The Old Timer (Part 3: Inside and Outside the Box)

Author’s note: As you read this essay, please note it was composed in 2010, and though I believe the main ideas are still valid, I would make several different choices in how I present it were I writing it today. (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 a brain like mine was at the time of its publication.


This is the third part of an 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. Read Part 1: A Classless Dance, here. Read Part 2: A Release of Energy, here.

Inside and Outside the Box

In thinking about the dancing life of the old timers, something perhaps deceptively important is how consistent the music would have been to an original dancer: any swing music you would have heard at the Savoy in 1939 would have pretty much the same feeling; dancers didn’t have to change much about their pulse or style of dancing like a modern dancer, who might one moment be expected to dance to a 1925 Charleston song, the next a late period boogie woogie, and the next a 1950s Count Basie song, all of which ask for very different takes on the same basic movements.* I believe this meant an original dancer could get “into a groove” better throughout a night of dancing than a modern dancer might, not having to change the fundamental pulse and style hardly any at a night of dancing. (This leads to another topic which will be discussed in part 4.)

This confinement to a certain style of music would have been a limitation, a box, that helped shape the dance. Another great limitation we probably don’t think about much today would have been how many other styles of swing dancing an original jitterbugger would have seen.

I don’t think we can underestimate how much bigger the world was in the 1930s than it is now. If you were a regular working or middle-class person in the era, there was very little chance you had ever gone halfway around the country, much less dreamed of going abroad on vacation.

This meant, as a swing-dancer in the 1930s, you probably hardly ever saw anyone dance who wasn’t from your region. You might have taken train trips, or moved to a different city, but this was relatively few people compared to today. You might also have seen all the swing dance movies, like Buck Privates, but you’d have to spend a lot of money to be able to fathom what was going on with the dancing, since the movie would only play for a few weeks then be gone until the VCR came out fifty years later. Swing dancer and clip-studier Nick Williams, on the other hand, has probably seen Buck Privates hundreds of times, much more than anyone in the original swing era ever has.

So, there were obvious differences in the way people danced based on region.** There are lots of stories about how in some regions, even individual high schools had their own dance styles, and local teenagers could spot rival high-schoolers based on how they danced.

The modern swing scene, however, has Herrang. It has relatively cheap airfare and planes that go anywhere. It has, most importantly, You Tube. Three hours after a contest happens in New Orleans, a Korean dancer can download it and see what Lindy Hop in New Orleans looks like. The upside, of course, is that someone in Korea, who never had a chance to see Lindy Hop before, can see all they want to now. And that’s awesome when you think about it. The downside, ironically, is that a year from now, Lindy Hop from Korea may very well cease to look any different from Lindy Hop in New Orleans. Of course this is too extreme to happen to such an extent, but there’s no doubt that, even compared to five years ago, regional differences in dancing are a lot less dramatic.

Why are regional differences important? It’s tempting to theorize that since the original dancers had only a few local hot shots for inspiration, and an occasional movie, their relative isolation gave them a better opportunity to develop individual styles. What I mean to say is, having tons of resources isn’t necessarily good for creativity, which often does its best work under a certain amount of limits and obstacles. Yes, the original jitterbugs dance floor might have been empty in terms of dancers that they could get inspiration from. But a creative person would look at an empty dance floor and see all the spaces they could fill.

You Tube is, to be sure, an incredibly good resource for anyone wanting to dance, and I wouldn’t have it taken away for anything. It’s brought inspirational dancing to far too many people who wouldn’t have been able to see it otherwise. And for me, its an incredibly good resource to study dance, and write long essays such as this, but I have to keep myself in check, lest I allow my focus in dance to become mainly looking at other people enjoy a great swing song while I sit in a chair with bad posture.***

The boxes that we put our dancing into are different boxes than the old timers had. Whereas they had boxes mainly of regional confinement, style of music, and a stricter idea of social behavior, we don’t. (The evidence of which is nicely summed up in the words “Blues exchange.”) Often, we’ve put our own boxes around a lot of our dancing, like in the late 90s/early 2000s, when we’d almost purposefully constrict ourselves with boxes labeled “Hollywood Style” or “Savoy Style” or “Groove,” only to leap right back out of those boxes after stuffing ourselves in them for a few years. These boxes were, I think, a lot more artistically confining than any of the boxes the original jitterbuggers had. They are also, for the most part, gone, but one could argue we now have the burden of choice: Too many possibilities.****

Which is, personally, one of the reasons why I’ve been thinking a lot about the old timers recently.

World War II, of course, quickly brought the rest of the world to almost every person in America. Men who had never stepped outside of their state met Europe and Asia up close and personal. When they went home, for most of them it was time to find a job, start a family, and very few kept up the youthful hobby they loved. Even if they had wanted to continue swing dancing regularly, the music wasn’t around much after the war, as jazz had turned to Bee-Bop. Except for a few groups of dancers in California and New York who continued to meet up and dance or perform over the next seventy years, the original jitterbug was, for the most part, extinct.

*–One could argue this gives an unsuspected regional bias in modern competitions. Imagine you spend most of your week dancing to 1950s Count Basie at your local club, and then enter a contest at a big out-of-town workshop weekend. They start-off with a 1920s Bechet number, and you try your best; even though you might be a much better technical dancer than those in the comp who dance to that style of music all night at their weekly club, there’s a very good chance that won’t show in the competition. Hopefully you go home realizing you either need to practice to all kinds of music if you want to be a competitor, or you simply should choose very carefully what contests you enter.

Now however, I think the regional bias has given way to the workshop weekend competitor. This is a person who does well in competitions because they spend most of their money and time going to events with competitions and where the music they dance to is the music they will hear in competitions. They might not even go out dancing in their own town, because they spend all their dancing energy away.

**–The differences were obvious enough for people in the late 1990s to deem them styles, like “Hollywood” and “Savoy” style, which, at the time, was to help people see those differences in styles, but, in hindsight, ballooned out of control and undercut (1) the similarities of dance the mechanics both styles shared with each other, and (2) the individuality of many of the dancers involved. For instance, put Hal Takier between Frankie Manning and Dean Collins, and it’d be very hard to put a label on him.

***–In the 1980s, rock music discovered the synthesizer (trust me, I’m going somewhere with this.) The result was that almsot eveyr song had loud, obnoxious synthesizer, taking a new technology and focusing so much on it, and having it mess up almost every good melody, before Depeche Mode came to the party and told everyone to chill the fuck out and showed them how it was done. I think that we are still running rampant a little with all the technical improvements in the world. I’m not anti-or pro-technology; it is a tool, and can be used for good or evil. So I’m very happy we have the ability to do all this stuff with technology, but I’ don’t think I’m at a point yet where I’m using it only to better my life. For example: I try now to allow myself to check email only twice a day, unless I’m awaiting something important: this save me roughly ten hours of daylight to do other things.

****–There’s a great TED talk (promoting a book written by) Barry Schwartz which talks about how too many choices leads to unhappiness rather than more happiness. Basically, the modern person has so many choices that blame for not being happy with something is placed on the modern person. Schwartz puts it really well in an anecdote about himself buying jeans: He had the same pair of basic jeans for ten years, never had a problem. Goes to buy new jeans, realizes there are fifty varieties, he gets fitted, buys a pair, and knows the jeans fit and look better than his old pair of jeans. But he’s not actually happy, because he can’t help but think there is yet another pair of jeans that would fit even better, or look better, if he just looked a little harder. He concludes: in the old days, there was only one pair of jeans, and so if something didn’t fit right or look right, it was the world’s fault, not yours, and you could move on with your life a lot happier and sooner. Thus, too many options and choices tend to give people the unhappy feeling that there might always be something more/greater/perfect out there.

FBI notice: 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.

13 responses to “The Old Timer (Part 3: Inside and Outside the Box)”

  1. Ah, the Hollywood/Savoy war… I’m nostalgic about it, even though I hated it at the time and still think it was a major waste of energy. The plus sid is that we developed a lot of vocabulary. The down side is that many dance scenes could not support an infrastructure that warred on politics and dogma.

    Jon Chu, in his TEDtalks with the LXD also brings up YouTube as a major technological tool in dance. He describes it pretty much the same as you do here. I remember having to hunt down videos at Eddie Brandt’s and Starlight Roof, not to mention the semi-weekly trip to Bobby McGee’s. These kids today with their interwebs… I think even the effort put into searching for those vids really created a different sensation than hunting down clips on YouTube. Even though we were watching those clips hungrily, at almost every party (and also including Nick W.) it was a sort of communal sharing that seems much more abstracted today.

    The regional difference is part of why Angelenos in the late 90s got so excited about Balboa in the first place, not to forget of course our still living old timers. It always surprises me to think that Chicago dancers didn’t gravitate towards Collegiate Shag for instance (I believe I have the region right but correct me if I’m wrong.) It may be due to that lack of regional allegiance that Shag is only being explored as a novelty now, while Balboa has become so much more established as a dance, i.e., the worldwide events and even inclusion in the US Open. That’s mere speculation of course, but backed by years of observation.

    • Yeah–I agree; I remember how great it felt to see a new clip. But I still look forward to the day when I finally get to see, in great clarity, the Boogie Woogie 1945 clip.

  2. I think the style battles of the last decade did help a lot of dancers focus on making their syling distinct. I know too many dancers who have a single amalgam of dance mechanics from half a dozen dances. The old scene’s focus on styling did a great job of pointing out that the difference between Dean and Frankie consisted of more than a few patterns.

    Also, “blues exchange” sounds like a cheeky term for group therapy.

  3. I’m not sure of the specific clip to which you refer. I’m a little less hooked in to the clips nowadays. I pretty much watch something if someone puts it in front of me. It’s almost like shooting fish in a barrel, if you get my drift, to search out the clips on YouTube. It’s nowhere near as exciting to me.

    As a native Angeleno who lives not too far from where Willy Desatoff went to High School, those regional differences are immensely fascinating. I didn’t talk to Willy often, but he was just full of information. I wish I had taken better notes.

    I feel like the Central Avenue old timers are going to be largely ignored in Lindy Hop history. For one, most of us late-twentieth/early aughts folk never met them. It would be worth it to talk to Chester Whitmore I think. As far as I know the only footage of the Central Avenue dancers was in the brilliant Gjon Mili short “Jammin’ the Blues.” Looking at their approach to movement and music, it seems unique among clips for capturing a long-lost approach to the art. Plus, Gjon Mili is completely brilliant. He might be the Michel Gondry of his time.

    By the way, plugged you over on the LindyGroove Technique Class Blog. Come on over if you feel like posting your thoughts on the topic of the week!

    • Boogie Woogie is a short movie clip with a bunch of so-cal dancers in it–I saw it once–taped by a hand-held camera held up at the movie screen of some California film school library. But it’s all blurry.

  4. “Also, ‘blues exchange’ sounds like a cheeky term for group therapy.”

    If you have watched Arrested Development, this might be even funnier.

  5. I’ve seen all of Arrested D, but can’t think of where the group therapy joke comes in. It has been a year or two, though.

  6. Personally, I’d rather have the “fault” for anything be mine rather than “the world’s.” Then I can do something about it, or not, as I choose. Who wants to feel controlled by circumstance?

    • I understand your comment, but I think he was making a different point with his research:

      You’d rather have the “fault” for something be yours so you can change it–basically, you’d like to have the power to change things to make your world better. I think most of us could agree with that, and perhaps that’s part of the problem with modern choices (according to this guys research).

      Basically, if you can’t find the absolute greatest jeans for you, the modern world makes you think that it IS in your power to change that–you think, well, if I just looked a little harder, I could have found that pair. As I touched upon (perhaps too briefly in my footnote,) he has linked that to a general unhappiness with the choices we make. So, what I was trying to get across was not a comment about how people prefer to have things be the worlds’s fault and not have power to change things–I don’t think that’s the case, at least for good people who are positive about what humanity can accomplish. But I do think that we are more happy when we know when theirs something we cannot have control over, so we don’t beat ourselves up over trying to control it.

      Basically, I think his main point was that we have more choices, but not necessarily more happiness because we have more choices.

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