Three years ago, as she adjusted to life in Joplin, Ashley King found herself a bit homesick.
The then-college student from Wichita, Kansas, along with her friend Katie Moore Boydston, wanted to find a way to include swing dancing in their lives in their new hometown.
“We moved out of towns where swing dancing was a big social community gathering,” King said. “When we got here, we asked: ‘Where is the swing dancing?’”
The pair began devising a plan that eventually led to the creation of Vintage Swing Movement.
Meeting at first on the campus of Missouri Southern State University and later at Ozark Christian College, the pair started teaching college students about the Lindy Hop and its variations.
They also took groups to various events in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and other locations to help showcase what a vibrant swing community could look like.
In the past year, VSM began branching out beyond college students, which is something King said was their plan from the start.
On the first Friday of each month, King and others host a VSM gathering from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Joplin Avenue Coffee Co.
For $5, participants can take a basic dance lesson from 7 to 8 p.m., and then jump right into the dance, featuring live music by Freddie Green and Friends, until 10 p.m. The small charge covers the cost of the facility and teaching and provides some funds for the band. Because of a prior event, next month’s dance will take place on Friday, Oct. 11.
The group also provides weekly dance lessons during the remaining Fridays each month, with the exception of this month, at the Briley Performance Center in Joplin.
For the remainder of September, the group is taking the opportunity to travel to other locations, including Topeka, Kansas, to highlight what other groups are doing to promote swing dancing.
King said she’s always loved to dance.
“There’s something special about swing dancing,” King said. “Its DNA comes from the jazz culture. It is full of improvisation. You can put your own personality into the dance.
“It’s not technical or formal like ballroom dancing. There’s so much spontaneity in part because jazz musicians are always coming up with new things and being creative. I love having something that’s not boxed in but creative.”
Swing dance was born in the late 1920s in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem neighborhood in New York City. It began as a place for people of all races could mix and take part in dancing with live music and, as King explains, “just have fun and relax.”
From this era, the Lindy Hop was born. King said she finds the history of the dance both beautiful and rich.
She discovered the dance while in high school as she was preparing for her senior prom.
“I didn’t want to go to a dance that was typical for a senior prom,” King said, “one full of grinding, awkward adolescents.”
Her desire for something different led her to a series of dancing DVDs and YouTube videos. She discovered swing dancing — specifically the Lindy Hop, a dance with roots in jazz, tap, breakway and the Charleston.
“I thought it looked fun, so I got my friends involved and we all learned how to dance it,” King said.
Later, she identified the swing scene in Wichita, which led her to learn more about swing dancing.
“I feel like I’m an artist on the move (with the dance),” King said. “No dance is the same. It’s always different depending upon your partner and the atmosphere. There’s so much energy in the moment. It feels like art in motion.”
Teaming with a local business
King discovered Joplin Avenue Coffee Co. when she first moved to Joplin. The business, located at 506 S. Joplin Ave., has two distinct rooms separated by a long hallway.
“The first thing I thought when I saw it was, ‘I wonder if it was a speak easy,’” King said. “I knew it would be the place for live music and dancing.”
The group began the first Friday dances using prerecorded music. They then heard Freddie Green and Friends perform at a Fat Tuesday event.
“I knew his music would make it exactly as I imagined,” King said.
So King began talking with Green as well as Autumn Zimmerman, owner of Joplin Avenue Coffee Co., to see if the dances would be possible. When all came to an agreement, the first Friday events were born.
King said she loves teaching the Lindy Hop because of the varieties of movement dancers can implement after they learn the first steps.
It also gives her a chance to teach a bit about the dance’s history, adding she’s thrilled to enjoy a dance that began generations ago.
“At our last event, the energy was so high it felt like we were transported back in time to a jazz club in the 1930s,” King said. “It just makes me ridiculously happy to dance like this. There’s an innate joy in dancing like this with a partner.”
About the lessons
The VSM group has grown to include at least six leaders who have been dancing for the past three years. Those leaders rotate to teach the one hour lesson during the first Friday dances at Joplin Avenue Coffee Co.
The dress for the first Friday events varies. Some dress in period clothing while others attend in jeans or shorts. King said it’s important for people to dress for their comfort levels.
At the end of the night, the leaders invite people interested in learning more to sign up for the lessons at the Briley Performing Arts Center. It typically takes at least eight people to sign up for the lessons to take place.
Those lessons provide a series of progressive teachings taht help people grow their dancing skills.
“Every lesson builds off of the foundation class,” King said. “At the end of the month, people learn how to do 12 different moves.”
One of the things King enjoys the most about the developing swing scene in Joplin is how it draws in people for “face to face” interaction.
“A lot of that is lost in our generation,” King said. “There’s something about connecting over music, which is awesome.”
Dancing with strangers, she admits, can be scary at times for people. During the dance lessons, no partner is needed as everyone rotates.
“But a lot are surprised when they step out and take a chance,” King said. “It’s so much fun. You never know if you are going to love it or not. But many walk away feeling like a million bucks because they’ve learned something new in a short time. You have to have the confidence to try it, and a willingness to put yourself out there. It’s the perfect opportunity to learn a new thing.”