The Old Timer (Part 2: A Release of Energy)
This is the 2nd part of a 5-part essay about how the original swing dancers were probably different than you or me. As I mentioned in the last post, I’ve been wrestling with this deformed mutant death section for two weeks. My apartment is covered in blood and paper scraps. I don’t pretend to know who won. Hope you enjoy it, though. Read Part 1: A Classless Dance, here. The other four entries are much shorter, I promise.
A Release of Energy
The first swing out was like madness. It was everyman for himself. The loud yell from the dancers meant that it was on. They made noises similar to those of Martial Arts, the sound that releases pent up energy.
–Norma Miller, describing the first night of Harvest Moon Ball semi-finals at the Savoy.
The great depression caused such a stifling melancholy on the country, it actually makes sense that people would spend money they couldn’t afford to go out and hear great jazz and forget their troubles. For mild-mannered teenagers in America, the explosion of swing music expressed an excitement that sharply contrasted the boring, sugar-sweet music their parents listened to, and we all know how important music is to teenage culture.* Swing music and swing rhythm itself can be characterized by its paradoxically relaxed but driving release of energy.
An original swing dancer probably released a great deal of their pent-up physical, emotional, and social energy through a night of dancing. Think about it: A modern person can do a million things to entertain themselves physically and emotionally. In the 1930s, and during the great depression, even a person who lived in the city had much more limited options. For most average Americans, movies, dancing, or drinking at a bar were probably the main desires as far as leaving the house, (which, come to think of it, is not very different from several of my friends). And only one of those was a place where a teenager could meet other people and socialize. Aside from the malt shop, it’s where teenagers met up before the age of arcades, malls, concerts, and cocaine orgies. And even malt shops had records and dancing. It’s also not surprising because, as we all know, swing dancing is fun as hell.
Let’s take a California teenager, or even a person living near the Savoy, like a young Frankie Manning or Norma Miller. That person could easily dance almost every night of the week, to incredible live, big bands whose sole (and soul) purpose was playing for dancers. (A much-more-complicated-than-you-would-think art, and a lost one, with the exception of a handful of modern bands).**
Anyway, that teenager that could dance five nights a week was, like most teenagers, probably interested in gaining acceptance with their peers and dates with members of the opposite sex. This means, realistically, a good portion of their dance energy was probably spent towards impressing their partner or competing with (friendly or not friendly) rivals. Or, take Frankie and Norma, who had to constantly one-up dancers like Shorty Snowden to get recognition. Anyway you look at it, showing off was a part of the spirit of the original jitterbugs.*** For instance, can you name any other partner dance where it’s common practice to have people all of a sudden start clapping around another couple and then have people take turns exhibiting their dance? The fact that Jam Circles were a part of jazz dance beautifully illustrates this spirit.
And I don’t think it’s a bad thing. A lot of us who grew up in the 90s, were taught, often subconsciously, that being a competitive person is at root a bad thing; that putting focus on one-upping someone else is contradictory to the more kindly spirit of simply trying your best and enjoying what you’re doing. The old dancers, if they thought about it at all, didn’t think the two ideas were contradictory. I believe almost all tried their best and enjoyed what they were doing, part of which was the game of trying to one-up their friends and rivals. It’s a pretty easy impression to get from talking to old timers, or by reading Norma Miller’s Book, the Savoy Section of Marshall Stearns’s Jazz Dance, and Frankie Manning’s autobiography. It’s a form of competition that, if fostered in a healthy way, can lead to incredibly inspiring dancing. ****
It helps to clarify that (1) “showing off” has a modern negative connotation implying a vain act, and though I do think vanity probably creeps into it somewhere for a lot of people, I don’t believe it’s a necessary part of it and I’d prefer for people to look on it more as a neutral term for “displaying their skills” and (2) there are different ways to show off.
Of course, the modern dance scene, especially a lot of competitors, don’t seem to have much of a problem with wanting to show off. But I think there are several important problems with the way many of the modern dancers choose to show off . (For instance, I think it’s easy for many competitors to choose the form of showing off where you say “Here’s what I can do, can you do it?”, whereas a more difficult, and more artistic, way to show off is “This is who I am, who are you?” That’s what I see so clearly when I see Al and Leon dance next to each other. Of course, an up-and-coming swing modern competitor should not be expected to have reached the level of self-expression of veterans like Al and Leon.) But that’s something we’ll talk about later.
Before I do, I’d like to put forward a theory that (I think) plays an important role in the way a lot of the original dancers showed off. Despite the fact that a majority of the old timer leaders around today are “dirty old men,” who would make a sexist/racist/anti-Commie/pornographic comment by the end of two shots of George Dickel, almost all of them still grew up with an idea of chivalry that is different than what we have today. This is due partly to the fact they were a lot closer to the Victorian era than we are (And don’t get me wrong–chivalry, to this writer, is good human decency). But it is also probably due to the fact that chivalry, to a male teenager, is a great way of impressing women, an old-fashioned way of showing off.
And I think this chivalry extended into their dance: To the old timers, it was very important to be a good person to dance with. And showing off that you were a good person to dance with didn’t just mean you could dance well and lead challenging steps, like it tends to do today. If you were that teenager we were talking about (Ah, yes, the teenager), you paid attention to your partner, you kept him/her from getting kicked around on the floor, and you’d be right there with them through the tricky moves. (For instance, Frankie Manning always taught, “Bow to your queen.”) To top it off, you’d show off your partner to everyone else on the dance floor. *****
As further evidence for this chivalry, I’ll use this anecdote: Sylvia Sykes likes having the original Pure Balboa dancer Dean Raferty judge leads in modern Balboa Jack and Jills, because he always marks down heavily for leaders who don’t pay attention to their followers. Some of the “hot shot” leads in these contest won’t even get passed through to finals by him–a score they should pay attention to. As evidence to the fact that this chivalry is often a double-standard, Sylvia doesn’t like many old timer leaders to judge followers because they’ll just choose the girl with the best legs.
I know what you’re saying–the old timers muscled their women around, and in many clips, the leaders are just holding onto their followers to show off (Perhaps they will use Leon James, in his spirit moves slide jam, to prove the point–his jam is 3:03-3:30 in this clip.)
But I believe this peacock jam actually proves my point nicely. First off, yes, this is a jam where Leon James shows off (in the “Sausage Fest” section of the Spirit Moves–which I must admit I could happily watch for hours) and takes almost all of the attention away from his follower. (But she does have plenty of space in the movements to dance and show off her own styling). But, more importantly, if you watch this clip and imagine an average modern couple doing the exact same jam, what would be out of place? I think it’d be rare to see 3:25-3:33 in a modern jam–a moment where both leader and follower are simply smiling and laughing with each other. Leon James IS paying attention to his partner, he even stops all of his peacocking and breaks down for a moment to share a laugh with her.
Now that we have added a little chivalry to the mix, let’s look at that teenager (what teenager?) in the other part of their dance life: competitions. A dancer in the swing era might have done contests all the time, especially if they were a California dancer. The California kids we see in the films made a lot of their spending money by winning contests, which I’ve heard some old timers say happened practically every night. Also, the California kids had access to Hollywood, and the opportunity to dance in a lot of films if they were good enough. Thus, showing off became an entertainment art. I believe a lot of partners began working more as stage performers than social dancers–an important distinction to make.
As far as early Lindy Hop, Balboa, and Collegiate Shag footage goes, we have almost nothing of social dancing, let alone social dancing to the actual music the dancer’s are dancing to. Almost everything we see in the original footage is someone who knows there is a camera right there, which we all know affects the way people dance. But, retracing my argument from an earlier footnote, I think we can still get an idea for the spirit of the original jitterbuggers even though we’re not seeing them in their natural social-dancing habitat, at least.
Modern day dancers are different people in a different world, dancing for possibly different reasons. I started off dancing not only because I was drawn to it like a moth to the flame, but because I realized I was a theater dork who had no idea how to talk to a girl I wasn’t in a play with. For many others, they’re the math and science types who realize that the world of meet-and-greet bars is a needlessly awkward method of socializing. And for almost all of us, it’s a love for something in the past–something we have at least some level of nostalgic passion for. I think it’s interesting that for us, we’re enjoying a historical hobby, but for them, it was a popular, contemporary hobby. I don’t think it’s very important, just interesting. I think the fact we all, original and modern dancers, love the music so much, is far more uniting than such a difference in point-of-view would be dividing.
The idea that “showing off” is a part of the original spirit of the jitterbug might be hard for some modern people to latch onto. After all, a lot of us modern dancers are simply looking for a fun time, good exercise, and a chance to enjoy great music. Is there anything wrong with this? Of course not. I even think such an idea is very much in the spirit of most of the people you’d see on the dance floor in the 1930s. So perhaps I should clarify–I believe that showing off is an important aspect of the swing dance artist, which makes obvious sense, as we are the only canvas our art can be displayed on.
In discussing this essay, my partner Kate pointed out something that struck home. If you look at a lot of advanced swing dance competitors today, they seem to compete for the end product, rather than the means to that product. They dance to be thought of as a badass, to get the recognition. There dancing asks “Will this get people thinking highly of me?” rather than says something like, “This is who I am,” or “I’m really loving this song,” or even “Check out this great move I’m really excited about.” which is, as we mentioned, an important component to the way the Old Timers showed off. ******
Perhaps an important aspect of this is that almost all chances for a modern day swing dancer to show off is a contest, with clear placements of who won or not. The jam circle, however, was a way for dancers to show off, with the only contest and placements being in the imagination of those taking part or watching. One could argue it’s only a small difference, but I think an important one. I think Jam Circles, without a clear winner, helped foster showing off a dancer’s individuality. And of course, having frequent jam circles helped make the original dancers very good at showing off. In my partner Kate’s early days (2002-ish), they had a jam circle every week. To prepare, Kate and her partner would learn new steps to show off each week, and I imagine a lot of early swing dancers doing the same thing, in terms of practicing to show off their stuff.
Spontaneous jam circles don’t happen much these days. They made a brief rebirth for a few years in certain cities and events, but I can only recall three or four I saw last year, and almost all of those were weekend events. So, like Fight Club, where Tyler Durden gives everyone homework to go out and start a fight, I’d like to push all of you readers to go out this month and start a jam circle. (1) Wait for a relatively uptempo song (2) Grab two friends (3) surround a couple that’s doing well, (4) start clapping and yell when they do something inspiring (this simple Pavlovian Conditioning will get them to try to one-up themselves) (5) Make it a point for all three of you to stay their clapping until the end of the song. Even if a Jam Circle doesn’t grow, imagine the exhilaration for that one couple to have their own personal jam circle. Or, they may just be scared. But it will be a start.
Now, all of this said, here is something I think is very important to modern day dancing: You don’t have to be incredibly good at showing off to make a living teaching swing. Because, though showing off might bring an entertainment and inspirational element to the dance, it has almost no direct effect on teaching the dance. For that, you need a good teacher who understands the mechanics of the dance an can convey those ideas to groups in affective ways (and rotate enough to keep people from getting angry). I think many people tend to combine tightly the idea that a good competitor and a good teacher are one. They do sometimes come in package deals, but do know there are some incredible performers who teach very poorly, and there are some incredible teachers who simply don’t do their best dancing in front of audiences. But if we realize this, we can have the best of both worlds–performers to inspire us, teachers to guide us.
I work very hard on the thoughts and words put into these essays. Likewise, I try to quote and give credit to those who have inspired my thoughts in this essay. If you mention these ideas to others, please throw in a reference and/or send them to this website. Also, I hope it goes without saying that many dancers today DO inhabit a great amount of the spirit of the original jitterbugs. Any criticisms in these essays are geared towards general trends within the scene as a whole.
*–Benny Goodman’s 1935 concert at the Palamar was the first instance of the kind of energy teens in mass would later put towards Elvis and the Beatles.
**– I recently did an in-depth interview with Jonathan Stout where he goes into pretty descriptive detail about how he gears everything his band does towards dancers. Look for it on Swungover soon.
***–One could argue there’s a bit of a logical circle here: I theorize showing off is a part of the original spirit of the jitterbugs; based on the evidence that I’ve seen it in most of the old clips and read about it in autobiographies of great dancers–clips which were taped for the purpose of showing off the dance, and great dancers who were made great by their ability to show off. See the problem? There could have been many more average dancers who never showed off that we don’t see because they were never special enough dancers to be put in a clip or to write a book about their life. So, if we looked onto a dance floor of the 1930s, it might not stick out that showing off was necessarily a part of the spirit of the jitterbugs.
But to me, this problem isn’t really an important one. That’s because being a performer, entertaining people (if only yourself), exploring one’s creativity, and making athletic demands on your body all seem to match perfectly the swing music that is being danced to. Swing music, filled with musicians showing off their solos, and bands showing how hard they can swing. It is in this sense I believe it is part of the spirit of the original Jitterbuggers. One might argue that Pure Balboa is an exception, which I mention later in the footnotes.
Being an actor and ham, I’m fine with showing off being a part of the dance. I’ve recently taken a long, deep inward look at myself and realized I should be a lot better at it, considering who I was as a young boy. If he saw me today, my twelve-year-old self would say “What’s your problem? Why aren’t you hogging all the attention in the room?” I think one reason I (and other dancers) choke a lot in modern competitions is because (as mentioned in the essay text) we’re not used to focusing on one-upping each other. We’re not used to allowing that competitive drive and confidence to take over at the very moment it needs to. The pressure which is crushed so easily by confidence becomes an impenetrable fortress with the lack of it. I think it’s one reason why so many So-Cal dancers handle competitions well–the one-upness attitude and showing-off confidence has been an important part of their scene ever since the neo-swing craze and before.
****–It’s like the rare-but-very-powerful Lennon/McCartney syndrome. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were talented in their own right, but always inspired and pushed each other to write better and better songs, in what was an incredibly productive competitive environment. To demonstrate, I will now get Hey Jude stuck in your head. Naa-na-na-nananaaaaaaa….
*****–This is where I’d like to mention Pure Balboa briefly. Pure Balboa was a chest-to-chest dance developed on packed dance floors. If swing music is a relaxed explosion of energy, then Pure Balboa dancers emphasize the relaxed part of it more than the explosion part. It was a dance done mainly by sweethearts, and on a packed dance floor where people aren’t going to see many steps. So, showing off becomes a lot more partner-focused, and more internal. What a Pure Balboa dancer shows off in leading/following and creativity is smoothness, finesse, subtly. Not having video of the original Pure Balboa dancers, I can’t say for sure whether it looked like showing off was part of their dance. But I believe it was still there, again, almost part of the music.
******–Partially to blame is the fact is that competition in modern Lindy Hop has the hope of actually leading someplace–whereas to the original dancers, swing dancing was just a beloved hobby. An original dancer wasn’t going to teach the dance and make hundreds, like today. A 1930s Jitterbug wasn’t going to have admiration and recognition beyond his ballroom peers, other than simply being a stage performer with a novelty act. The other factor is that people try to break down the “rules” of winnign based on what they see win, and so start to structure their dancing around winning contests. Though it’s good to explore the performance aspect of contests, this idea of competitors gearing their dancing to win all to easily becomes a Frankenstein that takes over a dancers chance at honest self-expression if not kept in check.