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Why Balboa

April 28, 2021
Swing dancers meet for a competition in Los Angeles in 1939.

In 2018, Herrang Magazine asked me to answer this question in 350 words. Here was that answer.

“Balboa.”

To some, it means boring. To some, it means confining freedom. To some, an excuse for not being able to dance Lindy fast.

To others, though, it means dancing you often taste more than you see. It means freedom by framework. And it means dancing comfortably to fast swing music all night long, all life-long.

“It is a poem,” you might have heard. One that might sit with you awhile before you realize how much you like it — how well it puts a thousand possible words into one, how beautiful the white space of the page around them is.

“Balboa” is not just one dance, but three. There’s what the old timers called “Balboa,” a pre-swing dance from an hour’s drive or, back in the day, trolley ride south of L.A. They tell us it was done on dance floors cramped with elbows and body heat and date night perfumes. In this thick jungle, the dance evolved accordingly — chest-to-chest, hardly moving, the feet shuffling to the music like wire brushes across a drum head. Hidden from spectators, the dancers moved glued together as one, floating, drifting this way and that, meditating in a sea of swing.

Then there was “Swing,” the dance the Los Angeles kids of that wild west town invented when bands became big and no-one from New York was around to show them a swing out. All they knew were the box-steps, trots and Charlestons of their parents. From that lazy ball-room shaped canvas, it was only a matter of time before they were twisting, turning, and stretching to the swing of the music in an orbiting dance. Their freedom lead to function.

On the dance floors of masonic temples and high school gyms, “Balboa” and “Swing” met, and a new dance was born, “Bal-Swing,” melting the two philosophies together — it became an introverted performance dance, an engineer’s game, a meditative explosion. A dance jungle gym with bars strong for climbing on — and swinging from. 

Lindy is only one of our family’s elders. “Balboa,” “Swing” and “Bal-Swing” are three other beautiful answers to the question, “Grandma, what does it mean to truly swing?”

This article appeared in an earlier form in an edition of Herrang magazine in 2018.

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The 1939 Harvest Moon Ball

April 20, 2021

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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

This is the shorter, snack-sized version of this essay. For more information and research, check out the Geek Out version here. This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. Read 1935 here, 1936 here, 1937 here, and the 1938 here.

 

A Hot Spring

In 1939, while the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were in their busiest year yet, the world was boiling. In Europe, countries all around Germany swarmed in preparation for the oncoming storm. America was not that worried yet; in February of 1939, around 20,000 attended a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. It featured a giant portrait of Washington with swastiskas on each side. 20,000 people is a sell out, the same number that watched Harvest Moon Balls. The good news: whereas Harvest Moon Balls often had a couple thousand people outside who couldn’t get tickets, the Nazi rally had 100,000 people outside — protesting. 

In April, Billie Holiday recorded a song titled “Strange Fruit” — about the lynching of Black Americans in the South. From 1930 up to this point, there had already been 117 lynchings of Black Americans in the US. And in June, Chick Webb — the original King of Swing and the front man of the Savoy bandstand — died from the Tuberculosis of the Spine that had tore up his body and often left him passed out in pain after gigs.    

As usual, summer brought with it the annual Harvest Moon Ball. Despite being in the middle of an incredibly grinding schedule at the World’s Fair, there was probably no way Whitey would let his Lindy Hoppers sit out a Harvest Moon Ball. They had a legacy to uphold: They had won the championship all four previous years, and had even won all placements in the last two HMB Lindy divisions. 

 

Daily_News_Sun__Jul_16__1939_

This year’s announcement. Notice they use a figure performed by Sarah Ward & William Downes from the 1938 pictures (in the above right corner).

Read more…

The 1939 Harvest Moon Ball (GEEK OUT)

April 20, 2021

 

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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

This is the longer, Geek-Out version of this article which may have  more information and research than you may care about. For the shorter, Snack-sized version, click here. This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. Read 1935 here, 1936 here, 1937 here, and the 1938 here

 

A Hot Spring

In 1939, while the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were in their busiest year yet, the world was boiling. In Europe, countries all around Germany swarmed in preparation for the oncoming storm. America was not that worried yet; in February of 1939, around 20,000 attended a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden. It featured a giant portrait of Washington with swastiskas on each side. 20,000 people is a sell out, the same number that watched Harvest Moon Balls. The good news: whereas Harvest Moon Balls often had a couple thousand people outside who couldn’t get tickets, the Nazi rally had 100,000 people outside — protesting. 

In April, Billie Holiday recorded a song titled “Strange Fruit” — about the lynching of Black Americans in the South. From 1930 up to this point, there had already been 117 lynchings of Black Americans in the US. And in June, Chick Webb — the original King of Swing and the front man of the Savoy bandstand — died from the Tuberculosis of the Spine that had tore up his body and often left him passed out in pain after gigs.    

March brought with it the Savoy’s 14th birthday — despite being opened in 1926. Here’s a story on why:       

 

Article on the Savoy Daily_News_Mon__Apr_17__1939_

 

And, as usual, summer brought with it the annual Harvest Moon Ball. Despite being in the middle of an incredibly grinding schedule at the World’s Fair, there was probably no way Whitey would let his Lindy Hoppers sit out a Harvest Moon Ball. They had a legacy to uphold: They had won the championship all four previous years, and had even won all placements in the last two HMB Lindy divisions. 

 

Daily_News_Sun__Jul_16__1939_

This year’s announcement. Notice they use a figure performed by Sarah Ward & William Downes from the 1938 pictures (in the above right corner).

Read more…

Introducing: The Air Swungover

April 16, 2021

At the very beginning of April I got a approached by Nike. (Technically, their helicopter stopped by. But I don’t have time to get into it, I’m trying to write shorter posts.)

“Bobby,” they said. “Sorry— Mr. White. You, You’re LEGENDARY. Your Balboa? Come on. Your role in NYC Lindy Hop performance groups? Incredible. Your blog? I mean, DAMN. Now then. We’re going to cut straight to the edge cause we know you’re a busy man, you don’t have time for bull. Especially these days. Here’s the slice — over the years, we at Nike have had the world’s greatest athlete design a shoe. Been there, done that. Blah blah blah Air Jordans, whatever, who cares. Then we went the artistic route and had Kanye do his — he owns a rhinoceros, by the way. Keeps it in a penthouse in the Upper East Side. But I’m telling you straight. He’s just a stop on the destination — the destination to YOU. Want another Macallan 95?”

I accept and he hands me the bottle.

“Just keep it. You see, we were thinking…” He leaned forward. “It’s time to do both. BAM. Artist, AND athlete. But not too much of an athlete — people can’t relate to the Salenas and the Lebrons, they spend too much time at the gym. And, sure, I know what you’re thinking, we could ask any number of incredible dancers — You’re too humble. Christine, isn’t this guy too humble? But get this. We don’t just want an athlete and an artist, but ALSO a history lover who writes really long blog posts about it.” He leaned forward. His glass was shaking. “We need Bobby White.”

Read more…

Relentless: 1939 & The Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers

April 6, 2021

 

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This is part of a series of essays that follows the rough time line of Savoy Lindy Hop from 1935 onwards. You may find the Harvest Moon Ball series interesting to go deeper into the grand time line of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers at this time:  1935, 1936, 1937,  1938. 

In 1939, things were going well for Herbert Whitey and his Lindy Hoppers. First off, their touring had perhaps reached its zenith — eight of his couples, lead by Frankie Manning, were on a grand, near-year-long tour of Australia and New Zealand. Then there was a group of all-men dancers he had on Broadway in Knickerbocker Holiday. On top of that, the highly-anticipated New York World’s Fair was going to feature his Lindy Hoppers — forty of them. Then there was another call from Broadway, a show called The Hot Mikado, asking him for dance teams. (What we’d call “couples” today.)

Whitey suddenly found that he had more gigs than he had qualified dancers for. But, we get the feeling Whitey rarely said “no” to a paycheck. Not only did he promise all of these gigs dancers, he even talked Hot Mikado from six couples to seven (one offstage as a backup). According to Frankie, it got to the point that if you could swing out a little bit, he’d put you into a group.  

The year looked like it was going to be relentless.

 

The World’s Fair 

The World’s Fair of 1939 was held in Flushing, Queens, just one bridge over from Harlem. Among the hundreds of exhibits from all over the world, there would be a Savoy Ballroom, showcasing Jazz Dance and the Lindy Hop. And, the Black American newspapers were very proud; even though the venture was owned by the Savoy’s White founder, Moe Gale, the Savoy’s Pavilion was the only large all-Black-run exhibit — all Black staff, band, and performers, and it even showcased a Black cultural art. Read more…