When it comes to staying active, engaged, healthy and positive, winter in Pittsburgh presents some challenges. By March–or even February–our New Year’s resolutions wane and our motivation proves, at times, inconsistent. Carbs, Netflix, and our down comforters call to us, especially when the alternative is drinking the same beers in the same bars with the same friends.
Those of us who suffer from the winter blahs have often been instructed how to improve our seasonal well-being: remain socially connected, maintain physical activity, eat right, and continue to be challenged by new experiences. Oh, and get more sunlight.
While I can’t help with that last one, I have discovered an activity that costs little to no money, gets me out of the house, helps me meet new people, and challenges me physically: blues dancing. I found blues dancing the way most people do; coaxed by a friend, I arrived at Peter’s Pub one Tuesday night in July for the weekly lesson and dance hosted by Hot Metal Blues (HMB). I was told I didn’t need a partner, I didn’t need to pay, and I didn’t need to know what I was doing. Win-win-win.
For a small city, Pittsburgh has a relatively bustling social dance scene. A “social dance” is a group or couple’s dance done primarily for recreational (rather than technical) purposes. You can dance every night of the week here, and you can experience everything from square dancing to blues and everything in between. Most of these social dances are free (a few have covers) and many include a lesson beforehand.
So what, exactly, is blues dancing? Zach Frenchek, the president of HMB, describes it as “pulse-driven and grounded…usually done partnered, though solo dance is also common.” Frenchek first encountered Blues Dancing as a result of an OKCupid date. Though the couple didn’t “spark” she asked him to try blues dancing, and he was intrigued. He kept going back.
“It’s easy to pick up, but you can spend years—and I intend to spend years—improving,” Frenchek says, making the dance easily accessible to newcomers and challenging over time for regulars.
“It’s kind of like chess,” adds Jared Clemens, a HMB committee member who is also active in the Swing scene. “It’s easy to learn where the pieces move and how to move your body, but it’s hard to master it and make the dance a special one between you, your partner, and the music.”
Depending on the partners’ levels of comfort and ability, a blues dance can be intimate or not, sensual or playful or technical. Blues music is by nature varied, and the dances themselves attempt to follow the pulse and rhythm of the music. It’s “creative and communicative,” says HMB committee member Adam Handen. He also notes that while every social dance should be spontaneous and rely on both partners’ performance, blues puts more of an emphasis on these aspects than other styles.
“A lot of people describe blues as a healing dance,” Frenchek says. “Finding the community here and the experience of becoming more connected to my own body has been wonderful.”
Blues is just one style in a sea of many. Across the range of dances, the social aspect remains a major draw for those involved. Julia Chambers, a dance co-organizer for monthly CMU contra dances describes contra as “if square dancing and swing dancing had a baby, and it grew up and was awesome.” This “awesome” stylistic love child appeals to Chambers because it still offers the benefits of physical contact and human connection, but without the added (and sometimes intimidating) intimacy of blues. “I love the feeling I get when we are all moving to the music,” says fellow contra organizer and caller Gaye Fifer. “We create our own entertainment.”
It is the communities—and not necessarily the footwork—of these dances that seem to keep people coming back. “I can’t stress enough how much fun it is to go to one of these dances and how generous and kind and happy everyone is,” says Allison Burd, a co-organizer for Steel City Squares, a monthly square dancing group. “It has been so much fun to watch 17 year-old kids dancing with 70 year-olds and punk kids dancing with grandmas. The dances have really brought a lot of people together who would normally not spend time together.“
Indeed, one night at Swing City, a Saturday night event held at the Wightman School in Squirrel Hill, I watch as Nancy Snyder, a 76 year-old dancer, gets spun and dipped by a host of younger partners. Snyder has been dancing for years; now a widower, she enjoys the social aspect of dancing and attends Swing City as often as she can.