Dancers fill Rosa Parks Circle on Tuesday nights in the summer to strut their stuff during events organized by the Grand Rapids Original Swing Society. Photo Courtesy Guy Orr
Grand Rapids has a new claim to fame: It’s the site of the Guinness World Records largest swing dance.
On Aug. 7, 756 swing-dance enthusiasts gathered at Rosa Parks Circle with the purpose of breaking the previous world record of a measly 250 or so dancers. The undertaking was a large one and involved the leadership and commitment of Grand Rapids Original Swing Society’s founder, Steve Zaagman.
Zaagman said that breaking the world record involved meeting a long list of requirements, including having media present at the event, a notary to officially count people, a spotter for every 50 people and an expert swing dancer. Breaking the world record ultimately took five minutes of actual swing dancing by the group.
The local society is an informal swing dance group that began in 2003 on the campus of Reformed Bible College. Zaagman, who had just graduated from Calvin College, was asked to teach swing lessons in the college’s cafeteria. After two years, the group had outgrown the cafeteria and had begun taking on many non-college members, so it moved, eventually ending up at Rosa Parks Circle.
Today, hundreds of dancers fill Rosa Parks Circle every Tuesday night during the summer to dance from 7-10 p.m. Ages range from high school students to 70-year-old couples. The fun doesn’t stop in the winter either, when Zaagman rents out space for the group at the Public Museum, Woodland Skating Center or the Grand Rapids Masonic Center.
“When you look at the age group that we are getting, which is a lot of high school and college kids, and ask yourself, what is there for them to do in West Michigan?” Zaagman said. “You can go to Craig’s Cruisers, go bowling, watch a movie. … There’s not a whole lot of activities, and this kind of filled that void, especially since we do it on a Tuesday night.
“We are filling a void of a downtown social activity where you learn something, it’s healthy and people come to hang out with each other. So, yes, there was a need; there is an empty space, and we filled it with swing dancing.”
The event doesn’t just attract Grand Rapids locals. Zaagman said people regularly come from Holland, and at one time there were people driving from White Cloud to participate. The group also has seen offshoots, including a Holland Original Swing Society and other groups. Additionally, swing dancers visiting the area from other states have sought out the group as a way to spend their time.
To keep the group and himself engaged, Zaagman creates theme nights, such as a recent “ugly Christmas sweater” night, a summer car show, Christmas in July — which involves a giant, white elephant gift exchange — and a masquerade ball. He also brings in a large 20-piece band one night during the summer.
Throwing an event at Rosa Parks Circle requires money, and Zaagman said that during the summer he begs for donations to help cover the costs and during the winter months he charges admission, generally $5. Though he often breaks even, some nights the money comes straight from his own pocket.
“This is the first year we had sponsors,” he said. “Grand Rapids Community College and Davenport (University) helped by sponsoring a couple of days, as well as Mercantile (Bank) and Celebration Cinema helped out. We are trying to make it more cost-effective.”
Besides being popular enough to attract sponsors, the group was the focus of an hour-and-a-half documentary produced in summer 2012 by Daniel Kawka. It is currently available for free online viewing on Vimeo.