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Active Cultures: hard-core swingers hop to it

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At Studio X, a dance club above a

hardware store in Logan Square, the DJ slips on Mary Stallings's rendition of "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" and the small crowd that has shown up this Saturday night to do the lindy hop and the collegiate shag pairs off.

"If you want to dance with somebody, it's only to dance," says Dave Ojeda, a computer consultant and Studio X regular. "Your skill level makes no difference, and neither does being a husband or a wife."

As Stallings's jazzy voice fills the ballroom, the youngish dancers, dressed casually in T-shirts and cotton skirts or khakis, fan out across the floor. The men (or usually the men, since there are a few female pairings) lead their partners in the distinctive dips, twirls, pass-throughs, and hip swivels of dances that saw their heyday in the 1930s and '40s. The only illumination comes from four corner lamps and Christmas lights strung around pillars. Some fans by the windows labor in vain to cool the muggy room.

A Gap commercial that aired several years ago marked the apex of the swing-dancing craze of the 90s, when clubs swelled with enthusiasts in vintage clothing reliving Depression-era nightlife. In Chicago, 70 or so diehards can still be found out on the town on a nightly basis. Saturday evenings most end up at Studio X, operated by Evin Jacobson and Noel Galang, both 29.

Jacobson, an Atlanta native, came north to study drama at Northwestern, dropped out, and was waitressing and tending bar when she first laid eyes on Galang at the Green Mill in November 1998. "I saw Noel doing the lindy hop on the corner of the dance floor, and I was very impressed," she says. The next night, wearing a blue dress and matching hat, she showed up at Club 720 in River North and met Galang, a Chicago-born computer technician who cut a gentlemanly figure in braces and a fedora. "I asked her to dance," says Galang. "She didn't really know anything, but she held her own. I gave her my phone number."

On subsequent dates the more knowledgeable Galang educated Jacobson in swing. "Every night we would go out--we couldn't stop," says Jacobson. "Swing connected us in a way that went beyond conversation, because with this dancing--which has a strong lead-follow connection--you have to be very aware of the other person. When you get to a certain level, you can feel exactly what your partner is doing. Noel says that when we dance he can tell what shoes I'm wearing."

In April 1999 Galang and Jacobson began to teach swing classes at the Dance Academy, on West Irving Park. After several months they broke off on their own, giving classes at various spots, and this April they rented out the space above the hardware store. The couple turned the large main room, which had been a Pentecostal church, into a ballroom, painting the floor blue and the walls mustard yellow. One glassed-in side room became the smoking lounge, with a second room converted into a place for dancers to stow their drinks.

Currently Galang and Jacobson run group lessons in general and Balboa swing, the lindy hop, the Charleston, and jazz dance. Classes are $45 or $50 for five weekly 75-minute lessons, which are conducted Monday through Thursday. Once a month the pair takes over the Logan Square Auditorium for an elaborate party featuring a big band, people dressed to the nines, and taxi dancers--floaters wearing a checkerboard armband or sash who help out the inexperienced.

While taxi dancers are also on hand at Studio X on Saturday nights, it's an altogether looser environment, starting with the apparel. "We used to swing dance in elegant, old-fashioned clothes," says Jacobson, "but as time wore on the dry cleaning bills got the better of us. Now the dress is street clothes." Dancers come prepared to sweat. Dave Ojeda brings five T-shirts that he changes throughout the evening. "We know what time it is if Dave is up to shirt number three," says Tessa Auza, a secretary and another regular. Besides playing swing standards--Artie Shaw or Duke Ellington--the DJs also spin newer music from Chicago-based blues bands such as the Rhythm Rockets and Yoko Noge.

Galang and Jacobson, who is running their venture full-time, are getting married in October at a downtown hotel. "We're going to have a small ceremony and reception," says Galang. "Of course there will be a band, and after a while we'll open the reception up to the whole swing community. Otherwise, we'd make too many enemies."

The weekly Saturday night event at Studio X, 3431 W. Diversey, begins at 8 PM with a one-hour beginners' lesson that's usually taught by Galang and Jacobson. Open dancing runs from 9 until 2 AM. Admission, which includes the lesson, is $5. Water costs $1, Gatorade $2, and you're welcome to bring your own beverages. The next party at Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie, is scheduled for August 24, and will start at 7:30 PM with a lesson; admission is $12. For further information, call 312-905-6162.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.

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