Where to Go Swing Dancing in Paris
Swing, or Lindy hop, a vernacular jazz partner dance originating in the African American communities of Harlem, New York, seems to be everywhere these days. Big cities from Seattle to Paris to Seoul host full dance floors, festivals, and abundant classes as this dance, emerging along with the birth and evolution of jazz in the 1920s and 30s, becomes once again à la mode.
That Paris, especially, would host such a scene comes as little surprise if you’ve ever walked into a Parisian café (even now as I write this…)—jazz is everywhere. It comes out of café speakers, bands play it late into the night, in jazz clubs and in bars, classic French writers have written about it… if you didn’t know better (and ignored the English lyrics), you could almost be forgiven for assuming it was French vernacular.
Why do I love swing? Why do so many lindy hoppers describe the dance as “addicting”? Why is Paris so enamored with jazz? The great modern jazz musician Wynton Marsalis sums up the power of jazz:
“The real power of jazz, and the innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other, and that negotiation is the art.” [emphasis mine]
Jazz is conversation, improvisation, negotiation, and Swing, danced to the same music, must necessarily follow suit. Swing is freedom, connection, fun, spontaneity. It’s weird and beautiful and sexy, simultaneous synchronicity and individual expression. It’s nearly impossible to dance without a smile on your face.
You won’t see quite as much Lindy Hop as you’ll hear jazz, but it’s nearly everywhere, once you know where to look. With something like fifteen swing dance schools and associations, Paris often offers more than one dance event for every night of the week. If you’re already addicted, it’ll be easy to get your fix. If you have yet to start, you’ll have plenty of options.
If you just want a list of places to dance, skip to the bottom. Otherwise, read on for a brief overview of Lindy Hop and jazz history in Paris.
Paris & Jazz
Although the genre has its roots in Harlem and New Orleans, Paris played a part in its evolution before jazz was jazz. American soldiers arrived in France during the First World War to fight, but they brought with them their music as well.
The army was segregated, and black regiments were often accompanied by their own bands. These bands played in a range of styles for their regiments and for the French public—from popular songs, to spirituals, to ragtime—a precursor to jazz.
French audiences quickly fell in love with the art form, and by the time the war had ended, European critics were puzzling over what made jazz special. The war had ravaged France.
According to Ada Smith, a jazz singer who arrived in Paris in 1924, “the entire city was celebrating. The war had been terrible for the French, and now that it was over, they wanted to forget the whole thing – just party and dance.”
Paris establishments welcomed black performers. This was such a stark change for many of the performers that they stayed, or returned often, and not just performers but other artists and writers as well.
The twenties roared with jazz in Paris in part thanks to this migration, and it continued well past the Second World War.
Richard Wright, a black American author who arrived in Paris in 1946, wrote that “There is more freedom in one square block of Paris than in the whole of the United States.” Many others echoed this sentiment, contributing to the image of Paris as a “colorblind” haven.
During the war years and the early 1920s, jazz in France was dominated by artists relatively unknown today. Jim Europe, for example, was one of the best known of the approximately 1,200 jazz musicians that arrived in France in 1918 and 1919. But his success paved the way for better known musicians to come make their mark.
Sydney Bechet and Josephine Baker were some of the most prominent jazz artists to take up residence in the city of light in the 20s. They both played at the Revue Nègre on the Champs-Elysée, a frequent host of jazz talents from across the pond.
Other clubs popped up as well, especially around Montmartre and Montparnasse. The aforementioned Ada “Bricktop” Smith opened her own club, Chez Bricktop, at 66 Rue Pigalle, which for fifteen years remained a hotspot for jazz.
Later, in 1932, after jazz giants like Duke Ellington had begun to arrive, a group of Parisian students founded the Hot Club de France. The Hot Club was (and still is) an organization dedicated to arranging tours and performances of Jazz musicians in France.
They even had an associated quintet lead by none other than Django Reinhardt, the legendary Belgian jazz guitarist, and violinist Stéphan Grappelli. After a preliminary series of concerts at the Hotel Claridge in the first arrondissement, the leaders of the Hot Club signed the group.
This marked the beginning of jazz manouche, or what we know in English as “gypsy jazz,” the amalgamation of American jazz, the chanson française, and musical traditions of the Romani people of central Europe.
All parties must end, however, and “Les Années folles” (the crazy years) came to an especially unhappy halt: Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime. Jazz was banned in occupied France during the Second World War, but the Hot Club continued to illicitly distribute records.
Jazz lived on in Paris after the war, with famous clubs like the Bal Nègre reopening for music and dancing (again reopened in 2017 under the name Le Bal Blomet, as the term “nègre” has a long history associated with slavery and colonialism).
The reestablishment of these clubs made way for a new generation of jazz artists, and they were frequented by celebrities of the French intelligentsia like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Boris Vian.
Paris swing today
After the 1950s, jazz morphed away from its swingable iteration. It was Bebop, Free Jazz, Soul Jazz, Funk Jazz, rock and roll… White musicians had capitalized on the swing craze in a largely racist segregated USA, and the black musicians innovating and creating the genre took it elsewhere. Jazz became a genre for listening more than dancing, and Lindy Hop dropped from the public eye.
Then, in the early 1980s, groups of dancers in LA, New York, Sweden, and England began researching the old clips. Lindy greats, like Franky Manning and Norma Miller, came out of retirement to teach classes around the world.
These days, Europe (and especially France) is full of swing fests and parties. Dancers get out every night of the week to party like it’s 1919, often decked out in vintage attire. I even attended one festival in central France that featured a parade of faux-American World War I military trucks, driven by men and adorned by women puffing from long cigarette holders. A swarm of dancers in vintage garb took up the rear. Along with the fun, modern Lindy Hop is often paired with a slightly unsettling level of nostalgia for the Jazz Age. Strange, considering the vintage styles generally recall the whitewashing of swing music more than the origins of the dance in Harlem ballrooms.
Paris, the seeming world capital of nostalgia, is a fitting home for such a lively swing dance scene. You’ll find dances year-round, of course, but summer and early fall are the best. Along with the usual big weekend parties and smaller weekday events, you’ll find dancers in public squares all over the city when the weather gets nice. You’ll be able to find every event on the calendar, but I’ll give a run-down of some of my favorite places to look out for.
Quai de Seine
This is the place. Sunday afternoons by the Seine, rive droite facing Île-Saint-Louis, crowds of dancers take the street hostage for a few hours. Bikers dismount to make way for this dominant horde of happy people, where there is no limit to space—the dance extends as far as necessary along the river bank.
Sometimes with a live band, sometimes with speakers, it doesn’t really matter, and the dancers are nearly matched by the audience watching from the bridge and crowded around the quai. I don’t have any pictures, but trust me. It’s glorious.
Bal de la Marine
At the Porte de Suffren, across the Seine from Trocadero, you’ll find one of the most romantic spots to get your swing on. On the river, just below the Eiffel Tower, dancers overflow from the dance floor and onto the quai. A neighboring peniche (the barges that line the Seine) also hosts parties, with live swing bands on the top floor and a mood-lit blues room downstairs.
Place de la Republique
Tuesday evenings, from around 9pm-midnight. Dancers carve out a small square in the northeast corner (by the smaller metro exit) of the big square to get goofy. One guy arrives with his speaker, fences off a safe area to deposit your bags, and we dance! You won’t be alone, but there are always a few men who’ve had a few too many beers.
If you feel uncomfortable, always remember that you are never obliged to dance with anyone. This can always be a concern, considering these dances are free to attend, and take place in public.
New places are always popping up, but there are several locations which consistently host weekend events.
Opened in 1877 in Belleville, La Bellevilloise first served primarily as a space for grassroots political organizing. The space hosted the likes of socialist orator and organizer Jean Jaurès before his assassination on the eves of the First World War. La Bellevilloise continued as an organizing space during the interwar period, but also hosted a popular library, one of Paris’s first cinemas, and other avant-garde art projects.
Since 2000, La Bellevilloise has been a multipurpose venue, with swing nights, club nights, brunch concerts, and many others, all taking place on multiple spacious floors of the same building. The swing parties here are usually cost around 12 euros, and they can be quite crowded, but with good reason. The bands are excellent and the venue is top notch.
Chalet du Lac
Situated at the edge of the Bois de Vincennes just outside Paris, this huge venue often hosts very popular and very fun swing parties. They celebrated 100 years of hosting concerts and dance parties in 2004, so they definitely know what they’re doing.
A family owned dance and event hall in Montreuil, this is one of my favorite places to dance in Paris. The organization and space are less polished and established than La Bellevilloise and Chalet du Lac, but there’s a friendly and low-key atmosphere, with good music and half the cover charge of the larger venues.
Théâtre Zingaro & La Nuit Swing
Dancing begins in the evening, like any other soirée, but continues until there are no dancers left on the floor, or until 6am. Free breakfast is served to the survivors at 5am, along with a pin commemorating this legendary nuit blanche of Paris swing (and guaranteeing discounted entry to the next event).
I only attended once, but it was by far the most free and lively swing event I’ve seen in Paris. Not to miss.
Although they aren’t the classiest places to dance in Paris, these slightly shabby establishments nonetheless hold a special charm. There are two in particular—Chalet du Parc, in the fourteenth arrondissement, and Café des Vendanges, in the thirteenth.
On Tuesday and Wednesday nights, respectively, the tables are cleared away around 8 or 9 pm. David, the founder of the association “Les Chatons Swingueurs,” sets up a speaker in a corner, and a free beginner lesson takes place for whoever happens to show up. A small group of regulars is usually accompanied by a few tourists, newbies, and whoever happens to be at the bar that evening.
These are some of the most low-key swing events I know of in Paris, where I’ve met some of the nicest and most open people. It may not be your scene if you’re looking for a really high caliber of dance, but it’s perfect for enjoying a beer with friends and meeting locals in a fun and relaxed atmosphere.
Somehow, Parisians young and old can be found dancing ‘til 2am before going to work the next morning.
What to expect
Although there’s always plenty of space outside, weekend parties indoors can get extremely crowded (like any other popular dance scene). It can take some skill, luck, and determination to avoid (accidental) kicks at peak hours.
In my experience, you can generally avoid the worst of the crowds by dancing before 10 or 10:30 and after 11:30 or so. However, it can be fun to get creative with your dancing within the space limitations!
If you’re shy, you probably don’t have to worry. Stand slightly away from the safety of a wall or corner, and someone will eagerly do the work of inviting for you. If they’re polite, they’ll say “tu veux danser?” (do you want to dance?); if they’re average, they’ll extend their hand and look at you expectantly (common practice for men inviting women, especially).
In general, dancers will be gracious if you decline them a dance for whatever reason. However, the swing community remains part of the rest of the world. Thus you may still the few who feel entitled to a dance (again, unfortunately, most often men).
If someone makes you uncomfortable or won’t leave you alone, speak to the organizer. I’ve found that dances in Paris are not quite as conscious and purposeful about these kinds of things as you might find in places like Seattle and San Francisco, but there will (usually) be someone tasked with caring about your safety and comfort!
That said, the vast majority of dancers will be kind, understanding, and willing to help you out (in English even) if you need.
Most of all, enjoy. Author Ralph Ellison wondered whether “perhaps the symmetrical frenzy of the Lindy-Hop conceals clues to great potential powers.” Go find out!