“The hot place to be”: Middletown swing dance club reopens to customers

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MIDDLETOWN – Louis Armstrong bursts out of a loudspeaker as about nine pairs of people swing dancing on the wooden floors of Vinnie’s Jump and Jive.

The dance comes after a 15-month hiatus at the dance hall due to the pandemic, and officials and attendees say it feels good to be back on track.

“It was torture,” said Michael Garner of his inability to dance. “It was really tough, because, if nothing else, we really enjoyed the exercise. I think coming back was the right time.

Garner, a Middletown resident, said he had been taking classes at Vinnie’s for five years.

“It was very difficult at the start,” he said. “But we stuck with it – we just thought we would get it.”

Noting that he has always had a passion for music, Garner said he felt dancing was out of the realm of possibility for him.

“Like it’s just something you do at a wedding or something,” he said, adding that he realized it wasn’t true. “There is a very welcoming community here. After five years of involvement, we have met a lot of great people who keep coming back, and that’s why we keep coming back. Vinnie’s is the place to be.

Nat Holmes, the wellness and community engagement program specialist for the Community Health Center, which runs the non-profit dance hall, said it reopened in mid-June. He said all dancers show proof of vaccination and must sign a waiver.

Holmes said the swing dance program is the most popular choice among customers. He said 21 people have signed up for four weeks of Lindy Hop, Beginner Swing and Blues Dance classes.

“Immediately after (Monday’s class), it’s the practical training course,” he said. “It’s 8 to 10 am when they do an hour of swing and an hour of blues.

Holmes noted that Vinnie’s offers country dancing, monthly swing and swing dancing lessons, acroyoga, power yoga, private lessons, and Blues dancing on the third Saturday of the month.

Launched in 2000, Holmes said the CHC became the first community health center to open a dance hall for the public.

“Mark (Masselli) and his wife Jennifer Alexander, founder of the KidCity Children’s Museum, believed that bringing dance into the community would advance everyone’s health,” he said. “Vinnie’s Jump and Jive opened as a fun and active way to promote wellness in the community.

Holmes said Vinnie’s Jump & Jive is named after Vincent Amato, a longtime Middletown resident and owner of Amato’s Toys on Main Street, who originally donated the space for classes. To thank him for his help, he said, the CHC decided to put his name in the dance hall.

Holmes said it was difficult to close the doors of the dance hall to worshipers. He said there were plans to have a 20th anniversary dance with classes to re-energize people about Vinnie’s – but they were devastated by the pandemic.

“We have one of the best dance floors in the world,” he said. “Our swing program has groups. Normally we have groups six to eight times a year. When he has a group, we’ll have 40 or 50 people here for a dance.

People know Vinnie’s, Holmes said, adding that popular swing dancers from all over the world have come to participate. While most people are from Middlesex County, he said others are venturing out from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

Kristi-Lynn Jacovino, a member of Vinnie’s swing committee, said people are drawn to the enjoyment of music and dancing.

“A lot of people don’t know that hip hop has its roots in swing,” she said. “They are not unrelated. It was an African-American dance that was performed in the streets of Harlem. These roots are still sticking I think. It’s just really fun.

Jacovino said the Swing Class dancers will follow Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and a variety of classical artists with both fast and slow beats.

“But all with the same swing,” she said.

Jen Abraham, a Wetherfield resident, said she started dancing at Vinnie’s a few years ago after friends “trained” her.

“We had danced in Hartford and then we came here – just to try and explore the swing community,” she said.

Abraham, 33, said she hadn’t danced before since she was a teenager, but noted that she missed an opportunity to dance in college.

“It’s something I’m trying to learn now as an adult,” she said. “It’s great for socializing. It’s a great workout and I’m learning what my body is capable of.

Abraham agreed with Garner that it was torture not to be able to go out and dance during the pandemic.

“I tried dancing at the house,” she said. “It’s not the same. Actually, it made it a bit worse because you’re not with your friends. You’re not with live music when there are bands. well there are no words to describe how awesome it is to be back.

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