Lindy hop, born in Harlem in the 1920s, and my dance of choice, is all about connection. Without it, you’re just two people on the dance floor, with four left feet. The fusion between lead and follow is often subtle – hands clasped at arm’s length, a palm against a shoulder blade – through which flow steps, musicality, cadence and trust. It’s a skill I’m yet to master after eight years, more or less, of enthusiastic effort. Connect, however, and it’s magic. Returning to weekly classes this last September, after a three-year hiatus, has felt like rejoining my tribe.
Luckily, Paris is full of places to dance – from lindy to bebop, west coast to balboa, and so many other styles besides. In every corner of the city, there are studios, ballrooms and live venues, and that’s without the joyous summer overspill into the squares and riverbanks. It’s impossible to charleston in the sun at the foot of Palais de Tokyo, across from the Eiffel Tower, without a spring in your step.
In my neighbourhood, La Bellevilloise holds regular lindy soirées. Built in 1877, just off rue Ménilmontant, it was a co-operative for the Charonne and Belleville communes, a place for culture, education and political gatherings (and once hosted French social-justice icon Jean Jaurès – oh to have been at that party), before becoming one of Paris’s first cinemas. In 1912, the co-op had nine thousand subscribers and was a model of producer-to-consumer trade, what we now call farm-to-table, until about 1949. In 2000, it was taken over by a trio of media types who reopened it in 2006 as a live venue and art space in its original spirit of connectivity.
I first went there a couple of months ago, venturing out solo for a dance. From the street, the wrought-iron archway leads into a courtyard with potted olive, palm and citrus trees. On Sundays, the square is filled with jazz and the enticing smells of brunch. Inside, it’s a revelation of concert rooms, bars, a restaurant, terraces and exhibition spaces. This particular evening, I arrived late to be met with a whirl of bodies, all swinging to the tunes of an American three-piece. As is usual at lindy events, the walls were piled with overcoats and bags, so I found a nook, wedged in my coat and scarf, changed my shoes and hit the bar. A girl needs something to do with her hands to avoid feeling too much of a lemon while waiting for an offer to dance.
Once you start, though, you’re off. All it takes is one brave soul to break the ice. The thing about lindy is that it puts you totally in your body, and in the moment. A follow’s job is to listen, respond, resist the temptation to anticipate, remain willing to improvise if invited, and relax. This is no easy task. Drift off as your mind translates a simple pleasantry and autopilot kicks in. Reset. Smile. The steps and floor craft are largely the lead’s domain. Trust is paramount.
This week, it was a performance by superlative circus collective Compagnie XY up at La Villette that crystallised the power of connection for me. Coincidentally, the show, Il n’est pas encore minuit (It’s Not Yet Midnight), featured lindy hop moves alongside jaw-dropping acrobatics. As the twenty-two performers twined organically around each other, their certitude, faith and bonds were palpable. At one point, a young woman climbed bodily down from a four-person-high tower, hand over hand, torso along torso, supple and strong in equal measure. At the end, one of the troupe read a statement, emphasizing the collaborative nature of their work. “Alone, faster, together, further,” he said, before the audience rose as one for a standing ovation.
Afterwards, my friend E and I took the cobbled walkway towards the Métro, over the Bassin de la Villette, where Canal Saint Martin opens into inky expanse. Parc de la Villette, while beautiful in the day, can be dicey after dark, so the crowd around us was reassuring. And I love how an audience continues to buzz with shared energy as it disperses into the night.
Connection can be hard to come by, even if you’ve been in a place for a while. Loneliness is a hazard of city life. Offering your hand to another, and having it accepted, moving through time amid others similarly engaged, is balm to the soul. When I dance with someone, it’s a shared moment. Obviously. It’s a leap into the unknown taken in parallel, improvised with each new eight-count. It’s exhilarating, real and present. Body, mind and spirit interconnected but also bound to another human being. Lead, follow, separated by a fraction of a second, separated by the space between bodies, separate, yes, but together with each step. Step, step, triple step.