For non-professional dancers, dancing is typically an occasional social activity, but for me it is the axis on which my whole social life turns. When I’m simply listening to music, I prefer alternative and acoustic rock, but when I dance, it’s all about swing and blues. Last weekend, I danced into another era, at a Denver event called Lindy Diversion. Swing dancers took classes all day, and danced to a live band or DJ all night — until 4:00 a.m. if they could stay awake. For those of us who dance the Lindy hop, obsession “don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
When I dance, it’s all about swing and blues.
I grew up with my grandmother, and she and I used to enjoy watching old movies together, especially the musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly and anybody. Whenever the music was swing, I wanted to jump up and jitterbug, though I had no idea how. I cut my teeth on big band music by the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glen Miller. My tastes later expanded to the bad-ass swing, jump-blues, and rhythm-and-blues of artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ray Charles. My grandmother used to sing the songs of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday while doing housework. So, for me, the music of that era hits the same emotional note as the smell of Grand-mom’s homemade apple pie. It’s the soundtrack of my childhood, though it was recorded before my time.
My grandmother and I used to watch old movies on TV, especially the musicals of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Here are Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers in Swing Time.
When I was a teen, I took lessons in ballet, jazz, and tap. I didn’t know jitterbug was an option in the 70s and 80s. Then Gap came out with its Khakis Swing commercial in 1998, and swing dancing swept the country again: specifically the Lindy hop, forerunner of the jitterbug.
Then Gap came out with its Khakis Swing commercial in 1998, and swing dancing swept the country again.
The Lindy hop was created by young black dancers in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s. They borrowed some footwork from Charleston and tap, but like the bands they danced to, these kids were inventing a new art form. Frankie Manning was a regular contest winner at The Savoy Ballroom, where he became famous for throwing girls overhead in Lindy’s first aerial moves. He later became a featured dancer and chief choreographer for Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who performed in Hollywood films. I took a class from Frankie several years ago. His aerial days were behind him, but he still had plenty of groove in his attitude. He died last year at 94, but he danced almost to the end. That’s my plan, too.
Frankie Manning became a featured dancer and chief choreographer for Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who performed in such films as Hellzapoppin’.
I took a trip around the world the year of the Gap ad, starting with a drive down the Pacific coast. In Seattle, someone at a hostel invited me to a swing class at the Phoenix Underground. We got lost and missed the class, but he taught me some basic east coast swing — a simplified cousin of the Lindy — and I spent the night swingin’ on a cloud. In Portland, I hunted down a Lindy class at the Crystal Ballroom, where people dressed in vintage clothes and set the sprung hardwood floor bouncing. Then I spent three months in Los Angeles, dancing Lindy to live bands at The Derby – now eclipsed by Lindy Groove in Pasadena. Everywhere I went, I felt drawn to the edges of jam circles, clapping and hooting as couples flew into the center to show off their hottest moves.
Everywhere I went, I felt drawn to the edges of jam circles. Here’s a jam circle at the Denver Turnverein.
After I returned from backpacking overseas, I went back on the prowl for swing. I found a swing scene in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where I learned the old-time line dance called the Shim Sham. Then in 2000, I landed in Denver’s swing scene, and ever since then Denver’s dancers have become my extended family. Before I got married, I danced at least twice a week. Now, I try to go once a week. When I dance a full weekend, I feel like I’ve jumped into an old musical. I can hear Mickey Rooney shouting, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”
“Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” Here are Laura Glaess and Mike Roberts, Lindy Diversion instructors from Austin, Texas.
Last weekend at Lindy Diversion, I took five classes in three days and danced for two nights until my legs were wobbly. I would have taken twice as many classes and danced until dawn, if not for other commitments. Still, I learned a lot: primal moves that set my hips twisting earthward, light-footed moves that required me to focus on my partner while still leaving room for spontaneity, and alternatives to the step-step-triple-step I usually do when my partner unfurls me in a swing-out. Part of the fun of Lindy is that it’s largely improvisational, though instructors can help dancers build their style vocabulary.
Lindy is largely improvisational, though instructors can help dancers build their style vocabulary. Skye Humphries is an instructor from Washington, D.C.
As part of the weekend, a bunch of us who’ve been dancing together for ten years had a party to just hang, talk, and eat. It’s interesting how much we have in common. It seems that a dance that’s loose on rules attracts open, active people who color life outside the lines. Yesterday a couple of my dancing friends threw a karaoke party. Tomorrow another dancing friend will throw a clothing swap party. Even when we’re not dancing, we enjoy moving through life together.
Even when we’re not dancing, we enjoy moving through life together.
One thing that makes my friendships with dancers special is that we don’t need to chatter to enjoy each other. I’m talkative by nature, but it has been a gift to learn that I can connect with another person without saying a word: just two bodies moving in space, sharing the lively, blood-pumping, fun-loving harmony and rhythm of a song.