The Sultan of Swing
Doug Silton, a member of Bowdoin's Class of 2000, is not only a championship swing dancer but a successful businessman, making a living doing what he loves Ð a little Lindy Hop.
The first time Doug Silton '00 danced was on a cruise ship in the middle of the Caribbean. The year was 1987, and Silton was 12 years old. On a whim, he and his elder sister Stephanie took a few lessons from the shipÕs dance instructor. Filled with inspiration and surprising confidence, the siblings entered a swing dance competition on the luxury liner a few days later. They snagged the third-place trophy, only conceding defeat to two couples, both in their 20s. For Silton, it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with swing dance, and a prodigious start to an unusual career.
Silton was inspired to become a professional dancer after he attended a 1999 workshop in Boston with Johnny Lloyd, a noted hip hop expert. "He had this special energy Ð like any good professor," says Silton. "It was so much fun that I decided I wanted to dance fulltime." In his senior year, Silton drove from the Bowdoin campus to Boston every weekend to take swing dance lessons. Back on campus, he taught his fellow students what he learned for free.
In 2000, shortly after graduating, Silton entered the national "Strictly Swing" competition held annually in Stamford, Conn. He remembers sitting with some friends when the fifth, fourth, third and second places were announced. "One of my friends turned to me and asked who I thought will win," he recalls. "I said jokingly that I would, and just then my name was called out. I couldn't believe it. That's when I knew I could continue to do what I wanted to do." Upon returning to his home in Arcadia, a suburb of Los Angeles, Silton started getting phone calls from sponsors all over the country, requesting him to teach swing dance in their cities. "They told me they were just waiting for me to win a competition," he says.
Today, Silton, 25, is one of the most accomplished practitioners and teachers of swing dance in the United States. He has twice won the national championship in Lindy Hop, a form of swing dance. "I should have been champion three times," he says, referring to the most recent Lindy Hop contest held this past October in Stamford, Conn. "My partner and I got disqualified by two judges who said we didn't have enough Lindy Hop, which was nonsense. It's like someone getting disqualified in an English competition for using the contraction 'I can't' instead of 'I cannot.'"
If it hadn't been for Bowdoin, Silton would probably never have realized his dream of becoming a champion dancer. "Bowdoin taught me the ability to excel at something if I really put my mind to it," says Silton, who majored in art history. "Bowdoin is so small that if I wanted to, say, go on the crew team, I would try out and I would learn as I went along. In the outside world, I just have to put more effort into what I do, and I know I will succeed."
The fact that Silton studied art history at Bowdoin played something of a synchronistic role in his evolution as a teacher. In his junior year, Silton was scheduled to go to India and Sri Lanka to study the region's art for two semesters. But the political and security situation in South Asia was so volatile at the time that he was advised against traveling there. So he changed the subject of his thesis to Baroque art and went to Florence instead. One night, he happened to visit a cafe where an Italian woman was giving swing dance lessons. Her partner, an American, was away, and the teacher was looking for a replacement. "You know how to dance," she said to Silton. "Please help me out." And that's how he started teaching dance.
Silton's parents were worried about his odd career path right from the start. "They were very skeptical," he says. It wasn't just that Silton's friends from Bowdoin had careers in such fields as investment banking, computer science and museum work. It was also that Silton had no particular training in swing dance, which meant, at the very least, that trying to become a professional dancer was a major risk. "If I couldn't support myself after a year or so I would have had to get what people call a real job," says Silton. "But I've made it work and IÕm very happy."
It hasn't been easy. After college, Silton got a job as a publicist with Weber Shandwick Worldwide, one of the world's leading public relations companies headquartered in Los Angeles. He was in the firm's high-tech division, dealing with top companies like Hewlett Packard and Dolby. "It was fun, but it was too much to work as well as teach," he says. "I was getting sick all the time." Silton quit his job after nine months, but his PR experience has been handy in his new career. "I know how to promote myself Ñ instead of working for my clients, I'm my own client,Ó he says with a smile. Silton launched a website (www.dougsilton.com) and began producing his own instructional videos, including DVDs, at a cost of $5,000 apiece. He has three videos out so far, and has plans for more.
But by far the most important thing Silton has done to raise his profile is to compete. Competition, he says, is ultimately the key to his success as a teacher. "You don't need to compete to be a well-known teacher, but it helps," he explains. "It's harder to get a teaching job if you don't get noticed first." And now that he's well known, Silton cares less about winning than putting on a good show. He admits that's partly because it's harder to win consistently in the top division. But another reason is that having become something of a sultan of swing, he always feels like a winner. "It's like making the Olympic team," he says. "It doesn't matter if you win or not Ð you're on the team."
Silton is five-foot-ten, slim and athletic. The first thing you notice about him is his cheerful demeanor and easygoing manner. But it can be a bit unsettling to take a lesson from someone who seems too young to teach a dance form that, by some accounts, originated in the 1920s. But then, as Silton points out, swing is increasingly popular with today's younger generation, who see it as "a good exercise and a great way to be social." In recent years, a string of movies and TV shows have also helped revitalize swing Ð and shape Silton's business.
Swing, according to Silton, is "the first true American partner dance Ð made in America." It's also the nation's first interracial dance, he says, originating in New York dance halls in the 1920s, when black and white people broke with racial taboos and began dancing together. This interracial aspect of swing can be strongly felt at LindyGroove, a dance organization that Silton co-founded in Pasadena, California, in 2001. The club, comprising scores of blacks, whites and ethnic Asians, meets every Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in a huge, glittering hall at the local Masonic Lodge. After Silton gives an hour-long group lesson, the floor is open until midnight to anyone who knows how to do Lindy Hop, a form of swing also known as the Jitterbug. LindyGroove is considered the largest weekly gathering of swing dancers nationwide. It's so popular that dancers come from as far as Las Vegas, and DJs fly in from across the nation.
At one recent jamboree, partners grooved energetically on a polished wooden floor, briefly breaking away from each other and occasionally rolling and flipping over each other's back. Silton, dressed in a collarless black t-shirt, baggy jeans and black jazz shoes, sat on the stage from where the music blared, sipping a can of Coke and studying the sweaty dancers. "You can tell the good ones by their smooth movements," he said to a visitor. Moments later, he shouted across the floor at someone: "Find your partner's hip bone!" He jumped onto the stage and placed two fingers above his waistline. "Here's where the hip bone is not," he cried. Then, placing his fingers just below the waistline, he repeated: "And here's where the hip bone is not."
A typical day for Silton begins at 8:30 a.m. He gives four to six hour-long private lessons to individuals or couples, charging $60 per lesson, plus a group class that costs $12 per person every evening of Tuesday and Thursday. His weekends are spent dancing or teaching in some city far from Los Angeles. In one recent month, for example, he traveled to Kansas City in Missouri, San Jose, Denver and Hawaii. Silton almost always teaches on the invitation of sponsors who pay his air fare as well as board and lodging. Sometimes he manages to combine teaching and competing in a single trip Ð at no cost to himself.
Silton enjoys teaching more than competing because, as he puts it, "when I teach I get to share what I love with everybody." He stresses three things in his teaching: connection, musicality and centering. Connection is about leading and following your partner on the floor. "Traditionally, in ballroom-esque dance, the guy leads," Silton explains. "My goal is for the partners to have a conversation, switching back and forth." Most dance instructors, he adds, lay a lot of emphasis on steps, that is, they teach dance steps as a way of creating a connection between partners. "I do it backwards," says Silton. "I teach connection as a way to do the steps."
One of the ways Silton does this is by encouraging his students to use their imagination as an aid to connecting with their partners. "Imagine," he says in class, "that your partner's back and yours are connected with a piece of string, like a pair of fencers. When your partner moves forward, you automatically move backward. Connection is about anticipating each otherÕs moves."
Musicality, says Silton, involves how dancers react to music. For example, whenever there's a pause in music Ð and there's a lot of it in swing, unlike, say, in salsa Ð the dancers stop. "A lot of times, with live music, swing dancers and musicians react to each other," says Silton. "A good band doesn't just play the notes Ð it takes cues from the dancers. So both the band and the dancers improvise." But to do all this, adds Silton, a dancer has to practice centering, which he defines as the ability to hold your own weight and be able to move that of your partner.
Many of Silton's students are in their late twenties to forties, and a surprising number of them are psychologists and computer engineers. Silton calls them "educational pros." Swing, he says, is "an escape outlet" for them. "Instead of sitting in an office listening to someone or assembling computer chips, they get to go out and touch someone for three minutes." They also tend to learn quickly, says Silton, because like most forms of dance, the steps in swing can be easily comprehended, at least at the amateur level.
Silton has about 125 students in the Los Angeles area alone, a number that has grown hand in hand with the guru's reputation. Some of his students fly in from overseas. Last August, for example, he got a call from a Japanese man he had never met. "He said he saw me competing in a video and wanted to come from Tokyo for training," says Silton. "He took six lessons in four days." People like that, Silton points out, make the best students because they love dancing and really care about learning. During his recent trip to Kansas City, where Silton won first and second place in two swing competitions, at least 10 people told him that they'd like to move to Los Angeles for a month just to take his lessons. These are the type of people, says Silton, who go out five times on average every week, wherever they might be living. "All they want is to get better at dancing."
There's a kind of student Silton likes working with the least. "This is the type who"s getting married and wants to dance at the wedding," he says. "You can always tell a wedding couple Ð one partner wants to be there, the other doesn't." Not long ago, a woman called Silton, saying her boyfriend had paid for 10 lessons with him as a birthday gift. "After the first lesson she never called back," says Silton, adding: "She still has a year to claim the lessons."
About a year and a half ago, another woman approached Silton for lessons. Her name was Gabriella Bova, and she told Silton she teaches children with mild disabilities in a nonpublic school in Los Angeles. Bova was young and attractive but Silton didn't make much of that Ð he frequently comes across attractive students, not a few of whom are out to win his heart. Moreover, Silton prefers to "separate dancing from dating Ð it's like you should never date somebody from your office." After giving Bova a few lessons, though, Silton decided that it was time to break his own rule. Bova was a bewitching dancer but, says Silton, "it was clear that she was dancing for herself and not for me." The result: Silton forged his first romantic relationship through dancing. "It sort of felt right," he says.
Silton lives with Bova and their four-year-old Chihuahua, Samson, in a two-bedroom apartment in a 1920s building in Beverly Hills, a short walk from Silton's former office at the P.R. company. A student of Silton's who owns a flooring business volunteered pro bono to redo the apartment's original hardwood floors, which were showing the strain of years, thereby allowing Silton to give dance lessons at home. "I have a nice life," says Silton. "The only problem is my girlfriend doesn't like the fact that I'm away three to four days a week, often dancing into the morning."
But an ability to overcome the status quo has always been one of Silton's strengths. After all, he joined Bowdoin because he wanted to get away from L.A., where he was thoroughly pampered as a child. Silton grew up in a three-bedroom Ranch-style home with a big backyard and a swimming pool. His father, a retired pathologist, was an avid gardener who grew plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at home. "I had a very cultural childhood, and my parents got me into everything Ð piano, theater, baseball, soccer, swimming," says Silton. "But in the end I got to choose what I liked."
Clearly, Silton belongs to that small minority of people who have the good fortune of making a living by doing what they love Ñ especially tough in the arts. He expects to keep dancing "as long as my knees hold up," which he figures will be at least for another 20 years, provided he has no major accidents pursuing another passion that he developed in his years at Bowdoin Ð snowboarding. The important thing, he stresses, is to dance primarily for oneself. "People get caught up in dancing and say they have to excel at it, but it's really just dancing," he says. "I have to take it seriously because it's my job, but itÕs really just fun."