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.
Swing is blossoming throughout Manhattan [see sidebars]. On Monday nights at Wells Restaurant, a chicken and waffle house in Harlem, you can still savor the old Savoy spirit during the second set, when most of the tourists have left. The old-timers serenely swing out to the glorious sounds of the 21-piece Harlem Renaissance Orchestra, which uses the occasion to have a practice “blow.” Downtown on Mondays, the raucous, retro new wave takes over the Louisiana Community Bar & Grill. This mayhem of uninhibited swing dancers lurching around, flinging limbs and partners in all directions when the TV crews give them space, is best observed from a distance.
Saturday nights at Windows on the World, old-timers, “serious dancers,” tourists, and the new wave take over the bar’s dance floor. The band members are usually the sharpest dressers, in fedoras, suspenders, and zoots; the dancers are more conservative, wearing T-shirts and shorts, business suits, and everything in between. In midtown you can swing nightly at Swing 46, Fridays and Saturdays at the Supper Club, every Sunday at Irving Plaza, and fortnightly on Saturdays at the 92nd Street Y.
New York still awaits the entrepreneur with the vision and Napoleonic skills to pack the scene’s disparate elements into a right-sized space like the ailing Roseland Ballroom. It’s no easy task; the “serious dancers” and the “retros” have to be convinced that they need each other. The notion of “one groove” is still missing, but perhaps the continuing tension will animate the necessary vision and we’ll catch up with the rest of the country. If you doubt this possibility, check out the crowds at Midsummer Night Swing.
Terry Monaghan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is writing a book about the Savoy Ballroom and Lindy Hopping in New York, and would like anyone who remembers the scene before 1960 to contact him c/o the Institute of Jazz Studies, Dana Library, SUNJ, Rutgers, Newark, N.J. 07102.
Swing City: Where to find your groove
At Supper Club (240 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, 462-3250), if you make it past the style-sensitive bouncer you’ll time-trip to the era of jitterbuggers and big bands. The true spirit of swing is incarnated by the retro-geared hepsters and sizzling sultans here. Even if your chops don’t hold a candle to those of the sure-footed denizens dominating the dance floor, the venue’s extravagance is certain to romance even the most cowardly of cats. The swing experience lies in just being there, Fridays and Saturdays from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. $12 cover
The Greatest Bar on Earth (Windows on the World, 1 World Trade Center, 107th floor, 524-7000) The view is spectacular, but swing dancing seems as appropriate in this revamped ’80s vestige as the sushi chef condemned to the middle of the room. The dance floor is small, the place a bit smoky, and the tourists obnoxious, but for beginners honing basic skills it’s less intimidating than the Supper Club and Swing 46, which serious dancers commandeer. The decibel level is damaging, but at five bucks the view is a bargain. Live music Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.; DJs spin until 1 a.m.
Irving Plaza (17 Irving Place, at 15th Street, 777-6800), hailed as the best venue in the city because of its huge floor, attracts an eclectic group of dancers not only for its wide variety of live bands but also for its new spin on the word swingers. Swapping partners is considered the norm. Those flying solo are forbidden to become wallflowers. Don’t be surprised if a total stranger sidles over and asks for a dance. Hosted by the New York Swing Dancing Society, the young, old, black, white, and green finish the weekend in style, Sundays from 8 p.m. to midnight. $13 admission
Swing 46 (349 West 46th Street, 262-9554), on Restaurant Row, is where the bouncers at the Supper Club banish you for lack of stylish dress. Better as a bar than a mecca for serious dancing, its heavy, smoke-filled air and tiny floor may spur you to cut the evening short. Show up any evening of the week for top-shelf bands, and free lessons from 9:00 to 9:30 p.m. $5 cover Monday through Wednesday, $10 Thursday through Saturday.
Louisiana Community Bar & Grill (622 Broadway, 460-9633) Monday Night Swing Dance at 10 p.m. No cover.
Wells Restaurant (2247-49 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, 234-0700) Mondays from 9 p.m. to midnight.$5 cover, $15 minimum.
At Denim & Diamonds (511 Lexington Avenue, 371-1600), swing night’s the third Wednesday of each month; swing’s coupled with ballroom every second Wednesday at 7 p.m. $7.
At Don Hill’s (511 Greenwich Street, 219-2850), starting in July, “Wild Cool and Swingin’ Wednesdays” will kick off at 8 p.m.
Midsummer Night Swing (Fountain Plaza, Lincoln Center, Columbus Avenue at 63th Street, 875-5766, www.lincolncenter.org) At least one night each week is dedicated to swing and big bands in this festival, continuing Tuesdays through Saturdays through July 25. $10, with season passes available and free dancing on the adjacent concrete.
Rodeo Bar (375 Third Avenue, 683-6500) Sunday Night Swing at 10 p.m. —Deirdre Hussey
Women needn’t bring a partner to learn ceroc. In fact, more men than women demonstrate the basics of a form—evolved from jitterbug—first introduced to the French by American GIs during World War II. At the Twist, ceroc pros teach beginner and intermediate classes, with freestyle ceroc dancing following. Music varies from ’40s swing to rock ‘n’ roll, making this modern jive useful on any dance floor across the city. Four basic steps: the shoulder slide, the octopus, the push spin, and the comb, a/k/a the “sexy” move, where you run your hand through the back of your partner’s hair. Pray he’s good-lookin’ and has a clean head. Twist Nightclub (209 East 84th Street, 678-6064) Tuesdays from 7:30 to 10 p.m. $8 cover charge includes lessons. —Meredith Driver
Men who have some sense of rhythm should run, not walk, to the nearest swing studio. You’ll get more practice than the women in my class, where the ratio is seriously skewed—four women to one man. The Sandra Cameron Dance Center (20 Cooper Square, 674-0505) produces swingers in droves. Classes are packed weeks in advance. Yet there’s a shortage of a key component. You’d think men would be diving at the chance. Swing dancing is one place where guys still get to be in charge. Strong women acquiesce to the need for an equally strong partner to lead. At first, all goes well; we seem to be in sync with the basics. Then the combinations, turns, and backsteps throw us off track, especially as we rotate every few minutes to the next man in line. I have to fight the urge to lead, waiting for guys to cue me out and back in again, but that’s better than having phantom partners. —Athima Chansanchai
Everybody Dances, Elizabeth Benjamin’s new series of two videotapes and a CD, aims to bring swing into your living room and your life, demonstrating and teaching three styles: the Lindy, West Coast swing, and Carolina shag. Featured are the indomitable Frankie Manning (only 82 when these lessons were shot) and the adorable Mickey Davidson, and other dancers young and old from New York, Myrtle Beach, and St. Louis. The first tape, “Basics and Foundations,” is perfect for beginners; the second, “Advanced Patterns & Really Cool Moves,” lays out wilder possibilities. The CD provides a range of tunes for practicing. Students from preteens to retirees will find role models in this appealing collection. Order from Everybody Dances, Inc., 81 East 7th Street, NYC 10003; 388-9555. —Elizabeth Zimmer
Dance Manhattan (39 West 19th Street, 807-0802), Teddy Kern and Elena Iannucci’s Chelsea studio, offers a full swing program including Lindy Hop and West Coast swing at regular classes and special workshops. —E.Z.
Stepping Out (1780 Broadway, 4th floor, 245-5200) Specializes in classes where the sex of the person leading is not an issue. —E.Z.