Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Swinging It with the Rock'Its- 6 Weeks with UCI’s Swing Performance Team

By: Erick Vallejos

“Stomp off, let’s go!” boomed a voice coming from the speakers connected to a white iPod Nano. As the sounds of a trombone and a jazz band beginning their song filled Donald Bren Hall 1500, eighteen pairs of feet began to hit the floor in (somewhat) unison. The seventy desks, typically in seven rows of ten, have been pushed back to the sides of the room to create space for these dancers. It is 7:14pm on April 9th, a Friday night, and these eighteen people have shown interest and enthusiasm in joining the (at the time unnamed) swing dance performance team. Well actually twenty. Tracy Wang, a forth-year graduate student in the neurobiology and behavior PhD program, is leading the choreography sessions for the try-out; and me, a literary journalism student, sitting in one of the seventy desks closest to the door watching the other nineteen. This was the first time I met the future members of the swing dance performance team. For the next six weeks, I would follow this community of dancers through all their ups and downs.

A History

You could compare swing dancing to improvisational jazz. In both there's no set "curriculum" or a set dance routine (or song in the jazz example) that one needs to memorize in order to be successful. You just need to know many of the basic steps (or melodies & chords) and then string them together adding a dash of your own personality to make the dance your own. Sometimes mistakes can lead to the coolest moves you've ever done. As well swing dancing advertises itself as a dance that almost anyone at any age can learn. You don't have to be dancing your whole life just to get into swing. Tracy started when she was eighteen and she's already competing; I started when I was twenty and I have a few of the moves committed to memory; there are 50+ year olds who are in the beginner's classes at Atomic Ballroom (a local swing and ballroom dance club) who have just started and are getting used to it. Ben Morris, one of the performance team's choreographers and a professional swing dancer (a national and international swing dance champion), summed up what swing is, it's "very relaxed and fun".

The term “swing dance” is actually the umbrella name of a group of dances that have all evolved from a dance called the Lindy Hop. On May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh successfully flew The Spirit of St. Louis over the Atlantic. Newspaper headlines read “Lindy Hops the Atlantic” which inspired Shorty Snowden, a well-known and popular dancer at the time, to coin the name Lindy Hop. The Lindy Hop, “America’s national dance” as Life magazine called it in 1943, is a social dance; it is done with many couples on the dance floor dancing to a big band playing jazz music.

Unlike other variations of swing dance, Lindy Hop is played to music with a fast beat, typically music that has more than 180 beats per minute (bpm). The fast music and dancing to that music just as fast is equivalent to an aerobic exercise. As Lindy spread throughout the nation, different variations of it sprouted up in different areas for example in California Lindy was slowed down considerably (to about 80-180 bpm) and became a new type of swing dance called West Coast Swing. West Coast evolved in the OC area and has ultimately become “the heart, the soul of West Coast swing.” West Coast is so ingrained in Californian culture that it became California’s state dance in 1988.

Unlike Lindy, which typically needs to be played to very fast and upbeat swing music, West Coast can be played to many contemporary songs and artists (like Lady Gaga or Kei$ha). As well unlike Lindy, which is typically danced in a circular style, West Coast is done in a linear style. Both of these styles are known as types of touch dancing, touch dancing is a type of dance where the partners touch each other. After World War II nontouch dancing became popular and big bands became expensive, both of which contributed to Lindy’s decline in popularity.

Swing received a boost in popularity in the 1980s-1990s when touch dancing came back into style. This revitalization of swing, called neo (or retro) swing, is now done by a generation of swing dancers who don’t really have any connections to it (since their parents may have been part of the 60s-70s when swing wasn’t as popular). It has now transitioned into the mainstream with big bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy getting hits on the Billboard charts and playing in major venues (in this case the 1999 Super Bowl). According to the International Encyclopedia of Dance there are currently more than three hundred and fifty swing dance organizations in the US and Europe promoting swing dancing in this new generation. Out of many of these official organizations, there are also many smaller ones doing the same thing. One in particular is at UCI doing this exact thing, Swing Dance @ UCI.

A Club

Every Monday night Swing Dance @ UCI has a free beginner's class where the club brings in an instructor and for about ninety minutes everyone in the room learns the basics of swing. The club tries it's best to balance both Lindy and West Coast, promoting a healthy competition between both styles since the officers of the club came from different backgrounds in swing dancing. One way they do this is by alternating the beginner's classes by teach Lindy and West Coast every other week. "People try to advertise their styles and they try to do well in their styles...these people are open...to learn both," observed Tracy. When you go to one of their meetings, you'll be very surprised to find that there's not that many people in the dance major (nor people who have had a lot of dancing experience) at these meetings. Rather you'll meet people of various backgrounds that range from hard sciences (such as physics and biology), social sciences (like sociology and political science), and the arts (drama and photography).

Swing Dance @ UCI is a relatively new club on campus. The club “officially” started Winter 2010, but its roots can be traced at the Anteater Recreation Center (ARC) parking lot Fall 2009. Matt Hoss, second-year graduate in the chemistry PhD program, and Chloè-Agathe Azencott, a fifth-year graduate student in computer science, began as small group of Lindy Hoppers dancing at the ARC parking lot on Saturdays. According to Matt the reason they danced at the ARC parking lot rather than inside one of the dance rooms at the ARC was because 3-4 people had to pay $5 each time they wanted to get into the ARC since they weren’t UCI students (these people were either non-UCI student friends or . So they decided to go down the free route instead. Matt would bring his amplifier from his place in Verano to the ARC each time the group wanted to dance. They would plug in their iPods into the amps and start Lindy Hopping right there in the parking lot. At the same time they were dancing, another swinger was planning to do a swing dance club as well.

Ben approached Tracy in wanting to teach college students West Coast Swing to the swing or ballroom clubs on campus at that time (at which there were only two). However a majority of the seniors in these clubs graduated last year (in 2009), it was these seniors that made the club and when they left, the clubs disappeared as well. With no official clubs on campus, Tracy and Ben decided to create a one. When Tracy heard that there was an unofficial club meeting outside the ARC, she attended one of their Saturday meetings. At the end of that meeting Tracy told Matt, "I'm starting a club, do you wanna join?" Matt accepted and the club officially started up Winter 2010. With her connections, Tracy would bring in the instructors while Matt took care of the club's logistics (planning meetings, fundraising, ect.). It was during these club meetings/lessons that the idea of a performance team came about.

A Team

Tracy and Matt noticed that after the Monday night beginner’s lessons, about twelve to fourteen people would stay afterward and just continue dancing (regardless of whether they were dancing the steps they had learned that night). After receiving a few invitations from other clubs to perform, Tracy came up with the idea to create a swing dance performance team. After two to three weeks of try-outs and coaching sessions, the team was finalized with 12 performers and 4 alternates. The performers would be the first ones to perform a routine and had just their own steps to memorize. While the alternates learned almost all of the positions, being ready to become a substitute if a performer couldn’t make it to a choreography session. If a performer graduated or couldn’t be part of the team, Tracy and the choreographers would pick someone from the alternate pool to become a performer. According to Tracy every “member of the team [is a part] of one single large team”. Members of the team included (but not limited to):

  • Jenny Compton, second year Spanish, plays the trumpet and sings in an acapella group on campus called Clair de Lune.

  • Nate Directo, first year History and Engineering, also sings in a chamber choir.

  • Melanie Elvena, third year Art History, loves vintage clothes and can speak French.

  • Clint Foley, first year Drama, is part of the Rouge Artists Ensemble and is preparing to be in a show called Hyperbole: Origins.

  • Kevin Horan, first year International Studies and French, danced the Charleston (an early variation of Lindy) at a rave in Santa Barbra, the ravers left the dance floor.

  • Matt Hoss co-founded the club and was working on his PhD advancement while the team is preparing for their first public performance.

  • Melissa Matlock, third year Anthropology, has been a vegetarian for eleven years.

  • Michelle Mattson, first year graduate in Cellular Molecular Biology, is half Scandinavian & Japanese and hula danced throughout high school.

  • Colleen Moody, forth year graduate in Molecular Biology, is 5’11” and has played volleyball for ten years.

  • Sri Puranum, forth year graduate in Aerospace Engineering, is also part of the Salsa club on campus, UCI Salseros.

  • Philip Thomas, second year graduate in Bio-Med Engineering, is also 5’11” and loves research.

  • Justin Wang, UC San Diego graduate, is a competitive dancer and the only graduate not in school.

  • Julie West, third year Biology, has a yellow belt in karate. She started swing dancing and karate at the same time.

  • Rachelle Young, second year (who will go into) Psychology and Social Behavior, has played the piano for fourteen years and is also in Clair De Lune.

This eclectic group of people of different ages and different backgrounds, may have never have met in a college of 17,000 students. If anything they would have simply passed by each other on Ring Road or have the same general education class. No matter how different all of these people are, they are just “as passionate about being on the team as [the club’s officers and team’s choreographers are in] creating it.” They weren’t only just passionate about swing, but through that passion they began to develop fast friendships and companionships. One of the best examples of this passion from my own accounts happened during the choreography session that immediately followed Tracy’s announcement of who was on the performance team.

Now that the roster for who is on the performance team has been set, the performance team is now practicing half an hour after the beginner's classes. On most nights, the team has to be asked to leave the student center at midnight, so that the room can be reset for the next day. Tonight is no exception. It’s forty-five minutes before eleven on April 26th and the performance team has been working hard since eight thirty, learning West Coast in the beginner’s classes earlier. Three team members are lying on the wooden dance floor trying to catch their breath and for good reason. After about two hours of practicing West Coast moves, they then spent another hour doing the Lindy portion of their performance, which wore them out. As Tracy, Ben, and another choreographer, Malia San Nicolas (aside from Ben and Malia, there's also two other choreographers working with the team for a total of four), work out what the next set of steps for the performance are; the three lying on the floor find solace in relaxing from all that dancing. As those three are lying down, Rachelle and a few others are talking about how to celebrate her birthday. They agreed that they would go down to Atomic Ballroom, a local swing dance & ballroom club, to celebrate her birthday on Thursday. Since she and ten of her friends can get in there for free and also she got a free lesson and a free cake as well. As they planned, Tracy and the choreographers were finished and rushed everyone to get back to their spots. Just like clockwork, the people laying down jump back up ready to dance, the people planning Rachelle's party run to their spots. And for the next half hour they run through the whole Lindy routine of their dance.

It's the end of the coaching session, a quarter of an hour before the stroke of midnight. As everyone is getting ready to leave and (probably) immediately go to bed, the voices of three girls singing in unison can be heard:

"Happy Birthday to you..."

The doors swing open and the three girls continue singing while one of them holds a box of three small cakes. As they continue singing the whole room (including myself) disregard the fact that they've been dancing for nearly four hours and join the girls in another chorus:

"Happy Birthday dear Rachelle..."

As she blows out her candles everyone cheers and claps for in the next fifteen minutes it won't be Rachelle's birthday anymore, but will just become another run-of-the-mill Tuesday. However the cake will have to wait, as three student workers from the Student Center politely stand by the door, subtly letting on that they want to go home as well. Everyone thanks these three as they leave and rejoin the small group party out in the hall. Making use of a few tables set up previously that day for a conference, Rachelle, Melanie, and their friends lay out the small cakes still in the Wholesome Foods box and the 20 chocolate cupcakes Rachelle's been saving for the whole team (and me). Everyone is a little bit more upbeat now, wishing Rachelle a (at this point) happy belated birthday and continuing their different conversations from before (some talking about their weekends, others about the merits of re-purposing old running shoes as their new dance shoes). Somehow one always forgets how tired or what time it is or what they're doing tomorrow when around good friends. Also the cupcakes helped as well.

A Loss

The smell of incense fills Engineering Hall 1200 on April 30th seven minutes before the 4:30pm memorial began. There is a hectic rush to finish preparing as the organizers of the memorial continue to burn some more incense, place a few candles on the whiteboard railing and floor of the pit at the bottom of the room, and fix the laptop that will play the memorial videos. The memorial is for Mahesh Mahadevan, a 2nd year graduate in Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and a member of the swing club and prospective performance team dancer. On April 10th, 2010 Mahesh went missing hours prior to his birthday. After being declared missing, his closest friends put up a website called findmahesh.com and started a Facebook group called “Missing Person—Please Help Find Mahesh Mahadevan”. Sadly his body was found near the UCI Observatory, five days later, on April 15th at 7:40pm. Police declared his death a suicide. His death sent shockwaves throughout the school, but his closest friends and colleges were affected most by it. The memorial that is happening is not to simply mourn Mahesh's loss but rather to celebrate his many accomplishments in his life.

There is a rare breed of genius who could socialize with others. Mahesh was a part of this breed. He was a foreign transfer student from Thrissur, India. According to Sri Puranum, one of Mahesh’s close friends and a member of the performance team, he loved wordplay. The word “sri” in all Indian dialects is used as a title for dignitaries or people of higher standing. Mahesh told Sri that he was respecting him just by saying his name. He could carry a conversation with just wordplay for half an hour, even though it would become “tedious”. Within their department, Sri recalled, that a question was only impossible if “Mahesh couldn’t solve it”. Within the first year of his graduate studies, Mahesh had published two papers. The astounding thing about this wasn’t the fact that he published two papers, but rather he was able to conduct two experiments and get through the six-to-eight month peer-review process all within a year. Sri recalled that Mahesh was “nice...that he never wanted to inconvenience others...that he thought of all of the consequences of his actions before doing them”. What was even more amazing about Mahesh was that amidst his research, he still embraced his creative side.

Mahesh could sing, act, and dance; the epitome the triple threat. He sang at his undergrad university, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and was part of an a cappella group on campus. His improvisational skills were top tier. When he was forced to change his lines at the ring of a bell in the middle of a skit (in an improvisational game called "change"), he came up with a line (in about 1-2 seconds) that still made the audience laugh. For Tracy, Sri, and the other members of the swing dance club & team; Mahesh will always be known for his dancing.

He first got involved with swing for the same reason many other single males might do something they haven't done before, to meet girls. Even though Mahesh may not have found a date at the club, he did find a new enthusiasm in swing. He was so enthusiastic about it that he started getting his friends into the club and he also wanted to be a part of the performance team. According to Sri, Mahesh if he couldn't do it perfectly, he wouldn't have tried out for the team. Mahesh was a key part in the early development of the swing dance club. Attendance is one of the key ingredients to having a new club on campus. Tracy noted that Mahesh was at every meeting. Mahesh also helped recruit a few members, including Sri. He brought in a few number of his friends into the club and got them interested in swing. Mahesh was a key person in helping the swing dance club become what it is today.

A Community

When you enter Atomic Ballroom, opened since 2004, the art deco décor of the place brings you back to the late 1930s. However there are also many anachronisms that show that you're still in the 21st century. When you enter, both people at the counter collecting names and money are on 20+ inch iMacs protruding from the top of the counter. To the far right of a refrigerator unit cooling and showing off bottles of soda, energy drinks, and various types of water almost all of them being sold for a dollar. Next to that is a large wood cabinet showing off a college of black & white photographs of swing dances past, modern day articles about a few charity benefits held at Atomic, and trophies. Tons of trophies from many of the instructors at Atomic. Across from the cabinets is a large Vizio LCD TV advertising events and classes happening in the next few months at Atomic. Upstairs is a single maroon room with a wood floor and mirrors covering one whole wall. This is the practice room that the performance team is using to practice the routine they've been doing for the last six weeks for their first public performance in front of the OC swing dance community.

The performance team still didn’t have a name. It is April 20th, 8:50pm, the performance team will be performing in eighty-five minutes and Ben doesn’t know how to introduce them. Clint had an idea, name the team after a group in a cartoon. Two days ago Clint and Nate did a quick introductory skit they wanted to do before the performance at the end of practice that they wanted to do for the performance. It was a swinger's twist to the introduction speech of Team Rocket, the antagonists of the anime series Pokèmon (which was popular in the US in the late 1990s). Nate and Clint stood back to back and alternated speaking the lines:

"Prepare for trouble," Clint begins as he crosses his arms.

"And make it double," Nate continues crossing his arms as well.

"To protect the world from devastation..."

"To unite all swingers within our nation..."

"To denounce the evil of truth and love," Clint says pointing up to the sky.

"To extend our reach to the stars above," Nate follows suit.

"West Coast"

"East Coast"

"UCI Swing blast off at the speed of light."

"Stomp off! Let's go!" Both say in unison.

It is 8:51pm and they are no longer a nameless UCI Swing performance team. They named themselves as a pun from the characters from Nate & Clint's speech, they became Swing Rock'It.

As Swing Rock'It practices their introduction and dance one final time, I wish them luck and walk downstairs to find a place to sit on the dance floor. When I got there, it was standing room only. As I wadded through the crowd of college students, young adults, middle-aged people, dating couples, married couples, single men trying to hit on single women, until I found a nice spot to stand. Ten minutes later Nate and Clint coolly walk out and begin their introduction, doing it the exact same way they did two days ago. As they introduced the team, the rest of the team came onto the dance floor and into dance formation. Nate and Clint finished and walked back to their respected partners. It was silent, but not for long a second later the speakers above the dance floor break the silence with three simple words, "Let's do it".

The song You Got It by Lucus Grabeel began to play. Five beats after those first three words, the West Coast portion of the dance begins. As they continue dancing in formation, everyone in the room was excited as they clapped their hands to the beat. The whoops and hollers of the college students seemed to energize the team. Many of the older people watching seemed entertained and fascinated that such a young group can dance so well. When the team's male members started showing off their fancy footwork while keeping the rest of their body in place, everyone cheered. As the song ended, everyone in the room cheered. But that was simply the midway point. Suddenly the song changed, it was no longer a modern day song sung by someone from High School Musical, it became classic big band.

The Lindy/Charleston part of the performance has just begun. The group was now in a V-shaped formation with the women in the front, while the men were behind them. The classic song Stomp Off! Let's Go! (a classic song for big bands to play, but made famous by Louis Armstrong) began to play as everyone began doing an organized Charleston performance. Again the crowd energized the team with cheers throughout the performance. Then came one of the biggest moments the team has been waiting for, the aerials. By this point of the performance, the team was in a circle, the two couples on the left and right side did the aerials while the couples at the direct front and back had the females fall into the arms of their male partners. In the aerial, the female is held by their male partner as they jump up. The male then directs the direction the female is going (in this case the females went to the right from the audience's point of view) only to be stopped in mid-air to then go back downwards. After this, the audience went crazy cheering and whooping. At the end of the performance all the members struck a pose and a few seconds later bowed towards the audience to the sound of applause.

At the end of the performance, as the night continued with everyone going on the dance floor, Team Rock'It is still being complimented by almost everyone in the audience on their performance. A few members go back on the dance floor dancing with a few friends and a few friendly strangers while others are huddled around their friends (who have never even tried swing dancing before) and a few are resting up on the cornucopia of seats now available. Michelle and I are talking while sitting in the most comfortable seats in Atomic, an ivory-colored leather couch in the northeast corner of the dance floor.

"Oh I better go interview a few of you guys and ask how you feel now that your first performance is over," I tell her as I get up with notepad in hand.

"Oh I can tell you what we'll all say. There's a universal sigh of relief," Michelle answered. I look over at a few of the members who just nod in agreement. I look at the far end of the dance floor and see a more set of relaxed members dancing or talking to their friends. Looks like Michelle was right on the money.

It's surprising how much a small group of people who may never have met can bond in the span of a month and a half. A lot has happened over Spring quarter 2010: a club still trying to find its feet, the creation of a brand new performance team, choir concerts for the singers, preparing to graduate (to either go into the world or into graduate school), the death of a close friend and fellow club member, and being hounded by an over-eager student journalist. For Team Rock'It they've been welcomed into the swing community with open arms and applause. Yet no matter how many troubles each individual member might face, somehow these problems are all left behind as they begin to dance and be together with a community of people just as enthusiastic in swing as they are.

Community, isn't it a wonderful thing?

Reporter’s Log


  • 75 minute group interview with Swing Dance @ UCI officers: Matt Hoss, Michelle Mattson, and Tracy Wang

  • 30 minute interview with Swing Rock'It member Sri Puranum

  • Online survey and 3-5 minute interviews with Swing Rock'It members

  • 10 minute interview with Frances Chance, Swing Dance @ UCI’s faculty advisor

  • Online interview with Ben Morris


  • 11 hours, 35 minutes observing choreography, coaching, and try-out sessions

  • Participated in 5 Swing Dance @ UCI beginner’s lessons (2 hours per lesson)

  • 5 hours, 30 minutes of observing Swing Rock'It members at Atomic Ballroom

  • Attended Swing Rock'It first public performance at Atomic Ballroom

  • Attended Mahesh Mahadevan’s memorial


  • International Encyclopedia of Dance, Lindy Hop entry

  • "UCI Swing" Facebook Group

  • Video of Swing Rock'It first public performance at Atomic Ballroom

  • Findmahesh.com

  • "Missing Person—Please Help Find Mahesh Mahadevan” Facebook Group

  • New University article “Found Body Identified”, April 20th, 2010

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