The Old Timer (Conclusion: Making Noise)
This is the final 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. Part 1: A Classless Dance ; Part 2: A Release of Energy ; Part 3: Inside and Outside the Box ; Part 4: “The Only Count I Know is Basie.”
Conclusion: Making Noise
Most of us feel something very powerful when we listen to a great swing song, or watch Hellzapoppin. And we try to capture that feeling–the feeling Frankie Manning had plastered on his face every time he danced. I think it’s particularly easy for many modern dancers to fall into the trap that, if you know the moves, and try to emulate the way someone else does them, then you’ll be able express that same feeling–but that’s like looking at a map and a picture of a place and thinking you’ve been there.
When I look back at the dance floors of the last ten years, I see a lot of things (A lot of which I saw in myself, as well). A shot of the late 1990s shows me that most people thought swing dancing was a Gap ad: nothing but turns, kicks and aerials. A shot of the early 2000s show me that a lot of people thought swing was perfectly recreating Hollywood movie dancers, or trying to be as musical as possible with a groove style. A look at the late-2000s dance floor shows me that a lot of people think a Charleston pulse should be danced to all swing music regardless of how smooth it is. All of which point to calculating our dancing based on what we see others do versus what we feel like doing when we ourselves listen to the music.
Perhaps the spirit of the original jitterbugs is as simple as that: All they knew about swing was what they heard when they stepped onto the dance floor.
It’s beautifully simple and honest, and shows why certain aspects of the modern scene in the last ten years look different than the original dancers. A great original dancer might only know five basic moves, but they could do those moves all night long, and happily, because they could dance the shit out of those five moves. And those five moves would all be done with a personal, individual style. If it wasn’t swing music, then you weren’t going to do swing to it. And if you felt like making noise, you screamed or yelled or whooped or giggled.
As ideal as that sounds, I think I would be doing a disservice to ourselves and the original dancers if we treat them only with nostalgia: pretending times were automatically better then, and everything they did was better than now. Certainly this is not the case. As a whole, our technique, our understanding of dance mechanics, and micro musicality is a lot better than the original dancers, and many of them have stated as much. But I do think, like we all too often do in the modern times, we have adopted and progressed something without paying close attention to where it came from.
Though classes, counts, and moves can make us really great dancers, the spirit of the original jitterbug doesn’t originate there. It wasn’t what they did; it was the way they did it.