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Nikki, the doctor of dance

Not content with combining dance with the written word, Dr Nikki Santilli has taken her passion into the classroom

21 February, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Dr Nikki Santilli on the streets of Bermondsey. Photo: Kayvan Michael Bazergan

IT looks terrific on the dance floor – swirling, fluid movements set to the greatest jazz music of the past 100 years.

And now the stories behind the crazes that go hand in glove with American pop culture – the Lindy Hop, Charleston and many others – are set to be brought to life by an academic who also happens to be a renowned dancer.

Dr Nikki Santilli has a PhD in English literature and is also one of the foremost proponents of jazz, Lindy Hop and swing in London.

Her dance classes have earned a reputation for her teaching, choreography and displays and she is a master of a number of styles from the golden era of jazz.

Now she is combining her two passions at a new weekly class in Archway – giving people the chance to learn more about the moves that filled the floors from the 1920s onwards, and the social history behind them.

For Nikki, there has always been a close link between her two passions of writing and dancing, and the class feels like a natural progression.

Drawing on the seminal book Jazz Dance by Marshall and Jean Sterns, the first session she hosts is like a reading club, where those who attend talk about the back story of the dance they are about to learn.

“We discuss about the history and then bring it to life,” she says. “We look at the book in bite-sized chunks. We start with a basic Lindy Hop class and then an introduction to various styles around it. We find out how each is related through American history.”

Nikki studied English literature at King’s College and then completed a PhD focusing on prose poetry. And while studying and lecturing, she would dance for fun.

Nikki was asked by a colleague if she fancied going to a swing class – and it set her on a new path.

“A friend said we should go to meet some nice men,” she recalls.

They headed to the London Swing Dance Society, who were running an event in Covent Garden. “I’d not really heard of it but I joined in a social dance afterwards and it was just knockout,” she adds.

Nikki began helping the teachers as she honed her craft – earning as she fitted classes in with her day job. Gradually she began running more lessons and by 2012 had set up on her own.

“One day I realised I was doing more dancing than other work,” she says. “It just took off.”

Her academic background means her curiosity about the social history has always been integral to her lessons.

“As I was teaching I would tell people a bit about where it all came from,” she says.

“Of course, people want to come in, have a nice time and not feel they are in a classroom, but they also like to know the story and then it impacts on how they dance – and these are great stories.

“People find it easier when they know the context.”

American pop culture has such a grip on our shared imagination, the history of the country’s music and dance has clear correlations to popular culture today.

“A lot of styles and forms were folk dances in a certain locality and as people travelled, they took them along and then mixed it with others,” she says.

“It is a fascinating story of how things spread in a pre-internet age – it was a case of physically going somewhere, seeing someone dance a new step and then taking it on.

“What you do is follow the music: my classes are called From Charleston to Jazz, for example, or Ragtime to Lindy Hop. We follow the journey of the evolution of popular music and it starts to make sense. It tells the story of African-American and European immigrants’ cultural history.”

Of course, it features a dancer called “Shorty” George Snowdon and how he invented Lindy Hop.

“He was in a dance marathon with his partner, Mattie Parnell, in 1927,” says Nikki. “The story goes like this: they had got really tired and lost their grip as they danced together, so they did this move as they danced back towards each other. The crowd watching thought it was intentional and part of a skit – and they loved it. A lot of jazz dance is taking something and improvising, breaking away and then coming back.”

Above all, they provide a platform for both individual expression and socialising. The music, ranging from the great Big Band hits through to classic jazz singers, is captivating and “by dancing to it, you become part of it,” she says.

“I love the idea of becoming almost an extra musician,” she adds. “If there is a break in the music, you pull something out and it is like you are doing a solo.”

• Ragtime To Lindy Hop is at Hargrave Hall, Hargrave Road, Archway N19 5SP

February 27: Rhythm and Book club

March 6-April 3: Wednesdays – Ragtime to Lindy Hop (five-week courses), 7.30pm

March 7– April 4: Thursdays Jazz Age Fox Trot to Bal-Swing, (five- week courses), 7.30pm

Full details at


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