Dances with Wolf Whistles

Café Leopold caters to ‘real’ dancers on Swing Sunday

It’s Sunday night at Vienna’s Café Leopold and something’s askew. It’s not the premises: It’s the same stark black and white interior and distinctive clear plastic chandeliers, lights dimmed so low they bathe the entire establishment in a pleasantly murky amber, to make anyone look good, even without multiple weiße Spritzer. And it’s not the staff (competent but slightly bored as ever) or the clientele, the regulars at the MQ – except perhaps the unusually high concentration of flat caps, polka dot dresses and suspenders.

And yet something seems wrong with this picture. For one thing, the place is too packed for a Sunday evening in Vienna. Another is that instead of milling about affecting coolness, nearly everyone is dancing, or resting up for their next dance – and not the usual sorry, spasmodic convulsions that pass for self-expression. These are real, elaborate dance moves with twists, twirls and footwork too precise and elaborate even for me to follow.

Swing is contagious and so far, Leopold is the only nightspot to catch the fever | Photo: Ali Rabbani

Swing is contagious and so far, Leopold is the only nightspot to catch the fever | Photo: Ali Rabbani

And finally, there’s the music: not the usual electronic fare that is the staple of nearly every fashionable dance floor in Vienna. This was jazz:  Real, honest to goodness jazz, swing, dixieland, big band, Cab Calloway, Django Reinhardt, Duke Ellington – the works!

You’ve stumbled into Swing Sunday.

The swing revival has been around since the 1990s, inspired by the upsurge of neo-swing bands like the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, several films such as Swing Kids (1993) and Swingers (1996) and a wildly popular khaki commercial for the Gap. The Austrian scene got formally underway in 2000, when Some like it Hot, Vienna’s premiere swing dancing school opened its doors to teach the Charleston, Balboa, Shag and their most popular dance, the Lindy Hop – named after aviation legend Charles Lindbergh (“Lindy”) and his little “hop” over the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 – to an ever growing crowd of enthusiasts. Arch-rival IG Hop broke away in 2011, and according to one dancer, the two have uneasily co-existed ever since, in a very West Side Story, Jets vs. Sharks kind of way.

All that’s forgotten on the dance floor. Nothing seems to matter here besides the sheer euphoria of captivating rhythms and perfectly executed moves. Despite a packed-to-bursting dance floor and couples manoeuvring for enough space to execute complex routines, no one collided.

One particularly skilled couple of Lindy Hoppers – a tattooed, bald man in his 40s wearing suspenders, a long keychain and a much-abused Homburg alongside a younger woman in a pencil skirt and Ugg boots – quickly take advantage of a momentary gap on the dance floor to perform a gravity defying double leap with their knees close to their respective chins, all in perfect time, landing adroitly with the beat. For a split second, it looks like they will spin over onto the neighbouring couple’s toes… but the latter see it coming and masterfully swivel away at the last microsecond before attempting their own leap in a newly opened space.

You hear the term “poetry in motion” bandied about, but here you get to witness first hand things most of us have only seen in Fred Astaire movies. Then, like me, you may have to consider lessons, as the sorry spasmodic convulsions may not cut it anymore.

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One Response to Dances with Wolf Whistles

  1. Lou Armstrong May 3, 2013 at 4:32 am

    It must be the ‘real’ honest to goodness jazz music that makes an evening at Café Leopold’s packed on a Swing Sunday. I wish I could witness the Lindy Hoppers perform their gravity defying double leap! I enjoyed reading the American jazz dance experience a revival in Vienna!

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