Swingers take Tel Aviv

A couple nights a week in downtown Tel Aviv, a group of young people pay a small cover charge to dance late into the night. They move energetically for hours, before eventually getting tired and going home. It might sound like the nightlife Tel Aviv is famous for, dancing in the city’s clubs to the latest hip-hop beats. But this group prefers a different scene, and some much older music.

Swing music originated in the African-American community in the early 20th century. It was the most popular musical genre in America from about 1935 to 1945. The popularity of the dances and the music faded in the 1940s, but both made an unexpected comeback in the later 20th century. There are now swing communities worldwide – even in Tel Aviv’s nightclub-littered landscape.

After being revived in the 1980s, the Lindy Hop is now one of the most popular swing dance styles. There are healthy communities of Lindy Hoppers in most Western cities, and a vibrant and interconnected global scene. There are international competitions and dance camps, and world renowned teachers and competitors.

The scene in Israel is relatively new. It is roughly four years old, and confined to two studios in Tel Aviv. Rena Khayat is one swing’s pioneers in Israel. After practicing and teaching swing in New York City, she moved back to Israel in 2007 “with the dream of creating a swing community in Tel Aviv.”

So far, she has been successful, with the help of other Israeli enthusiasts. What started with just three students learning the Lindy Hop from Khayat, is now a full-blown scene of about 100 dedicated Israeli swing dancers. Tel Aviv’s swing community is split between her studio, Dance Tel Aviv, and the nearby Holy Lindy Land. Dance Tel Aviv has over 12 weekly classes in dances that belong to the swing family, and both groups host popular weekly social dances.

The dance style may be anachronistic today, but devotees have no trouble explaining the appeal. The main reason: fun. It is a playful and animated dance style with ample room for creativity and spontaneity. David Ornstein, who teaches at Dance Tel Aviv, said that “first of all the music’s awesome.” He said, “most people come for fun, to relax” and “can’t help but smile.”

It is also an easy style to get started in. Many attendees begin in their 20s or 30s without any previous dance experience, and novices and experts can comfortably dance together. Mary Howe-Watson, speaking at her first dance session at Holy Lindy Land, said she found the studio online the same day and had no previous connection to swing dance. She explained that “it was something I wanted to do, because it’s fun, it’s playful.” Although she was only partway through her first social dance, she said without hesitation that she would “definitely be coming back.”

There is a strong social appeal as well. It is easy to meet new people at the weekly events; Howe-Watson said that they are “great for shy people.” Many people come from a similar background, and the atmosphere is very cheerful and friendly, complete with dim, colored lighting and upbeat jazz music. The partner dances are inherently social activities, and attendees change partners with nearly every song. “Our swing crowd has become a big social scene, and many of them come for the enjoyment of meeting new people as much as they do for the dancing,” she said. Some attend the weekly social dances at both studios. 

Khayat described her students as mostly “young Tel Aviv University students and professionals in their 20s and 30s.”  

In addition to the social dances, there are seminars, festivals and parties associated with the scene. There are occasional themed parties, which capitalize on the appeal of the period. Khayat said, “We organize swing theme parties with live bands, where people usually try to recreate a swing look, a vintage 1920s-1940s look.” Dance Tel Aviv hosts an annual Swing Festival, which includes workshops, international guest teachers, parties, bands and competitions. 

The social appeal also extends to the international community, especially for more advanced dancers. Ornstein said that the “community is extremely friendly,” and that the international connections are “part of the fun of it.” Dance Tel Aviv hosts foreign instructors three times a year, and sends members to events in places like Sweden and Hungary. In a country that is as isolated as Israel, this outlet can be particularly attractive.

While it is still small, Tel Aviv’s Lindy Hoppers see only potential in their community. Ornstein said that the “community in Israel is improving tremendously fast,” and is “just growing and growing.” Although the dance may seem out place in the modern Middle East, it may be a good fit for Israel. The nation is already a cultural melting pot with a fondness for dance and music, and Israelis often have an open attitude, especially in Tel Aviv.

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