Photos courtesy of Kara Cook

Swing in Y-town: Respecting Youngstown’s innovating cross-style ensembles

By Aaron Graneto

It’s 1947. Ella Fitzgerald is performing at the Merry Go-Round Club in Youngstown. Smoke is in the air, and her unmistakable sound bounces off the walls along with her syncopating backing ensemble.

Fast forward to 2018. The establishment that is attached to the Merry Go Round, Torch Bar And Grill, had gone out of business years ago. Even still, the bar’s fame grew as news spread that the signatures of all performers there, including that of Ella Fitzgerald, were on the wall in the back of the bar.

The bar has been boarded and locked since, but the legacy still stands as the place right by where Ella Fitzgerald performed. Youngstown has a vibrant entertainment history. Its multitude of theaters and novelty establishments attracted a diverse crowd in its heyday. Thanks to scholarship and the 1990s Swing Revival era that atmosphere is returning with a joyful passion.

Scholars in major cities started to examine recordings and videos from the 1920s-50s to learn about how all these dances and music worked together in popular culture. In turn, they facilitated a passionate movement of musical revival, dance instruction, workshops and social dancing that has steadily grown ever since.

Idiom dances such as Lindy Hop, Balboa, Charleston, Slow Drag, Struttin’ and Chicago Triple Step are taught at many major cities around the country and the globe, including Youngstown.

Tartan Swing – free Thursday dances at Carnegie Mellon University.
Hot Metal Blues – occasional Monday house parties and weekly Tuesday dances at Lot 17 in Pittsburgh.
Big events: PittStop Lindy Hop – Nov. 16-18, Steel City Blues Festival – February.

Climb Cleveland – Saturday blues events every month.
Get Hep Swing – monthly, sometimes weekly live swing events at the Lithuanian Club, Lakewood Masonic Temple
Big Events: Sparx.

Y-Dance: Swing Dance some days.
Rolling Mills (New Kuzman’s): Swing Dance Wednesdays
Y-town Swing – Thursday dances at Cedars (706 Steel Street in Youngstown) Dec. 20 – Live band Dr. Zoot, holiday party, American Cancer Society Benefit
YSU Swing Dance Club – Tuesdays from 5:00-6:30 in Beeghly Center Room 119, Thursdays 6:15-7:30 in the Aerobics Room of the Recreation Center, monthly swing dance clinics at the Andrews Recreation Center.
Big Events: Rust Belt Lindy Bal Meetup – April 6, September date TBA.

With all these hubs of swing revival, the surrounding communities are beginning to catch on. This past February, the Youngstown Symphony paid tribute to the music of Ella Fitzgerald by bringing in three star vocalists to sing her songs.

This summer, Howard Howell and the Point Five Band opened for the Warren Philharmonic, the Youngstown Symphony and Yo-Yo Ma with re-imagined gospel/swing takes on swing classics like “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess and “Fly Me To The Moon”. This fall, the YSU Jazz Ensemble and Ballet Western Reserve are collaborating to bring a jazz version of The Nutcracker to life. In addition, Dec. 7 brought Dana School of Music alumnus Sean Jones and other special guests who were featured along with Howard Howell’s band in DeYor Performing Arts Center in a special holiday tribute.

On Jan. 30, international cross-style music sensation Postmodern Jukebox is coming to Stambaugh Auditorium, reimagining modern pop songs in 1920s styles.

Larger cities, especially Pittsburgh, are putting on social dance festivals like PittStop Lindy Hop. This is a yearly festival that occurs the weekend before Thanksgiving at some of the largest dance spaces in Pittsburgh. Over 30 hours of dancing occurs over three days, mostly accompanied by incredible live bands.

This year, the coordinators hit the quality of the festival out of the park with the inclusion of ensembles that cater to a wide variety of tastes. Chelsea Reed and the Fair Weather Five, based in Philadelphia, utilized their highly versatile musicianship to inject blues-level passion and virtuosity into Lindy Hop music.

Miss Freddye brought the driving beat with a powerful Chicago blues set. Finally, Gordon Webster showed itself as a jack-of-all-trades blues and Lindy Hop ensemble that was able to hold a dance audience in the palms of their hands. The Boilermaker Jazz Band rounded off the evening with a set that offered a rousing resolution to the weekend of community immersion in social dancing.

Two avid members of the Youngstown Swing Dance community voiced their views on the impact and importance of social dancing.

Kara Cook, president of the YSU Swing Dance Club, organized Y-town Swing’s trip to PittStop Lindy Hop this year.

“I think Y-Town Swing is important to the community because it brings together so many different people for one purpose: to dance,” she said. “This niche hobby has created friendships with people that I would have never met otherwise. Y-Town Swing is continuing a vintage art that is slowly making a comeback.”

“It brings smiles to not only the dancers’ faces, but the audience’s faces as well,” she added. “By going to different dance events around the country, Y-Town Swing has been able to get the city of Youngstown’s name out there. From what other scenes have told me, Youngstown is known for having very passionate and fun dancers.”

Cook joined YSU Swing Dance Club because she wanted to introduce people to the swing dance world and give dancers extra time to learn things that they wouldn’t at Cedars. Instead of going four weeks and then learning another dance from scratch, the club continues Lindy and Charleston all semester long and increases the difficulty of the moves each week.

Members also have the opportunity to have more one-on-one time with the instructors and receive feedback to help their dancing improve each week. This semester, the club has a very close-knit group that helps each other with dancing and gives extra help to those who are struggling. All of them are very determined and have grown to love swing dancing.

Dean Moyer, a new member of the YSU Swing Dance Club this semester, has quickly become a passionate member of this city’s scene. He says that social dance is a spark of culture and community that anyone can join in on.

“Sharing a fun dance with someone is the kind of human interaction that warms your heart and puts a smile on your face from ear-to-ear,” he said. “Where else can you find that?”

His sentiment on the reason to join YSU Swing Dance Club? It is less scary than you think and it is more fun than you imagine.

These idiom dance and music scenes facilitate deep listening to various artists and letting dance take over. Dancers can lead their corresponding partners in various ways to hint at possibilities in the music if they know the song being played particularly well.

In dancing to new songs, dancers can simply allow their bodies to react in an improvisatory fashion to the music in the moment. The spectrum of possibility in music such as this promotes a respect for the vintage atmosphere as well as the mental magic of improvisation and deep personal connection.

Dance scenes promote a deeper, more diverse community that works toward a common, open heart, serving as a catalyst for change and creative solutions. It is an experience that is possible if one only dares to open their heart and let the dance flow in.