A huge amount of our noteworthy swing-era dance footage comes from movies, from Day at the Races to Hellzapoppin’, to the many Southern California jitterbug clips where dancers like Dean and Jewel and Hal and Betty danced in packed scenes. Having watched so many great dancers on film and wondered how that experience shaped their dancing, I’ve had it on my bucket list for a long time to dance in a film. A few months after I moved to New York City, a few of the professional dancers in the city got chosen to dance in a new film set in the swing era, and one of them asked me to be one of the Lindy Hop leaders. These are my notes from that day of filming.
Due to my confidentiality contract, I cannot mention the name or plot of the film, nor the specific names of the actors/actresses involved at this time.
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Being 6’2″, I am used to never finding vintage that fits. Before I arrived on set I corresponded with the costuming department, and I offered that I had my own vintage suits that *do* fit in case they wanted to see those, but the responding email I got didn’t mention my request, and seemed to not mention it coldly. Knowing both my share of costuming designers and vintage fashion nuts, I wanted to respect that the costume department knew what they were doing and that fit wasn’t going to be a problem.
When I got to my fitting on the day of filming, they pulled out a pristine 1940’s shirt that fit me perfectly. And 1940’s shoes so thick that you could think of a lot worse things to chuck at someone in self-defense. The shoes somehow felt like they were made for my feet (unlike the vintage heels the followers were going to spend the day dancing in). The suit coat, however, was too short, as usual. It would have to do. I never did see myself in the outfit, because they didn’t have mirrors around.
A few years ago I did a “clip interview” with Norma Miller at Beantown camp (which you can find here) where we went through her great film footage while she talked about it. For this year I thought it’d be great to do a clip interview without any of the performance dancing — no Day at the Races, no Hellzapoppin — and talk instead about her every day swing dancing world in New York, where the dance was born and raised.
In this interview we use film footage to discuss 1930s Harlem, the Savoy ballroom, and rent parties. The result was, in my opinion, a fantastic companion piece to that first interview.
Also, some of the audio content is not safe for work. Love you, Norma. :)
In the new Swungover book, Practice Swing: The Swungover* Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Guide To Improving Your Own Dancing, the book ends with a special appendix that tells people how to build their own practice dance floor. David Rehm gets a good deal of the credit for the floor’s design (and for teaching me how to use a hammer); we built two of them over the last 6 years. As it can be a little tricky without pictures, here is a version of that appendix with photos to help.
(We recommend reading the entire article before starting to build your own, so you can choose which one you want to go with. Also, check out some of the comments, there’s some great advice there.)
Provided below are directions for (1) a simple raw wood floor, (2) a sealed floor, and (3) a floor with rounded trim, which is a lot more comfortable to hit in the middle of the night when you’ve forgotten it’s there. Read more…
Dear Swungover readers,
If you’ve noticed the blog has been a bit light on the posts during the last few years, it’s because I’ve been putting all my swing-dance-writing power into this: Practice Swing: The Swungover* Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Guide to Improving Your Dancing. It’s 450 pages long. More than a hundred chapters. And it’s available now.
I’m very proud of it and excited to share it with the community.
Follow the link below to buy the book.
Also here’s a little FAQ for those wanting to know more.
What does “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” mean?
When it comes to vintage swing dances, there’s no one path to greatness. (Or even simply better-ness.) Every great Lindy Hop, Bal-Swing, Shag, and Solo Jazz dancer in the world has taken their own path to get there. And that’s why Practice Swing is a choose-your-own-adventure practice book.
With more than a hundred chapters of advice to choose from, the book covers productive practice mentality, skill-honing, self-coaching, improvisation and competition skills, and what makes great vintage swing dancers great. It also addresses how to practice alone, with a partner, at a social dance, or in a group. You can read the chapters in any order and focus on those that speak the most to you right now.
Why is this book $32?
For every person interested in a book on getting better at vintage swing dancing, there are hundreds, even thousands, even tens of thousands, who are interested in getting better at tennis, cooking, or making friends and influencing people. If that many people were interested in getting better at vintage swing dancing, the cost of producing each printed book would be lower.
If you’re still feeling hesitant about paying $32 for a book, perhaps consider the fact that it’s 450 pages long and has more than 100 chapters of information on getting better at swing dancing. Most international-level instructors charge around three times that much for a one-hour private lesson, and trust me, you couldn’t even begin to scratch the surface of everything that is in the book in a one-hour private lesson.
Are you going to make Practice Swing available as an ebook?
Not in the near future. Originally, Practice Swing was only going to be available as an ebook, based on the idea that surely this would be cheaper than printing actual books. However, the world of ebook publishing is actually quite convoluted when it comes to royalties, and e-publishers like Amazon Kindle are not designed for niche books. Perhaps in a few years it may be a more viable option.
Also—just throwing this out there—having a print copy around makes the book easy to lend to friends, or to get for your practice groups to have on hand at practice for inspiration.
Will you have copies at events you are at?
Yes. But, as transporting books around the world can be tough on the lumbar spine, I can carry only a limited supply. If you will be at an event where I will be teaching and are interested in reserving a copy, message me a week in advance and I’ll be happy to set one aside to bring to you.
How are you able to sell books online in a timely fashion while you travel around the world teaching?
A publishing company sells my book online—they take the order, print the books, ship them, and handle all other aspects of the transaction. So no matter where I am, the book will get to you. Do note that, as it’s print-on-demand, the book you order will take a few days for the publisher to print before it is mailed out. Hence, it may take a couple weeks to get your book.
You can buy the book here: http://bit.ly/practiceswing
And, as I mentioned earlier, I will be able to carry a few copies with me to events. See the previous question for more details.
What’s with this “Robert White” nonsense? You’re “Bobby White.” I can tell—we’re friends on Facebook.
Writing is my other passion, and I’ve published things unrelated to swing, and plan to publish a lot more non-swing dancing writing in the future. Since I prefer my author name to be “Robert White,” it’s good to have that on everything I publish. This way, when I sell my bestselling bodice-ripper/swashbuckling romance-and-cooking novel, those readers will also go buy Practice Swing. Ultimately, every one of my readers will improve their swing dancing. Master plan.
You all can call me Bobby. ;)
Who published this book?
Why, Swungover did. It’s officially listed as the book’s publishing house. (Kinda cool/strange to think that, just by buying the book’s ISBN number, I started an independent publishing house.) Blurb is the company that prints the book and through which I formatted the book.
Shameless plug time here at Swungover! Kate & I recently put out three new DVDs: Two of them go over the basic fundamentals of Pure Balboa & Bal-Swing, and a third is an intermediate/advanced collection of footwork.
For a decade we have been crafting the way we teach the dance to beginners, and the two beginner DVDs are a culmination of a lot of that crafting. For the PURE-BAL DVD, we try to approach teaching the dance organically — as a way of playing with quicks and slows — and then tackle almost the complete canon of original Pure Balboa moves.
For the BAL-SWING DVD, we build the dance with momentum, on top of giving what we see re the most important tricks and tips for mastering the rotation-based swing dance.
The FOOTWORK DVD is not only a collection of footwork for every basic Pure Bal and Bal-Swing movements— we try to cover all the major types of variations, from slides to kicks to tapping, from rhythmically punchy to rhythmically flowing. We also were excited to give variations that not only highlight each individual dancer, but also the partnership, reinforcing our belief that the best Swing partner dances highlight both.
Want them!?!? You can order them here.
Fellow dance history buff Mike Thibault recently unearthed a digital scan of the floor plan of the Savoy Ballroom from the New York Public Library Digital Collection, as well as a post card showing the interior. The result was a renewed discussion (and research call-to-arms) regarding our favorite ballroom, which until now might have existed very differently in many dancer’s heads.
So, let’s take a look around the place, shall we?
From the floor plan (available here) the most striking thing is how small the dance floor was. I had always heard “The Savoy was the size of a city block” but never thought to question how big the dance floor was in comparison. As dancer Keith Moore pointed out in the discussion, this reminds us how much the Savoy was a Social Club more than just a ballroom.
Also, dancer Kayre Morrison asked, why is the “Men’s” room so much bigger than the “Ladies” room?
Frankie Manning often mentioned what it was like walking into the Savoy, and mentioned the feeling of walking up the stairs, turning around, and seeing the bandstand and all the dancers. As you can see on the floor plan, this is exactly what would have happened.
Speaking of bandstand, a lot of people had questions about the famous battle of the bands that took place there. Over the years, there has formed in many people’s minds the idea of one band stand on each end of the ballroom. In reality, all research points to the bandstands actually being side-by-side. And, deviously, the guest bands battling Chick played on the smaller, intermission bandstand. Take a look at this visual from Christian Batchelor’s book “This Thing Called Swing.” Read more…
Ray was a true “Swing” dancer as they would have called it — meaning, he didn’t do just one dance; he instead did any and every step swing music inspired, mixing the styles and moves of Shag, Balboa, Bal-Swing, Lindy, and the numerous wild tricks he and his partner Patty Lacey could think up. He especially loved performing in contests and films. (For instance, Mad Youth)
He spent the later years of his life traveling the world as a special guest at swing dance events, and was always known for being kind, excited, and in good spirits.
I first heard the news at the International Lindy Hop Championships, an event that celebrates the music and dancing he spent his life doing and its influence across the world.
The final night, Nick Williams and I gave a tribute to Ray over the microphone, ending by urging that Ray was not the kind of guy who would want people sad over his passing. So we instead encouraged the dancers to pay tribute to him by rolling up their pant legs, getting out onto the floor, and dancing any and every step they felt inspired to do.
The next time you’re on a dance floor, take a moment to do the same. The smile on your face will match Ray’s.
To see Ray in action, Morgan Day has put up a great tribute to his dancing:
Also, some pictures of note. First, Ray with Judy Garland, a good friend of his. Second, with Frankie Manning. Photos courtesy of Morgan Day.