Swagger builds community through body-positive dance workshops

By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly

Photo courtesy of Swagger
 Portland dance instruction program Swagger is celebrating the evolution of their immersive, body-positive, queer-friendly dance class offerings by hosting workshops that fuse fun, fitness, and creativity.

Founded in 2009 by dancers Em Connor and Erin Rook, Swagger has sought since its inception to provide an alternative to the often-harsh world of dance studios in order to bring the joy of movement and expression to all people. Rather than a focus on the strictures of the discipline, instructors such as Connor seek to create a relaxed, accessible atmosphere that allows students to comfortably challenge and thrill themselves.

“When it comes to teaching, my motivation comes from the students,” Connor says. “I’m very motivated to provide a safe space for people to be creative, and to use their bodies in a creative way — to feel comfortable, supported, and encouraged, and to build a community around dance, which is really a celebration of life.”

As students attest, when it comes to making dance available to all, Swagger succeeds in spades.
“I didn’t know I could dance in front of people and feel this amazing,” says long-time Swagger student Supriya Khan. “I’ve always loved to move my body but didn’t think I could ever share that publicly. But [with Swagger] you start slow and before you know it you are dancing on the main stage of Pride with all your mates, completely free and uninhibited, doing what you love to do: dance! As confidence builds, it becomes really intoxicating.”

Khan even finds that the benefits in fitness, self-awareness, and confidence that she encounters in Swagger classes enrich every other aspect of her life.

“It is so liberating to put my stressful, hectic life on pause and slip away into the company of an amazing, unique crew and share your love for dance,” she says. “You leave each class more relaxed, positive, empowered, and an overall better you.”

Photo courtesy of Swagger
While Swagger has offered single drop-in classes for the last three dance seasons, the program has recently shifted to focus on immersive workshop courses.

“I really like teaching workshops,” Connor says, “because it provides an entire experience from start to finish. It’s different from a class, because every single week in a class I provide roughly the same thing with different choreography. … The workshops are more fine-tuned; students come in with a specific personal goal in mind, as well as the collective goal of crafting choreography.”

Swagger’s new workshop format also allows for an expansion beyond just dance moves into an extended exploration of the creative process.

“With the workshops,” Connor explains, “a lot of it is based around discussion. For example, in the choreography workshop we discuss what motivates and moves us, and how inspiration comes to us. We even do some meditation … to help people find new ideas of movement and staging.”

Connor finds that Swagger’s evolution has inspired her as an instructor almost as much as it has inspired her students.

“Teaching opens up new creative avenues for me, which I definitely need right now and that I’m personally benefitting from,” she says. “I get to design this space for people that they then contribute to. It’s not just me coming in teaching a group; it’s me coming in with a rough guideline of how things may go, and then feeding off everyone’s experience, ideas, and outlook on dance and creativity in general. I feel like I’m having a second wind creatively from changing things up a bit, and it’s completely energized me.”

While Swagger’s first session of the choreography workshop is currently underway, Connor looks forward to the future of the program, which will likely include further explorations of the choreography workshop as well as some innovative new offerings.

“Another workshop idea that I have is around helping folks to go beyond their fears of dance,” she notes with excitement. “Lots of students are afraid of dancing, so intimidated by a dance class, that they’d benefit from a very basic workshop including things like listening to music, counting beats — the very roots of dancing, the basics of the basics. It’s encouraging for folks to be in a group with the same goal in mind.”

In order to continue Swagger’s evolution, the program is currently recruiting more movement instructors and workshop leaders.

“I’d really like to meet other movement instructors and teachers who are also in line with the Swagger mission in order to build our teaching community,” Connor says. “I think it’d be amazing to offer a variety of teachers, with different teaching styles, and different genres of dance and movement. Swagger students deserve to have a diverse range of classes to choose from and learn from and grow with. It’s exciting for me to collaborate with others, but also valuable for students to be exposed to different types of movement.”

For more information on Swagger’s workshop offerings — and to get a taste of the sort of supportive community that Swagger provides for its students and instructors — check out their website, www.theotherspacellc.com, as well as their very active Facebook group.