▲ To the surprise and enjoyment of onlookers, members of Swing Island taking their dancing shoes to the streets of Jeju, near City Hall. Photo by Jon Walker
Unknown to those treading the noisy streets above near Jeju City Hall, a different world lies just around the corner and down the stairs, where personal inhibitions and cultural taboos are checked at the door. This is the world of Swing Island, an island surrounded not by water, but by shelves overflowing with flat dance shoes and oversized mirrors that reflect a myriad of synchronized arms and legs. With swing classes and open dance sessions five nights a week, this large basement is an island of dancing where having fun is the currency for survival, and arriving without a minty-fresh breath is the only committable crime.
Leaving their street personas behind, members of Swing Island take on an alias before heading downstairs. This allows dancers to let down their guards and drop the conservative demeanor they might feel necessary to maintain outside the Swing Island walls. “I actually don’t know their real names,” said Cynthia Loiselle, known inside as Shia, who lets loose in the evenings after playing classroom disciplinarian during the day. “It’s a whole different side of Korea down here. It’s about having fun, and nobody talks about work.”
Losing these societal constraints not only creates a unique environment, but is crucial to learning swing, a style of dance which, here and there, may break a cultural taboo or two. “It’s a social dance,” Loiselle said. “People have to be comfortable with dancing with many different people.” With partners constantly being exchanged in a speed-dating-like fashion, couples enrolled in a class together need to be willing to ignore their primal possessive instincts. According to Loiselle, who has been with the club for almost a year, dancing with various people is the only way to learn and read the cues of others.
For the unbeatable price of 20,000 won, dancers receive six weeks of lessons, followed by two practice classes before the final performances. Matching shoes are ordered online together for this graduation dance, and afterwards the group moves on to the next level as a solid unit, wearing out their new dance shoes together. Beginners start by learning the six-step jitterbug - a dance that earned its name from amateurs appearing as though they have the jitters - and later move on to more complicated eight-step movements in lindy and Charleston classes.
Lessons are held Monday through Thursday and Friday is party night at Swing Island. Starting at 8 p.m., the studio kicks off with a Swing Line - similar to line dancing - and by 9 p.m. everybody is warmed-up and ready to try out their newly acquired moves during a free dance. Both the party and the smiles flow late into the night. “It’s a time to be goofy and add some spontaneity to your dance, rather than following a set pattern,” said Loiselle, who views the night as stress relief.
When asked about her favorite memories with the club, Loiselle easily identified these party nights, along with occasional “Guerrilla Swings,” where members hit the streets to show off their dance routines. On Friday, Feb. 19, a large group of Swing Islanders shared their moves with those who happened to be out late on one of the side streets near City Hall. “It was incredible,” said Magda Kus, who witnessed the spectacle. “They seemed to come out of nowhere and all of a sudden I was caught in the middle of this dancing mob!”
The language barrier hasn’t been much of an issue for the non-Korean members of Swing Island. Most of the movements have English names and a continual “one, two, three, four ...” can be heard as one descends to the basement. Loiselle laughed as she explained how she mistakenly heard “step, step, lock step” her first class rather than “rock step,” leading her to believe she should lock her leg rather than rock it. Learning was slightly hindered towards the end of her first series of classes, as moves progressed from simply mimicking the instructor to understanding the feelings and tensions in the body. Many times others in the class, some of whom are Korean teachers of English, have assisted with translations.
Swing Island is about more than dancing. “It has been like a social club for me,” Loiselle said. “I have made many strong friendships with the other members.” Group dinners, nights out on the town and weekend hikes are all regular occurrences. During the early stages, instructors take new dancers on MTs, a common Korean term for membership training. Not as serious as they sound, these sessions are usually group camping trips, resulting in friendships that make life at Swing Island more relaxed.
The next group performance will be held on Saturday, Feb. 27 from 8 p.m. at Swing Island, across the street from CGV, Jeju City, and around the corner from the Kelly clothing shop. For those looking to let loose for a few weeks and meet new friends along the way, a beginners’ dance class starts on March 4. Swing Island is eager for new Korean and non-Korean members, and will always go the extra mile to make communication a non-issue. “If they can’t,” Loiselle said, “they’ll just take your hand and get you to dance!”
Ko Soo Nam “Uncle” [Owner/Instructor] - 010-9097-1280 (Korean only) Cynthia Loiselle [Advanced student] - firstname.lastname@example.org Swing Island Web site: http://cafe. daum.net/swingisland.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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