The Old Timer (Part 1: A Classless Dance)

Author’s note: As you read this essay, please note it was composed in 2010, and though the main ideas are still valid I would make several different choices in how I present it were I writing it today, such as the use of non-gendered language when referring to Followers and Leaders. (I hope to compose an updated version within the next few years.) That said, I have left it in its original form to serve as an example of where the Swing scene was at at the time of its publication.


This is the first part of a 5-part essay where I discuss the world of the original swing-era dancer; a person that, in many ways, was probably not like you and me. Also, I work very hard on the thoughts and words I put into these essays. If you mention these ideas to others, please throw in a reference and/or send them to this website.

In trying to capture the true spirit of the original swing dancers, I realize often how much I fail at doing so. I think that, to some degree, the modern scene as a whole has this problem. Look at an old Jitterbug picture, and chances are there’s something about it that we wouldn’t quite capture in a dance picture taken today.

This is much more true for video clips. For instance, a few of us Balboa teachers work very hard to figure out why the “Venice Beach Clip” dancers look the way they do, and why we don’t look like them. I believe before we can start recovering that spirit of the original swing dancers, we first have to understand how different they are from us. By which I mean this: Even though we may all be desiring to express ourselves to the same great music, the original dancers came at that expression from different paths, and I think that produced a different dance than we have today.

A Classless Dance

We often joke in classes how the original dancers are absolutely terrible at teaching the dance. A lot of the crotchety southern California old timers would teach with only the words “no”, “nope,” and “you’re doing it all wrong.” If you asked them what step they just did, they’d do it again, different, swearing that they did it the same as the first time. It’s not their fault. In fact, it reminds me of my father who tried to teach me how to drive stick in his corvette, which he loved at least half as much as my mom, whom he loved more than anything in the world. He couldn’t explain things very well and got very frustrated about it, especially after the sound the car made when I interpreted his instructions. The reason why he couldn’t teach it is because it’s something he learned to do himself, something he had perfected his own way of doing through countless years of trial and error, and something he had never been asked to teach before.

One of the large differences between the original jitterbugs and us is that we are almost all taught how to dance by instructors. This simply was not true for a lot of the original dancers, which is why they, for the most part, aren’t good instructors. [clarification: Not because you have to learn from a teacher to be a good teacher, but because the idea of breaking down the dance and teaching it was something many of them didn’t hold as a priority.] People like Frankie Manning, who ran a troupe of dancers and was expected to train them, and Dean Collins, who was passionate about teaching and breaking down the dance, were pretty large exceptions to the rule. For the most part, dancers learned by going to a dance and trying to steal stuff they saw others do, or by trying to make up new stuff. (Frankie Manning has said he was known as the biggest thief in the Savoy Ballroom.) Anyone who has tried to learn by this method today knows the result: in trying to steal something from someone else, you get it wrong, and in doing so invent a new step.

In a several ways, this style of learning is actually more productive for certain dancers than the modern take-a-class style. Let me explain: The act of taking a class could be looked at as being spoon-fed a dance education. To get better, or to create their own look, most of the original dancers had to be very pro-active about learning how to dance. After seeing a move they wanted to steal, they’d probably have to try it out right away, before they forgot what it looked like. They’d make up material often, and before they’d go out to a dance, they’d probably practice the new stuff they were working on to try out that night.

Working so hard to learn something by yourself without a teacher is a very personal thing. It makes the product of that learning a child, complete with some amount of the love, protection, and pride that connection infers. Something tells me this is an important part of the puzzle of the original jitterbug spirit. The great dancers you see in the past probably don’t look like any other dancers, because they worked hard to build up their own personal style of swing dance. (Side note: the only reasons why others of the era look like Frankie or Dean is probably because Frankie or Dean taught them).

A note on followers: imagine a follower that never took a class in her life. She had no idea what any “steps” were, she only stepped under her feet and it was up to the leader to move her around. This meant a leader would absolutely have to lead what he wanted to do, and a follower would always step right under herself.

The downside to all of this is that the original dancers didn’t really have a lot of, well, gentleness. We can tell because in a lot of the clips, it’s obvious the followers are being muscled around, and that sheer pulling/pushing is doing work body leading could be doing much better. Also, different dancers might have different leading/following rules, or not many rules at all (at least, consistent ones).

Obviously, the classes-is-spoon-feeding statement is an extreme description, and I don’t want you to think for a second that I’m suggesting the modern scene stop taking classes. I think the benefits of classes far outweigh the cons (especially for women’s arms). Teaching is incredibly important to any modern swing dancer because it means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel by trying to learn swing mechanics on your own. Because of classes, modern dancers have a much bigger range of movement, much deeper understanding of technique, I believe, and much more inspiration for what they can accomplish. And though a follower can learn an awful lot about swing dancing by thinking about how an original follower would have danced having never had a class, the original follower’s couldn’t do half of the super advanced things a modern master follower could do who used modern frame and following techniques.

Besides, here’s the best news: it’s easy to get the best of both worlds by going to classes AND trying to steal/create the way the old timers did.

12 responses to “The Old Timer (Part 1: A Classless Dance)”

  1. Excellent post. It reminds me of trombonist Jack Teagarden who was largely self taught and developed his own technique and such a beautiful tone. It also reminds me of bop musicians who disdain vintage jazz musicians for lack of technique, but whose own music lacks soul. Good food for thought Mr.White.

  2. I also think that different people learn in different ways, and class learning opens the dance up to whole bunches of people who could not have learned it the old-fashioned way (me, for instance). :)

    • Well, I can’t really express how much teaching has helped the dance as a whole (for instance, I don’t think it would exist today at all outside of a handful of people if it wasn’t a taught art form). But also, don’t sell yourself short; I think you’d be surprised what you would pick up/steal/invent if you had no other way to learn swing dancing but had a passion to learn it.

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