Swing scene now more vibrant in Europe than US, says NY-based dance instructor Milo Saidl

Recently the Prague Spring Swing Festival packed out the Grand Hall at the Lucerna Palace, confirming the dance style’s growing popularity in the Czech Republic. Milo Saidl has been one of the pioneers of swing in this country as a leading member of scene mainstays the Zig Zag group. Today, however, Saidl is living out a long-held dream as a dance instructor in New York. When he came into our studios recently on a visit to Prague, I asked him how he had got into swing in the first place.

Milo Saidl, photo: archive of DanceSportMilo Saidl, photo: archive of DanceSport “I started dancing when I was 18. I signed up for tap dance classes and the teacher who taught me tap also taught swing dancing.

“After one class he suggested that I stay for the swing class. I had done ballroom dancing, some Latin dancing and some jive, which is similar to swing, because it actually came from swing.

“I stayed for this class and I really enjoyed it, because it was a very free form of dancing and not as strict as jive and Latin. It was more masculine.

“I really had a good time. Then I found out that this guy who became my first swing teacher, Zdeněk Pilecký, had actually participated in the movie Swing Kids [1993, set in Nazi Germany and starring Christian Bale].

“It was filmed in Prague and they hired Czech dancers for it. I’ve heard from people who started dancing because of this movie – they saw the movie and then fell in love with this dance.

“I also started because of the movie. Not because I saw the movie – but because Zdeněk Pilecký was trained in swing [so he could instruct the troupe] and when the movie was made he decided to teach it and pass it on. And I was his student.”

What year was this?

“1999.”

At that time was swing and Lindy Hop and all that stuff popular here?

“Not at all. Nobody knew about swing.

“It started being popular in Western Europe. Actually in Sweden.

“The revival started in the 1990s or the late 1980s in the US.

“But because Swedish people discovered Franky Manning, who was called the Ambassador of Swing and was a great guy from the 1940s, they asked him to teach them how to do Lindy Hop.

“So they are responsible for the revival of swing in Europe. But in 1999 there was no swing in the Czech Republic.”

Prague Spring Swing Festival, photo: Matěj TřešňákPrague Spring Swing Festival, photo: Matěj Třešňák So you and Zdeněk Pilecký were pioneers of swing. Now it’s quite popular here – how did you achieve that?

“Yes, I feel very happy about that.

“I remember that we started social dancing, we started teaching at [Prague’s] Jam Café.

“It was kind of exceptional because nobody really… I mean, salsa people use bars for dancing and for teaching, but usually in the Czech Republic dance was taught in exercising rooms. But we started teaching at this café.

“After the class people could stay and practice the steps. It was a nice and easy atmosphere. People could have a drink – they didn’t necessarily have to dance all the time.

“It was like social dancing – socialising and also dancing. I think that is what is really interesting about swing. And of course the music and the excitement and all that stuff.”

And today it’s so big that you have events at Lucerna Grand Hall?

“Yes. The Prague Spring Swing Festival was something that also really helped in growing the scene.

“Because it attracted people from abroad and when people here in Prague saw all these foreigners dancing like crazy – the energy, throwing the girls, improvising – they got excited about it.

“This festival is growing every year. Two days ago I spoke to Zdeněk and he said he doesn’t want to expand like crazy. He wants to keep it down to about 400 people.”

To my mind, this stuff seems old-fashioned. Who are the people who are interested in it? Are they people who like everything retro?

“Yes. Actually there’s a bunch of people who like the style but don’t necessarily dance. They like the fashion.

“They like to dress up in the ‘40s style. The ladies like the dresses, the hair. The guys like the suits and all that stuff.

“So there are some people that actually started dancing after they liked the fashion – then they discovered the dance.

Prague Spring Swing Festival, photo: Matěj TřešňákPrague Spring Swing Festival, photo: Matěj Třešňák “Other people like the music and the dance and discover the fashion after.

“But it’s actually kind of connected. People who dance swing also know about the fashion and they dress up when they go out dancing.”

Now Milo you live in New York. What prompted you to move to the States?

“There were two aspects. First when I came to New York it was for a short visit.

“My girlfriend and I travelled to Minnesota to go to Showdown, which is a competition. It was very famous and we wanted to see it with our own eyes.

“We also stayed a bit in New York. It was our first visit to the United States and we also travelled a little bit.

“The competition was amazing and the experience of the city of New York was incredible as well.

“I visited a dance school there, Steps on Broadway, and I really loved the atmosphere there.

“At that school they don’t teach partner dancing – just jazz, ballet, modern and tap. And as I said, I started with tap dancing.

“I really liked the school and I thought it would be such a great idea if I could study there. And I actually did – five years later I signed up for the international students programme and enjoyed 10 months there.

“Then I came back to Prague and stayed for one year before I said, I have to go back. Because it was such a great experience.

“I decided to move to New York and then I found Dancesport, which is the school I teach for.”

How hard was it to find work, to find a place? In Prague you were one of the best in the country, maybe one of the best in Europe – but I’m sure there must be lots of great dancers in New York.

“That’s true. But as I mentioned, surprisingly the revival started much earlier in the US and now it’s kind of decreasing.

“I would say that Europe now is much more into swing than the US. So surprisingly, even though the scene is nice and big because it’s a big city, there’s not that many teachers.

Prague Spring Swing Festival, photo: Matěj TřešňákPrague Spring Swing Festival, photo: Matěj Třešňák “So when I moved there it was surprisingly easy for me to find a job.”

What has living and working in New York given you?

“It’s an experience. I enjoy the city. I enjoy the people. I enjoy how open people are and the fact that they help each other and express their feelings.

“They are more open. I feel that. Compared to Prague. I’m not sure why, but in Prague people are not that excited.

“If something happens, they don’t really express their excitement. But Americans are exactly the opposite – they’re always excited [laughs].”

What does the future hold? Will you stay there?

“I’m not sure. I’m thinking about it. I’m in the process of getting a Green Card and that is a process – it’s going to take time.

“Since I’m having a good time there I’m thinking of staying there forever.

“But also I’ve got my parents and brothers here. All my relatives are here, so it’s also a difficult decision.

“As I see it now, I’m definitely going to stay for a couple of years. And maybe forever.”

As a teacher, can you keep going forever? Or is there a point where you would simply become too old?

“I’m not sure if I have an answer to that question. Of course I wish to teach basically till I die.

“Before he died Frankie Manning was almost 95 years old and he was still travelling all around the world, teaching and sharing his love for this dance.

“That’s my inspiration. I hope I’m something like him in this matter. Yes, I hope I’m going to be lucky like that [laughs].”