Getting in the swing in Occitanie
Strictly Come Dancing has inspired thousands to take up lessons, and for some, the chance comes with a trip across the Channel. Elise Rana Hopper attends swing dance camp, and also picks other events and experiences across France
It is midnight in the holiday village of Les Portes du Roussillon, and the sound of another era is drifting into the still-balmy air. The salle de spectacle is not showing a traditional variety show, but has been transformed into a 1930s ballroom: dapper gents and elegant gals twirl, slide and spin across the dance floor as a six-piece band blasts out the swinging rhythms that will keep them going for several hours yet, intoxicated by the music. By morning, they will be back for more.
This is the Studio Hop Summer Camp, which attracts hundreds of swing aficionados from all over the world to southern France to learn, socialise, practise and, above all, to dance together. The camp runs for three consecutive weeks and focuses each week on a different swing style: Lindy Hop, Balboa and Blues. The camp is the largest of the swing dance events organised by international teachers Anne-hélène and Bernard Cavasa, founders of Toulousebased dance school Studio Hop.
For more than a decade, the camp was held in rural Gers, but having outgrown the site, the location was switched to Le Barcarès for 2016. This former fishing port lies on the stretch of the Occitanie coastline transformed by the state-inspired ‘Mission Racine’ tourism development drive of the 1960s.
Resorts like these are not on many British travellers’ hit lists, though the endless sandy beaches and almost guaranteed sunshine still draw thousands of domestic holidaymakers. There is a retro charm to the enthusiastic timetable of organised fun (anyone for aqua aerobics, beach volleyball and the flying trapeze?) and the faux-rustic decor of the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants. And as this is France, the food is fine and the wine free-flowing.
For us, however, the sun, sea, sand and bottomless carafes of rosé are merely a pleasant distraction from our true purpose, which is the rare chance to spend an entire week indulging our passion with fellow enthusiasts. For, if swing dancing is something of a niche interest, then Balboa is the niche within the niche, an elegant close-hold dance with small, shuffled steps, spins and slides that originated in the crowded dance halls of 1930s Southern California.
Beach shack jazz
With four sets of teachers from France, Russia, Sweden and the United States, there are multiple streams and classes happening simultaneously throughout the day in airy, open-sided marquees, where shorts and flip-flops are exchanged for shirts and leather-soled shoes as the students from as far afield as Australia, Japan and Russia diligently work on new moves. Come l’heure de l’apéro, they will kick off their dance shoes over a beer in the nearest beach shack, while a handful of the resident musicians play jazz, with their bare feet in the sand. Although we
come from over the world, we all speak the same language, connecting through music and dance. It’s a wonderful bubble to be in.
I get talking to Amanda, a wildlife conservationist, as we try on 1930s-style shoes and outfits in one of the pop-up vintage shops that take over the mezzanine of the main hall. “I got the swing bug after going to the 100 Club in London,” she tells me. “I’ve always loved dancing and tried lots of different kinds, but I think the two-tone shoes, zoot suits and music did it. I first heard about this camp through friends – it’s easy-going and excellent fun. I have been to several international camps and the sense of community, trust, inspiration and fun is common to them all, and what keeps me coming back.”
IT consultant Chris, who got into dancing West Coast Swing, Lindy Hop and Ceroc, began attending UK swing dance camps such as Goodnight Sweetheart and Camp Savoy before taking up Balboa – for which the UK scene had less of a reputation at the time. “The three friends I was learning with suggested we all go to the 2005 Frenchie Balboa Festival in Toulouse, and this kicked me off on a run of French Balboa events,” he says, listing numerous events from Paris to the Riviera. Chris is now an established teacher, and he and dance partner Janet also taught their own weekend workshop in Caen (“I was more the glamorous assistant though,” he confides, “as my French is très limité!”)
The Studio Hop event and others like it feel as much like a summer holiday as a dance camp, he says. “Being a week in length means there is less pressure to dance every minute of the day, which used to be the case with weekend events. I’m also more selective now as to the classes I attend – early-morning ones are definitely off the menu! A week also allows you to get to know other attendees and to experience wonderful scenery and food.”
Evening comes around again and there is no mistaking who is part of the dance crowd, as glamorous dancers emerge from their apartments, channelling the swing era style that characterises the scene: hair flowers and tea dresses, waistcoats and collared shirts. They flow on to the dancefloor as the band strikes up, and there they will stay until the music stops. They may be on holiday but there is no rest for these dancing feet – and that’s just how they like it. See page 54 for travel information.
LEFT: Dancing the night away in the salle de spectacle during the summer camp; ABOVE: A Balboa lesson in one of the open-sided marquees; BELOW: A jazz band entertains guests in a beach shack
ABOVE: Summer camp organisers Anne-hélène and Bernard Cavasa show off a dance move