In a simple square building tucked away in a corner of central Abbotsford, 120 people practice their swingouts, turns, and Charlestons on a cold January night. Nearly everyone is in sneakers or flats, and a few women wear the short flowing skirts characteristic of an earlier era.
The Suburban Swing dance group has been around for 14 years in Abbotsford teaching Lindy Hop and East Coast swing with a fun and friendly attitude. It has recently become so popular that many people drive over an hour to get to the Sunday night practices.
On one January night, the jazzy beats of the 1920s to '50s fill the regular venue, the Abbotsford Social Activity Association (ASAA) hall. When instructors explain how to peck, dancers giggle. The move involves giving a dance partner a quick air peck, a common Lindy Hop move. When participants try it, they break out in laughter. This happens a lot during the night.
"When you walk in, you're going to feel very welcome. People ask you to dance. Right away you get included with the whole group, no matter what your age is or status," said Jason Warner, who owns the club alongside his wife Crystal.
The club has seen its average participant numbers grow 25 per cent over the last year. A record 300 people came out on Dec. 29, 2013.
About 40 per cent of dancers are men. And while the event is all ages, the average age is 20.
Warner started the swing dance club in 1999 when he was a criminology student at the University of the Fraser Valley. The first meetings were in the cafeteria. After several moves, Suburban Swing was eventually invited to the ASAA hall, their home for the past 13 years. The hall is a community dancing mecca, with ballroom, square, and line dancing meets on other nights.
Eager swing dancers come from all over, with only about half from Abbotsford. On on January night, there were people from Chilliwack, Mission, North Vancouver, and as far as Bellingham, WA.
Warner explains that while the Vancouver swing clubs compete against each other, Suburban Swing gets everyone else – from Hope to Surrey to Sumas – who want to try something fun. A three-day winter retreat for the end of February filled up with the maximum 80 people over a month prior.
There also isn't much else to do on a Sunday night, adds Warner. The well-respected club is very diverse, with people from all backgrounds, abilities, and ages mixed together.
Warner now works as a correctional programs officer at Matsqui Institution. It's not as strange a mix as it might seem, he says. He pulls his correctional background into dancing, and vice versa.
"My passion is working with people…I like public speaking. I really like facilitating and helping people change their lives. So I think that's partly what I do here (at Suburban Swing); a crossover of my correctional experience and my social experience."
In addition to the Sunday nights at ASAA hall, Warner also teaches swing dance at W. J. Mouat secondary in Abbotsford, and G.W. Graham secondary in Chilliwack. He dreams of the club growing large enough to have its own venue capable of holding 300–400 people.
This Sunday night, Jan. 16, the theme is "Red" in honour of Valentine's Day. Jazz musician Goby Catt is playing live. The drop-in beginner lesson runs from 7:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and the dance night is from 8:30 p.m. until 11 p.m. Tickets are $15 each. On nights when there is no live music, tickets at $9.