A hike up three flights of stairs in an old building in Prague 2 brought a moment of confusion. There was supposed to be a club and a dance performance featuring guest star Frankie Manning, the ambassador of the Lindy Hop.
Finally, behind a curtain on the third floor, there were a stage, spotlights and big square tables surrounding a dance floor. I had arrived at P-Club Trojická. The road crew was still setting up the band’s instruments, but the place was nearly full — between 80 and 100 people, mostly middle-aged and up.
The evening was arranged by the owner of the Zig-Zag Tap and Swing Dance Studio, Zdenek Pilecký.
“It’s important for the students to have a chance to perform,” he said of his monthly swing-dance events. This one was special, arranged to coincide with a stopover in Prague by Manning, en route from France to teach a workshop in Moravia.
After a brief welcome by Pilecký, the seven-piece band started with an up-tempo big-band number straight out of the 1930s. Oops, that wasn’t the road crew setting up — it was the band, cleverly named Big Band Trumpet.
The student performances started with a group tap dance. Then two 60-something women, Hana and Helena, came up from the audience for a tap-dance duo. They smiled and encouraged the audience to join in, but, aside from polite applause, everybody stayed in their seats.
A variety of performances followed: belly dancers, Lindy Hoppers, a solo tap performance by a 73-year-old woman, a group doing the twist. Even a brave group of women who have been taking tap-dance lessons for only six months shared what they had learned. They left a bottle of wine on their table — for pre-dance jitters or post-performance celebration?
Once the student performances were over, Pilecký welcomed Manning, mentioning that the famous American dancer had celebrated a birthday the previous weekend. The twisters came out with a cake, champagne and sparklers while the band played a trumpet fanfare.
And then the kicker: Manning just turned 93. He looks like he’s in his 60s, and even then only if you know that he was one of the original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, dancing at places like the Savoy Ballroom in the ’30s and ’40s.
I asked him what dance he was going to perform.
“Oh, I’m not here to dance,” he said. “I was just invited to a party.”
But the music must have gotten to him, because he suggested a dance — the Shim Sham, a type of jazz/tap line dance. The band began to play the song Manning requested, and it was like an electric shock to the audience — about three-quarters of them suddenly jumped up to dance. Some even had a hint of a smile on their faces.
An American sitting next to me commented that he didn’t think Czechs smiled. It sounded like a longtime expat observation, so I asked how long he had been here.
“Four days,” he replied.
After being properly motivated by the most famous still-living Lindy Hopper, the band continued to play and people continued to dance, doing mainly swing. Even a man standing alone in a corner moved and swayed to the music, eyes closed, his partner an empty champagne glass. Luckily, someone took pity on him and refilled it — and soon he had a real fellow dancer to swing with.
Manning offered an opinion on what has brought swing back onto the dance floor after so many years.
“The Lindy Hop is a dance that keeps you smiling,” he said. ‘I’ve never seen a dancer not smiling; they are enjoying the dance, the music and the person they are dancing with. I call it a three-way love affair.”
Many people would say this country’s main love affair is with beer. But, for at least that one night, Manning was onto something.