Try town: Mood Swings

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Heather Sheehan and Michael Boucher of Milton demonstrate swing dancing.

Heather Sheehan and Michael Boucher of Milton demonstrate swing dancing. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of our “Try Town” series, in which Milton Independent, Essex Reporter and Colchester Sun reporters try activities available in our communities. Submit your suggestions to news@essexreporter.com.

With snow swirling outside, I tromped into the Milton Public Library for my first swing dancing lesson with Michael Boucher and Heather Sheehan in bulky winter boots.

My mistake became apparent the minute I saw the instructing couple move to the jazzy music, eyes locked and feet twisting across the blue carpet in flexible, soft soled shoes. Boucher and Sheehan, both Milton residents, were unfazed by my footwear, though.

Moments later, in stocking feet, I began stepping to the six-count beat. The moves were slower and simpler than the fast-paced stunts I’d imagined at the onset.

“It’s not nearly as frenetic as it looks,” Boucher explained. “You don’t have to force this dance.”

The bare-basics lesson mirrored the one Boucher himself first took nearly 10 years ago. Newly single and looking for a hobby, his interest was piqued when a coworker mentioned a swing dancing class he’d taken in Burlington.

He had no dance experience other than the “wedding reception shuffle” and remembered feeling completely embarrassed after seeing the skill of the other performers in the room.

“We were all beginners at one point,” Boucher remembers the dancers saying. He quickly found himself at the dancing club multiple times per week, thrilled to be a part of the vibrant community.

“I love music, but I don’t play an instrument,” Boucher said. “When I’m dancing, I feel like I’m part of the music. That, to me, is the coolest thing about this.”

Boucher said swing rapidly became an integral part of his life – the movements, culture and history of the 1920s “street dance” fascinated him to no end. He even began donning a signature fedora whenever he stepped onto the dance floor.

When the owners of Vermont Swings went their separate ways, the club’s future seemed uncertain. Boucher and several other dedicated members decided to form a governing board to keep doors open. He serves on the board to this day.

After a few years of dancing, Boucher, a network administrator for a health insurance company, met Sheehan, an occupational therapy assistant. He made sure to mention his ever-growing hobby on one of their first dates.

Luckily, Sheehan was thrilled to hear about his unique passion. They’ve been dancing together ever since.

“I was so excited because I’d always been interested in partner dance,” Sheehan said. “It’s not something you see much of these days.”

Years ago, she wanted to take lessons with husband, Kevin Sheehan, who was killed in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2004. She found it tough to make time for lessons with the commitments of caring for their then-younger children.

Plus, Sheehan said with a laugh, she was known for having some trouble letting others lead during past trips across the dance floor.

“That has been kind of a fun part of the journey for me,” Sheehan said. “It wasn’t until I started taking classes that I understood this is what leading means and this is what following means.”

When they had a half-dozen years of dancing under their belt, Boucher asked Sheehan to teach a class in Milton with him. Despite her nerves, she agreed.

There was significant interest in the community, Boucher said, but figuring out how to articulate an art form that functions best with a focus on feel over form was a challenge for both at first. Boucher said many attendees, particularly the men, are self-conscious when they start to dance.

One effective teaching trick they learned quickly? “It’s always easier to dance to music,” Boucher said.

That proved true in my lesson, too, as I focused on the song blaring from a set of small, portable speakers. Boucher and Sheehan offered me frequent encouragement, even as I stumbled through the triple step combination after catching a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the library’s windows.

“It feels much more awkward than it looks,” Boucher said, assuring me that falling a beat behind is no problem so long as you keep moving.

The introductory class offered a preview of a series of six courses the pair offers to beginners through the Milton Recreation Department and at the Vermont Swings Champlain Club in Burlington. Participants could join the last Milton Rec offering for $75.

Becoming instructors also meant the duo had to learn the opposite part, which has helped them become better partners on the dance floor and off.

“It helps with your communication skills. Maybe we should dance more,” Boucher joked. “It’s great for a relationship to get that dynamic.”

Most of their students are married couples, but singles show up, too. No one needs a partner to attend, Boucher said. In fact, the duo often encourages couples that came together to dance with other students.

Some folks are resistant to the idea, Sheehan acknowledged, but dancing with a variety of partners keeps students from accommodating for each others’ mistakes.

When a dance goes well for performers at any level, Boucher said it’s like having a great conversation for the duration of the song.

“If it’s not such a great connection or a great dance? It’s only two and a half minutes,” Sheehan joked.

Sheehan and Boucher offer classes through Vermont Swings at the Champlain Club in Burlington. For more information, visit vermontswings.com/classes.php. For upcoming offerings in Milton, check out the recreation guide at  www.miltonvt.org/departments/recreate.html