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Embracing Diversity: How Swing Dance Changed America

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On Tuesday, January 17th, we went to the Kleist Center for Art and Drama at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea for a program titled "Embracing Diversity: How Swing Dance Changed America" which was a panel discussion in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. featuring Ms. Norma Miller known as the "Queen of Swing"; and renowned international dance instructors Mr. Adam Brozowski and Ms. Valerie Salstrom. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Chisomo Selemani, Assistant Professor of Communicative Sciences and Disorders.

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Before the panelists sat down, we were entertained by Ms. Salstrom's "Get Hep Dance Troupe" which made us want to get up and try swing dancing ourselves which we well might do in the next few weeks.

Even though Ms. Miller was 97 years old, her vibrant personality dominated the discussion. She talked about what it was like growing up in Harlem, New York in the 1930's and how she was attracted to the Savoy Ballroom where people of all ethnic groups came together to swing dance; especially to do a dance called the Lindy Hop which Wikipedia describes as "a dance of African American origin characterized by a high degree of physical vigor. It...has an emphasis on improvisation and the ability to easily adapt to include other steps in 8-count and 6-count rhythms."

Ultimately, Ms. Miller became a professional dancer and did the Lindy Hop in the movies "A Day at the Races" and "Hellzapoppin" and travelled throughout the United States and Europe in the WWII years when swing's popularity was widespread. After the war, however, its popularity took a dip until the 1980's when dance aficionados from California, England and Sweden did a special excursion to New York to seek out the now late Mr. Frankie Manning (regarded as one of the creators of the Lindy Hop and a great friend of Ms. Miller's) and asked him to teach the dances to them.

Today the swing revival is very strong and both Mr. Brozowski and Ms. Salstrom urged enthusiasts to experience the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden which is billed on its website as "the world's largest and oldest summer-long Vernacular Jazz, Swing Dance festival" that attracts thousands of people each year from all over the world.

Ms. Miller made the special point that dance has the potential to be a positive force in the maturation of young people because it gives them a chance to physically and mentally interact in a healthy manner. She also praised Cleveland because she learned a lot about American history and the underground railroad when she performed here as a dancer in her younger years.

At the beginning, the proceedings were introduced by Ms. Alana Landers, President of the Black Student Alliance at Baldwin Wallace, who said that she thought that the event was a great way to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because she regarded swing dance as "a force for positive change."

As things drew to a close, Mr. CJ Harkness, Chief Diversity Officer, said that he had received quite an education and thus believed that he should receive college credits for being there. 

 

By:

Michael Patterson

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC

  

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