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SIOUX CITY | There was a whole lot of swinging going on inside a large studio at Western Iowa Tech Community College and teacher Jess Acker couldn't have been happier.

A dance instructor for more than eight years, Acker was teaching a group of Institute for Lifelong Learning students the art of West Coast swing.

The five-week course, held at the college's Robert E. Dunker Student Center, concludes Thursday.

"Everything in the dance world is cyclical," she explained prior to the start of her class. "With the popularity of TV shows like 'Dancing with the Stars' and 'So You Think You Can Dance,' swing has gotten very popular again."

Swing is certainly the dance of choice for Acker, who began taking lessons nearly 14 years ago.

"I like East Coast swing," she said of the the fast dance form that included the Jitterbug and the Lindy Hop, "but (the slower and improvisational) West Coast swing is more versatile and lends itself to more forms of music."

While Acker loves moving to the bluesy sound of soul man Al Green, student Larry Cowan prefers swinging to the rock and roll music he grew up with in the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, Cowan met his girlfriend and dance partner Mary Beth Gehling at Storm'n Norman's Rock and Roll Auditorium -- a Waterbury, Neb., nightclub -- at a dance more than nine years ago.

"I love music and always wanted to learn how to dance," Gehling, a two-time swing dance student, explained.

"And I always wanted to impress girls," Cowan admitted. "I think 90 percent of the men you see in dance classes are here for the same reason: we want to impress the women in our lives."

That isn't to say that Cowan isn't taking swing lessons seriously. He's already mastered five or six of the genre's basic steps.

"When we're dancing up a storm at Storm'n Norman's, I love to see people's eyes light up," the Sioux City man noted. "We may not know anything outside of those five or six basic steps but, on the dance floor, we look like we know what we're doing."

Looking good on the dance floor was also the motivating factor for Jenni Lund, a Kingsley, Iowa, resident who is taking the swing class alongside husband Jeremy and their 21-year-old son Eric.

"I've been trying to get Jeremy to take dance lessons for years," Jenni Lund said with a smile. "I don't know if I was more persuasive this time or if I finally wore him down, but we're here."

"I think Jenni just wore me down," Jeremy Lund said, teasing his wife, "but I'm having fun."

"My mom forced me into it," Eric Lund, a Western Iowa Tech wind energy student, said. "It's OK, I guess."

A self-admitted "freestyle dancer," Todd Tastad wanted the structure of dance lessons.

"When it comes to dance, I'm all arm and elbows," he explained. "You remember the way Bill Cosby danced at the start of 'The Cosby Show'? Yeah, that's the way I dance in real life."

Julie Tastad agreed completely with her husband's assessment.

"The first time we went to a dance, I thought he was joking around," Julie said, laughing at the memory. "Then I discovered that, oh my God, that's how Todd dances."

Yet after three weeks of swing lessons, she admitted her husband is making progress and getting more fit.

Which Acker said is a major motivator for adult swing dance lessons.

"Everybody wants to be active and get in better shape," she said. "Yet more traditional aerobics classes can be intimidating or not much fun."

That certainly isn't the case with Acker's West Coast swing class, which has students of all ages and quite a few returnees.

"There aren't that many places where you can dance in Sioux City," said student Mary Beth Gehling. "Whether you're a beginner or an experienced dancer, you'll always pick up a few steps from Jess."

While a song played in the background, boyfriend Cowan swung Gehling around.

"It's really romantic to take your girl in your arms and just dance," Cowan remarked.

As the music reached a crescendo, Cowan couldn't help but smile back at Gehling.

"This isn't exercise," he said. "This is just fun." 


Food and Lifestyles reporter

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