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Swing dancers speak language of movement

The Grand Rapids Original Swing Society draws record setting amounts of people together for swing dancing on weekday nights throughout the year—more than most major cities. Founder Steve Zaagman’s goal is to bring affordable dancing, fitness and fun to great venues in downtown Grand Rapids.
A pair of swing dancers went for a lift during a Halloween themed night at the Masonic Center on Tuesday, November 1.

A pair of swing dancers went for a lift during a Halloween themed night at the Masonic Center on Tuesday, November 1. /Permission from Firestorm Photography and Productions

Grand Rapids Original Swing Society

Every Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., a lesson for beginners from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Check here for upcoming locations.

Every Wednesday from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Calvin College. 

No previous swing dance experience necessary!

Grand Rapids is a dance floor that has held the title in the Guinness Book of World Records for holding the largest swing dance in the world. In recent years, the Grand Rapids Original Swing Society has brought East Coast swing to Rosa Parks Circle, the Public Museum, Downtown Market, Blue Bridge and more, filling up spaces with music and hundreds, even thousands of dance partners of all ages and levels of experience year round.

“If you watch some of our YouTube videos, especially when we broke the world record, to see an entire Rosa Parks Circle filled with people dancing is actually pretty awe-inspiring,” said Steve Zaagman, founder of the Grand Rapids Original Swing Society. “And to know that’s actually unique to our city. You go to most cities and you don’t see kids and adults doing that together. It’s actually a really cool moment when we’re at Rosa Parks and we have people from the convention center come down and say, ‘We don’t have this in our city. How do we make this happen?’”

For Zaagman, making swing dance happen in Grand Rapids began back in college at step one, joining a club that taught students, no matter their level of dance experience, how to swing. It was the 90’s, a revival of the swing dance era that first developed and thrived in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. By graduation, he’d caught the bug and it stuck.

“After college, I realized I wanted to continue to learn but I couldn’t afford it,” Zaagman said. “So I would watch movies like ‘Swing Kids’ and ‘A League of Their Own.’ Each had scenes with swing dancing in them. One of my dance partners and I would watch those movies over and over again and learn the moves off the movie. That’s how we started learning—through Hollywood films.”

Zaagman was asked to start a small swing dance group at a local college, which ended up drawing in more community members than students at the school, so they moved the group to a warehouse downtown. And when the group outgrew that space, they moved to Rosa Parks Circle to accommodate the rising number of people interested in dancing.

Eventually, the costs for maintaining permits, insurance and security for the weekly events became more expensive than donations and Zaagman’s own money could support, so the Grand Rapids Original Swing Society became a non-profit organization, funded by grants that allowed large-scale downtown dances to continue.

“As a non-profit we started to articulate our goals and said let’s have those goals be providing a fun activity for hundreds to thousands of people every week all year long,” Zaagman said. “Nothing was happening on a Tuesday night. It’s a dead city on a Tuesday. But on those particular nights when we have a 25-piece big band the first Tuesday of the month at Rosa, the city comes alive and it feels awesome.”

Matthew Gort, the vice chair of the Swing Society board, DJ’s the music at events, teaches lessons and fills in for Zaagman when he’s unable to lead. He first became involved when he went to one of the Swing Society events in 2010 and learned the basics. It’s been the social aspect that’s been most special to him since then.

“The people at swing are different than people I've met anywhere else,” Gort said. “They are friendly and social because if you want to dance you need to be social. I am an introvert and find it difficult to deal with people in person. I don't always like to do that but swing dancing has helped me to get out of my shell and be more social. The people who I meet and see at swing help to form a community. You see them other places and it feels nice to have that familiarity. I was traveling up north this weekend for wine tasting and met a person from swing dance. It was nice talking to him and gives that feeling of a community that I do not feel quite the same in other places.”

“We’ve had nine wedding proposals happen on the dance floor where they’ll come up to me and say ‘I met my significant other here and I want to propose. Can we do something special?’” Zaagman said. “We’ve had ‘swing babies,’ as we say, where couples have met and had kids as a result.”

Those like Gort and Zaagman who have found a home on the city’s dance floor have seen how empowering it can be to spend time with other people in a way that’s active and artistically expressive.

“When you communicate in a dance, it’s not using words,” Zaagman said. “It’s using your body, moving your hand so slightly, one inch and I can tell you that we’re about to do a flip. It’s like learning a whole new language. Our organization is not about politics. It’s not about religion. It’s about people. And when you dance, you’re dancing with a diverse people. You don’t know what their social-economic situation is, but you’re all speaking that one language. The language of dance.”

This year, Zaagman is one of the many finalists of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Grand Rapid’s 8th annual leadership awards, which recognize the work of outstanding young non-profit leaders in the community. He is nominated in the Breakthrough category for his Swing Society work. According to the YNPN.GR webpage, the Breakthrough Award will go to “an individual or organization whose work has led to a new method, idea, or process that has positively impacted the community and/or discovered a new solution to a complex problem within the nonprofit sector.”

After having been to over 700 hundred swing dance events, Zaagman still loves to teach the language of dance. As for anybody who says that they just can’t dance, his response is, ‘If you can walk, you can dance.’

Ultimately, it’s not about technique but about having a good time. Movement and having a place to go.

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