Photos by Auey Santos
Getting out on the town is easy when the weather is fine and the music is on blast. You can find that music coming from within the halls of the Russian Center in San Francisco where the 9:20 Special holds its Thursday weekly dance.
Swing dancing may not be the hottest moves in the club scene where Top 40 plays, but to the masses that turn out to the 9:20 and to all jazz clubs throughout the city, they don’t care. Here Chick Webb reigns supreme, switching it up to Benny Goodman and perhaps the Glenn Miller classic “In the Mood.” Names of big band baddies from a decade when there was never a true way to dance– and all that mattered was how the rhythm made you move.
Now within a year’s time, a membership with the 9:20 Special will earn your spot among the bigger dancing circles of the city. From special classes held for drop-ins to their Thursday night dance party, to memberships where monthly series of lessons are at your disposal, you’ll be well prepped for when you next might feel the urge to dance Tuesdays at the Local Edition on Market Street or in the crowd at Cat’s Corner in the Mission District on late nights. You can thank the grand dancing duo themselves, Kirk and Iris Tarou, partners and owners of the 9:20, who met while dancing at 9:20 in 2005 and now run the classes with the help of volunteers and endless enthusiasts. These many enthusiasts are just what keep this perfect summertime social hub alive, even if we’re decades along from the hey day.
“It’s so damn fun!” Exclaims Iris, who has been dancing the Lindy Hop since 2005, first discovering swing dancing as a child from a school play. Despite the counts and special moves that get you familiar with the beat and rhythm of the music, there is still a lot of room for improvisation that really allows great conversation and engagement among partners. “Lindy Hop was created by teenagers in the 1930s/40s to their popular music of the time,” Iris explains, “big band swing music – so it’s a street dance that evolved from the music and was created out of pure passion and joy by young, athletic, and enthusiastic people. That feeling of joy and creativity still exists in the dance today and is a big reason people become addicted quickly after discovering it. It’s hard not to love something that makes you feel so good!”
The addiction is real, with an average of 400 attendees to each Open House dance held in the early summer, flooded with not just regular dancers but their friends and first-timers turning out to learn the basics to the Lindy Hop. The Open House first opens with the divide of leads and followers, grouped across each other across the sprawling dance floor as Kirk introduces the basics of a 4-count for leads that coincide with Iris’ 4-step for the followers. Add on the triple step, the proper placement of hands across your partner, and you’ve nailed the basics of the Lindy Hop. The night is then yours, free to dance, free to make mistakes, free to mingle and make up your mind on whether you’ll be back the following week.
If you do decide to step up your skills, Iris will be the first to show you her favorite move, the Swingout. “It’s an iconic Lindy Hop move which allows the partners to swing away from each other then back together,” she says, and so thrilling that it’s best paired with Benny Goodman or Count Basie. And no matter the move, if you need a little help, there’s always the warm and opening Lindy Hop community within San Francisco to keep you on your toes. “Once you become a Lindy Hopper you can find fellow dancers in almost any city in the world who will welcome you with open arms.” For now, you can find them all beneath the dim lights of the dance floor of 9:20, and always ready to keep the glorious past of swing dancing alive. There’s no place these dancers would rather be– but with Iris Tarou, perhaps not all of them. She’s thinking about her dream dance party that occurred on May 11, 1937, at the Savoy Ballroom.
“There was a music battle between Chick Webb and Benny Goodman where 4,000 dancers attended *inside* the ballroom and 5,000 were outside! I cannot even imagine.”
Living in 2017, it’s a sensation we really can’t imagine. Yet with the love and passion of dancers like those who support and attend the 9:20 Special, the music will never die, and the dancing continues into the nights to come.
The 9:20 Special
Thursday nights at 2460 Sutter Street
San Francisco, CA