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A Year of Clips #4: The Rhythm Hot Shots at Can’t Top the Lindy Hop 1994 (and the philosophical dilemma of The Ship of Theseus)

April 13, 2010

This is part of an installment where we here at Swungover discuss a dance clip from the archives of past and present swing dance, the current goal to do so regularly for a year. Feel free to discuss your thoughts in the comments section.

Before Dec 2010, I had some of the names wrong in this post. (“Bad Internet, bad!”) Thanks to Tim Kask for setting things right!

For our fourth clip, we’ll watch a clip I might have watched more than any other, though most of the times I watched it, it was 1999 and I was just staring at it, drooling. The mother team that produced the Harlem Hot Shots was called the Rhythm Hot Shots, and they performed the grand finale at Frankie Manning’s 80th birthday party:]

This clip is basically the height of performance Lindy fifteen years ago. (Damn, fifteen years ago).

When I bought Can’t Top The Lindy Hop, I knew swing dancing existed in three ways: 6-count east coast with 1950s aerials, a clip of Hellzapoppin I had somehow dug up in our college library, and a Frankie Manning how-to-Lindy Hop tape that showed how an old Frankie Manning danced. When I saw the description for Can’t Top The Lindy Hop tapes, it promised new moves taught by tons of instructors, and a performance tape full of high-flying aerials and dare-devil Lindy Hop. I bought it, put them in, and enjoyed it all for the most part. But when the Rhythm Hot Shots performance came on, I realized that there were people today who were really trying to relive the style of Hellzapoppin performance, and doing a great job of it.

So, I watched it (and Ryan and Sing’s yellow-suit jam) probably a hundred times. I even got a copy of it slowed down to half speed from a friend of mine who’s father had major video equipment, and used it to study all the aerials I attempted and performed over the years in my college swing performances. It inspired me to wear some pretty ugly clothes. However, for the most part, I looked at it to drool, to dream, to imagine.

It holds up pretty well, when a lot of routines from the era don’t. Mainly, they focused on capturing the classic Whitey’s style of choreography using one of Frankie’s favorite performance songs, Jumpin’ at the Woodside. Also, an avid clip watcher might notice the Hot Shots still use these costumes in modern routines, and word on the street is they haven’t ever washed them, ever. Out of tradition.

A few notes: The zoot suit has the stage benefit of flaring out like a girl’s skirt. Along with its bright plaid pattern, it’s the perfect first costume to see in this routine—it’s loud and in asks for attention. It sets the tone for the rest of the performance.

The first aerial, which is only the second move done in the choreography, flies beautifully and sets the tone for the energy level of most of the rest of the piece. There isn’t a lot of “wasted” aerials in the routine, which is saying something when you realize how many aerials this routine actually has. For the most part, the Aerials flow naturally, and often creatively, out of the previous moves and into next moves. In this routine, aerials look like they’re just as easy as any other swing move they could have done, which is the best way an aerial can look. It makes sense, though, because the Hot Shots were one of the first teams to treat swing dance performing with the professionalism of Frankie Manning and the original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers—they busted their butts to make those aerials look so easy. Hours and hours of training went into each one.

Throughout this clip, and this is something we’ll talk about much more when we get to the Whitey’s choreography, the dancers not jamming do a lot to emphasize moments in the spotlighted jam. Watch the clip paying attention to everyone else, and you’ll see how much the background dancers add to the performance, without asking for too much attention.

The men for the most part do their 3&4 triples,( but not their 7&8, in classic whitey’s speed style). It’s not something you’d see in a lot of teams today dancing at this speed, nor something you even see the Whitey’s do (for the most part, they took their 3&4 triples out). The pro to this is that the triples add a subtle energy to the first few jams—a sort of “their feet are on fire” feeling. The cons are that they can look sloppy, rushed, or out of rhythm very easily at this tempo.

If there’s something about the “stretchiness” of the Lindy Hop in this routine that seems slightly strange compared to today’s dancing, it’s because the team at this time used a technique where they didn’t connect very hard with teach other except for aerials. So their Lindy doesn’t stretch much. Dancing with these leaders and followers would have felt super light.

David and Ulrika are my favorite lead and follow; they’re the second and fifth couple to jam. He took a lot of Al Minns’s styling and shoved it in his body type, which isn’t as lanky.

Lennart, the leader in the third couple, can still be found at Herrang dance camp in Sweden each year, leading his hilarious meetings. Every time I see his second jam, I can’t help but think it would have been cool if he would have entered by throwing his partner over the worm. Oh well, it’s still a good choreography–and an incredible one for it’s time.

Finally, the piece ends with what most of us think of as the standard version of the California routine, though this is, of course, up for debate, especially since it’s hard to find two different groups doing the California routine that look exactly the same.*

Modern teams have taken performance Lindy Hop in the original Whitey’s mold and evolved it into some unique and artistic choreography (as we’ll see in future installments). But if you’re looking for a modern take on classic Whitey’s-style high-flying team Lindy Hop, you can’t top the Rhythm and Harlem Hot Shots.

The dancers in this clip are Eddie Jansson, Eva Lagerqvist, Ulrika Larsdotter Ericsson, Catrinne Ljunggren (announcer), David Dalmo, Lennart Westerlund, Ewa Staremo.

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*–The original California routine was something Frankie Manning and the Whitey’s came up with. Is the California Routine at the end of Hellzapoppin? If it is, it changed dramatically when Frankie (or maybe even Al Minns), I assume, began teaching it again to the Hot Shots in the 1980s. The closest approximation we have to the Hot Shot version of the California routine comes from Leon James in the Spirit Moves, but he adds a six count of jig kicks in the middle and a lot of his own personal styling, and has a slightly different ending. Also, when I look at Leon James dance, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who cares about remembering choreographies. He seems like more of a person who allows himself to goof off and work outside the lines.

So, what is the real California routine? It’s a great example of the old philosophical dilemma of the Ship of Theseus, one of the things I actually remember from my Philosophy 101 class. Basically, Theseus’s great ship needs maintenance, what with all the blood and wine stains, and must have parts replaced on it. At some point, however, every original board is replaced, every sail, spear, and wine keg. If someone were to go around and pick up all the original boards, sails, spears, and glue them together into a very-ugly-looking and soon to be sunken ship, which ship is now REALLY Theseus’s great ship? The California Routine has morphed over time, and it’s easy to claim that there are other versions that for this reason or that have a claim to be the real California Routine. Ultimately, of course, it’s not a big deal.

Speaking from my own experience, whenever I’ve been a part of a teacher-team demo, we usually always go with the version of the California routine in this clip, and change the ending to go with the song we dance to. (But new dancers, be wary–there’s a lot of these philosophical “what is the real such and such?” dilemma’s in swing dancing. Bring a life preserver.)

We’ll talk more about the California in future sections, and if you have any inside information or a strong opinion on what is the real California and why, I’d love to hear about it.

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