Things are hopping — literally — at a new dance studio in Kanawha City.
Cristin Dolan and Jay Ta are the owners, proprietors and instructors at Riverside Hop, which opened its doors — and dance floors — on Sept. 4 at a studio between Budget Tapes and Records and Barrack’s Auto on MacCorkle Avenue.
The “Riverside” part of the name “came from Charleston’s close relationship with both the Elk and Kanawha rivers — we wanted to connect our studio to the strongholds the rivers provide for the community,” Dolan said. “And the ‘Hop’ part of the name is tacked on since we teach a lot of Lindy Hop.”
Dolan, a Wheeling native who lives in the Spring Hill area of South Charleston, and Ta, who grew up in Charleston and now resides in Kanawha City, moved to the area earlier this year after completing their undergraduate studies at West Virginia University. Dolan majored in Chemical Engineering and Ta majored in Mechanical Engineering, but, for them, swing was the thing to embark upon for their post-WVU careers (although Dolin also works full time at the Terradon Corporation).
“Our start at swing dancing was with the WVU Swing Dance Club, and we haven’t stopped since,” Dolan said.
“I found swing dancing at WVU,” she explained. “My sophomore year, I joined the Swing Dance Club, started taking weekly lessons, fell in love with it and never looked back. I had never danced until then, and it was kind of like a bug. I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t get rid of it. I had to keep dancing.”
Ta’s dance experience draws back farther than hers. He began taking dance lessons while attending Capital High School. “I did classical and contemporary dance, starting my sophomore year,” he said. “I had done swing dance at summer camp once as my production dance. Coming into college, I wasn’t dancing anymore, heard about the Swing Dance Club and joined my freshman year.”
Both agreed the dance floor provided a restorative counterbalance to the classrooms in Morgantown.
“In college, dance was stress relief,” Dolan said. “I’d go to school and then I’d hang out with my friends and dance off all of the stress. It was the perfect release from all of the school stresses. It became an awesome thing I wanted to introduce to other people.”
“It was stress relief for me, as well,” Ta said, “a good way to get away from the engineering and all the work it entailed, for a little bit.”
In 2017, Dolan and Ta began teaching with Morgantown Swing and, after graduation earlier this year, they decided to impart their moves and knowledge in the Kanawha Valley.
“We’ve danced all over the world, throughout the country, from the East Coast to California,” said Dolan. “We both lived in Australia for a short while and did our fair share of dancing every day, learning from some of the best people ever to exist in modern swing dancing.
“We recently opened this studio with the intent of reviving vernacular jazz and swing dance in Charleston. Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, many renowned swing bands and dancers made their way through Charleston, and we’d like to help put us back on the map. We think music and dance have the power to transform lives, and we want to help spread joy, create meaningful connections and unite communities here in our capital city,” she said.
Riverside Hop will be conducting its next Swing 101 class, focusing, perhaps appropriately, on the 1920s-era dance craze and “grandfather” of swing dances, the Charleston, from 2 until 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 29. Dancers can enroll as singles or couples and no experience is required to participate in the sessions. Students are advised, however, to wear a comfortable pair of dance shoes for the class.
The cost of the class is $10 per person. Classes accommodate all ages, although most of them cater to dancers ages 15 and older.
Their first instructional session occurred on Sept. 8 when they led a group through the moves of the aforementioned Lindy Hop.
“The Lindy Hop is a social dance; it’s somewhat different from ballroom [dancing]. With ballroom, traditionally, there’s a set partnership. You learn and practice with them for a long time and that’s how the classes go. Lindy Hop is different, a social dance where we dance with other people. We trade partners. It’s about enjoying the music and enjoying the communication you get with others,” Ta said.
Future classes will be offered as pop-up workshops, Dolan said.
Along with teaching steps, Ta and Dolan share some of the history of the moves during the instruction.
“‘Swing dancing’ is an umbrella term, which describes a whole slew of dances, born between the 1930s and 1950s. Many people have different ideas about swing dancing. It means something different to people who were born and grew up in different regions. It was way before the era of the internet, so how does someone in California tell someone in New York they’re doing the same dance? They just don’t know it; they’re all the way across the country,” Dolan said.
“The styles of dancing we do come from the Harlem, New York, and the African-American community,” she added. “It was born just after the Great Depression. People were looking for a reason to share joy with other people and that coincided with the birth of swing music. Swing bands, big bands and Dixieland jazz previously coming from the South made its way up to New York and developed a bit of a swing beat. There was the Charleston, which evolved into the Lindy Hop. We try to pay homage to that and which community it came from. It came specifically from African-Americans in Harlem, at the Savoy Ballroom. It’s important to remember where it came from — we try to respect it in any way we can.”
Ta said they hope to soon have recurring, progressive lessons to supplement the pop-up, individual workshops, tentatively beginning in October. “We’re planning them for bimonthly or weekly; we haven’t decided yet,” he said.
“We’d like to create a space for social dancing,” Dolan said, “because it’s niche music. You’re not going to go downtown to a bar and hear swing music, probably. You may hear some Latin dance music playing at a bar and you can practice your dance skills there, but, because it is such a niche kind of music, we’re going to try to expand our offerings and have social dances every once in a while where people can get out and practice what they’re learning and have a really great time.”
They also encourage all levels of dancers to get into the swing of the swing movements they teach.
“We had such a wide cross-section of ages at our first workshop, people our age probably up to 80,” Dolan said. “I want people to come out and build a community and unite communities that already exist. The ballroom community is very strong here, the salsa community is very strong here, the Latin dance community is very strong here. We want to tie into that and provide enough space where people can get together and deepen those friendships within the community.”
“What we usually say is, if you can walk, you can dance,” said Ta.
“There are no special skills required,” Dolin added. “I never danced a day in my life until my sophomore year in college and here, a few years later, I’ve won a couple of competitions and I’m teaching dance. It’s doesn’t take much — take a couple of lessons and get some practice time in.
“We’ll teach you from the ground up,” she said, “from a pedestrian who’s walking to someone who’s danced ballroom for 10 or 20 years. We like to say we’ll have you swinging in no time. ... Swing music is so upbeat and so positive — it’s my happy place.”
Riverside Hop is located at 3706 MacCorkle Ave., S.E., in Kanawha City. For more information, visit the studio’s Facebook page, "Riverside Hop," or website, www.riversidehop.org, or call 304-881-4257.