Ever since a 1998 Gap ad sparked a crazed revival for the lindy hop, the dance that evolved with jazz music in the Harlem ballrooms in the 1930s and 40s, swing dancers from Seoul to Sweden have gathered to learn flashy new moves and lose themselves in that swinging beat. For those, like me, who’ve caught the bug, it’s addictive – a thrilling cocktail of fast feet, pulse-raising music and in-the-moment abandon.
A quick search on Google will reveal that anyone wanting to learn to dance (or improve their performance) on holiday is spoiled for choice. From salsa holidays in Spain to ballroom dancing in the Lake District, there’s something for all styles and levels of experience – and it’s a great way of seeing somewhere new, making friends and pushing your body a little harder than you would at home. Over the past few years, I’ve swapped my weekly lindy hop classes in London for more challenging workshops abroad.
Some dance programmes are more laid-back than others. Swing Summit, a one-week holiday on a farm in France’s pine-scented Ardèche, is as much about dips in the pool as honing your swing-out technique. Some, like Lisbon’s Atlantic Swing Festival, Kraków’s Lindy Invasion or Madrid’s Circulo & Swing, are more suited to newbies, offering complete beginners a thrilling experience in at the deep end. Festivals attract a mixed crowd, from hobbyists to hardened professionals with something to prove on the dancefloor.
With its raucous energy and sizzling jazz bands, Lindy Shock in Budapest promises four days of high-end learning for the more experienced (big-name instructors fly in from all over to teach here) and five nights of gin-fuelled parties lasting until dawn. Participants can sign up for the full programme of four hours of classes a day plus taster classes focusing on, say, tap or spinning technique; many just go for a party pass to let loose at the evening balls. Asking random strangers to dance can be a challenge for introverts: as someone with an aversion to both crowds and gyms, I’m daunted by the prospect of endless hours of dancing and socialising, but I still want in on the fun.
Sensibly, I’ve chosen a lighter option: a couple of hours of evening classes a day, leaving plenty of time for exploring an city unknown to me. My first taste of Budapest is the bohemian little flat I’ve booked on Airbnb, with its silent courtyard, green with clambering vines and golden with the first signs of autumn, and a net-draped bed to crash on. In the morning, a walk down to the Danube reveals the storybook setting for the dancing: three connected boats housing a warren of sleek wooden dancefloors and band stages.
After a quick dash around town (potato pizzas and hot-off-the-coals chimney cakes, suitably carby, are the trip’s greatest food hits), it’s time for auditions. Although a source of anxiety for many – a botched audition can be a blow to the ego – this is necessary to sort us into levels for classes.
I do my best to calm my nerves and give my sweaty palms a strategic swipe. I’m happy to be placed in the highest tier of my group – months of practice have paid off. The most advanced students – those who shine in late-night showcases and competitions – get river-view classes on the boats; ours are in nearby gym halls, which are not without a certain old-school charm. We’re welcomed by the sounds of Ella, Louis or Dizzy; each session, taught by a rotating cast of international teachers, is a surprise – a mysterious alchemy that transforms decades-old moves into a fresh way of interpreting the music. For newer dancers, they’re a chance to geek out over core technique, experiment with musicality and go up a level in a way that’s only possible with such intensive practice.
Much of lindy hop’s appeal – unlike ballroom dancing – comes from its rule-breaking playfulness. We may be learning set patterns or working on a specific technique, but we are also encouraged to improvise: showy floor slides, or a particularly sassy hip swivel, get smiles of approval from my partners. Each teaching couple bring their own style to the room, sharing what makes them tick. For Ghent-based Sep and Bara, it’s all about listening to the music: they ask us to move just to the piano’s melody, then shift our focus to the rhythm section. It’s tough, surprisingly cerebral work. A quick look around the room reveals furrowed brows and awkward bodies adjusting to the challenge. There’s a lot of laughter, some frustration. We work up a sweat together, changing partners every couple of songs, our feet tapping out new rhythms until they become second nature.
The real lessons, though, take place after dark, when the dancers descend on the three moored boats. From the top deck, the brightly lit spires of Hungary’s neo-gothic parliament building on the banks of the Danube look impossibly romantic. Girls twirl in swishy skirts, flowers pinned in their elaborate hairdos. Band members, in the small hours of the morning, crowd surf over the dancers, double bass and all. One careless elbow throw leaves a young man with a bleeding nose and a ruined tie, but he’s soon back on his feet – there’s no denying the collective joy in the room.
For me, it’s a deeply unnerving experience. One thing a class can never teach you is the brazen confidence to ask strangers to dance. I dither on the sidelines. On the third night, having made the mistake of basking in the Szechenyi Bath’s hot, mineral-rich waters for too long that afternoon, I slump into a chair and struggle to stay awake. But something shifts for me at the last ball. My sleep-deprived brain stops caring, and my aching muscles surrender to the music. Hours pass in a blur of blissful embraces and head-turning spins. Sometime around 3am, one handsome, blue-eyed man thanks me for giving him a new burst of energy. Another, a precise, spirited dancer I’ve admired from afar, asks me for a third dance – the ultimate compliment.
I emerge, blinking and worn out, into the pink and grey haze of a new Hungarian dawn. Somewhere, I know, a stall in the metro station is serving hot slices of pizza – and I’m definitely ready for breakfast.
• Lindy Shock usually takes place in late October or early November; dates for 2020 have yet to be announced. A pass for evening classes and parties cost €276 last year. Weekly local classes and parties are also held in the city and are open to all levels
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