Arts

Dance teacher Sharon Matchett on getting the north swinging again

Lorraine Wylie meets Belfast swing dance teacher Sharon Matchett, founder of West Coast Swing NI

Swing dancing is enjoying a revival here in the north
Lorraine Wylie

WHEN Ian Matchett decided to give his wife Sharon a voucher for dance lessons, he’d no idea his life was about to change. From the moment Sharon stepped on to the dancefloor, she was hooked.

Today, almost a decade later Sharon’s love of dance is more than a hobby; as founder of West Coast Swing NI, the mum-of-two has turned her passion into a business.

"I was always more creative than academic," Sharon says.

"I went to Knockbreda High School in Belfast [and] studied for a degree in fine art at Ulster University. When Ian and I got married I was working as a manager in retail but, then Ian decided to open a picture framing business in Bangor so I was busy helping him for a while. By the time our daughters were born, I wanted to work from home and thought childminding would be an ideal solution."

So far, no sign of a burning passion to dance.

"When I was about nine, I started ice-skating," she says, a key nugget of info for this interviewer; having had two ice-skaters in the family, I know the level of commitment it demands – only the most passionate would put in endless hours, practising in freezing temperatures to make dancing on ice look easy.

The fact that Sharon went on to win the Ulster Ice Skating Championships and the Northern Ireland Open, proves her determination. It also reveals a natural talent.

"I loved figure skating but by the time I was 14 I needed to focus on other things, like school and exams so I had to give it up."

Sharon’s latest interest in dance was sparked during a night out with her husband.

"There was a great band playing and I’d been trying to persuade Ian to get up and dance with me but he was reluctant, to say the least," she laughs.

"Then when he bought me a voucher to take dance lessons, it seemed like the best gift ever. I started with a dance called Modern Jive which is fairly basic and a great way to start partner dancing. We learned in a group and it was a lot of fun. Three weeks later, I was well and truly hooked."

As her interest grew, Sharon looked for other genres of dance.

"I really had the bug and wanted to learn a dance called West Coast Swing but couldn’t find any classes. I spent ages online looking for dance videos and eventually I discovered Swing Belfast, who were teaching Lindy Hop.

"I suppose, like any subculture, whether its dancing, outdoor swimming or even playing the ukulele in jam groups, these things exist but unless you’re actually looking for them, you don’t know they’re there."

The Lindy Hop is a fusion of many dances but is mainly based on Jazz, Tap, Breakaway and the Charleston.

"It’s the mother ship of all swing dances," Sharon says of the Hop, which originally kicked off in Harlem, New York.

"It has its roots strongly in the 30s and 40s, combining elements of both partnered and solo dancing."

Before long Sharon had added a few extra steps to her dance class routine.

"I started helping out with classes. Then before long, I was helping with other things, such as finding the dance a presence online. I worked on these things in my spare time."

Then, in 2012 she organised her own first dance event.

"I took the risk and hired Bangor’s Museum café, decorated like a 1950s dance hall, hired in a dance floor and a friend helped with food and drink. It sold out."

The success of that and other dance events fired up Sharon’s desire to get Northern Ireland swinging and last year she stepped away from Lindy Hop to focus on West Coast Swing.

"I was involved with two dance scenes, Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing," she explains.

So what's the difference between the two styles?

"West Coast Swing is similar to Lindy Hop in that it’s a swing dance. It’s danced to modern music, it’s smoother and whereas Lindy stays true to its roots, WCS is always evolving."

What does the future look like?

"My goal is to grow the West Coast Swing community here in Belfast. In 2016, I was at an event in Britain and met an up-and-coming teacher from Lyon, France. I thought him incredible and massively talented so I hired him to teach workshops for our very tiny scene here in Northern Ireland. As it turned out, he loved our country so much he moved here. Having someone with his experience and talent as a teacher is just amazing. The future looks great."

With Sharon's latest event taking to the floor this weekend, swing dancing is about to get a major boost; the Game Of Thrones fan says Swingterfell will give Belfast's economy a leg up too.

"It’ll be amazing," Sharon enthuses of the "whole weekend devoted to swing dancing".

"As well as social dances, there will be workshops and we’re bringing teachers from England, France and as far away as Russia to teach.

"There will even be an optional Game of Thrones tour. People are coming from all over Europe and Ireland, staying in local hotels, eating at restaurants, so in many ways, Northern Ireland will benefit."

So, has swing changed Sharon’s life?

"Enormously!" she laughs. "I travel probably eight months out of 12 to swing dance events. They are mainly workshops, with competitions and social dancing. I love competing, it’s just my nature, but I go to the events to continue to learn, not just about the dance but to pull all the best parts of the events into what I want to achieve with my own event here."

Do participants need to be physically fit to enjoy swing dance?

"No, it’s not physically demanding. Anyone can take part. You don’t have to take it to competitive level. It’s all about having fun. Having said that, its also a good way to get some exercise without feeling bored."

:: Swingterfell runs from February 22-24 at Belfast's Wellington Park Hotel; see Swingterfell.com for details and booking. Swing classes are held every Wednesday in Belfast’s Windsor Tennis Club (Westcoastswingni.com)

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