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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Swing Dance Revival Hopping Across the City

For MTSwing dancers in saddle shoes and flashy skirts hopping across a Hermitage Garden stage at their weekly Saturday dance.
It was the 1940s all over again at the Hermitage Garden band shell last Saturday, where Moscow's mod squad meets every week to dance the evening away. But few Moscow dwellers old enough to remember would have recognized much. This was the 1940s of New York City, the age of baggy pants and suspenders, twirly skirts and pillbox hats, saddle shoes with kid socks hiked up to the ankle -- to make a long story short, the era of swing.

While most countries had a swing era of their own in the past, Russia's was snuffed out by Stalinism and then turned into a sport by competitive ballroom dancing. Only now, after a worldwide revival, is it finally beginning to pick up steam. One of the movement's organizers, Olga Moiseyeva, first found out about swing only four years ago, when she saw a couple dancing at a bar.

"At that time, I didn't know what they were dancing," she said. "It was a shock for me. I thought, 'My God, if people really can do this, then there must be somewhere where I can also learn.'"

Thumbing through the pages of a nightlife magazine, Moiseyeva happened across an advertisement for a dance school and signed up for lessons in boogie woogie, the form of swing that is most popular in Moscow. But when Moiseyeva came across lindy hop at the Herrang Dance Camp, an international swing workshop held every summer in Sweden, she was hooked. "Lindy hop is a freer dance," said Moiseyeva. "It's more about improvisation, freedom and attention to the music than boogie woogie is."

But all of those aspects also make it very foreign to Russia's dancing culture. Developed in the dance halls of Harlem in the '20s and '30s, lindy hop combined European and African-American influences. The dance got its name from the resemblance of its aerial leaps to Charles Lindbergh's 1927 "hop" across the Atlantic Ocean. By the '50s, new forms such as boogie woogie and rock and roll had emerged and were making their way to Europe as well.

But while swing dancing remained popular in the West, it never crossed the line into the Soviet Union. "We were behind a curtain in the U.S.S.R.," said Marina Khabarova, another dancer at the Hermitage Garden. "Swing dancing just wasn't part of our native culture."

Everything about the swing era was anathema to the Stalin period: the bright clothing, the funky hairstyles, the culture of just having a good time. The only people known for challenging the dress code were the so-called stilyagi -- Russia's mod squad of the '50s -- a group of young people from diplomatic families who brought flashy checked jackets and swing dancing back from the West in a good-natured challenge to dreary Soviet fashion.

But the government lacked the stilyagi's sense of humor and launched a press campaign against them and their "Linda s khlopkami," or "Clapping Linda," an incorrect translation or transliteration of the lindy hop. According to Stanislav Reznikov, a floppy-haired swinger at the Hermitage Garden, "a person who danced swing back then would get grabbed by the neck and dragged from the dance hall."

Last year, Moiseyeva and her regular dancing partner, Alexei Volkov, helped found Moscow's second swing dance school, the Moscow Swing Dance Society. "We want to create a dance culture in Moscow," she said. "We decided not only to dance but to do everything else connected with swing: fashion, old cars, hairstyles, concerts, bands, music." Next month, Moiseyeva's group will team up with other retro enthusiasts to put on a parade of classic automobiles, clothing and dance.

While Moiseyeva's teachers had to learn from video cassettes, the Moscow Swing Dance Society now holds master classes given by foreign teachers in addition to regularly scheduled lessons. And every Friday and Sunday evening, Moiseyeva packs up her jazz sneakers and a boombox and heads out to the Moscow River embankment to start up an open-air party beneath the footbridge by Neskuchny Sad.

But while many avid swing dancers travel all over the world to learn their moves, most Russian dancers are limited by lack of funds. "Certain things that most dancers take for granted -- like workshops around the world, dance lessons and going out all the time -- are simply too expensive for us," said Megan Virtanen, a St. Petersburg native.

So at the end of this week, Virtanen and other dancers are bringing the dancing world to Russia for the St. Petersburg Swing Dance Festival. With some of the world's best teachers congregating in the northern capital -- not to mention dance-till-you-drop parties every night -- this is one swing event that Moscow dancers are not going to miss.

The Moscow Swing Dance Society: 8-926-231-9198, swingdance@narod.ru, www.moscowswing.ru.

TantsKlass: 235-4593, 433-0151, tundra@angel.sovam.com.

The St. Petersburg Swing Dance Festival runs Thursday to Sunday: 8-921-634-4352, katswing@hotbox.ru, www.spbswing.narod.ru.