A dancer is often simply a product of the shoes on their feet. Old tattered tennis shoes, awkwardly step in and out of the footprints on the ground marked by the boxes they were tutored under. Slick black and pointed, a sleekness to the knowed marks of the toes, the panache of the posture, verve in its essence being emitted. 

High-heeled and leg muscles flexed in relaxed tension of the rock-step to come, attempts at flying along with the over zealous curvature of the frenetic leader as he whoops and glides in counterbalance to the actual rhythm.  

The Jim Cullum Jazz Band delights the crowd at Trinity University's Skyline Room. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.
The Jim Cullum Jazz Band delights the crowd at Trinity University’s Skyline Room. Photo by Krysteen Villareal. Credit: Courtesy / Krysteen Villareal

A creamy texture, circumscribed in black with a sweet white filling, the dainty dancing sneaker-esque curve of her shoes, (ones that have never felt the full sensation of ground underneath), captures the essence of Kasi O’Donnell, flying about in a Jitterbug or Charleston with dignity and grace.

“If there is a song on I’m moving to it, whether I know it or not,” says O’Donnell, as she wiggles her legs laid back in a chair along the balcony of Trinity University’s Skyline Room.

Painted first by painters from this view and then simply emulated by architects, the San Antonio skyline lies back too, the city’s lights twinkle in luminescent liking to the same in her eyes.

“This music brings me home, it takes me back to my happy place,” a nostalgia building in her cadence, deep breaths in between light flurries of sentimental vividness. “When I actually started seeing the old footage of the dancing going along with the music, I had to be a part of it,” confesses O’Donnell. “When I hear the songs, my soul starts dancing before my feet do.”

Sweet chunks of metal against fingertips and the rhythm is set to the feeling of the piano gliding along the striding steps of the movement of the time.  Guys wear bow ties and gals bow to decide who’s hot and who’s gonna trot (alone). 

Pick it up, daddy. The trumpets blow and get lost in their foundness, memory impulses and lightning strikes of joy hit the impressionable and leave their mark in frayed rugs all over the place, cuz everybody’s cutting ‘em you know.

Swing dancing to Jim Cullum's Jazz Band. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.
Swing dancing to Jim Cullum’s Jazz Band. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.

A 501(c) 3 dedicated to maintaining the spirit of swing and many of its perhaps less-appreciated cousins (balboa, lindy hop, and blues dancing) in the Alamo City, the San Antonio Swing Dance Society (SASDS) is led by O’Donnell.

“When Jim asks we say ‘yes, absolutely’,” admits O’Donnell about the lucrative collaboration (in soul currency at least) between her group, the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, and 91.7 KRTU. “We’ve had a long-term relationship working with Jim, and he expressed interest in doing a monthly event.”

Dubbed “Skyline Swing” because of its location and evocation, the event is every first Saturday of the month from here on out. According to O’Donnell, partnering with a live band of such a high caliber is an amazing way to create the spirit of the dance. “People miss the art of actually dancing, bringing the classic style of dancing back to the younger generation,” says O’Donnell, myriad couples behind her providing a moving testament to the soundtrack of her soul.

Good ole Jimmy takes the stand and gets it gets it goin’ goin’ gone baby gone to the farthest reaches of the Skyline Room and every soul can’t help but feel its power. 

The gray haired ones touch their lips to the silver brass, their hands cup the bells as they frisk their instruments, manipulating the very sound that is present for all to hear, coming in together in New Orleans clarity. Ethereal and diaphanous, banjo-man takes the final chorus and the band pipes in their closure, sharp convex punctuations and the clappers clap and the chatters chat and not nobody ain’t doing nothing. 

The man himself, Jim Cullum plays trumpet for swing dancers at Trinity University. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.
The man himself, Jim Cullum plays trumpet for swing dancers at Trinity University. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.

With ice water in hand (or he’s foolin’ me), that tender-voiced banjo-man steps out in a weathered way, as if he has done this song and dance a few times before.  “I’ve played with the (Jim Cullum Jazz) Band for 34 years,” says Howard Elkins quite matter-of-factly, assessing tonight’s sensation against all the rest.  “We’ve played swing dances occasionally, it’s a treat, fun to watch the dancers.”

Elkins, who was a staple and vital presence with the band during their stay at the Landing on the River Walk, reveals the powerful presence of the dancers as he catches them in his periphery groovin’ to the tunes of DJ Ben Luhrman.

“The dancers’ enthusiasm rubs off on you, the dancers almost become a part of the band,” admits Elkins. “Really, if they don’t become a part of the band, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

There are these dancers, they feel like they have to be moving all the time, and moving too fast. http://new.trinity.edu/ These cerebral like souls that dance like John Coltrane plays, searching for something that they might not get to until Interstellar Space. Layers of sound and steps and complexities in not always natural ways, as if just having the ability means you have to show it. True talent and skill is being able to know when to blow and when to hold. Recognizing the Miles Davis maxim of spatial matter being the only thing that really matters. Like the shadows between the colors of the feathers of a peacock that allow you to recognize the full spectrum of its wonder, the movements without separation, without distinction, would simply be monochromatic. 

No, I dig the guys with floppy hair gelled just for the dance, girls mocking the bob that step with the drums and swing to the pianos and jump to the banjo and scream for the trumpets and groan for the trombone and stomp for the bass and smile just for the hell of it. 

John Sheridan on piano for the Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.
John Sheridan on piano for the Jim Cullum Jazz Band. Photo by Krysteen Villareal.

“Trinity has this extraordinary space; this event is for the public. We’re supporting swing, engaging people, inviting them here through jazz,” said JJ Lopez, General Manager of Trinity University’s KRTU 91.7 FM. “I’m a dancer, so when they proposed it to me, I was like ‘yeah, let’s do it.’”

Lopez, still bouncing in his seat, happily relates the greater benefits of this confluence of creativity. “It is free for (Trinity’s) Swing Bums, KRTU members, and it supports the SASDS. And it is coming together with Jim Cullum, a great platform to present this kind of music,” says Lopez.

Donning red carpet Kanga and signature swagger, JJ kicks it where the trombone man lays out his slide, digging the whole scene all mad cool like. Snappin’ his fingers then clappin’ his hands then stompin’ his feet, as if he can’t decide which limb is the best expression of his soulful escape. A slight divergence from the funky schtuff that is his hallmark groove, he finds no quarrel with the lighter brighter Dixieland swing. 

The whole process happened naturally according to Lopez, initiative taken both by Trinity and Mr. Cullum to pursue an event that could open up the space to the community.

“It’s a chance to enjoy jazz in a whole new way,” says Lopez.  “Whether we’re dancing to jazz, or dancing to soul funk and disco, it’s all the same story. It’s all heartbreak.”

This dance represents but a small piece of the whole jazz puzzle here in the 210. “San Antonio has the potential to become synonymous with jazz.,” Lopez said. “It’s really about looking inward, making certain that anyone who participates in jazz is getting the support and exposure they need and deserve. That’s my goal right now.”

If you dig the energy and want to check out the Jim Cullum Jazz Band live, roll out to Tucker’s Kozy Korner (who helped sponsor the event) every Monday night and Bohanan’s Tuesday-Thursday nights. You can find the SASDS at Sam’s Burger Joint on Mondays and Semenaya Ballroom on Thursday nights for swing lessons – for skills that you can then test out with Jim Cullum every first Saturday at Skyline Swing.

*Featured/top photo by Krysteen Villareal.

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Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor

Adam Tutor is a Trinity University graduate, a saxophonist who performs with local bands Soulzzafying, Odie & the Digs, and Volcan, and a freelance music contributor to the Rivard Report.