Under magical string lights, amidst laughter, fervent smiles, and retro music permeating the air, exists a slightly-hidden time machine that transports Pasadena residents to the influential era of swing and ballroom dancing.
The Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association, located just two blocks away from Pasadena City College, is a long-standing epicenter of “social dancing” that promotes and preserves classic styles of dance with passion and dedication.
Established by sisters and former PCC students Erin and Tami Stevens in 1983, the PBDA has an extensive history of sharing their love for dance with Pasadena and the world. They host daily classes and weekend events that bring together swing enthusiasts from near and far wanting to learn more, perfect their craft, or simply socialize.
Their love and discipline they express in the hobby is seen by both the owners who teach classes and the devoted public they serve, including some PCC students who attend regularly.
“I’ve been attending here for far too long, around 16 years,” current PCC student Jon Davidson joked. “It is the best place to go swing dancing in Los Angeles.”
Swing dancing became popular after World War II in the late 1940s, and had such an impactful influence on people’s lives that it became more than just a fun pastime—it became a cherished family tradition for many and the basis for the PBDA’s existence.
Dancing was such an integral passion of the sisters that, with ambition and practice, Erin Stevens was able to perform for Bill Clinton at the White House. Their passion for swing dancing was so palpable that the Stevens sisters convinced one of the founders of the Lindy Hop dance, Frankie Manning, to come out of retirement in order to teach and participate in swing dancing with them.
“We were exposed to dancing as children … When we were teenagers, my sister and I saw our parents swing dancing together at a relative’s anniversary party and it just hit a light bulb in both of us,” co-owner Erin remembered. “We decided this is something we wanted do.”
For PBDA student Ann McLean, a similar story sparked her perpetual interest in swing dancing. As she recalls the life-changing story, a smile begins to plaster across her face.
“I grew up in this,” she said. “My parents met after World War II and danced this in the 1940s together. I was born in the 1950s and learned from them. I’m still kind of learning, but it’s still really fun.”
According to McLean, swing dancing is a big part of society’s culture, and “even young kids are doing it too.” This can be affirmed at the various events the PBDA holds every weekend, such as the recent “Pirate Theme Dance” on Sept. 17.
Though the events and classes held at the PBDA are not usually themed, the Stevens sisters wanted to celebrate and prepare students for “International Talk Like a Pirate” day, which is every year on Sept. 19, by hosting “pirate” dance lessons in pirate clothing.
Although the attire and language used was a bit different from their traditional style, the energy and excitement generated was not.
Erin Stevens led an enthusiastic crowd in a swing rock step, teaching returning and new members how to do basic swing dance moves. “Gals and ‘scurvy scum’” would line up facing each other with the women on the inside looking out and the men on the outside looking in. After executing the moves taught with one partner, the women were then encouraged to move on one man to the left.
“Swing dancing is a really great social activity for your body and mind,” pirate-clad and frequent PBDA goer David Stokes said. “There’s always something to do.”
“What I like about this place is that it’s dedicated to swing dancing. There’s no bar, no one’s breathing alcohol in your face or stepping on your toes, and it’s for all ages,” Davidson added.
The pirate theme dance included dance lessons from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., and the band “Swing Sinners” played from 8 p.m. to a half hour before midnight. While the band took breaks, Tami Stevens would host trivia sessions and people who answered correctly would receive a small prize, such as a chocolate bar. The sisters also held a raffle, where two random winners received gifts related to the theme.
“They have a very traditional format … some of the things they do are every weekend,” Pasadena resident Joe Deamicis said, who attends often enough to know the PBDA routine.
The Stevens sisters “emphas[ize] having a good time,” an idea which is supported wholeheartedly with the interactive lessons, dance sessions, live music, and joyous smiles seen on virtually every attendee that leaves the venue.
“It’s a safe and respectful environment,” Deamicis said. “You can come by yourself, you’ll end up dancing one way or another.”
The Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association is located in Grace Hall at 73 N. Hill Avenue, Pasadena. For more information on dance classes and events, visit their website.