Fran Johns Swings into the Tampa Bay Area

As a dance instructor and a member of Tampa’s Swing Gang, Fran Johns has seen fads come and go, but when it comes to dancing — no matter what type of style it is — one thing is constant: people want to have fun on the dance floor. Johns discusses the swing dance scene in the Tampa Bay area, as well as the secret behind her success and being the only person in the entire state of Florida to bring the Swing Gang Switch from its country roots to a familiar swing setting.

Matthew Kelsey: What is your dancing background?

Johns: I’ve danced all my life, but I’ve taught dancing for 15-16 years, getting seriously back into it 18 years ago, teaching four line dance classes a week, one swing class every day of week. I’m a contract teacher as well, doing private lessonsâÂ?¦ every day of the week I’m teaching a dance class. I have many different certificates of dance instruction from Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire studios. I began teaching at the Dallas Bull, teaching country line dances. I like country dancing, but I still missed all the moves of ballroom dancing. Before I knew it, I was teaching dancing in my kitchen, my den, the family roomâÂ?¦ then I decided to start applying to many different places, just to get my foot in the door. I was very lucky, to get started teaching in Temple Terrace — they were starving for a dance teacher in that area. I got my foot in the right door, got back into dancing, and it’s gone on and on and on. I never stop. I go to teacher’s seminars all the time; I do workshops, myself, all the time.

MK: How did you get into dancing in the first place?

Johns: I was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina. When I was a young girl, whenever someone put money into the jukebox, I was out there doing my thing on dance floor. When I would stop, people kept putting money in the jukebox, saying, “Do that some more.” Right then, I knew I wanted to always dance. I knew I wanted to be in the limelight.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

People do know who you are when you dance; it brings so many friendships into your life, connecting with people from other cultures, from other statesâÂ?¦ being friends with all types of people. In a week’s time, I connect with hundreds of people because dancing brings us all together. Don’t stop dancing. My advice: Come in and dance one dance, all that stress will leave you.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Growing up, you didn’t do a lot of competition dances – it wasn’t the big thing, back then. The big thing was to be out there IN the dance, doing the dances. At that time, we thought it was just heaven if we could afford to attend your Arthur Murray, Fred Astaire studios. My dancing has paid out, because I grew up on a lot of the dancing that’s done now. A lot of it I didn’t have to learn, I just needed to learn the new style and the new techniques. Dancing has not changed since I started; it’s all been the same.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

MK: What styles of dance do you teach?

Johns: Country line dancing, swing, Spanish dancing, all types of ballroom dancingâÂ?¦ you name it and I’ve danced it. I teach every dance style but ballet. I could not get into ballet. I’ve got no patience for it. I want to move fast, it’s not fast enough for me. There’s not a dance I can’t do, but I’m not a competition teacher. I don’t choreograph competitive dancers, but I have choreographed dances for country singer Tom Perry, plus many wedding dances.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

I emphasize doing the dance, not doing competitions. Dancing classes weren’t offered back then; this generation has placed dance into another step, with classes and competitions. Teachers, today, can teach social dancing, but some do not. Competition dancing is great, but if you don’t get out dancing socially, and enjoy it weekly, competition is nothing, if you’re not passing the knowledge onto others. Swing Gang teachers are top-competition winners and they are truly teachers, but they are social dancers as well.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

MK: How did you get involved with the Swing Gang?

Johns: About 10 years ago, when I was teaching country line dances, the guy who owned the Dallas Bull approached me with a videotape. He said, “This is the hottest, new dance that’s coming, and I want to somehow fit this dance into the country bar.” So, I took it home, put it on, and it was nothing but Jitterbug swing and the Lindy Hop. I was jumping up and down, because it was stuff I’ve done all my life. I didn’t have to learn the moves, because I was born and danced the moves. When they say “dancing on the boardwalk,” I’ve really danced on the boardwalk, just like the song says.

When swing dance became popular about 10 years ago, I received a phone call to teach a class for the Swing Gang in Tampa. This side of the Howard Franklin Bridge (in the Tampa Bay area) didn’t have many regular places where you can show up and dance several hours. They knew they had to bring something over here. There was no set swing dance night over here, in Tampa. People put Sunday swing on their calendar, since it’s been going on for so long. Our goal was to bring swing dancing onto this side of the bridge, working to keep a regular swing dance night for everyone. We did what we set out to do, bringing this dance back out there, and it’s done nothing but grow. We’re still trying to branch out. The Swing Gang sponsors a weekly Lindy Hop workshop every Thursday night at Rix. The thrill is seeing what’s on the dance floor each week, letting you know why you want to keep dancing alive – to keep it going. Everyone who teaches dancing at the Zendah Grotto is a great teacher, aiming to teach at least one dance move that night to everyone on the dance floor they didn’t walk into the doors already knowing.

MK: What is your opinion of the swing scene in Tampa?

Johns: I WISH there were more places in Tampa to swing dance. Tampa’s swing scene versus other cities around the country is not as big as people think it is. The Swing Gang is trying to keep the swing scene out there so more people can dance.

MK: As a dance instructor, what is the secret to your success?

Johns: I don’t care how good you can teach, but you can never stop learning. If you don’t use the skills, you lose the skills.

MK: What advice would you give to both beginning and advanced dancers who wanted to perfect their dance style?

Johns: You must have a desire to work at dancing. Everybody says they can dance, but if you go to a party, you will see people on the floor moving, swaying – they’re not dancing. Go to a swing dance, there are people leading, followingâÂ?¦ fulfilling the title of being a dancer. Everybody can dance, but to have a title of a being a dancer, you must take time and practice. Everybody should have the title of being a dancer. There’s a lot of stress being a dancer. If you think you know it all, go out to a public dance where you think you know it all, and there will be a new variation.

MK: Describe the Swing Gang Switch social dance and how you brought it to Florida.

Johns: Some people don’t dance a lot. The idea of getting people to dance together, people who might not usually dance togetherâÂ?¦ get them onto the floor. We’re the only place in Florida that has it. I brought it here. Linda Ford, in Knoxville, Tennessee, created the dance, which was originally called, “The Swing Switch.” This dance goes back to a lady in Tennessee, “the Norma Miller to country dancing,” who choreographed the dance in the 1980s or Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½90s, for a weekly TV show called “Club Dance.” The show was based in Knoxville, and televised on the cable station, TNN. I was a spotlight dancer on the show. The Swing Switch was done on the TV show – originally to country music. I didn’t choreograph it, but I brought the dance from the TV show to Tampa, Florida. It’s a couple’s dance.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½

Hoss Martin was a friend of mine who knew I was a dancer. We drove to Tennessee, danced all Friday, Saturday, Sunday — when the show was taped — then drove back home to Tampa afterwards. The Swing Gang adopted the dance and added the word “Gang,” creating the “Swing Gang Switch.” The dance moves match everything in swing. People are dancing the Swing Gang Switch who didn’t even know they could dance.

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