Exhausted by six months without swinging out, sociable swing dancers are finding other ways to scratch that interaction itch: outdoor tea dances, pub garden socials, and live-streamed concerts have become de rigeur during 2020. But one bookish dance teacher wants the scene to both stay in touch and swot up, until ballrooms open once more—and you can tune in from anywhere.
Nikki Santilli has a doctorate in prose poetry, and has written the only book on this style as practiced in England. But this long-held literary love competes for her attention with another, equally expressive art-form: that of jazz and swing dance. The London-based scholar began learning Lindy hop and balboa in 2003, while working on her thesis. [Someone should write a thesis on the staggering number of swing dancers with doctorates.] She has taught dance since 2005, taking an academic interest in the history and sociology of the music and movement she loves.
Nikki has tried to inspire the same curiosity in her students, “even if it was only a five-minute introduction before an hour’s class.” The response has been mixed. “Some said it really helped them understand the class; others teased me for my taking things so seriously, when they just wanted to dance,” she said. “Not only did I not stop teaching the history, I integrated it into everything I did—it was inescapable.” Whatever she was working on, the historical context was prominent. “I’ve just never been able to think of them as separate,” Nikki explained. “And the names of the steps are so descriptive of their originators and rooted in the every-day—how could you divorce them?”
In 2018, inspired by one student’s reading around, Nikki began a pub book group to help foster a love of jazz academia. “He was reading Jazz Dance, by Marshall and Jane Stearns,” she said. “We talked about how it wasn’t the most accessible read—it’s just so dense with great information and interviews.” The group began meeting to dissect this “bible” chapter by chapter, before sinking their teeth into other works on the subject of jazz.
When coronavirus made classes impossible, Nikki seized the chance to keep her dance community connected by taking the Rhythm and Book Club online. Now it meets weekly to share favorite records and discuss relevant readings, with guest experts dropping in to give scholarly seminars. “I just assumed I’d be out of work for about a year,” said Nikki. “This way we’ve been able to see each other and engage with the subject that connects us.”
Nikki began giving lectures herself, with students grabbing a glass of wine and tuning in from their sofas. (“It became something of a ritual during those early and lonely lockdown weeks,” she said.) But as a slow return to teaching has put more demands on her time, she has outsourced the work to other experts; recent subjects include dance floor fashions of the 1920s (Dr. Clare Rose), the tea dance (Jane Pettigrew), and jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli (Kit Massey). Renowned musicians Ewan Bleach and Corina Kwami have also shared their wisdom with the group. “They’ve all been fascinating and I’m looking forward to having these speakers back and finding new ones,” said Nikki.
There’s certainly an appetite for Rhythm and Book Club to continue after lockdown, but Nikki says things have gone so well lately that it might stay digital. “Being online has had many positives,” she said, “mostly that we can be joined by people outside London and abroad. We’ve had visitors from overseas—swing dancers and teachers—which has been wonderful.” Nikki would love the group to grow, but spends more time preparing the sessions than shouting about them, so attendance has been small—so far. But she looks on the bright side: “I think the intimate nature of the group has helped it to evolve into such a wonderful space inhabited by warm, friendly and engaged people,” she said.
So why not pour a large one, tune in to meet like-minded friends and upgrade your jazz knowledge, live from London; see www.hotjazzrag.com for details of upcoming talks and a link to buy tickets, priced at just £6 (about $7.75) each.