I overheard someone discussing swing dance, that is.
Now, I have no difficulty appreciating the imperfect light of everyday life, of music and art and humanness. But to achieve real beauty is impossible in this world– it’s an ideal to strive for, much like Buddhists seek enlightment and Bruce Wayne endeavors to project the archetype of the Batman. As such, I approach the world with an open mind, doing nothing more than hoping beyond hope that each dawn will bring a new glimpse into the essence of light and love.
Swing dance is the common name for several related styles of dance (the most common being the lindy hop) that originated in the first half of the twentieth century, although they weren’t collectively referred to as swing dance until decades later. It traces its roots largely to black communities in America, notably Harlem, although it was barely ever an exclusively black art form. The style of dance (as well as its name) are derived from the swung lines of jazz and, to a lesser extent, blues. In particular, swing dance is tied to the big-band jazz of the 1920s and 30s.
The Wabasha Caves’ relations to swing dance are relatively recent, although they boast direct ties to the era of its origin; the Caves were once the hideout of gangsters and mob bosses, with such names that (while I’m sure are quite scary when accompanied by a reputation and a gun) are really rather silly in the post-sincerity 21st century. I’m sure comparable gangsters in our time would have ironic names so as to shield themselves from criticism and vulnerability, but in the Caves’ heyday they were occupied by large bald men with names similar to the following:
- Big John
- Hairy Sam
- Fat Aaron (who was skinny), and
- Slim Joad (who was on the big-boned end of the spectrum)
Naturally, I’ve completely invented all these names, but my point stands (as does my criticism of millennials, which is utterly irrelevant and largely unfounded but I’ll leave in because the medium of online blogging lends itself to unfettered bitching for aesthetic purposes if nothing else).
After such an introduction– whose sole purpose was to stun you with my unrivaled wit and tragic depth of personality– I know just the place to start. Picture this:
Harlem, 1927. Cigar smoke fills the dim interior of a restaurant, whose red velvet seats have intimately known the rumps of a thousand hustlers, musicians, and street rats struggling to get by. It’s Saturday night, and a small dance floor is lit with a pallid orange glow. Brassy music seeps under the doors and through the cracks in the walls to keep the neighbors from sleeping. Gas street lights are visible sputtering through the grimy windows and a siren rises and fades in the distance. The buzz of a city at night permeates the atmosphere, and under it all– faint but clear– the sounds of dance are audible. Hot, fast breathing and skin against skin. The click of shoes on the dance floor, and the swish of skirts. Motion and sound become everything to the dancers, the music and footsteps beating their consciousnesses into remission. They experience relief from any and all realities they face outside the heat of their movements. One, two, three and one, two, three and one. They transcend the fatigue of life and they do more than live. They dance.
St. Paul, 2017. We show up early; the website boasts a lesson prior to the dance. The cover charge is $8, for which we’re granted a Sharpied happy face on our left hands. We’re first encounter a well-lit area of tables and carpeting. Leaning awkwardly on walls, we make small talk that’s mostly bemoaning our shared inability to dance. A woman waves us over to the floor, which has low arched ceilings and is, in fact, a cave. She introduces herself (instructor from a local dance studio and has the fake smile to match). We line up, guys on one side and girls opposite.
The next three-quartes of an hour are spent repeating one basic step and two simple moves, flashing awkward smiles and swapping partners. We’re offered a chance to win two free lessons at a studio, then we’re sent off into the world as our new dancing selves.
The music hasn’t quite started– the musicians are to be seen setting up on stage– so we take a lap and scope out the space. The area is roughly circular, one side with a bar and the other with a dance floor. Tables are interspersed in a few places. It’s dim and feels enclosed. Our cell phones don’t have service.
Dancers keep trickling in as the band starts up. They’re young and old, split mostly between early-twenties and folks who are probably retired. Most people arrive in couples, though some come in groups. Dress isn’t formal, but it’s appropriate for the occasion– dresses and skirts for girls, mostly button-ups for guys. The gender ratio skews female, but not overwhelmingly. If any single characteristic unites the patrons of the Caves on Thursdays, it’s a quiet but upbeat attitude without presumption.
The music is an experience in itself. It’s live and big and loud, saturating the twisting room filled with dancers. They play classics– Sinatra seems to be a common theme– and most of the tunes are at least vaguely familiar. When the band plays, as they do for nearly four hours with few breaks, the world outside the Caves melts away into the blaring music and the activity of dancers. Even without any experience or much idea what I’m doing, it’s easy to lose myself counting and stepping and spinning. Watching the other dancers is even better; they dive into the music, and many of them clearly have some idea what they’re doing. Everyone is swallowed up together by the sax solos and bass plwunks. One man, wearing hearing protection and a serene expression, twirls around the edge of the room alone, spinning and circling, lost in his own world. He is a joy to watch.
Off the dance floor, teenagers teach each other new moves and practice those that demand more space than is afforded where other people are dancing. They dip each other, and spin, and flip. Asking for instructions, I found people friendly and willing to help, though they usually were quick to tell us that they didn’t really know what they were doing either.
The night faded from its ordered events into a timeless vortex of kicking feet and twirling red skirts. The next week’s dance was more a continuation than a second event, taking only a few minutes of dancing to reattain our momentum. Thursday nights have lost their identities in my mind, instead tumbling together in a montage of trumpets and Ella Fitzgerald tributes.
Swing dance has surpassed all expectations. I was convinced totally of humanity’s inherent fallibility, but I can now say I’ve witnessed the otherworldly. Structure has ceased to matter in my life– social norms, societal expectations, rubrics– I’ve transcended them all. I have nothing else to add; swing dancing at the Wabasha Caves has been a spiritual experience second to nothing else in my eighteen years of life.
- http://ldt.stanford.edu/~egrant/img/ch930211.gif (esp. influential)
Following the momentous experiences of the last weeks, I’ve been motivated as never before to put my emotions on paper. The following pieces are mine, done in multi media (crayon, colored pencil, marker, and cut paper).