Hearts full of rhythm

River City Swing sidesteps back to a bygone era

River City Swing co-founders Emily Sinclair and Joseph Pilapil

Keeley Braunstein-Black

Gracing Winnipeg dancefloors as of late is a certain sect of dancers. Their movements are easily traced, smooth and free-flowing with the utmost poise and dexterity. The envious need not despair. If they had it their way, everybody in Winnipeg would join their foot-stomping ranks.

“I want a community so large that I’ll never dance with the same person twice in one night,” Melissa-Joy Moiny says. She is one of the newest instructors at throwback dance company River City Swing.

“I prefer to call it a community (rather) than a company. It’s one of those places where it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from.”

River City Swing is one of Winnipeg’s latest and greatest ensembles of restless feet. The dance group is centred around swing dancing, a style that developed alongside swing-style jazz in the early 20th century.

“Swing dance is a historic dance from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, born out of Black-American culture in Harlem, New York during that time,” co-founder Emily Sinclair says. “We teach the Lindy hop, the Charleston and the swing dancing within that scope.”

River City Swing hosts weekly classes and collaborates with local venues and bands, with the South Osborne Legion acting as a de facto headquarters.

“We have our weekly Thursday Night Stomp there, which is an opportunity for beginners to come in and find out what it’s all about,” Sinclair says.

Sinclair and partner/co-founder Joseph Pilapil have more than a decade of experience in the Winnipeg dance scene, starting as novices and quickly graduating to instructors and leaders in the community. Taking the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity for reinvention, River City Swing was branded in 2021.

“In swing dance, there’s an aspect of having to communicate with another person while you’re dancing that was absent in a lot of the other forms I explored before,” Sinclair says. “It’s a play between yourself and the music and your partner. It’s very involved every time you dance. Once you get into it, it’s immersing yourself in the greats of that musical era.”

Dancers can expect to glide around the floor to the musical stylings of vocal jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Sinclair’s personal favourite, Fats Waller. Special occasions call for real-time swinging with local acts like the Executive Big Band and the Dixie Beats.

While the moves of the swing-dance community can seem daunting, accessibility is stressed. Moiny happened upon a free swing event in her community over a year ago and quickly became enamored with the community.

“It’s all really good people, super supportive and patient. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. Everybody’s just here for the same reason: to dance,” Moiny says.

“I love that the swing community isn’t stuck in heteronormative roles. Anyone can learn to lead or follow, regardless of gender. You’re just learning the base pieces of how to communicate this body-language thing. You’ll hear people say it’s a conversation, and it really is.”

Join River City Swing for their weekly Thursday Night Stomp from 7 to 10 p.m. at the South Osborne Legion (426 Osborne St.). Entry is $10.

Published in Volume 78, Number 16 of The Uniter (February 1, 2024)

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