There is something magical about the simple joy of dancing; all you need is a decent wooden floor, some music and some people.
The other people are optional. I have been swing dancing for ten years and these simple ingredients have brought me so many great nights and so much happiness.
But the swing dance scene has a dirty secret. It is addicted to flying.
Almost every weekend of the year, somewhere in the world, there is a big dance camp, festival or competition. Typically, there will be classes during the day, then dance parties with live jazz bands, performances and competitions in the evening. They attract people from all over the world.
"Almost every weekend of the year, somewhere in the world, there is a big dance camp, festival or competition."
In 2014 I attended the largest swing festival in the world, in Herrang, Sweden. There were dancers from every continent except Antarctica. Teachers were flown in from the US, Argentina and South Korea. It lasts five weeks, but most attendees go for just one, and it has about one thousand attendees per week. All that flying, for some music, some people and a decent wooden floor.
These international festivals, camps and competitions are a central part of modern swing culture. Dancers are told that to improve beyond a certain level, they need to attend these festivals, and a lot of them too! Top level dance teachers are called “international” teachers, because they will be flown around the world to teach. They make their money and build their reputations teaching and competing at camps and festivals.
While some dancers may go to five or ten in a year, international teachers may go to one nearly every weekend. Festivals are expected to book big name teachers from across the world. When London hosted a festival a few years ago, people complained that there were too many teachers from London teaching.
"All this flying affects both the teachers and the dancers, and I don’t think many people realise the trade-offs."
All this flying affects both the teachers and the dancers, and I don’t think many people realise the trade-offs. Teachers, who already work unsocial hours, are travelling every weekend. Many struggle to form or maintain romantic relationships. Dancers have to pay extra for events, as organisers need to cover the cost of putting teachers on planes and putting them up in hotels. Local scenes suffer as large numbers of their dancers and teachers go elsewhere each weekend, building connections with people they’ll likely never meet again.
For dancers, the antidote to this is simple. Don’t fly off to weekend festivals.
The events in your area may not have the same prestige, but you will know everyone there and you won’t spend ten hours of your weekend in airports or planes. Chances are there is still plenty that you can learn from your local teachers, and you won’t learn much more by being taught by an international teacher.
For organisers, don’t book teachers, bands and DJs from abroad, or at least not ones who have to fly.
Use local talent, nurture your scene and pass on the savings to the dancers. Provide details about sustainable ways to travel to your event. Look for alternative ways to run events. The International Lindy Hop Championships, the most prestigious competition in the swing world, went online this year due to the pandemic. Dancers submitted videos or competed head to head with live streaming. This allowed dancers who could not spend time or money getting to and from Houston to compete.
For teachers, it may be difficult to give up flying completely. It is a competitive world where reputation is important.
If going flight free is not an option, here is an idea: rather than flying off every weekend, consider doing residencies or teacher exchanges. Organise it so that if you fly to California or South Korea, stay there for a month or two. Get the local organiser to set you up with regular classes for that period, and travel to local dance festivals. If you organise with another international teacher to swap places, then you both have a place to live for the duration. It is less stressful, allows you to get to know the area and people, and make a real contribution to that scene. Rather than doing forty flights a year, you are doing five or ten.