Swing Shift

A new generation, mostly white, appropriates the lindy hop

Swing, that most ebullient of partner dances founded in New York's very own Lindy Hop, is set once again to become a major cultural occupation here. The best swing dance classes are as hard to get into as Studio 54 once was, and Gap khakis are only the latest product sold via Lindy on TV. Swing nights at Lincoln Center's Midsummer NightSwing were packed to capacity last summer. This year's five-week season opened June 24, with stellar 84-year-old Lindy Hopper Frankie Manning teaching and performing with Mickey Davidson. On July 2 the Glenn Miller Orchestra will play for crowds certain to spill off the wooden dance floor and fill the surrounding concrete plaza.

Lindy dancers visited the White House in March for a show recorded by PBS (scheduled for broadcast on September 16 at 9 p.m.); significantly, one couple, Tyrone Cooper and Beverly Moore, came from Harlem, and the other from Los Angeles. The new enthusiasm, a '90s phenomenon, burgeons on both coasts, filling the larger clubs and the few surviving ballrooms. It even attracts teens who regard it as really "cool," for once using the period terminology correctly. The Internet yields endless information about events, clothes, bands, and dancers, and there's been a massive reissue of formerly scarce '30s and '40s recordings on CD. The awareness of dance as a healthy form of exercise and the post-AIDS renegotiations of sexual relationships also contribute to the return of that "golden age" when swing was king and kids got high dancing.

The West Coast, mainly Los Angeles, led the way with its devil-may-care willingness to mix styles, variously called "neo," "retro," or "Californian" swing, complete with period zoot suits, two-tone shoes, and elaborate underwear. If New York had been ripe for such a revival, the 1992 biopic Malcolm X should have sparked it. The film's epic dance scene, featuring mostly local extras in period dress, could have started a trend, but the final result lacked conviction (veteran Lindy Hopper Norma Miller, 78, featured in it, remarked afterwards, "It was lousy!").

The Lindy evolved from the Charleston among Harlem dancers in the late '20s. To the new local aficionados, the phrase "serious dancers" suggests an awareness of the city's legacy--mostly black Lindy Hoppers now upward of 60 and still dancing. Their focus was Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, at 140th Street and Lenox Avenue, where all the top bands played until it closed in 1958. Like any other influential dance form, the Lindy Hop (a/k/a jitterbug) went through various incarnations at the Savoy. Proponents of its different styles are still with us. Norma Miller and Frankie Manning began dancing there in the '30s, while Sugar and George Sullivan, Charlotte Thacker, Willie Posey, and others, all still active, swung out in the '40s and '50s.

Despite racial and ethnic divisions, the Depression and wartime produced a unified American music and dance style--swing--that most people could relate to. Postwar changes and prosperity eroded the cultural unanimity; swing fragmented into bebop, rhythm and blues, western swing, mambo, rock, and even gospel. For the next 20 years an indefatigable few--principally the Mama Lu Parks Dance Company and the duo of Al Minns and Leon James--kept the Lindy Hop alive. Parks and Minns lived long enough to see their hard work find new enthusiasts both at home and abroad. A bunch of youngManhattanites formed the New York Swing Dance Society and have promoted a Sunday-night dance since 1985. Thediehards' concern with "authenticity" and tradition puts them somewhat at odds with '90s values.

Their commitment, however, established a regular dance venue and a host of devotees, some of whom are a joy to watch. (On the first Sunday of each month at Irving Plaza, a mass incursion of young Jehovah's Witnesses effectively disproves the contention that all God's children got rhythm, but what they lack in swing dance skills they make up for by considerably reducing the average age of the crowd and extending its racial diversity. Apart from the Witnesses, only a few young African Americans participate in this downtown scene.)

Early in the '90s, the resurgence began to lose steam, and "West Coast swing," a more subdued, mellow version of the Lindy, seemed set to take over. Drawing on the ranks of Lindy enthusiasts from London, Stockholm, Los Angeles, and even Munich, the NYSDS used Frankie Manning's 80th birthday to reignite the local scene in 1994. Though organizers suffered burnout and some European supporters schemed to corner the market in Lindy Hopping by setting up a so-called "World Lindy Hop Federation," a bunch of local activists was sufficiently energized by the visitors to set about reinvigorating the scene. While WLHF lapsed into arguing about who should give directions and who should follow them, the world changed. The Internet now undermines old notions of centrality. Dancers don't need executive committees; with information widely available and the economy booming, the Lindy spirit flourishes once more.

Even so, tension remains between newcomers who just want to have fun and those who see swing as serious business. Most venues feature the newly committed, fastidiously trying to fit their latest step patterns to the music, surrounded by unabashed hedonists and tourists who merrily bob from side to side or fling themselves around in what they imagine is the real thing. The Sandra Cameron Dance Center has become a crossroads for these currents. Larry Schulz, its co-owner, played an important role during the late '70s and '80s, persuading old-timers like Minns and Manning to teach again. Dance Manhattan, another studio that features Lindy, is closely associated with the American Swing Dance Championships held each spring at the Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel. The first national Lindy Hop championships since the '30s are scheduled for October 30 through November 1, also, alas, in New Jersey.

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