DENVER’S DEDICATED SWING DANCER!
After just five minutes of talking with Kenny Nelson, it becomes incredibly clear that he is one of those energetic people who love taking a big bite out of life. He grew up as part of a home-schooling community dedicated to the arts, music, and performance, and came of age just when the swing revival reached a particular high in America. Thus Kenny was perfectly positioned to naturally take to the style and social scene that is swing dance. Originally from Liberty, Missouri, a suburb of Kansas City, Kenny made his first trip to Colorado in 2004 for a Denver Lindy Exchange. Impressed and motivated by the local swing dance community, he returned four more times that year, finally making the move permanent in early 2005. Eleven years later he’s still telling people “it’s been a great decision.”
Once settled in Denver, Kenny taught swing dance at The Mercury Café from 2008 to 2010. Kenny then spent three years traveling the world as a swing dance instructor, teaching “everywhere from Tel Aviv and Bucharest to Melbourne,” as well as “helping establish and improve swing dance schools in Portugal and Madrid.” For a Midwestern fella who got his start tap dancing in a home school musical theatre group’s production of Hello Dolly, these travels were both eye- and mind-opening. His international experiences were so exhilarating and motivating that when Kenny’s sights fell back on Denver, he knew he “had to make things happen.” He told me, “It became my mission to invigorate Colorado’s dance scene by offering unique events, exciting opportunities for advanced dancers, supporting live music, bringing swing to the greater public, and increasing the pool of swing dancers.”
All of this led Kenny to start Swingin’ Denver in 2014 which, according to their website, “believes in growing the swing dance community through making dance knowledge readily available, accessible to everyone and fun!” Kenny says, “I wanted to perform more, so I started my own swing dance team [in order to] have more individuals to go along with, and also to bring more dancers up for higher level gigs because I want those.” If you can’t tell by now, Kenny operates under the “if you’re going to do something, do it right” philosophy. As he puts it, “I had to invest to make it happen in a solid way.” Kenny’s current team, which he started in October 2014 and has been officially called The Ladies & Gentlemen since February 2015, performs, entertains, teaches, and competes both locally and nationally. Of this group, Kenny says, “I’ve got a great team right now with the people I work with. Yeah. It’s awesome.”
Performing some of Kenny’s own choreography, The Ladies & Gentlemen won Best Team Routine at last year’s Cowtown Jamborama in Omaha, Nebraska. When I asked about the role of competitions in the world of swing dance, I quickly became one of Kenny’s students and learned a ton of great stuff. One quote he carries with him (though he’s not sure where or who it came from) is, “competing is your business card.” Due to the recognition his recent competition partnership gained from great performances at competitions last year, they have received a significant number of national gig offers this year. As Kenny says, “The thing is, as an organizer, it does help to have people with name recognition.” Name recognition in the swing dance world happens in two ways, according to Kenny. One way is by doing very well at competitions and the other is by being very outgoing at social dances. Since Kenny is naturally an introvert, competing works best for him.
While important, competitions do not interfere with Kenny’s devotion to teaching. Even though he’s an introvert, teaching has never been uncomfortable for him and is something he really enjoys. He attributes this to 4-H clubs, something he was involved with since he was seven or eight years old. It was through his experiences as a 4-H member that he learned public speaking, performed instructional demonstrations in front of a crowd, and generally gained a certain amount of comfort in leadership roles. “As an introvert,” he said, “I realized that if I could don a costume, even if it was sort of like, ‘now I’m a public speaker,’ it was smooth sailing.”
Kenny and the other teachers who work with Swingin’ Denver offer specialized workshops where the focus is on a unique skill set, technique, or type of move. They also offer workshops on aerial steps, floor craft, and day-long intensives designed to teach the basics in various styles. When I asked about being able to lead and follow, he said, “As a teacher, one should be able to do both to a degree because often it is easier to teach through demonstration than description.” Kenny himself started learning both early on because, as he said, “if you wanted to break down really sweet moves, you had to learn how to lead and follow each other.”
This commitment comes as no surprise once one learns how passionate Kenny is about studying the moving human body. As a dancer who practices functional movement through both Parkour and CrossFit, he has a unique perspective on what the body can do. He talks about how his young niece and nephew (and kids in general), “tackle physical objects greater than themselves,” and “have greater functional movement than do we adults.” This kind of attention and awareness comes into both Kenny’s teaching and his choreography. He told me about a photo he saw, the top banner image for a blog on swing dancing called Swungover. He noticed the grip the two dancers used and how there was an external rotation going on, something he had learned from CrossFit. “Even their lower arms were externally rotated, which makes it a tighter, better, more functional grip.” Kenny also looks to such movement practices as martial arts and B-boy Tricking (sometimes referred to as breakdancing) to create new mash-ups with swing dancing.
Mash-ups (collaborations) are a huge part of Kenny’s work with Swingin’ Denver and one of the main avenues he uses to push swing dancing into the public eye. As a fan of restaurant culture and the exciting food and drink scene in Denver, Kenny has been introducing swing dance to new venues all over town. The first of these collaborations was with Little Man Ice Cream, where Swingin’ Denver did a whole summer series last year. The group will be doing a similar, fifteen-week series again this year. They have also performed and collaborated with live bands at The Big Wonderful, The Night Bazaar, and Stem Ciders Tap Room. Kenny excitedly told me the owner of the Skylark Lounge has said “swing is on the upswing in Denver.” It’s not just Denver; it seems the swing revival is having a revival of its own, evidenced by the new swing documentary Alive and Kicking. The film premiered just this past March at SXSW, in Austin, TX. Here in Denver, according to Swingin’ Denver’s calendar, there are dances and classes at least five nights a week.
If you’re interested in getting your swing on and having a few kicks, but don’t know where to step, Kenny suggests a month-long Lindy Hop beginners class. Swingin’ Denver offers just such an option on Thursdays (new sessions start at the beginning of each month) at Logan House Coffee for $35. Kenny’s wife Jessica Nelson is a key facilitator. On Wednesday evenings the group takes over the Arvada Tavern in Olde Town, teaching drop-in and beginner Lindy Hop classes. If you’re feeling adventurous and want a date night kind of experience, Kenny recommends Sundays at “The Merc” (The Mercury Café), where $10 gets you two lessons and a dance. Friday nights at The Denver Turnverein include a free Lindy Hop class followed by a dance. For more information about the classes and workshops Swingin’ Denver offers, videos of Kenny in action, and upcoming local swing dance events, please visit their excellent website!
Soma Feldmar received her MFA from Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School, and is now working on her PhD in English from SUNY Buffalo, with a focus on poetics. Other, her first book of poetry, was published in 2009 from Capilano University Editions (CUE Books). Soma’s work has also appeared in various online and print journals. Her doctoral dissertation is on poet Robin Blaser and how his work brings the poetic and the ethical together, remaining open to the other and the unknown. Originally from Vancouver, BC, Soma recently relocated to Denver, CO, after five and half years in Buffalo, NY. Overjoyed to be back in Colorado, she has started her own business, Seamoon Editing Services and joined the writing team of Presenting Denver. As a former ballet, jazz, and modern dance student, Soma looks forward to more opportunities to combine her love of dance and her love of writing.