Día de los Hoppers: Getting back to the roots of swing

The San Antonio Swing Dance Society brings the spirit of dance to campus

The San Antonio Swing Dance Society is putting on a three-day dance workshop festival from Nov. 4-6 to honor the early jazz greats and the dancers that moved to their rhythm.

The festival will feature workshops with two nationally recognized dance instructors, Breonna Jordan and Tyedric Hill, along with two nights of live music. True to the spirit of Día de los Muertos, Día de los Hoppers seeks to keep the spirit of early jazz alive in its homage.

Hana Buck, board member and teacher with the Swing Dance Society, shared how the idea for the weekend of workshop and dance came about.

“[Día de los Muertos] is about remembering, honoring and celebrating those who have passed. So we thought if we have a Lindy Hop workshop here in San Antonio, it should represent some cultural aspects of the city. So that’s kind of where those two ideas came to marry. It was not only a Lindy Hop and vernacular jazz workshop, but also a time to celebrate those jazz musicians and dancers that have passed on [and] pioneered this thing that we love,” Buck said.

The three-day workshop is an extension of an effort from the Swing Society to return to the roots of swing dancing. Rolando Almaraz, president of the Swing Dance Society, elaborated on swing’s roots.

“Swing dancing originated as a predominantly African American dance in Harlem, New York, specifically at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s, with a lot of those big band jazz musicians. With that, there’s that whole history of the revival of the dance … trying to find a way to get back to the actual roots of the dance, [and] trying to understand what the original music was, because that music is beautiful and complex and deserves to be appreciated and have a spot in our history,” Almaraz said.

Almaraz explained how returning the dance to its roots means getting back to the spirit of jazz itself.

“It is not just a bunch of basic sequential moves, but being able to improvise in the dance, the way musicians improvise in the music,” Almaraz said. “You have constant phrases or bars that a rhythm section is throwing down, but then you have an instrument on top, such as the trumpet or trombone, where they go off and do a solo movement or solo section to express themselves. … Same thing in dancing. You do have some basic movements, but on top of that, it’s improvising with your body to what you hear in the music.”

The weekend will feature two nights of live music to accompany the dancing. Megan Van Horn, organizer of Día de los Hoppers and secretary of the Swing Dance Society, said the weekend of dance is a special opportunity because for her, big band swing is “some of the best music in the world.”

“There’s nothing quite like hearing big band jazz performed live,” Van Horn said. “These [bands] that you hear recorded and sound so amazing just on their old recordings, but there’s a certain magic that you only get with live music. So being able to create those opportunities for the San Antonio community to experience this in our hometown and also to really support the artists making that music has been a really wonderful opportunity.”

San Antonio’s Dirty River Jazz band will be the featured live band of the weekend with a quartet set at Bright Coffee on the night of Friday, Nov. 4, and a 16-member big band set on Saturday, Nov. 5 in the Skyline Lounge of the Coates Student Center at Trinity. Chris Alvarado, band leader and drummer, explained the music the band will cover over the weekend.

“We’re playing music a lot of people don’t get to hear,” Alvarado said. “It’s a lot of ‘30s and ‘40s, Chick Webb, Jimmy Lunceford, which were huge swing bands back in the day. And we’re also mixing in some San Antonio bands. … There’s a lot of great jazz lineage down here, so it’s cool to highlight the local people that came from here, too.”

For beginners, jumping into a new style of music with a new dance can be intimidating. Almaraz puts beginners’ fears at ease by extending an open invitation to all skill levels.

“If you love jazz and if you love swing, you should definitely come dance with us. And we’d be happy to show you and make your life a little richer by knowing, by learning this dance that we all love so much.”