In the atrium of the state office building sits a majestic old pipe organ and on Fridays, Juneau residents have the opportunity to hear a noon concert.
This Friday, after J. Allan MacKinnon began his performance, many (though not MacKinnon) were surprised to hear a different tune pour out of a small boom box.
The song was, “Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That Cha Do It)” by Jimmie Lunceford, and it spurred what looked like members of the crowd to break into dance in the center of the atrium.
According to Marshall Willems, a founding member of Juneau’s Southeast Swing group, people seemed confused initially.
“But whenever there is movement and such, and music, people are drawn to it,” he said.
Another participant, Morgan Hopson, said people stopped what they were doing and started to watch.
Willems described people looking down from their offices overlooking the atrium, watching the unexpected performance.
“It’s like when we see musicals and we say, ‘how awesome would it be if everyone broke out in dance at these moments?’” said Willems.
And he poses the question, ‘why not?’
The way Hopson describes the event, members of Southeast Swing, whether they take lessons or just attend the monthly dances, stood scattered around the atrium, acting inconspicuous.
Then a young woman hit play on a boom box and the various dancers, most in vintage attire, moved toward the center of the atrium to begin dancing the Shim Sham, which they had been learning at the recent Southeast Swing Tuesday evening lessons.
The Shim Sham was popularized by Frankie Manning in the 1920s or ‘30s according to Willems. And because the Shim Sham is a dance that can be performed as individuals, rather than in tandem, it was a perfect choice for such an event.
The idea to have a Shim Sham flash mob came up at January’s Saturday night dance at the Rookery Café.
“We were working on the Shim Sham and somebody said “hey, we should do the Shim Sham before the organ concert,” and I said, “Yeah, let’s do that, let’s do that this Friday.” to make it, you know, you know how people commit to doing things and never do it, so I said, let’s do it.” explained Daniel Martin, one of Southeast Swing’s founders.
It’s hard to pinpoint the purpose of a flash mob. It’s guerilla performance art. It’s spontaneous and exciting and perhaps a little disruptive, though the response to flash mobs, or this one at least, seems overwhelmingly positive.
According to the group, they had spoken with MacKinnon briefly about their plan in advance and they had also notified the security guards that something a little out of the ordinary would be taking place. They weren’t out to ruin anyone’s day, only make it brighter.
Hopson sees the purpose as “to surprise and delight people.”
Willems saw merit in breaking up the daily regimen, doing something unexpected.
“It brings a little piece of joy.” he said.
It also brings some attention to a budding new dance community in Juneau.
When Willems moved to Juneau from the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.), he contacted people in Juneau to get a feel for a social dance scene, swing dancing specifically, and Martin, of Wild Oven Bakehouse fame, suggested to Willems, “If you want to see something in Juneau, then you have to do it yourself.”
In the Twin Cities, Willems had developed a love for swing and he would dance, compete and teach. He listed swing scenes there, in Chicago, all over.
Martin was enthusiastic about the idea of starting a swing community as well, having been introduced to the dance by local artist John Leo.
“John Leo, five years ago, and then John Leo left town and there was no swing dancing for a very long time. And now with Heather and Antonio gone, I feel like the salsa community has diminished and I feel like there is sort of a void in town of social dancing, and I think swing dancing is going to fill that void.”
Willems, Martin and another dance enthusiast, Temple Joanna, organized Southeast Swing together. It started small, with Tuesday evening lessons at The Canvas Community Art Studio.
Sometimes it is still small, with classes seeing less than a dozen dancers, but sometimes the crowd is more than twice that. Martin says they’ve had as many as 30 people participating on a summer evening.
Hopson estimated there were 18 dancers participating in Friday’s flash mob.
Aside from the Tuesday lessons, Southeast Swing members try to host dances on the last Saturday of each month.
Willems describes himself as “the last guy you’d expect to see on the dance floor.”
He’s tall, sometimes sports a mohawk and wears black, plastic framed glasses.
He started swing dancing around five years ago, when his brother and a friend dragged him along. Since his brother was about to leave for an extended period of time, he felt a brotherly obligation to tag along.
As it turned out, swing filled a need in his life. It could be athletic and competitive and it also offered a community.
“It became my sport.” Willems shared.
In Juneau he can see the community and scene he envisioned developing.
Friday was a perfect example.
“I had a dance high,” Willems said, “All the people coming made me proud. To see all these people come together and want to participate. I was smiling the rest of the day.”
Speaking on behalf of the Southeast Swing group, especially the founding members, he feels they are seeing the fruits of their efforts.
Classes take place Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. at the Canvas Community Art Studio, though the lessons may be on hold while Willems travels for a month or so. Dances usually occur the last Saturday of the month at the Rookery Café.
Martin doesn’t want to see the swing scene lose momentum with Willems traveling, so he is working on having more frequent dances while Willems is away. The best way to find information about Southeast Swing is through the facebook page - http://on.fb.me/wOizbX.
For those who might shy away from dancing, Willems had nothing but encouragement.
“The friend who got me into it had the worst rhythm and body movement (when he started) but he kept at it and now he’s teaching.”
“If you can walk, you can dance.” He says with confidence.
As with anything, Willems explained, it must be developed and practiced to see improvement, but if his experience is any indication, “it becomes a beautiful thing.”