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.


12 responses to “The Old Timer (Conclusion: Making Noise)”

  1. A friend of mine I met in San Diego who was originally from New Orleans name Hazel Addison, who has been swing dancing for countless years told me the same story as well that back in the day people leads only knew five moves, but knew them very well.

  2. What a great article. I couldn’t have done better,
    you are right on and thanks for reminding the young
    Dancers where it all came from.
    We didn’t know what counting was, we just danced to the music and love it.
    Great job, hope to see ya soon. I’m living back in New Orleans now.

  3. Thanks for the great articles Bobby. I am from St. Louis and have always made it a point to tell the young and upcoming swing dancers that I’ll take a dancer with four or five moves that can execute them well with some good rhythmic feeling(I call it soulfulness), over a dancer that knows all the moves, but doesn’t know how to dance. I constantly remind them about the basics, the basics, and the basics, of swing dancing.

  4. Bobby,

    Just finished reading all five parts (and the Frankie Manning tribute as well). I really love it. I could come up with lots of different things to compliment about your writing skill, subject expertise and general originality, but I really just want to say how much I appreciate the tremedous amount of love and dedication you must have to produce this. Brilliant. Thank you.

  5. Hi Bobby
    I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this series of essays. I spend quite a lot of time – usually while gardening – musing about dancing, my ideas evolving and shifting along the way. One thing that my mind keeps drifting back to is how the “basic” of balboa fits to the music. In the classes I’ve been to (unless doing advanced musicality) every teacher has started the basic as a pattern that starts on the first beat of an 8 count of music. In practise some leads seem to “hear” the music differently and habitually start their basic pattern on, say the 3rd beat in the music, so that all their moves are displaced by two beats.
    I got to thinking about this when I applying for a dance weekend and the form asked whether I was able to follow “even when the lead is off the music”. I began to wonder whether it would be good for the scene if experienced followers feed back to new leads on this? Or would it just seem like unnecessary nitpicking? Do they each need to find their own way into the music even if this means they always start their basic on a beat other than 1 in the music.

    When I talked about this with my sister she said (I hope I’m remembering this right) that in Salsa dancing there are two different styles depending on where you come from. Apparently in cuban salsa they start their basic a beat later (or is it earlier?). This would be like starting a bal basic on beat 2 of the music which I personaly find a bit weird. But in salsa it’s perfectly valid – there are just these parallel styles.

    Really what I’m wondering is how important do you think this is? Balboa will keep evolving like any other dance. How important – or helpful – is it for leads to know where they are in an 8 count of music?

    You talk about the oldtimers not counting but they still had instinctive knowlege of the structure of the music. Of course they all had their own ways of doing a “basic” but in your experience did they all fit the basic steps to the music in a similar way?

    Thanks again for your stimulating articles – I’ve also enjoyed other peoples’ responses.

  6. […] For ten years of my swing career, I experienced this dance form without realizing how differently the original dancers had experienced it as they invented it. To search for answers, I began researching, thinking, and writing The Old Timer Essay. Part one, Part Two, Part Three, , Part Four, and Part Five. […]

  7. […] “A great…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.” […]

  8. Andy Reid always leads 5-7 basic moves….and I’m always sorry when the dance ends because he makes it feel so good.

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