Swing Dancing is Back
Heard any good Squirrel Nut Zippers lately? Done any St. Louis Shag? Dropped by Bimbo's 365 Club? If not, tell your partner to pull out his zoot suit, because hep cats are boppin' with the renaissance of swing dancing.
Swing, that feel-good sound of pure cool, is making a big-time comeback on both Coasts, as well as in the country's heartland. The "swing movement" - as aficionados refer to it - established its roots in the 1920s at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. According to V. Vale, a Daddy-O of modern-day swing and the author of Swing: The New Retro Renaissance, musicians and dancers inspired one another to ever-higher levels of originality in those early days. "Bands egged on the dancers; dancers egged on the bands. There were heavy dance contests, and it was bad if you copied anyone else's moves."
By the 1930s, swing had caught on with white America, and the dances were simplified and codified to appeal to the masses. Says Vale, "Swing was the first civil rights movement, in that the original swing era was the first time you had black and white people dancing together on the same floor." In addition, he notes, "Benny Goodman was the first to dare to have black musicians like Charlie Christian and Lionel Hampton on stage with him."
Though postwar prosperity brought about cultural changes that fragmented swing into other musical forms and the Savoy Ballroom closed its doors in 1958, the Lindy Hop and other dances were kept alive by a few swing pioneers. Then, in 1989, the Los Angeles group Royal Crown Revue gave birth to the modern neo-swing movement, viewed as an uplifting option to depressing alternative rock and grunge.
These days, the elements of swing are thriving. The classic swing albums of the '30s and 40's are being re-released on CDs, and new neo-swing bands, such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers are producing a savory blend of jazz and blues, along with a dash of Latin spice. Some groups, like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, combine swing and ska, a musical genre informed by R&B, jazz and calypso.
But the music isn't happening without the jiving and wailing of dancers, and they're turning out in record numbers at dance studios for lessons in the Lindy Hop (named for Charles Lindbergh's first trans-Atlantic flight), East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, the Charleston, and the St. Louis Shag. The primary difference between East Coast Swing and West Coast Swing is that in the latter, slower music allows dancers to add more intricate footwork, called syncopation. The Shag is done to very fast music - 165 beats per minute or more - and has a bouncier step, as well as kicks and jumps.
Swing dances also have a distinct regional flavor. From Memphis to the tip of Florida the Beach Bop is popular, while in Boston the Balboa is all the rage. In Texas, hep cats are dancing to the Dallas Push and Houston Whip, and in New Orleans, the Jamaica - a variation of the Lindy - is hot.
Once you've had your lessons, and moved from a bunter (someone with no rhythm) to a cat (someone who swings), you're ready to hit the nightclub scene. At places like Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco, an impeccably preserved art-deco supper club, dancers honor the old swing tradition of improvisation by taking the classics and adding a '90s edge.
Virtually every city has at least one swing nightclub. And it's there that the transformation from swing aficionado to true auteur occurs. Swingophiles immerse themselves into the subculture of swing, and sport spotless vintage automobiles and retro costumes. For guys, that means a '40s double-breasted zoot suit complete with a watch fob, Spectator two-tone shoes, suspenders, a wide tie and a fedora.
Gals' retro-style ranges from sweetheart, scoop and plunging V-necklines, to sleeveless, spaghetti straps, off the shoulder and caplet sleeves, to fitted bodices and flared and gored skirts. Fabrics include animal prints, florals, polka dots and solids, with finishing touches of fringe, fur trim, rhinestones and glitter.
While genuine vintage clothing isn't often available in plus sizes, retro is hot in current fashion. The prints, styles and tone of swing are there for the buying. Accentuating the fashion are vintage accessories, including strands of pearls. Some swingers go so far as to re-decorate their homes with couches and kitsch from the '30s and '40s, turning them into retro palaces.
There's no doubt that there's a renaissance of swing sweeping the nation. It's hep, it's fun, and with kids as young as 13 joining the craze, swing dancing won't fade away anytime soon. So get yourself some gladrags, spin some tunes, go out on the town, and get into the swing!
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