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Losing Myself (and My Work Stress) in the Wacky World of Jazz Dance

Since I started my foray into jazz dance, the most common question I’ve gotten has been “What, you can dance to jazz?”

This is not a surprising sentiment because before, many people, myself included, have always deemed jazz a music genre for “chilling.” For me, jazz was once the mellow love songs by Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker’s heart-wrenching melodies, and instrumental background music in coffee shops or artistically crafted Instagram reels. I knew that jazz helps people wind down, and many put on jazz music to study, to relax, to sleep, but I never came across anybody seeking jazz to move their muscles.

To quench my friends’ curiosity, I often show them videos of new dance moves I learned from Xoay Studio. Every spinning kick performed by my classmates on a background of cascading saxophones, percussions, and Ella’s sultry voice seems eager to prove that “hey, jazz can be lit, too!”

Miss Xoay, my jazz dance instructor.

Jazz dance is a world of myriad colors, so it’s difficult to find a common definition of what “dancing to jazz” is. Some types of jazz dance can only be described as “wild” — we perform high kicks, jumps, and non-stop hand-leg movements as we flow along the musical rhythm. Some styles entail graceful dance and spinnings on romantic melodies. There are solo routines for those who love being the center of attention. There are duo routines for couples. There are also group choreographies for friends to have fun together. When it comes to jazz dance, anyone will be able to find something that fits their personality.

The members of my dance class each come from different life paths, age groups, professions — we nearly have nothing in common apart from our dance membership. The most out-of-place person here might just be our instructor, Miss Xoay. She started as a B-girl and built a career in contemporary dance. Now she’s a jazz dance teacher at Xoay Studio. Her brush with jazz dance began with a swing club, a small branch of jazz dance characterized by a fast pace and energetic moves. From that day, she studied jazz dance in South Korea to bring the art form back home to Vietnam.

“Does everyone remember the roots of this dance move?” Xoay often quizzes us. When she introduces a new move, she explains the history behind it so we have a deeper understanding of jazz. Started as a traditional performance art form in Africa, jazz dance entered the Americas alongside slavery in the 1600s.

Cheerful lyrics and dynamic stomping and clapping were how African slaves engaged in leisure to keep their spirits up amidst hardships and abuse. Gradually, this became a distinctive dance culture in plantations across the US. White participants started taking an interest in jazz dance in the 19th–20th century at nightclubs.

Lindy Hop, the dance I’m currently studying, was developed by Frankie Manning, a Black dancer living in the 1920s–1930s, the golden age of jazz music and jazz dance. It’s commonly deemed the most basic style for newbies. Even so, I have expended considerable energy in practice sessions, because jazz is not just about memorizing a series of steps. One has to “feel” the music to move both arms and legs, follow the rhythm, and learn where to minimize and maximize your efforts to express the “jazz spirits.” After four months of learning, not even half of learners can master these aspects.

Xoay, on the contrary, seems to be gliding on every music note. When she dances, everyone gathers around marveling at how she swings her legs and kicks with razor-sharp accuracy and fans her hand with utmost finesse. When we get to a challenging verse, she moves effortlessly with a smile and even sings along to motivate us, while we desperately try to get air into our lungs to keep up with her. A positive person by nature, she always reassures us that it’s okay to lag behind, as long as you have fun.

Whatever skills we learn in class are showcased in “social dance” sessions — a ballroom event where we can openly dance with other performing enthusiasts. These dance hangouts are often held by long-standing dance troupes, like Saigon Swing Cats and Hanoi Swing Out.

During these soirees, there’s a very wholesome set of guidelines to ensure that the dance floor is a safe space. First, it’s “best to be nice” — you should pick dance styles and moves that can accommodate your partner’s skill level even when one’s a little more advanced. If you’re a courteous and fun dancer, everyone would want to dance with you, no matter their or your levels. Moreover, try your best to praise your partner if you like whichever move they just did. Another more sensitive rule is to ensure that your body is clean-odorless-dry before taking the stage to guarantee an enjoyable dance for both you and your partner. Most importantly, don’t hog one dancer’s attention the whole night, because everyone deserves a chance to have varied partners.

My first time at a social dance, I remember feeling embarrassed to the point of nearly rejecting a male partner, as I didn’t think that anyone would invite such an amateur like myself to dance. Once I calmed down, I was brave enough to head to the dance floor with him to demonstrate skills I didn’t think I had. Since then, my opener to warn new partners has been “I’m a really noob dancer.” But that’s okay — every dance partner I have had was patient with me every step of the way and laughed with me when I accidentally stepped on their foot or toppled into them.

I realized quickly that at the gatherings, no one really cares what level I’m at, as long as I want to dance and I’m up for having fun. Newcomers not knowing anything can melt into the circle and mimic basic moves that the leader is doing. Veterans often extend their hands to ask you to dance if they see that you’re standing shyly on the edge.

Or you can do as I do: invent new moves as long as they’re on beat, and then invite the first person I see to join me. Only later did I accidentally discover the decorated profiles of those that I managed to get to the dance floor: a dance instructor, a winner of some dance reality TV show, etc. But for some reason, maybe my relentless aura of carefreeness, they accepted my invitation.

For those who desire physical activities but can’t drag their bodies to the gym, the jazz dance studio is a perfect alternative. I can’t be on the treadmill for over 20 minutes, but I can dance for an hour straight without feeling bored. The ebullient bars of music invade my mind and control my limbs unlike the intense counting of a personal trainer or my own efforts to exert myself. Only when the mashup mixes stop do I realize that my feet and arms have turned into exhausted noodles.

It’s such an addicting sensation. Every midweek, once I’ve settled all work affairs, I take my time to choose a really classic look and wear my old tattered pair of Converse to head to the “ballroom.” Dressing to the nines and dancing along to the jazz might be the single bright spot of my monotonous week of computer-wrangling. It’s my own world outside of the boundaries of an office.

I think everyone should find and keep to themselves a hobby, like jazz dance, in their life. Few friends get what I do and my parents can’t understand why I keep coming back to the dance studio. Sometimes, I feel like one of the 12 Dancing Princesses in a story by the Brothers Grimms, who sneak out of the castle to dance at night, leaving behind threadbare shoes in the morning.

Discover more activities by Xoay Studio via their Facebook page here.

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