Rhythms That Bind: dancing for intergenerational connection.

In Contributors by Selina Palm and Lizzie Llewellyn

This blog explores the power of swing dance to bring together and connect people of different ages in a positive, joyful way. It is written as a series of first-person reflections between Lizzie and Selina, (both members of Cape Town Swing) and also includes some written contributions from different generations within their own families that were sparked by this blog.

Lizzie

Probably because I’m getting older myself, I’m becoming increasingly aware of how much our world seems to segregate generations. Has it always been like this? I don’t think so. I recently read Hold onto Your Kids by Dr Neufeld and Gabor Mate, in which they discuss the idea of peer orientation. A phrase that sticks with me is that just because something seems normal doesn’t mean it’s natural. Whilst dividing societies by age group may seem ‘normal’ to us, this is a relatively recent shift. In fact, this is the most age-segregated society ever. 

Our fast-paced modern lifestyles, coupled with the increasing fragmentation of many communities, can make it challenging for different generations to find common ground and forge meaningful connections. However, a growing body of research indicates how important these intergenerational connections are for our mental wellness. 

In the swing dancing community, we understand the power of dance to bring different people together. Since joining the swing community here in Cape Town a couple of years ago, I have had several conversations about how swing dance connects people across generations. This blog post is born out of these discussions.

Lizzie’s grandparents.

I’ve always associated my family with dancing. In the lounge of my Granny’s house in County Mayo, Ireland, was a picture of my maternal grandparents holding a huge ballroom dancing trophy. It’s an image that is etched into my memory; I see it whenever I think of her. I remember as a girl being swept up in the sounds and smells of Irish ceilidh in the local tavern: pipe smoke, sweet sticky blackcurrant cordial, damp from the rain outside and the old carpets, salty sea air wafting in each time the doors opened, Guinness and sweat. My memory includes all ages: babies, kids, parents, old people and a fifth category of incredibly ancient people. As a teenager and young woman, when I visited my Granny, as I often did, I delighted in the fact that as soon as a rhythm started up, be it on the radio or a band in a local pub, even though she no longer danced, nothing could stop her foot tapping, her knee bobbing in time with the music, the corners of her mouth rising and the twinkle in her eye. My mother also has this. As a kid, my parents were in a group called the Dowanhill Dancers, which got together weekly. I’m not sure how much the dancing was mostly a good guise for mid-week drinking, but nonetheless, it further implanted the idea that dancing is in my DNA.

I think, in some ways, my connection with dancing is also a particular connection with the women in my family. At my brother’s recent wedding anniversary party, my sister and I danced together well into the wee hours, and I will hold that bleary-eyed memory with me forever. Now, as a mother, I dance regularly, if not daily, with my son and daughter. Dance parties are de rigeur, and I strongly believe that normalising dancing is one of the greatest gifts we are giving them.

Lizzie’s family dancing ceilidh.

The first time I saw Selina at a swing dancing event, she was with her dad. As someone who also comes from what I like to call a ‘dancing family’, this immediately resonated with me, although it would be several months before our first discussion about this topic.

Selina

When I was small, my parents would go out every Tuesday night for private ballroom and Latin dancing lessons. It seemed such fun and a different way to view my parents. Sometimes, I would go along due to a lack of babysitters, but I never got to join in. They passed many dance exams, but I rarely got to see them just socially dance.  However, one of my last memories of my parents together was watching them dance at my sister’s wedding in 2016, just before my mum had a series of strokes. My dad also remembers his own father in 1940s South Africa, charming the ladies and inviting them all to dance. So, the memories go far back in our family history.

Selina’s mum and dad (left) dancing at her sister’s wedding.

I have early memories of dancing with my three-year-old brother to old music records in our living room, listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald and many songs from South Africa, with their unusual instruments like the pennywhistle. My father had left South Africa in 1959 due to apartheid and didn’t talk about it much. The music he loved was shaped by years of listening to the radio in Johannesburg in the 1940s and dancing on the streets of Sophiatown. Foot-tapping music and the desire to dance to it characterises many family generations. When I reconnected with my South African aunt in Canada after years, the first thing we did was dance together to an Afro-Caribbean steel band in the local car park. 

Selina and her brother have danced since they were little.

My siblings and I have all found our way into diverse dance styles – folk, street and Afro-Latin. But when I encountered swing music in South Africa as an adult, it felt so familiar I could imagine my dad and Auntie Mae dancing together in the streets as youngsters. In 2022, I decided to learn swing dancing with my dad, Tommy, as he was coming to visit me in South Africa for three months. I thought he would like the music shaped by the era he grew up in and the friendly people from all walks of life. I hoped it might remind him of positive memories of South Africa. He was already in his 80s then. This also inspired my sister in Germany to start learning swing, too. In October 2023, my sister’s 60th birthday celebration included a live swing band, and the three of us danced swing with everyone in the room from ages 16-70, even those who claimed to have two left feet. Some dance styles can split generations, but I love how swing dancing reconnects to songs from the past while also creating new improvisational ways of jiving together as different generations.

I recently brought two younger friends along to a Cape Town Swing live band event. They are 30 years younger than me, so I am becoming part of an ‘older’ generation too. They took to the floor quickly and danced with people of different ages from around the world, laughing together and improvising moves to the music. As I get older, dancing is one way I stay connected to different generations and child-like playfulness.

Barbara and Riccardo at a recent CTS event.

For this article, Lizzie and I decided to ask our respective families what dance means to them. This prompted many fascinating discussions and connections.

Selina’s dad

Over 20 years ago, my wife and I had ballroom (and Latin) dance classes, but we didn’t ever dance socially, so I felt a bit frustrated. When I arrived in South Africa on a three-month stay in Oct 2022 (eighteen months after my wife had died), not having danced for years but with the promise of my daughter, Selina, that we would go to swing dancing classes together, I wondered what I was letting myself in for. When the evening arrived, I entered the Lindy Hop class with trepidation: would I stand out as a very old fashioned “oldie” & embarrass my daughter amongst her friends? Would I be able to keep up with all these fit youngsters? Am I crazy trying to join a class of what seemed to me to be a load of kids? What would they make of the creases in my trousers & my shoes? But slowly, I realised that nobody really cared about “my difference”. Over three months, I really got back into swinging. On my return to England I found and joined a group of Lindy Hoppers and have had further lessons.

As the years go by, I find I can easily get into a rut, especially when living alone. You can easily become a couch potato and spend too much time in front of the TV. But there are other options such as joining a group of Lindy hoppers or another swing variant. What I liked about the swing dance community (around the world) is that in classes, you are split into leaders & followers, not ladies & gents, and you don’t have to turn up with a partner. After each dance, the followers move on, so you get a chance to practice & dance with different partners. Beginners are helped along by more experienced partners in a very friendly way. It helps you relax more when you realise you are not the only one struggling to perfect a particular routine. Dancing with different partners helps one to learn faster. I was also surprised to find, after spending an evening hopping, that my “step count” had increased dramatically in the region of eight thousand steps! A much more pleasant way of keeping fit than always having to go for a long, lonesome walk. 

The other evening, our UK instructor proudly introduced another returner to the class, an 83-year-old man (my senior by a few months). He had taken some time out, but he couldn’t stay away.

Selina’s dad, Tommy, with his daughter Bonny.

Lizzie’s son

I started hip-hop dancing when I was, like, five and a half. I’ve always loved music and dancing. My mum says I danced ceilidh with Granny and Grandad at Hogmanay, but I don’t remember that. I think I was only two or three. When I dance, I feel calm, thoughtful, and clever because I can usually pick up the moves quite quickly. I like that my mum and dad dance. It makes me feel a mixture between happy and amazed at how good they are at it and how happy they look. But I don’t like it when they go out dancing without me. I love swing camp because my sister and I get to come too. Sometimes I feel a bit shy meeting all the new people, but by the end of the weekend I’m happy and one time I’d like to stay there for longer. I also love seeing the shows and the bands. I play the drums, and I’d like to play drums in a band one day for people to dance to. 

Lizzie’s family enjoying a dance at home.

Through our discussions, we continued to find compelling evidence of dance…

…fostering family bonds and traditions:

  • “We organised a ceilidh for our 2nd wedding anniversary party. An expression of friendship, family, and marriage, this dance brings loved ones together in a distinctly Scottish way.” – Rob (Lizzie’s brother)
  • “In Ireland, there is a photo of them with the trophy they won at a competition” – Ros (Lizzie’s Mum)
  • “I really enjoyed dancing with my daughter in South Africa, and I think it has brought us closer” – Tommy. 

Dancing has long been a cherished tradition in many families, serving to celebrate milestones, preserve cultural heritage, and strengthen intergenerational bonds. From ceilidhs that unite loved ones in a distinctly Scottish way to Irish dance competitions that have been passed down through generations, dance has the power to weave families together through shared experiences and cherished memories.

….bringing joy, freedom, and positivity across generations:

  • “What keeps popping into my head is seeing Mum dancing and seeing her smiling and laughing and having fun. That’s a really strong image for me of dancing within my family.” – Sarah (LIzzie’s sister)
  • “My family helped me have that feeling of freedom with dancing that I don’t necessarily feel in other areas.” – Sarah (Lizzie’s sister)
  • “The best times spent dancing in my life were with my brother and sister – Bonny (Selina’s sister)

…bringing people of all ages together regardless of one’s skills or experience:

  • “It is impossible to take part in this type of dance without smiling or laughing, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t really know what you are doing. I can’t think of too many other activities where young and old take part more or less as equals.” – Ros (Lizzie’s Mum)
  • “When my other daughter Bonny organised a swing dance party for her 60th birthday, I was able to join in and dance with everyone in the room, even her young music pupils, who were keen to get ‘hopping’ but really didn’t know how! It paid to be an oldie as I didn’t feel any lack of confidence about asking all the ladies (aged 16 to 70) to hop” – Tommy
  • “There are not many situations where you and all your friends do an activity with your parents and their friends, and you are all enthusiastic and happy about it. It’s nice there’s that crossover; you can have all those people of different ages just enjoying dancing. I find it very funny that my friends and I were absolutely exhausted, but Mum, Dad, and all their friends were still raring to go.”  Sarah (Lizzie’s sister)

Whether it’s the infectious laughter and smiles on the dancefloor or the liberating feeling of self-expression, we believe that dance can uplift and unite generations through shared moments of unbridled happiness. Dancing has a unique power to transcend generations, cultures, and backgrounds, fostering connections that bridge the divides of age and life experiences. Whether within our own families or in the broader community, the rhythms and movements of dance invite us to come together, share moments of joy and playfulness, and create lasting memories that bind us across generational lines.

Selina and her dad.

As we reflect on our own dancing stories, we might ask ourselves: Am I part of a dancing family, carrying on cherished traditions? Or could I be the one to spark a new legacy of movement and music for future generations to embrace? Regardless of our starting point, the dance floor beckons us to engage with those of different ages, to learn from their perspectives, and to forge intergenerational bonds through the universal language of dance. In a world that often separates us by years, dance offers a delightful opportunity to reconnect, celebrate our shared humanity, and build communities that honour and uplift every generation. Plus, it’s just bloody good fun!

Authors

  • Selina Palm and Lizzie Llewellyn
  • Selina Palm

    Selina dances lindy hop and blues with Cape Town Swing and grooves to Afro Latin vibes too. She is passionate about intergenerational connection through dance and its positive power to connect different genders. She researches and consults on how to end violence against marginalised groups and finds a joyful counterpoint in dancing, ocean swimming and animals.

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  • Lizzie Llewellyn

    Mother to two little dragons, dances spontaneously to any beat. She researches gender and green spaces in cities, consults/leads workshops with NGOs and Start-Ups and hosts the Liesbeek Food Club. Can typically be found amongst trees, in water, or in the kitchen.

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About the Author

Selina Palm and Lizzie Llewellyn