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From the Mosh Pit to the Ballroom: The Inexplicable Rise of Swing Dancing

lindy-hop2
1940s' ad for men's swing dance clothes.

1940s’ ad for men’s swing dance clothes.

One of the most enduring of all the Sinatra albums during Francis Albert’s extraordinary run at Capitol Records was 1959’s invitation to dance, the appropriately titled Come Dance With Me! Conductor Billy May, a bear of a man, led the orchestra and the title track was composed by Frank’s boon drinking companion, Jimmy Van Heusen,  with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Rounding home on his final set of his lyrics, Sinatra implores to the listener;

Hey there cutes, put on your Basie boots and come dance with me
Come dance with me, what an evening for some Terpsichore
Pretty face, I know a swingin’ place, come on dance with me
Romance with me on a crowded floor

In 2014, many swing dance enthusiasts are donning their Basie boots and hitting the ballroom floor in earnest. To understand the renewed growth in popularity, a trip back in time to the 1990s will reveal the groundwork which led to a major retro swing movement reaching a feverish pitch. How did it all happen?

An essential resource for understanding the retro swing movement may be found in an extraordinary 1998 book by author V. Vale entitled Swing! The New Retro Renaissance. Generally, when a new music wave is studied and analyzed, it is usually presented in a text as a post-script for a fad already in the rear view mirror of time. Vale’s 200-plus pages of commentary, interviews, and photos is an enthralling read, an eyewitness account of a scene and a lifestyle, still vibrant when the book was published 16 years ago. The young swing dancers entered the movement through many different doors. Many discovered the dances via the late night showing of old movies on TCM; others scoured record shops searching for vinyl. Punk rockers also came on board; talk about reaching out to a diverse demographic! Many a spiked-hair youth embraced his/her inner Cab Calloway or Peggy Lee and left their mosh pit-diving days behind.

In his forward to Swing! The New Retro Renaissance, Vale explained the lure of swing dancing and its place in popular culture. “The new swing movement best exemplifies an understanding of American history in the musical forms that it celebrates, which include swing, jazz, blues, hard country, rockabilly, western swing, a capella, and doo wop. This music is the hybrid offspring of America’s ethnic make-up of African American, Euro-American, Mexican-American, etc. This diversity is what makes the swing movement so unique. And oddly enough, the proliferation of new “roots” musicians and bands that we’re now seeing, was facilitated by the invention of the compact disc, which brought about the massive re-release of thousands of obscure recordings in every genre that were formerly impossible to locate, or prohibitively expensive. Basically, our American roots music heritage became restored to us.”

San Diego was part of swing’s So-Cal seismic center of activity. Among the local groups stepping up to the band stage were Big Time Operator, Peggy Claire’s Swinging Affair, Candye Kane and the Swingin’ Armadillos, the Paladins, the Forbidden Pigs, and Hot Rod Lincoln. Former Beat Farmer Buddy Blue had his own swing group, which provided an opportunity for him to embrace the R&B roots of his native Syracuse, New York. Visiting bands from other cities (the Royal Crown Revue, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys, Skip Heller and Indigo Swing) made San Diego their second home. Local radio was monitoring the excitement. The now defunct KPOP-AM (1360) had a late night Saturday night show called “Jump, Jive and Wail.” Over on the FM side, Jazz 88 put a local swing enthusiast, Ida Garcia, on the air in 1995. Today, Ida still digs out the “platters that matter” as host of the long-running “Rug Cutter’s Swing,” heard Sundays at noon on KSDS-FM. Nationally, the retro-swing sound made the charts. Eugene Oregon’s Cherry Poppin’ Daddies scored a Top 40 hit with 1998’s “Zoot Suit Riot,” a song that commented on the actual 1943 rumble between Hispanic youth and Anglo sailors in Los Angeles. In 1998, Brian Setzer brought a big band arrangement to an updated version of his old Stray Cats hit “Rock This Town.”

Meeshi, a local dance instructor at the Firehouse Swing Dance, explained how the local swing scene has evolved since the ’90s. “Back then, the swing revival was activated by a pre-hipster, cigar-smoking, Rat Pack-inspired, retro-lounge underground scene as typified by the movie Swingers, “ said Meeshi. “Right after the movie came out in San Diego, a new retro-lounge night opened up at the Hanalei Hotel. They had live swing bands every Friday night and tried to model itself after the Derby Club in L.A. Soon afterward, live swing music could be found every night of the week downtown. Lots of movies and TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210 made swing dancing the “in thing” for teenagers and cocktail-drinking, pre-hipsters in their 20s and 30s. When the swing fad faded in popular culture, swing dancing continued, but it went more underground, especially after 9/11. That fateful day took the “optimistic” sails out of the country and the swing fad along with it. As the swing fad went away for the in crowd, Lindy Hop swing continued to flourish among the adult ‘techies’ and smart, affluent college kids. Now I would say, the typical swing dancer is white/Asian male/female, who works in bio-tech or engineering, and swing dances as a social outlet to balance their hyper-techy work life. However, I have noticed a new reëmergence of younger people in their late teens coming to swing dancing again, so maybe we are in the midst of another demographic shift.”

Of the popular forms of swing dancing (Jitterbug, Charleston) the Lindy Hop remains the most daunting, as it appears to challenge gravity. Named after the famous (and later, controversial) aviator, Charles Lindbergh, the Lindy Hop is celebrated on the dance floor and in dance club associations. Local dancer and instructor Julia Hall McMahon witnessed the popularity of the dance back in the ’90s and revealed why it played an integral role in the overall retro swing movement.

“Being a teen in the ’80s, I longed for something more than New Wave,” said McMahon.” MTV and 91X provided some momentary satisfaction, but bored with that scene, I began to dive into the underground music scene. The counterculture appealed to me far more than the mainstream in music and clothing. My friends and I were shopping at thrift stores and Off the Record. We were going to shows at community centers, Che Cafe [at UCSD], shows in basements, anywhere live music was happening. The Mod/Garage scene was really thriving with bands like the Morlocks, the Tell Tale Hearts, the Event and countless others. Some years later, there were more crossover bands coming out that my friends and I would go to see. Smith’s Ranch Boys, Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Trio, and the Untamed Youth were among many of the bands we knew personally and would go see. By this time, I was of age to go to clubs, and was really getting an ear for a variety of music styles including  jazz, rockabilly, surf music, and western swing.”

McMahon said most of the partner dancing that was happening in clubs at this time (1990-91) was two-step or bar swing. “I had seen original Jitterbug and Lindy Hop dance clips on AMC, but nobody was doing it in the ‘vintage’ scene because no one could figure it out. The ‘lifestylers’ dug vintage clothes, music, and dance but I wanted more,” McMahon revealed. “When I got up to L.A. for college, something magical happened; I saw people dancing authentic-looking eight-count Jitterbug and I wanted it! I lived in LA from ’93-95 and danced at the Derby, Bogart’s, or the Palomino most weekends. When I came back to San Diego, clubs like the Casbah and Tio Leo’s had regular rockabilly and swing acts almost every weekend. Since the Lindy Hop hadn’t made its way this far south yet, friends and I started traveling to L.A., Ventura, and San Francisco for workshops and swing events. This is when the San Diego Lindy Hop Society was formed. We wanted to bring Lindy Hop to San Diego and help promote and preserve this important ‘vernacular dance’ that was such a unique part of American history. We were a not-for-profit organization that hosted workshops and dances with instructors and brought in bands from all over. We would cover our costs then give all profits to a charity. It was a very fulfilling venture. Lisa Conway co-founded the San Diego Lindy Hop Society with Pamela Glynn. Pam was out soon afterward for various reasons. Lisa and I ran things after that. We had a board consisting of several members and had a long run (over five years) teaching Lindy at Tio Leo’s. Frankie Manning, one of the original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, was one of our most beloved guest instructors. Frankie had been enjoying a quiet retired life from the postal service when he was asked by several dance enthusiasts to ‘teach them how!’ Soon Frankie and other old-timers were traveling coast to coast teaching the Lindy Hop. Other vintage dances that were being taught were Balboa, Bal-swing, Collegiate Shag, Charleston, and Big Apple, to name a few.”

Proper dance instruction remains a key element, believes another San Diego-based instructor, Joel Plys. “The greatest challenge of being a swing dance instructor is that anyone can do this dance and, therefore, a lot of people think they can teach,” said Plys. “Teaching is a totally different skill set, so choosing to do it as a profession has been challenging. Would you take your car to be fixed by a computer programmer? Probably not, so as a professional swing dance teacher I recommend you go to someone who really has studied the dance. I have traveled more than any other local swing dance instructor and have seen a lot of teachers – some good, many bad. It’s very difficult to correct bad habits that students learn from dancers who ‘teach.’ The greatest reward is knowing you figured out the best way to reach a student to understand the dance. There is a time when you see it ‘click’ with a student and then they have the Jitter “bug” for life!

Every student learns differently, so it’s my job to explain the technique and rhythms of the dance so clearly that anyone can learn.”

Dance clubs and studios are only a Lindy Hop away anywhere in San Diego. The following sites are good starting points in your transition from spectator to participant.

Meeshi: Swing in San Diego (www.swinginsandiego.com)
Joel Plys (www.swingdancingsandiego.com)
West Coast Swing San Diego (www.wcssandiego.com)
Innovations (www.innovationsdance.org)
Pattie Wells (www.dancetime.com)
San Diego Swing Dance Club (www.sandiegoswingdance.com)
2 to Groove Swing Dance Club (www.meetup.com)
Dances.com (http://Dances.com)
Balboa Park Dancers (www.balboaparkdancers.com)

One Comment

  1. Posted June, 2014 at 8:11 AM | Permalink

    hi Steven,

    What a GREAT article. I have this book on my shelf and remember when it came out! I love that you mentioned all the great bands from that time. I try to give them a mention in my fictional novel The Girl in the Jitterbug Dress and short stories. I was on the board of The SD Lindy Hop Society with Lisa and Julia as one of the original board members, not to mention the swing dance magazine I published during this time: Swivel: Vintage Living Magazine, both those gals wrote for me as well as Peter Loggins, the late Jacob Faust, Glenn Mouritzen, Steve Conrad. It’s so fun to read about these guys. It brings back some great memories.

    ~ Tam Francis ~
    http://www.girlinthejitterbugdress.com

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