A month and a half ago I waved goodbye to my parents and boarded the plane to Austria. Though filled with excitement, I knew there would be much I’d miss about South Africa, and the Cape Town Swing Dance community featured prominently in my mind.
I’ve been part of this community since I attended the Stellenbosch classes with Sarah back in 2018. The first few classes were tough (as you probably already know, those triple steps really tear apart the calves until you’ve built a bit of swing muscle) but I soon fell in love. I’m among those lucky enough to have attended the last Mother City Hop before Covid put a cork on the bubbly bottle of swing, and it has filled me with so much joy that we’ve managed to fill our dance flutes once more over these last few months. I’ve made so many good friends at Cape Town swing. My dears, know that I’ve missed you and thought of you many times even in these weeks I’ve been deployed in the North.
But enough soppy letters. What’s life like in this hemisphere? In particular, how do they swing in the culturally rich city of Vienna, known fondly as ‘Wien’ by locals? Undoubtedly the Cultural Capital of Europe, if there’s one thing the Viennese know how to do, it’s dance. An essential part of the curriculum, by the time they leave high-school, every Viennese scholar is expected to know how to properly conduct themselves at a ball: a common occurrence, as during the winter there are over 400 balls hosted in the Great City. I find it a pity that this year I’ve missed my chance to experience Vienna’s balls for myself, but I look forward to trying them in the future. Most famous among the styles danced here is, naturally, the Viennese waltz, But there are many others taught at the countless tanzschule scattered about the city. Including, but not limited to waltz, ballroom, polka, Latin, and, of course, swing.
Within my first week here, I had already scoped out the local scene. I found a handy online events calendar, and making use of broken German and a healthy dose of Google Translate, I managed to navigate to a Monday Mess Around swing social at an oddly decorated bar called Fania Live. I arrived at the bar at the stated time, and was surprised to find myself alone with only the bartender for company. For a while, I was worried that the winter’s cold and dark had scared off many would-be dancers. Luckily, they soon began to filter in. A few minutes later, it was time for an introductory taster class, for which the instructor helpfully switched to English for the benefit of the one non-German-speaker attending.
It was an enjoyable class, with friendly folk, and afterwards the party really began to liven up. Once the music started, people began to pack onto the dance floor. I needed to stop for air a few times, standing out in the negative-celsius air in nothing but a t-shirt. Back inside, everyone was friendly and happy to dance. Although I couldn’t speak German, the language of swing stayed the same, and it really is an amazing experience to be able to arrive at a dance floor anywhere in the world, and just ask someone to a dance.
It was a splendid evening, and I decided to try my feet at another event on the calendar – the Fast Feet social. I invited someone to dance Lindy hop. At the end of the song, I thanked my partner and went to ask someone else. She stopped me, however, and informed me that in Vienna, it is traditional to have at least two dances with a partner. Luckily, she could forgive my foreign faux pas. I hope I have not inadvertently been snubbing my South African partners all these years. If I have, then I ask for your humblest apology, and if not, then you’ve now learned a social trick to avoid embarrassment yourself!
After my first few dances, the music really began to speed up. I saw the others on the dancefloor pulling out Balboa and Collegiate Shag. Alas, I am not well-versed in these dances! Someone invited me to dance, and I tried to keep up, but the music was simply too fast to properly swing out! Feeling defeated, I sat back down and waited for the music to slow down. While waiting, I struck up a conversation in German with a friendly Austrian dancer nearby, using the opportunity to practise my language skills and learn more about the local dance scene. I resolved that I would learn to dance fast.
So the next day I headed back to the website and subscribed to a semester course on Collegiate Shag. The shag classes have been going great! Of course, it’s made more challenging by the fact that the classes are in German. Luckily, dance is pretty easy to demonstrate physically, so it hasn’t been too hard. It’s essentially a game of charades, “Oh, I know this one! Inside turn!”. There have been one or two moments where I’ve got things the wrong way around though. On one occasion the teacher spoke to me about correcting my dancing and demonstrated this by bouncing, to which I responded by bouncing as well. This seemed to cause her some exasperation. Luckily, I quickly realised she wanted me to bounce less not more and we soon got that issue resolved.
Other than my shag escapades, there is the weekly Swing the Boat dance party on the Badeschiff (yes, all of the dance events are titled in English, despite everything else being German. I suppose it’s to give it that exotic American swing feeling). The Badeschiff is, as you may have guessed, a ship. It remains parked permanently next to the canalside, contains a couple of restaurant-bars, and each Sunday it is filled with a warm atmosphere and lively jazz. Having stood atop the ship whilst the dance floor is fully packed downstairs, I can confirm that you can most certainly feel this ship swing.
After all that dancing, I was feeling rather hungry, and there was a restaurant within walking distance that I just had to try – the Swing Kitchen. It’s a chain of restaurants located in various large cities across German-speaking Europe. Their food is 100% vegan: vegan burgers, vegan nuggets, and even vegan fries! They are also committed to helping the environment. The restaurants aim for a 60s New York look and play swing music (mostly electro-swing or similar) across the speakers. I’ve tried their food, and it’s quite good! Now I’m wishing I had got a sponsorship from them before writing this paragraph in the blog post. Furthermore, the streets are safe and the public transport is great, so you know you’ll be able to get home safely after a night out from anywhere in the town (even if you’ve had a few drinks).
The South African community remains the warmest dance community I know. It has, and will always have, a special place in my heart. But swing dancing really is a language of its own, and it’s one that many of the locals here speak. If you find yourself on this side, you’ll be welcomed with open arms, and momentarily swung back out again onto the dancefloor! So, I have just one more question for you, möchtest du tanzen?