Jitterbug for Justice
Dancer ignites interest in politics through swing
By Aeriel Emig
Dance and politics don't necessarily make a natural alliance. Yet Desi Brown managed to create a symbiotic relationship between the two, while remaining nonpartisan. “I’m amazed at how many people don’t question what they see in the news and why it happens," Brown says.
Three dollars isn’t a lot. But when dollar bills are collected from a couple hundred swing dancers every week for 10 years, the money adds up. Desi Brown and his Calming Four Primordial Swing Dance Group, a local nonprofit dance club, donated more than $51,000 to charities, peace organizations and local fundraisers.
He doesn't care what political persuasion a person is, he says, but everyone's got to be able to see that problems abound in our communities. "Unless people forget about themselves for a minute and pay attention, we’re screwed.”
Brown's list of accomplishments takes as long to recite as it does for a clumsy amateur to learn the jitterbug. In addition to hosting swing dancing lessons at the Heights Community Center for more than 200 people each Tuesday, Brown entered the realm of politics, focusing on social justice.
While continuing to run his own business and volunteering as a policy analyst for state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, Brown found the time to return to school. He served as a teaching assistant for the UNM Peace Studies Program during his undergrad studies and was the president of the campus group Students Organizing Actions for Peace (S.O.A.P). The local swing guru is earning his PhD in American Studies and remains an active participant in several nonprofit organizations across town.
The politically minded swing group got its start one summer evening 10 years ago, Brown and his friends gathered on the corner of Harvard and Central to dance the night away in a local coffee shop. While the amateur swing dancers intended the evening be a small affair, the other diners at Wolfe's Bagels just couldn't resist the music or the layman swing lesson.
More than 40 people were arriving a month later. Brown recalls how the small idea grew exponentially. “We were immediately thrust into the role of teaching people how to swing dance who didn’t know anything about it," Brown says. "And we barely knew anything about it, so it was a learning curve for all of us."
The swing group moved out of the coffee shop and into the 80-year-old dance hall with gorgeous wood floors and an outdoor courtyard at the Heights Community Center. People arrive dressed in everything from a T-shirt and jeans to a vintage suit complete with suspenders. Anyone is allowed to dance, no matter how primeval their moves look. But Brown’s political efforts—even at the studio—are far from primitive.
Brown's Peace and Social Concerns Table sits as a backdrop for swing night. It’s an area littered with flyers for nonprofit organizations, charities and events promoting peace. His goal, he says, is to introduce the dance crowd and the political crowd to one another. Dancers might pick up political info on topics they're interested in, and on the other side of the coin, when Brown does a fundraiser, he makes the political groups show up and talk about their activities. “They get exposed to a generally younger group of people who they don’t normally reach."
Brown says he knows there's not a single solution to solve the world's problems, so he emphasizes the need for a closely knit local community. He wishes there were more weekend farmers’ markets, community coffee shops and neighborhood gardens, he says. "Small communities are the way to go," Brown adds. "Trying to solve things on a large scale doesn’t really work. I’d like to see development of the sense of community and a sense of the need to be involved. Most people are out of touch with the world around them."
All this DIY political action was generated from a group of four guys talking so loudly in a coffee shop, the waitress told them to calm down. She named them the “Calming Four.”
Brown attributes the longevity of his nonprofit to his emphasis on fun, his lack of rules, a safe environment, and a wide variety of music and members. A lot of dance nights die off because they get boring, he says. "The mantra that our DJs have come up with over the years is that we play just enough music to make everyone mad. We play just enough hip-hop to make the old people uncomfortable. We play just enough of the really slow stuff to make the young kids uncomfortable. But they keep coming back for more and more."
Brown, fellow dancers and fellow activists will celebrate the 10 th anniversary of The Calming Four Primordial Swing Dance Group on Tuesday, Aug. 12, at the Heights Community Center (823 Buena Vista SE). $3. 7 p.m. All-ages.
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