Fights force Grand Rapids Swing Society to move indoors

The Grand Rapids Original Swing Society is encouraging people to swing their partners — not their fists.

The popular Tuesday night swing dance event at Rosa Parks Circle is temporarily shut down and will switch locations due to dozens of fights and at least 10 arrests at the event Tuesday.

The dance is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest swing dance in the world” and may have just become too big for its own good.

Approximately 1,000 people came out to the event on Tuesday night, only a fraction of whom were actually there to dance.

The fights broke out not among the dancers but within the crowd of mostly high school students on the fringe of the dance who came to watch and hang out.

This isn’t the first time the event has attracted violence. Several small fights have broken out among spectators in recent months. According to the event’s founder, Steve Zaagman, until this year, the Tuesday night crowd was there mainly to dance.

But this summer, he has noticed a larger crowd than ever before, so he hired a security firm and talked with the Grand Rapids police department to address the issue.

“It came to us as a shock, because it was never an issue before this year,” Zaagman said. “I couldn’t tell you why — we’re not doing anything differently. We’ve become a victim of our own success, I think.”

Capt. Pete McWatters from the Grand Rapids Police Department said special response forces were assigned to the area throughout the summer to provide an extra police presence at the dances. These forces required additional backup from patrol units across the city on Tuesday night which resulted in more arrests than usual.

“It’s unfortunate — it’s a good activity that brings people downtown,” McWatters said. “For some reason this year, it’s drawn people down there that have shown some unacceptable behavior.”

The event will be shut down for at least two weeks while organizers look for a smaller, indoor venue. Zaagman hopes that by having a smaller venue and possibly charging a small admission fee, the event can continue without unnecessary distractions from unruly behavior.

“This just wasn’t my dream,” Zaagman said. “I want people to be able to have fun. The event’s not over; we just have to go back to our roots.”

Calvin student Sarah Toering regularly attends the event with a group of friends and was disappointed to hear of the plans to move to an indoor location.

“I loved the atmosphere downtown on summer nights,” said Toering. “It is so sad that a few people ruined it for everyone.”

She said that while the indoor venue may take away from the atmosphere of the swing dance, she is looking forward to having only people interested in dancing at the event again.

“I don’t like it as much inside so I am not looking forward to that, but it will be nice to get back to swing dancing. It won’t be the same, but I understand that it has to happen.”