Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Brian Gardner of Swing Goth
Gearing up for the Tim Burton Ball
www.swinggoth.com / www.myspace.com/swinggoth

Swing Goth is a new approach to partner dancing that brings the focus back to your partner and the music and away from a footwork obsessed pass-time. Brian and Kyna's light-hearted approach to instruction is more likely to make you laugh than to leave you frustrated. Informed by past rather than trying to recreate it, Swing Goth may not be your grand-father's swing, but (with a little bit of practice) it can be yours!

Where are your roots, and where do you now call home?

Brian Gardner of Swing GothI was raised outside of DC. My first club concert was Lush. I was under 18, but I had won tickets on the radio so they didn't check. I remember I was dancing with my friend and there was a cute woman a few people over from me. She said something to her friends and they came over and danced in between my friend and I... suddenly I was dancing with her. I think it started there. Both my love for live music and my love of dancing with a partner.

From there I went to school in Amherst, MA and Savannah, GA. Neither of them were really big music towns. In the end I graduated with a degree in computer animation. My first experience with swing dancing proper was at SiGRAPH, an animation industry party. Disney had booked Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, probably because of their cover of, "I Wanna be Just Like You" from the Jungle Book.

Right after that I moved to Pittsburgh, PA and sought out some swing dancing lessons. It was everything that I loved; dancing, with a partner, to music in a non-threatening yet still flirtatious way. It was painful for me to learn in large part because I was so used to goth clubs and non-structured music. I had three instructors, but in retrospect my ability to dance is due to only two of them. The one who held me back focused on footwork. The other two focused on the ethos, musicality, arm motions, and connecting with your partner. I mainly use that experience to structure my current lessons.

Swing dancing clubs came and went in the 90's. The GAP commercials turned the whole movement into a fad and, for various reasons, the scene collapsed. Don't get me wrong, there are still swing dancing clubs around today, but they mostly do the Lindy Hop and are trying to live in the past that was. I sought refuge back in my comfort zone; goth and underground clubs. For 6 years I was "the guy that swing dances" and I can't tell you how many bachelorette party photos I'm in from Pittsburgh's "80's nights."

When I came to San Francisco, the reception was totally different. During the 90's, San Francisco had been home to Lee Presson and the Nails (who still play from time to time), a gothic swing band. So, when I started swing dancing in goth clubs here, everyone was excited that "one of us" knew how to do it. They asked me to teach them, so I found a venue with an empty back room and started a night. Thus "Swing Goth" was born.

I owe a lot to the people who came before me in this city. San Francisco is home to The Dickens Faire and The Edwardian Ball, but those events mainly focus on waltzing in period pieces, and there's plenty of room for that. However, my particular love is for modern music, particularly goth and many other forms of post punk. I prefer my music not to re-create a style of the past, but rather one to be informed by it and add something new. For example, one of the things that I loved about 90's swing bands is that they added an electric guitar and reinvented swing with a little rock and roll.

Let's talk a little bit about the early days of Swing Goth. The dancehall lifestyle was a huge part of the diesel era. Before TV glued us to the couch, people actually went out to have fun with other human beings. Dancing was one of those skills that everyone seemed to have (along with sewing and whistling in tune). What inspired you to bring this culture back in the modern-day clubs?

gothic swingMy drive to start Swing Goth is very much like the pull that many people feel to Steampunk. I just love it. If I had my life to do over again, I would have been a dancer. But, as a child I was always told that I couldn't dance. Now I know it's because simple rhythms bore me. It didn't help that so much "dance" is taught in the feet, but that's not where dancing has to happen. If you look at professional dancers, they aren't so worried about their feet as they are their entire body. I teach my lessons so that the footwork is largely unimportant. What is important is moving with your partner to the music and having fun.

That's another thing that a lot dance instructors forget today. It's supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be "right." It has to be fun. You tell me, 1920's dance clubs, you think they were all doing the right foot work? You think someone was teaching it to them? Hell no. They just moved around with a partner on the floor. We've lost that.

You know what else we've lost? A feeling that it's okay to dance with each other. That it's okay to dance with a lot of people in a single night; and that dancing doesn't mean "bumping uglies" as one of my gutter friends used to call it. Dancing can be noble and freeing and uplifting. Sure, it can be about sex, but it doesn't have to be. That's a choice. You can dance sexy and not have it be about sex.

That's my goal. To make it okay to dance with each other again. To teach people how to connect and interact in a way that isn't verbal. To listen to each other.

Ideally each dance is different. I dance differently with every person that I dance with, and it doesn't matter to me how many times they've danced before. What matters to me is what I can learn from dancing with them. Each dance is a relationship, and just like the rest of life, you can learn something and grow as a person from every relationship.

Are there any bands or musicians that promote themselves primarily as "Swing Goth?"

Lee Presson and The NailsMentioned above is Lee Presson and The Nails, but they bill themselves as "Gothic Swing." I hope there will be bands that try to do that, but we don't really need it. For one, I don't focus on footwork, so most of my students can make any song work. For another, the basic step that I do teach is the foundation of rock. It's based on the "back beat" that you hear so much about and the rhythm that's needed for it is present in 33% of all songs that could even remotely be called rock. Add in some lessons in Blues dancing and you can dance to almost 70% of the music being produced today. The only thing that's hard to work with is dance club music that goes thud thud thud. This means a lot of EBM is hard to work with too.

Tell us a bit about where Swing Goth is today.

Swing Goth today is exactly where it's always been, in a state of flux. We hold large events that are attended by 100-300 people when the calendar allows us, and we have our regular Tuesday night meetings that are attended by 30-50 people. All that is about to change though, because the Tim Burton Ball looks like it will be attended by around 500-600 people in SF and hopefully the New York City show will go even better.

I'd really love to travel the country teaching people to dance with each other to the music that they love. I just have to figure out how to do that, and find enough people who want me to.

The last thing that I want is for people to hear about this and go, "Oh that's neat, I should go to my local dance school and learn" because chances are they'll go through the same thing that I did. What I'm doing is I'm teaching dance completely differently and with a much more relaxed attitude. I'm not saying I'm the only person who CAN do it, but I'm the only person who IS doing it. I get people coming up to me all the time saying, "I tried learning from someone else and it just frustrated me, but you made it fun and so much more easy to understand."

I was raised with a learning disability. A large part of my childhood was spent learning how to learn and my mother got a PhD in curriculum development. Believe me, I had some exposure to brilliance when it comes to how to convey things to people in a way that activates and encourages them instead of depending on repetition and route memorization. I try to use all of that to inform my dancing.

Where are the Swing Goth events held now and what type of people normally attend?

Large events have been at Great American Music Hall (Bowie Ball - 320) and DNA Lounge (2nd Anniversary - 220 and Trinity Dance: A Celebration of Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Cave - 120). Bi-monthly Tuesday events are held at El Rio in San Francisco and get about 30-50. Our crowd is a collection of individuals. If I was to stereotype the people who come in SF it would include: Goths, Hipsters, Artists, Kinksters, Punks, Steampunks, Geeks, Nerds, Actors, Dancers, etc.

If you're like me, and have the rhythm of a spasmodic jack-in-the-box, is there still hope? What sort of advice can you give to someone with two left feet?

Stop going to instructors who tell you dancing happens in your feet. It doesn't.

Tim Burton BallWhat can you tell us about the big bi-coastal Tim Burton Ball coming up in February? Who's headlining and will there be time to learn a few moves beforehand?

So glad you asked! First off, it's going to be awesome! I have a decorations team pouring their heart and soul into it.

I have Disney on board in SF (they're giving us some special promo stuff including tickets to a special preview) and I'm still working on getting in touch with Disney NYC. As far as dance lessons before the ball goes, yes! That's what we're all about. I know better than to not do that. Plus, it's my whole mission in life. We have lessons in Polka (7:30-8:30) and Swing (8:30-9:30) before the SF show and Vagabondage will be warming us up.

In New York, our debut is January 29th at Don Hill's at 11pm. Enjoy some lessons and a night of dancing for only $8!

If you can't make that, then the main ball will begin with dance lessons so you won't miss out. Of course, if you don't want to broaden your horizons and you just want to see Abney Park, there's always the early show.

As far as bands go, Abney Park is playing main stage at both shows. I don't know if you've heard Abney Park's new album Aether Shanties, but there's more than a few polkas, and Vagabondage isn't light on the polka either. I figured it was important to get people up to speed. That said, many of my regulars won't know the difference and will just be doing their own thing dancing together anyway, and that's just fine by me. If anyone says to anyone, "This is a Polka, why are you Lindy Hopping?" and I overhear it... Fair warning, that's all I've got to say. Seriously though. I don't care what you do, but if you do then I'm here to make sure you know how to do it.

At Dieselpunks, we like to acknowledge our teachers and inspirations in the hopes that those sources can inspire others. Who got you into the swing scene and can you recommend any favorite tunes/bands that really get your blood jumpin' today?

Swing gothWell, Lee Presson and the Nails is a great band. I love their live shows and hope to bring them to New York sometime. The thing is, they've recorded more traditional swing than I prefer. Personally I love Bauhaus, Gorilaz, Franz Ferdinand, Love and Rockets, Adam Ant, Siouxie and the Banshees, Stone Roses, Charlatans UK, White Rose Movement, Portishead, Metric, Depche Mode, The Killers, And One, Seabound, Camper van Bethoven, and a ton of others. As far as swing goes, my favorite bands are Royal Crowne Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

What can we look forward to in the future of Swing Goth?

Oh my! I hope we just keep on putting on awesome events. People have been asking me if Bowie Ball is going to an annual thing and there's a lot of desire for us to do that... and maybe we will, but I have so many other ideas in my head. I'm kind of torn.

I'd love for the Tim Burton Ball to be enough of a success that we get to do it again. I think having a non-musician theme is more manageable. I guess one thing you can be looking for is more of those. I know we're going to be hosting The Ball of Justice here in SF to coincide with Wondercon. I have about 15 other ideas that I think are just as cool. I hope everyone else does too.

Thanks a lot for your time, Brian. Before we sign off for today, what can Dieselpunks do to help get the word out about the events?

OMG. Anything and everything you do is muchly appreciated! The Steampunk/Dieselpunk community is awesome. I love you all. I think you fill the place in modern culture that goth did in the 80's, and I'm really glad that so many of the people who primarily identify themselves as steampunks are so aligned with what we're doing. Personally I've always been more of a new romantic than a goth, but who cares these days, right? Please let me know if there's anything else I can do for you!

Download the flyer for San Francisco's Tim Burton Ball here.
Download the flyer for New York City's Tim Burton Ball here.

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