Mark Kihara and swing dance got off on the wrong foot. Now, a veteran dance instructor, Kihara hopes to get young dancers hooked.
“If you start doing Lindy Hop, it will take over your life,” said Mark Kihara at the beginning of my first Lindy Hop dance class at Century Ballroom in Capitol Hill.
He laughed about that, but he was far from joking. As a veteran of Seattle’s swing-dance scene, he is all too familiar with Lindy Hop’s addictive qualities.
Within the first 10 minutes of the class, Kihara and co-instructor Darla Weideman had the 20-person class shuffling around to an eight-count beat like a bunch of misplaced penguins.
Throughout the hour-long class, the two instructors already had me working out my stiff posture (brought on from two years of ballroom dancing). When I danced with Kihara, he had me lean forward and wiggle my arms out before starting. Now, I refer to this as “getting into noodle mode.”
By the end of class, Kihara and Weideman had us beginning swing-outs and added a handful of turns into our repertoire. It ended all too soon — I was hooked.
Finding his passion
Lindy Hop is a style of jazz dance born in Harlem, N.Y., during the 1930s. It is that dance in the movie “Swingers,” the one that swings out and whips out girls onto the dance floor so fast, you wonder how they are not flying across the room.
Kihara, 33, got his first real taste of swing dance while studying psychology at Western Washington University.
He was coaxed into going dancing when two of his dormmates assured him that there would be a lot of girls there. He was sold.
Unfortunately, Kihara was ditched at the dance hall when the weekend rolled around. Although he was frustrated, he still stayed for the lesson. He realized he could not even step to the beat of the music, let alone performs any of the steps correctly.
“Lindy Hop was not something that [came] to me easily. I thought, ‘Maybe I should just try to learn swing and then be done with this,’” he said.
At least, that is what he thought was going to happen.
“I went every week for six months before I could step on beat,” Kihara said. “Then something clicked. I could finally hear the music, and then I could finally start enjoying myself.”
Kihara had such a good time, in fact, that he began teaching swing to other students at Western, where he describes himself and his dancing as “terrible, but enthusiastic.”
Soon after, he was nearing the end of his studies at university. His original plan was to go to graduate school to continue studying psychology and eventually become a schoolteacher. However, with swing dancing now in the picture, he was second-guessing that path. He sought the advice of one of his psychology professors.
“They told me, ‘If there is anything you love more than psychology, you should do it. Otherwise, you will be miserable,’” Kihara said. “Then I thought to myself, ‘I love Lindy more than psychology, so I guess that’s that.’”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in psychology, Kihara moved to Seattle, instead of moving back home to Bellevue. He took a job at the FAO Schwarz store downtown and began teaching dance lessons at Century Ballroom.
“It was a long road for me, so whenever people say, ‘No, I can’t do this,’ I say ‘Yeah, you can. It hasn’t taken anyone longer than it took me to learn,’” Kihara said.
Throwing himself in
Kihara and other experienced swing dancers are happy to help “foster in” the newer generation of swing dancers, who usually flocks to Century Ballroom for the all-ages dance on Sunday nights.
Kihara attributes the rejuvenation of swing dance to the revival of retro culture, as seen in the 1998 Gap “Khakis Swing” commercial.
Today, YouTube how-to channels are also filled with swing-dance tutorials. There, Kihara said, anyone interested in swing dancing is able to look up videos from competitions or from the old professionals like Frankie Manning, who was one of the pioneers of the swing-dance movement in New York. From there, viewers are able to replicate steps all on their own.
Kihara said, “Lindy Hop is its own little world. A lot of people who do Lindy Hop aren’t necessarily interested in other dance forms. The experience is just so immersive.
“A lot of other dance forms are like ‘Angry Birds,’ and Lindy Hop is like ‘World of Warcraft,’” Kihara explained. “The people who are into it are really into it. They dedicate their lives to it.”
Clearly, Kihara is on the side of the “World of Warcraft” players. Today, he co-teaches 10 dance classes at Century Ballroom while managing his own company, Swing Jam Productions, for which he works as an emcee, deejay, for-hire dance instructor and swing-dance event producer.
“A lot of people became teachers because dance came to them easily,” Kihara said. “On the flipside for me, I think I have a unique skill set when it comes to teaching because I did not have that.”
Seeing the progression
Weideman has known Kihara for nearly eight years and has been working alongside him for the last five. She remembers swing music constantly playing in Kihara’s car just so he could get the beat down. His transformation, she said, makes him all the more fun to dance and work with and has made him an “amazing” listener.
“He’s definitely very passionate about what he does,” Weideman said. “He gets super-excited, especially during the beginning classes, because you can see someone go from having done no dancing and, by the end of class, he sees them out on the floor dancing and the smiles that they have.”
During the first day of dance class, Kihara told us that once we got started Lindy-Hopping, we would not be able to stop.
Since starting lessons with Kihara and Weideman last year, I have enrolled in three five-week dance classes and spend every Sunday night dancing at Century Ballroom. I start every week with swing-dancing and spend the rest of the week itching to get back on the dance floor.
Mark Kihara teaches classes through Century Ballroom (www.centuryballroom.com/home), Left Foot Boogie (www.leftfootboogie.com/LeftFootBoogie.com/Home.html) and Dance It! Productions (dance-it.com).
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