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When visitors step into the recently renovated Savoy Denver, they’ll notice a lush mixture of art deco and Victorian style furnishings. The dance hall upstairs also features showy light fixtures and rich gem tone hues, welcoming guests into a generous expanse.
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For most of its life, the building, erected in 1889, has hosted social clubs and dances in the upstairs ballroom. Co-owners and sister-brother duo Meghan and Scott Frank, who acquired the Savoy in 2020, plan to use it as a cultural center, where their nonprofit Theatre Artibus will perform and other groups, including Swingin’ Denver, a lesson and social event organization, can bring the community into the fold.
Through this partnership, Kenny Nelson, founder of Swingin’ Denver, began teaching the Lindy Hop, an energetic partner dance, at the Savoy in March. Bringing the dance style back to the building (it had previously been taught and practiced there by Swingin’ Denver and other groups) is a chance to honor the Lindy’s history, as well as make the scene more culturally inclusive in the Mile High City.
There are deep historical parallels in Lindy Hop’s return to the Savoy: It was at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, where Black legends such as George ‘Shorty’ Snowden, Mattie Purnell, Frankie Manning, and Norma Miller created many classic Lindy steps and styles. The Savoy Denver, named in honor of the New York site, is located in Five Points, known as the “Harlem of the West,” where jazz greats—Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, among them—performed.
“It should be acknowledged and honored that [Lindy] came from the Black community,” says Nelson about the vernacular dance that was created in the early 1900s. According to Jaqui Malone, author of Steppin’ on the Blues, “vernacular refers to dance performed to the rhythms of African American music; dance that makes those rhythms visible.”
Brittney Caraway, a friend of Nelson’s and longtime Denver dancer and jazz vocalist, has a profound understanding of the vernacular meaning; it’s her history. Her grandparents danced the step and also shared their love of jazz music with her. “It’s just within me. It is within other Black dancers, because that’s part of our lived experience,” says Caraway.
When she first started dancing Lindy Hop 18 years ago, Caraway said it “saved her.” She was dealing with family turmoil, but found friends in the Las Vegas and Denver dance communities that helped her feel accepted.
Despite finding community, Caraway also encountered difficulties at Lindy Hop events. There were rarely any other people of color. And it was expensive to participate in competitions, as well as some social events. She often had to volunteer or work in order to participate. Her hair also couldn’t be styled into a Victory roll, a 1940s hairstyle that was romanticized by dancers and event organizers—an example of the Eurocentric beauty standards stacked against Black women dancers. The night Philando Castile was shot and killed by police on Facebook Live in 2016, Caraway went to a social dance to cope with her emotions. Nobody invited her onto the floor.
In the summer of 2020, Caraway almost stopped going to Lindy Hop events. She’s done some advocacy for changes; for example, she spoke in an online forum called Move Together: Dancing Towards an Inclusive Community and Global Social Justice. But for her, it’s not about activism. It’s about making sure people feel comfortable and that the history of the dance is recognized. During Lindy Hop’s nascence, racial violence was frequent, and legal segregation prevented Black folks from entering white ballrooms. “(Lindy Hop) came out in the Black community because of the pain, and because of how the music made us move,” Caraway says.
Caraway thinks more steps can be taken to acknowledge that history. She would like to see ambassadors greet new faces at events hosted in places like the Savoy, Mercury Cafe, and Denver Turnverein. Partnerships with organizations, such as Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, could promote the connection between African dance and Lindy Hop. She also thinks scholarships for people of color and community service efforts, like street cleans or barbecues, would help show that Lindy Hop is something to truly be shared among all people—and not just something taken from Black culture. “I always refer to the Savoy [in Harlem],” she says. “Everyone was welcome … so let’s embody that.”
Nelson and Caraway, who have danced and worked with each other for years, have discussed these issues before. He does make a point to include the dance’s historical roots on Swingin’ Denver’s website and at the beginning of classes. But he also wants to make the classes more culturally inclusive, including increasing collaborations with local businesses, especially ones with greater Black and brown representation. He also plans to focus on connecting local bands with gigs so the music gains a greater foothold in the Mile High City.
Meghan Frank also recognizes that the Savoy Denver can play a role in promoting the inclusivity Caraway is calling for. She wants to be responsive to what the surrounding community wants the dance hall to be. “We have the opportunity to offer a space,” she says, “and to always be in partnership with those that have a vision for what to do with it.”
If you go: The next Swingin’ Denver six-week beginner and intermediate sessions are June 29 through August 3. They are currently on sale at $75, with discounts for students and scholarships for those in need. Don’t miss a live music event at the Savoy featuring SmokeTone Swing Band, May 4 from 9 to 11:30 p.m.; $12 admission.