An evening with the Hep Cats

Bret Belden

I will always remember Saturday, March 4, 2017, as the day I learned how to swing dance with the assistance of members of the UNH Hep Cats Swing Dance Club (HepCats) and the Beantown Swing Orchestra as live music. There was an hour of a dance lesson, and three hours of free dancing, during which the Beantown Orchestra performed. I had watched tutorials of swing dancing online that afternoon, and I thought of myself as a decent dancer, so I felt relatively confident that I would pick up on it fast. Before the event, I spoke with the president of the Hep Cats, Jamison Couture, who said that, “in terms of expectations…there really are none.” According to Couture, many new members join early in their college careers having no dance experience, and that he himself began participating his freshman year for “something fun to do.” This affirmed my suspicions that I would learn quickly.

Students hit the floor at last Saturday’s swing dance.

Oh, I was wrong.

The night began with all those participating in the event gathering in a large circle in the Memorial Union Buidling’s (MUB) Strafford Room, with two officers of the club, Marianna “Anna” Tremblay and Matthew Green, in the middle. The pair began by showing the attendees the basics of swing dance, including the “rock step,” open and closed positions of the bodies of dance partners, and the specifics of how to hold a partner’s hands, depending on who is the “lead” (typically the male in the pair), or the “follow.” Before long, with every new step we learned, we switched partners and music began to play. This was overwhelming at times, and slightly embarrassing, given that I sometimes struggled even with rock stepping. Being a perfectionist, it made it difficult at times to watch others dancing so gleefully and gracefully, but it was also assuring to work with others who were also learning at my same rate, and it even helped improve my footwork.

The Beantown Swing Orchestra began performing at 8 p.m., playing mix of original songs and covers, including the 1939 song “Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead,” from “The Wizard of Oz.” The female vocalist told the crowd that a trumpeter in the orchestra transcribes all of the music played.

Couture explained that the club got in contact with the “big band” swing group through an online search. According to their website, The Beantown Swing Orchestra is available to perform at weddings, galas and essentially anywhere it’s “important to get all ages onto the dance floor.”

A particularly unique and enjoyable part of this night with the HepCats was seeing current college-age students, all the way to married couples whose parents likely played swing music on the radio in their living rooms on Saturday mornings. It was a delightfully reminiscent night that seemed to transport the space back to the 1930s. There was mingling and conversation between strangers who bonded over the experience. By the end of the night, I had danced with multiple people of varying ability-levels, and had nearly forgotten about my clumsy feet. The interesting thing about learning to swing dance, in my experience, is that it becomes more fun the less you think about how precise you’re being. When you just start moving, and the music of the 1930s and the laughter of other dancers fills the air around you, it suddenly becomes OK that you may not have the best footwork in the room. As Tremblay emphasized is the motto of the Hep Cats Swing Dance Club, “dancing is fun, dammit!”

The Hep Cats Swing Dance Club meets on Tuesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. for an hour of lessons and an hour of free dancing, and Sundays from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Wildcat Den.