Gillian Davis was working for a wooden boat builder in midcoast Maine when she first discovered the heart-thumping, core-twisting magic of swing.
She was living in a rural area, and her going-out options were limited. One night, a few friends asked her to join them for a dance. They piled into a van and drove to a beginner’s Charleston lesson.
“I had always liked swing music, but I didn’t know much about it,” she recalled. “When I first heard the music and saw the dance — those two things coming together — something clicked for me. I loved it.”
She started watching YouTube videos to learn more and practicing whenever she could. Soon, Davis was going to swing festivals, where she’d dance until she was coated in sweat.
“Every weekend of the year, somewhere in the universe, there’s a Lindy Hop festival going down,” she said. “I went to a couple of those, and that hooked me right there.”
Now, she’s bringing swing to the masses with the Portland Swing Project, where Mainers can learn the three building blocks of swing — Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing and the Charleston — and how to combine them into one free-spirited night of dancing.
“When Gillian moved back to Portland five years ago, she revived the swing-dancing scene almost singlehandedly,” said Jennifer Kain.
Like Davis, Kain is an instructor for the Portland Swing Project. She’s also the co-founder of Lindy Maine, a group in Biddeford dedicated to promoting the dance form through regular Monday night classes at Engine.
“We’re a much smaller group in Biddeford,” she said of Lindy Maine, which is now in its second year. “We get a slightly different demographic, but it’s a great group nonetheless. The people you meet through swing dancing are so friendly and welcoming — it’s an anomaly.”
Like Lindy Maine, the Portland Swing Project started with just a dozen or so dancers, but over the past five years it has grown dramatically. Beginner classes now average around 60 dancers.
The Portland Swing Project offers learn-to-swing classes, which last seven or eight weeks and take place on weeknights, as well as advanced workshops and lessons. For those who just want to dip their toes in the water, the Portland Swing Project puts on dances every Wednesday and Friday night at Acoustic Artisans and the Maine Ballroom, respectively. At these high-spirited events, beginners and experts come together to get all shook up on classic swing music. (While they frequently have live music, bringing in bands from New Orleans to New York, the dances are often DJ’d by a swing enthusiast.)
The night kicks off with a lesson, and the whole shebang costs less than a movie ticket. For the price of a fancy milkshake — $5 suggested donation on Wednesdays, $10 on Friday band nights — wannabe swingers get a half-hour lesson and several hours of dancing.
And if you’re nervous that you won’t fit in, please take heed. While some people go all out and dress up in period attire, most people show up in their regular clothes.
“There are no rules at all about what to wear or who can come,” Davis said. “Anything goes! You don’t need to bring a partner. I’d say 90 percent of people who come to Portland Swing events don’t. It’s very easy to make friends.”
Even if you bring your main squeeze, Davis will encourage you to rotate partners during each lesson. “In order to get really good at swing, you should dance with many different styles and ability levels,” she explained.
Fall classes at Lindy Maine begin on Sept. 12 at Engine and cost $10 per lesson. The Portland Swing Project kicks off its beginner classes on Sept. 13. During the eight-week session, beginners will learn the basic steps alongside a truly diverse group of people.
“It’s young people and old people, married and single. That’s what’s great about this dance,” Davis said.
Plus, she added, when winter sets in, swing dance offers a good way to get out of the house. While you don’t have to be in peak condition to swing dance, it is practically guaranteed to get your heart rate up, thanks to the quick pace of the retro tunes.
“Winter can be rough and isolating,” she said. “To have a room full of loud music, happy, sweaty people — that can be a real lifesaver come January.”