Celebrate vintage jazz dance styles at Swing Istanbul

Although big band, jazz, and swing all emerged from American dance halls in the early decades of the 20th century, swing dancing has become popular again today. Swing festivals and swing fashion can be found all over Europe and America and swing or lindy hop classes can be found in most cities. Hakan Durak is one of the ambassadors of Istanbul’s emerging Swing and Lindy Hop scene. Although trained as an engineer, Hakan gradually let a jazz dance style change his life course and was committed to spreading his vintage fun in his hometown. He has been giving workshops in Turkey since 2008 and in 2010 he opened the studio Swing Istanbul. Daily Sabah had the chance to sit down with him and find out more about his story.

Daily Sabah: So how did you come to Lindy Hop and Swing?

Hakan Durak: Well, it’s because of a video. ULHS, 2006, rapid finals. Ultimate Lindy Hop showdown.

DS: What do you mean? How did you find?

HIGH DEFINITION: I was living in Iceland, but on a trip to Istanbul I took salsa lessons with a friend. It changed my life, and then I came home to Iceland and there was this class, they said it would be salsa and it was kind of a sampler. We did Jive, Foxtrot, East Coast Swing, most everything in about an hour. But no Salsa! So I go home and try to dig around to find out a bit more about what swing dancing is. It was like the first month, the first year of YouTube and there was this Lindy Hop video. And I have to tell you – I was playing saxophone in a jazz band – I didn’t like jazz music that was made before 1960. I thought swing was too simple. But then I watched this video and the whole swing orchestra and even from the first eight beats, I thought, wow. That’s what I want to do. And I sent it to a friend of mine and he said okay. ULHS, 2010. We’ll be there.

DS: So how did you create the swing community here?

There was no Lindy Hop in Iceland or Turkey. I started going to workshops across Europe, Germany, Hungary, Sweden, France, Spain. The economy was really good back then in Iceland. So I worked three days a week and I could travel a lot. I learned from the best teachers in Stockholm, Sakarias Larsson, as well as Frida Segada. I stayed there for almost a year, followed all the classes – from beginner to advanced level – to see how they teach, play, give lessons, then come back to Turkey every month and give workshops. And then I decided to open the studio in May 2010 to build a community here in Istanbul. When I first opened the studio, the entire community was no more than 40 people actively dancing. We had ten students. Now, in 2016 counting with the other school, the students alone are more than 300.

DS: Did you also have international connections at the time? What’s the scene?

Yes, we have a festival. Orient Lindy Express is a five-day festival that we organize. The best teachers in the world come to Istanbul and last year we had 36 teachers and 350 guests from 28 countries. And then last year we hosted the Hot Sugar Band from France and Swedish and American DJs. It’s a big party. And the Istanbul Lindy Exchange, it’s all about parties. The Swedish group Gentlemen and Gangsters came from Gothenburg. We had to cancel this year’s Orient Lindy Express festival due to political unrest, coup, but it’s one of the biggest Lindy Hop festivals in Europe.

DS: What exactly is the difference between Lindy Hop and Swing?

Well, swing is an umbrella term for several types of dances. Lindy hop is a specific dance. It came out of Harlem in New York in the 1930s. The biggest and best dance hall at the time was the Savoy and everyone went there. So they sent a reporter over there to cover what was going on and he asked what the new dance was. “We jump like Lindy did.” Lindy being Charles Lindbergh, who had just crossed the Atlantic for the first time. And so the New York Times headlined the next day, Lindy Hop Craze.

DS: I’m very curious, why do you think a style of music and the accompanying dance from the 1920s, 30s and 40s in America became so popular across Europe and particularly in Turkey?

It has something to do with this vintage fashion around the world. In the United States, this retro style in the 1990s was a big thing. I think people were attracted to fashion first, and then –

DS: And some people were like, ‘Oh, let’s pretend we belong back then.’

Law. And then some people got really serious about dancing. But in Turkey? I am not sure. I just like music. I like dance. For the Turks, it is a question of happiness, because they see people smiling all the time.

DS: But why swing rather than something else?

Well tango is considered a serious dance, salsa is a bit flashy, flashy, but most people who come to lindy hop as far as I know don’t want to do something like salsa or tango , they want to do something fun. And Jazz… I think people here listen to Jazz, like Ella [Fitzgerald] or Louis Armstrong more than they listen to Tango, and it’s sophisticated. It has roots.

DS: So there’s this great soundtrack, but it’s a fun dance for the average person.

Yeah. So when they see someone dancing to Louis or Ella’s music, they think, oh wow, you can really dance to that! I’ve had a lot of comments along these lines. That’s what I thought when I saw this video for the first time. Like Wow! People are shining, very happy, and so… light. It’s light. When you start this dance, it’s a very energetic dance, you move a lot, you sweat a lot. Your serotonin goes up. Then you get hooked and try to bring your friends. In fact, I did salsa and tango, but I never felt the same joie de vivre as when I did swing or lindy hop.

DS: So I’m a total beginner. I’ve never done social dancing before. Do you think someone like me could learn to do this?

Absolutely, absolutely.

DS: Reasonably? Would I go to one of those social dances you organize? How long would that take?

[Laughing] Well, let’s put it this way. You could reasonably learn in six months, if you practice. Or even after the first lesson. We give the basic steps of the first course so you can go wherever you want from there. To get really good, to do all the moves you want and to dance really well, it would take two or three years.

DS: Do you have any favorite bands or songs to dance to?

Savoy by Hot Sugar Band. The song dates from the 20s but the group is modern, French. “Let’s Dance” by Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway, I love Cab Calloway, but Benny Goodman is my thing. Well, it’s fun, really. I think there’s a melancholy note to this one, actually. [Durak opened a song on his phone and played it for me here.]

DS: Really?

Can’t hear it? Melancholy ?

DS: I don’t know, I just want to bounce back.

Ah yes, that bounce – it’s the most important part of lindy hop dancing.

You can find Durak and his fellow teachers at Swing Dance Studio Istanbul on the Asian and European side. New courses start every two weeks in Taksim and every three weeks in Caddebostan. The swing community organizes dances on Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes in the studio and sometimes in larger venues – for details, visit the Swing Istanbul website (swingistanbul.com).

Colleen D. Ervin