A Brief History of the Ithaca Swing Dance Network
The success and growth of swing dancing in Ithaca owes much to the volunteer organization, the Ithaca Swing Dance Network or ISDN. Its roots can be traced back to 1985 when Bill Borgida was invited to take over the Cornell University Jitterbug Club. Bill taught Appalachian clogging locally and had become interested in swing from dance weekends that he had attended (particularly Ashokan, a traditional music and dance camp).
The Jitterbug Club met on Wednesday evenings at Anabel Taylor Hall for informal lessons taught by a graduate student named Bruce. There was no real publicity effort and they got about 6 to 8 people per session. This was before the re-birth of jitterbug fever. “There was almost no one to dance with!” moans Bill. When Bruce left town, he asked Bill to take over the group. After a year of teaching to whoever showed up that night, Bill began a three-week instructional series – free of charge.
One Sunday afternoon in the Spring of 1986 while eating brunch at ABC Cafe, Bill heard Dee and Alex Specker playing some foot-tappin’ acoustic swing. He told them about Rick Manning, who played fiddle, and invited them to play live for the Wednesday swing classes. Every fourth week, instead of the Wednesday class, the musicians would play and pass the hat. Ultimately, they became Ithaca’s first swing band, Swingsation, and have played for many Ithaca swing dance events since then.
The tradition of Spring Fling began in May of 1986, when Bill invited Ashokan musicians Jay Ungar and Molly Mason to Ithaca. The couple, who have since been catapulted to fame for writing and performing the theme to the popular PBS Civil War series, as well as numerous appearances on the PBS radio show “American Radio Company of the Air” have returned numerous times to this annual ISDN event.
In the fall of 1987, Bill met Diana Leigh, who had recently arrived in Ithaca from Woodstock and brought her experience in country swing. The two danced well together and she soon joined him as a teaching partner. She convinced him that they should charge a fee for their teaching series, so they decided to advertise the first official class series in the local press; it brought a crowd of more than 50 people.
Lisa Romm is credited with the idea of having a dance at the large studio apartment above Bool’s where friend Gene Lawrence was living – a space known affectionately as “Gene’s Loft.” So Bill, Gene, Diana and Lisa produced the first swing dance, held at the Loft on Saturday January 30, 1988 and billed as “a mid-winter dance bash and housewarming” featuring the Little Big Band. [This is the official date by which ISDN counts its birthdays.] The party was advertised in the press and open to the public; it drew such an encouraging number of dancers that Lisa wanted to do it every month. “But we all were very resistant to the idea,” says Bill. “We thought it might lose its appeal and people would stop coming!” Well, they did try it again the next month… and the rest is history.
In the summer of 1988 a few Ithaca dancers attended Ashokan’s Western and Swing Week, and returned “all fired up about swing”. Until then, the only places to go dancing were Bill’s house (yes, the very first Ithaca “swing dances” were in his dining room!) or the Rongo, which occasionally had the Joe Salzano Big Band and the Little Big Band. Surely they needed somewhere else to dance.
By 1989 the burgeoning swing scene needed more volunteers to keep the fever hot. Before then, everything was done by the team of Bill, Diana, Gene, and Lisa. In the fall of 1989 Gene left Ithaca for a job in Massachusetts. The remaining dancers – now joined by Lanie Wilmarth, Cindy Overstreet, Robbert van Renesse and others – dubbed themselves the “Ithaca Swing Dance Network.” “It was mainly formed around the need to support the Loft,” says Bill. “We didn’t want to lose it.” When Gene moved out, the ISDN took over the Loft’s lease.
Money was raised through swing dances and classes, and by renting the space to other community groups. But early on, the ISDN could not meet all the expenses. Donations were solicited, and the bulk of the money was put up by Ted Melchen, the ISDN’s early benefactor. “He saved us, and after that it all came together,” praises Bill.
In January 1990, Jim Self, a member of the dance faculty at Cornell, agreed to move in, provided that a wall was built to separate the apartment from the rest of the loft. A dedicated group of carpenters (many of them swing musicians), led by Dave Davies, designed and built the wall in two days. A month later the ISDN had a big loft-painting party. The landlord, Jim Haring (owner of Bool’s Florist), was very tolerant and supportive of everything they wanted to do.
Throughout 1990 and 1991 swing events drew increasing numbers of people and often the Loft would fill to capacity during the monthly dances. In May of 1991, just one day before the Spring Fling, the Ithaca Building Commissioner saw an advertisement in the newspaper and sent a letter to Bill saying the Loft could not be used for public assembly. The ISDN had 24 hours to come up with a new location! After scouring the town, Bill and Diana found the Masonic Temple, which was just as well, because the space was larger and the dance drew the largest crowd to that date – over 100 people.
From its humble beginnings, the ISDN has evolved into a thriving organization that coordinates a complex schedule of classes, social dances, parties, and guest instructors. It has spawned two swing performance groups: the ExtravaDancers, who performed from 1990 through 1996, and the RetroRockers, 1992-1994.
The ISDN is currently run by a small group of dedicated volunteers who meet once a month, usually on the Sunday following the monthly dance, to plan future events, eat pizza, and make the truly important decisions about the world. In exchange for their time, volunteers receive discounts on admission to record hops and the monthly dances. Anyone who is interested in donating their time and talents, and giving something back to the dance community is welcome to attend. Contact ISDN for more information.
This ISDN History was originally written by Robinne Gray and has been modified many times.