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A Gap commercial sparked partner dancing’s revival. Now blues dancers in Colorado are trying to reclaim a style lost in the frenzy.

Colorado’s blues dancing community is among the largest in the U.S.

Participants take blues dancing classes at the Mercury Cafe in Denver on Aug. 28, 2018. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Grey Ruffin had a vision for Denver to become a center of education around blues dance history, culture and style last year, when he took over as an organizer of one of Colorado’s largest blues dancing venues at the city’s Mercury Cafe.

But first, he had to untangle the painful confusion and miseducation that wound around blues dancing as the form rode the wake of swing dancing’s rise back to popularity.

Two groups of people emerged as blues dancing became fashionable again — those who wanted to emphasize the rich culture of dance and music rooted in the folk music of former slaves, and those who simply wanted to dance.

Tension between the philosophies created “fusion,” which combines elements of different dances, and generated confusion around what defines more pure forms of blues music and movement.

Now, Colorado blues-dance organizers are looking to the past to return the dance’s origins to the spotlight.

Couples practice new blues dancing steps during lessons at the Mercury Cafe in Denver. Blues dancing is a relaxed style that expresses the wide range of emotion conveyed by music originated by former slaves in the 19th century. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dance historian Damon Stone, considered a national expert on vernacular jazz and blues dancing, explained that blues is an umbrella term for a family of relaxed dances, often done in pairs, that express the wide range of feeling — love, anger, hurt, desire and joy — conveyed by music born in the Mississippi Delta in the 19th century.

“So the dancing will show that entire range of emotion,” Stone said.

There are specific styles of dances, commonly referred to as idioms, such as slow drag, struttin’ and Texas shuffle. Ruffin said most blues dances have a close embrace for at least a portion of the dance.

Colorado’s blues dancing community is among the largest in the U.S., Ruffin said. Weekly dances occur in Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins.

Hundreds of people from across the country attend an annual dancing festival in Denver every June. On a good night, the weekly dance at the Mercury Cafe can attract up to 150 people, Ruffin said.

Swing dancing re-entered the mainstream in the 1990s, spurred by a lively Gap commercial depicting khaki-wearing kids dancing the Lindy hop. Swing dances flourished.

The Gap commercial. (YouTube)

But live bands sometimes would play slower, soulful tunes and people would slow dance to them.

Instructors who were knowledgeable in blues dancing were invited to teach lessons at swing events, and eventually the dance gained a following of its own. A Lindy hop event in Herrang, Sweden, was very influential in creating many dedicated late-night blues dances in America, though many dancers didn’t understand the origin of the movements, Stone said.

Colorado has one of the largest blues dancing communities in the U.S. On a good night, the weekly dance and lessons at the Mercury Cafe in Denver can attract up to 150 people. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I think that there were a lot of people that didn’t care about the education, and they didn’t care about the culture and they didn’t really care about the music,” said Stone. “What they cared about was having a good time.”

The lack of knowledge created confusion and tension, Stone said.

“A lot of people got invested in the idea of what they were doing was blues, so there had been a certain amount of resistance in those days to making a distinction between the freestyle houseparty dancing that was going on and blues-idiom dancing,” Stone said.

Over time, three routes emerged for dancers, Ruffin said. Some people decided to incorporate the culture of blues dancing, some continued to dance Lindy hop, which originated in night clubs in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s, and some decided to pursue fusion.

While Lindy hop and blues separated into different events, fusion dancing lingered in blues dancing spaces.

Tension between fusion and blues can threaten a dancing scene in its entirety, said Vartan Khachaturov, a blues dancer from Denver and a previous organizer of a blues-only dance called Toska.

The weekly Indigo Blues dance in Fort Collins, too, is struggling to balance both dances.

Ruth Bruhn, instructor coordinator and principal manager, said the increasing focus on fusion at the northern Colorado venue created a divide that drove some people away.

“We already lost a lot of our blues community when we started including fusion,” Bruhn said. “But our blues community was smaller, and we weren’t going to survive as a venue if we didn’t keep the fusion, and we almost didn’t survive as our rent went up and our following went down.”

In his blog about black culture, Obsidian, Ruffin said he believes translating cultures into a form that people can understand is the first step to creating a community. In order to create understanding, Ruffin said people have to be willing to learn. But shifting values to focus on black culture in the community proved difficult.

In September 2017, Ruffin asked Khachaturov to write an open letter to the national blues dance community, which had recently rallied to change the name of a competition in which dancers are randomly assigned partners from “Jack and Jill.” People were upset, Stone said, because the name seemed to enforce the notion of men as leaders and women as followers within the dance, and some felt they couldn’t compete because they weren’t the gender for a specific role.

The name of the event was changed to a majority of dances across the country.

The letter meant to convey that the rallying behind changing the name overshadowed calls to pay homage to the original culture of the music and dance, Stone said.

Khachaturov said in the letter that the underlying issue is the scene only “cares about white women and their comfort and not much else.”

And because of this, minority members who were trying to promote the history and culture of blues dance got a clear message.

“The mission is hard and esoteric compared to making the scene always and forever a safe space for a very specific group,” Khachaturov wrote.

Partners are in close embraces for at least a portion of most forms of blues dancing. The forms are referred to as idioms and  include slow drag, struttin’ and Texas shuffle. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ruffin said he asked Khachaturov to write the letter because he believed he had influence in the community, and because he felt like his problems as a black dancer were overshadowed in comparison to issues like gender identity.

“I had been tired of feeling like my problems as a black person, as a black dancer, didn’t matter, and that my culture didn’t matter,” Ruffin said. “But any gender problems I may ever have, those matter a lot.”

Ruffin said he was facing other challenges in the Denver dance scene. Attendance dropped, people were not going to lessons and teachers were still teaching old techniques. He received pushback about what values and ideas that should be carried into the future, including whether fusion should be included in the late-night portion of the dance.

“When I took over, everyone was very upset in general because they didn’t feel like the event was being marketed,” Ruffin said. “They didn’t feel like the classes were very good. They didn’t feel like the website was good. People didn’t feel heard.”

Denver’s annual blues dancing festival, Mile High Blues, also was making changes.

Aimee Eddins, the director of a major dance festival called Mile High Blues in Denver, helped make the decision to separate fusion into its own summer festival called Mile High Fusion, which occurs in early August.

Now, Mile High Blues, held in June, has a “legacy room,” dedicated to music that is influenced by the creation of blues in order to further understanding of the black musical landscape. The event also featured a panel with blues musicians from around the country about the history and culture of the dance, including a session with Rev. Robert Jones Sr., a musician from Detroit.

The blues festival recruited local and national organizers to help implement changes. Khachaturov coordinated music for the festival and Ruffin was the DJ coordinator. Stone served as education coordinator.

Some members of the community say they noticed the changes.

Erica Brown, a nationally known blues vocalist from Denver who has performed at Mile High Blues since 2013, noticed the changes this summer. While she said there are more white blues musicians in Denver, this year’s event had the largest continuous line up of people of color in a music setting she’s seen in years.

“It felt like an African-American blues festival, and it felt really good,” Brown said. “Because something like that has not happened in forever.”

The Mercury Cafe’s weekly blues dances and classes draw a wide variety of people interested in the dance form that originated in the Jim Crow South. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lee Clark Allen, a Denver dancer and musician who played at Mile High Blues, said the event in the past felt like a blues dance party. This year, he said, it evolved to a weekend of knowledge aiding in the understanding of the culture and roots of blues that has the potential to grow under Eddins’ leadership.

“She always recognizes that it has room to grow so that it can not only be a great dance experience, but it can be a great culture experience and you can get to know the musicians behind the music that you’re dancing to,” Allen said.

Allen describes blues music as sounding like his upbringing in Little Rock, Arkansas. When he moved to Denver, he started blues dancing. He said he would go to dance events advertised as blues, and learn from friends it was actually fusion.

While he said changes caused disruption, it improved the authenticity of the dance. Now, he said the dances are more distinct. Allen said he is proud that the community is increasing its focus on learning the idioms of the dance.

“It’s an opportunity to understand the roots of the dance, and understand black people, and understand the musician and understand the lifestyle that produces such a beautiful art,” Allen said.

Ruffin said he will continue to focus on how to attract non-dancers. While he described it as a slow battle, he said the changes at the venue will be better in the long-term.

“I’m really excited about that,” Ruffin said, “because it means that there’s a community that can be rebuilt versus before, where I don’t believe that was possible.”