The first thing you notice is their smiles. They're as bright and sparkly as the large pink studs in Alexis Davila's ears. And they only get wider as the music of Count Basie reverberates through the basement of the Archwood United Church of Christ. Davila, 14, and Cyle Dixon, her 16-year-old dancing partner, dip and swirl and shimmy and turn around the dance floor. Their expressions light up the dark, dank room.
Davila and Dixon are competitive Lindy Hop dancers. The duo placed second in the junior division at the International Lindy Hop Championships in Washington, D.C., last summer, beating out teams from places such as Sweden and Denver.
The two had only started dancing four years earlier, as part of a free after-school program provided to students in Cleveland's Brooklyn Centre neighborhood.
"We'd had no formal dance training before that," explains Davila, a natural competitor who runs track and plays on her high school volleyball team.
But swing dance instructor Valerie Salstrom had a hunch that the two's fiery, outgoing personalities would translate into fierce, raw performances — just as soon as they stopped trying to talk over each other.
"We had to get used to each other," says the loquacious Dixon, who considers his LG smartphone his favorite possession. "We both had to take the time to listen to each other."
To train for the competition, the duo practiced three times a day for a month beforehand with Salstrom, fitting practices in between schoolwork and Dixon's job at McDonald's. Salstrom also got them full scholarships to Beantown, a Lindy Hop camp in Boston, where the duo's moves were critiqued by greats such as '40s dancing sensation Norma Miller.
"It was the first time either of us had ever been on a plane," says Dixon.
At the camp, the partners practiced aerials, with Davila flipping over Dixon's bent back. They also got a lesson in sass with instructors emphasizing the importance of exaggerated facial expressions and attitude in competitions.
"We learned that a good amount of attitude is what makes the moves really come alive," says Dixon.
The morning of the August competition, the dancing partners awoke nervous. "We saw the Swedish team [perform], and we didn't think we were even going to place," recalls Davila.
But their fears didn't last long. When the music to Count Basie's "Splanky" started, their smiles appeared, their feet starting tapping, their hips started swaying, and their nerves disappeared for the entire two-minute and 40-second performance.
"I could tell we'd done well," says Davila. The applause afterward was deafening. And as the duo made their way back to their seats, audience members came up to them proclaiming how moved they'd felt by the performance.
When they were called to the stage to receive their silver medals, Davila couldn't stop the happy tears from falling. "We were so surprised and excited and overwhelmed,"
And they're already thinking about next year's competition. Though it's too early to start planning their routine, the partners are watching videos of previous winners for inspiration and perfecting their facial expressions in the mirror. "Next year is the last year I can compete as a junior," explains Dixon, "and we want to win!"