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'Swing Night' has feel of Prohibition-era dance hall

Andrew Russell
| Sunday, March 29, 2015, 8:03 p.m.
Dance instructors Lisa Matt, 39 of Natrona Heights (middle left) and Jeff Altman, 36, of East Liberty (middle right) teach steps to the crowd at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Dance instructors Lisa Matt, 39 of Natrona Heights (middle left) and Jeff Altman, 36, of East Liberty (middle right) teach steps to the crowd at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Paul Aluri, 22 of Squirrel Hill dips Deborah Alexander, 24 of Murraysville during the dance session at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Paul Aluri, 22 of Squirrel Hill dips Deborah Alexander, 24 of Murraysville during the dance session at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Rachel Tyson, 27 of Lawrenceville and bartender at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, watches dancers warm up, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Rachel Tyson, 27 of Lawrenceville and bartender at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, watches dancers warm up, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Astha Desai, 20, of Squirrel Hill (left) learns dance steps from her friend, Dipika Bhandari, 20 of Oakland at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Astha Desai, 20, of Squirrel Hill (left) learns dance steps from her friend, Dipika Bhandari, 20 of Oakland at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
A piano serves as a bar top at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
A piano serves as a bar top at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Bob Bamont, 62, of East Allegheny puts on his dancing shoes at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Bob Bamont, 62, of East Allegheny puts on his dancing shoes at the James Street Speakeasy's Swing Night, Friday, March 6, 2015. Swing night is an event hosted in the dance hall upstairs at the North Side restaurant that offers lessons for the first hour of the night and open dance with live music after.

On Fridays, “Swing Night” on James Street has the feel of a Prohibiton-era dance hall.

Patrons enter through the dimly-lit back door of James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy on Pittsburgh's North Side, up a nondescript stairwell into a banquet hall with a wooden dance floor, laid in herringbone design, and 20-foot high ceiling.

A jazz band warms up on stage.

The first hour of the night's live music is dedicated to instruction — attendees range from newbies in their early 20s to veterans in their 70s.

On one night in early March, most of the 38 dancers include students and older couples.

“It is a social dance, and there is an extra-special energy when the dancers cut across the generations,” says Lisa Tames, a dance instructor. “When I started dancing in college in the 1980s, I loved dancing with the 50- and 60-year-olds who grew up doing this. They were great. They knew the dance better than anyone.”

The experienced dancers are easy to pick out; they change into their dance shoes at the tables lining the dance floor, while the less-confident practice moves.

When the music lowers, the group encircles another instructor, Lisa Matt, 39, of Natrona Heights.

“Who here hasn't ever danced before?” she asks.

Astha Desai, 20, a University of Pittsburgh student, hesitantly raises her hand.

“Well, don't worry,” says Matt, gesturing to the rest of the group, “all these dancers are here to help you learn. So don't be shy.”

Andrew Russell is a Trib Total Media photographer. Reach him at arussell@tribweb.com.

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