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A Way-Too-Breif History of Balboa

May 18, 2010

This paragraph is a blatant plug for the 10th Annual All Balboa Weekend, which you should totally register for by clicking here.

Introduction, Preface, Apology, Rant

Everytime I write about the history of Balboa, I get a little anxious; I’m still learning more and more all the time, and know what it’s like to cringe at something I once wrote. (A poem I wrote in High School called “A Nation of Puritan Farmers” comes to mind.) And being an instructor, I know a flippant word or joke I say could suddenly put on many more pounds than I expected it to. It doesn’t help that several of my close friends and team mates are considered Balboa historians, and have put a lot of work into researching the dance and keeping misinformation from being spread, so, well, yeah.

This was an essay written several years ago for the All Balboa Weekend. It has since been used for other events, such as the Balboa Rendezvous and Munich Balboa Weekend. The original task was to write an entertaining page-long history of Balboa–hence, I tried to just fit in the basic facts and a few jokes.

I also, at the time, wanted to remind people that just because one Balboa old timer says something, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, or even true for the dance as a whole. (This was a common problem at the time).

The Old Timer’s never had a set-in-stone dance vocabulary, an important fact every new dancer should know. For instance, the question “Does Balboa have a pulse?” could mean something totally different to five different old timers, and another ten wouldn’t know what on earth you were talking about.

But I did want to stress the importance of paying attention to them, listening to them, watching them dance, dancing with them, and forming one’s own opinions about the dance based on that evidence–not forgetting them. If we forgot them, we’ll probably never reach true Balboa, (Pure Balboa, Bal-Swing, or SoCal Swing, etc).

Speaking of dance vocabulary, know that the term “Balboa” in this essay, as it does to most modern dancers, is often short for “Dances including the original (now called “Pure”) Balboa, Bal-Swing, and any dances such as So-Cal Swing that are linked but are not Lindy Hop.” But not always, just to make it even more confusing. (I’m sorry about that; I will fix it when I have more time.)

Also, the original essay is combined with various sections of the NEW essay I wrote for the upcoming All Balboa Weekend 10th anniversary. I was displeased with the original for several reasons–the main two being that (1) it made it seem like we don’t know what Balboa is really about, but we understand a great deal about Balboa, even if we don’t have concrete facts about its history, and (2) it didn’t mention the importance of people like Sylvia Sykes, Jonathan Bixby, and Dwight Lupardus, who’s influence on the dance today is inestimable.

Hopefully I have corrected these errors in the new draft. Still, please know that it is, as titled, a way too brief history of Balboa.

——————————————————————————————————————

A Way-Too-Brief History of Balboa

Two for one Special Edition

by Robert White

The history of Balboa begins with a man who was fond of hiding in barrels with dogs, which I think you will find is evident in several of the classic dance steps.

In 1509, Vasco Núñez de Balboa stowedaway with his dog on a ship to hide from his debtors; he then went on to become one of the greatest Spanish conquistadors in history, discovering the Pacific Ocean (hard to miss, right?), naming dozens of cities, and ruling people under the classic method of government by raping and pillaging. In 1519, he was framed by his father-in-law, and beheaded, reminding us all that in-laws can be trusted only so far.

Many years later, a posh sea-side town in Southern California was named Balboa in his honor, and, with the advent of jazz music, a dance step called the Balboa became popular at this seaside town.

There is an interesting point here, and it is this: we know what day a specific man in the 1500s hid in a barrel with his dog; but we can’t tell you anything absolutely definitive about the creation of the 90-year-old dance called Balboa.

Balboa began around 80 to 90 years ago in Southern California, when, we are almost positive, the Charleston evolved into the chest-to-chest partner dance we now call “Pure” Balboa.

At some point in the 30s, also in southern California, there sprang up a dance with turns, kicks, and other steps, which they simply called “swing.” It was not Lindy Hop, but a different, open-position partnered swing dance. Today, it is sometimes referred to as So-Cal Swing or LA Swing.

And at some other point we’re not quite sure of, the dances were combined and evolved into what we now call Bal-Swing.

We’re not quite sure of the finer details, you see.

This is mainly because the only people who would know are what can only be described as in their 90s.* Even when they were in their 50s through 70s and younger dancers began searching for answers, the old timers all had different opinions, none of which completely matched, but most of which were “absolutely the way it was,” proving once again that one might as well argue with bacon as with a senior citizen.

And since Balboa was a “street dance,” developed without any rules or regulations, every original dancer can have a slightly different idea about what it specifically is.

It doesn’t help that we never see Old Timers dance anymore. They more often sit in chairs and smile at people, until you ask them for feedback, at which point they say “That’s not Balboa!” and “You’re doing it wrong!” (That’s not very fair–many of them actually had plenty of advice. They would say things like “Keep it casual” and “You’re chopping the sh#% out of it”, that sort of thing.)

So, what IS Balboa, and where did it come from? What we do know–the cold, hard facts, are these:

1) Balboa (“Pure Balboa” or “Strict Balboa”) probably evolved from the Charleston, but we have no DNA proof, just the obvious family resemblance.

2) Balboa was danced chest-to-chest, probably because of ballroom restrictions on open-dancing.

3) The term “bal-swing” was not in the vocabulary of the original dancers in their youth. There were two separate dances called Balboa (what we now call “Pure Balboa”) and “Swing” (what we now term “So Cal Swing,”).

4) All the original footage of Balboa and So-Cal Swing that we have would take up the first third of a Friends episode. There are 230 episodes of Friends. This means you are 700 times more likely to see Ross than you ever will of original Balboa. Think about that.

But, what in dancing is about cold, hard facts?

The original scene sounds like it was a pretty fun time. Dance competitions and live bands all over the place, and dance styles so regionalized that you could supposedly tell which high school or college kids went to based on how they did their basic.

Then World War II happened, the only thing in the world with the power to stop a good swing dancing scene. America suddenly “grew up.” The “feel happy” jazz of the depression turned into the manic, tense bee-bop, and most people the dancer’s ages lost their youth to the war. Swing dances were not near as popular as swing music had changed and all the dancers were old enough to start families and get careers.

Many of the original Bal and swing dancers danced every-now-and-then, but not regularly. Then, in the 1980s, Marge Talkier got together many of the original dancers at the So-Cal family restaurant Bobby McGees, which is sort of like a Shoney’s on acid. Twice a month they’d get together to dance, drink, and wear mu-mus. They met until the chain closed in 2009.

There, the once-energetic-and-crazy swing dancers showed a different, more mature side of the dance, as years of refinement, relaxation, and bad joints had created a smooth hybrid of swing dances that most people now would probably call “Bal-Swing.”

The invention of the camcorder is probably the most important thing to happen to Balboa. Years of taping at Bobby McGees have been instrumental in breaking down the dance as we know it.

Thankfully, there were a few people who refused to let the dance die an unknown death in California in the 1980s. The dancers Sylvia Sykes, Jonathan Bixby, and historian Dwight Lupardus, among a few others, took it upon themselves to save Balboa. Because of them, people like Joel Plys and Valerie Salstrom learned Balboa, and decided to possibly go bankrupt holding a weekend that had only Balboa classes and dances. In 2001, they held the very first All Balboa Weekend.

Today, Balboa and Bal-Swing are thriving dance forms, sucking more and more people out of Lindy Hop, Tango and Slavic Folk dancing, to learn this beautiful, subtle partner dance. And, I think am unbiased in saying the event that first had complete faith in Balboa’s power was the very first All Balboa Weekend.

So, sadly, that is your rough history of Balboa. Words can attempt to describe the essence of Balboa, but are clumsy at doing so, and often give no better explanation than a demonstration by a clumsy dancer who keeps tripping and bumping into things.

I can say “we classify Bal-Swing as a swing dance that mainly uses the “out and in”, rotational torque, or floppy hair to accomplish its moves and figures”, but that’s not the same as seeing the “Start Cheering” or Venice Beach Clip.

We could be more abstract, of course (“Balboa is a poem, you see? Say, what are you doing tonight? Would like to come to my room and look at some etchings?”) but that is only helpful to those who already know what you’re talking about.

So, perhaps the best history of Balboa is found in its dancers; the old ones are passing away at an alarming rate, the new ones are evolving the dance, and many of them without ever having had the chance to talk to an Old Timer.

In this case, if you want to know the real history of Balboa, then learn to say these phrases: “Hi, you’re an original dancer, aren’t you? Would you mind talking about it?” and, when you see someone who you know can Bal, “Would you like to dance?” If you keep at it, there might be a time when you yourself will be qualified to sit in a chair all night, smile and say “That’s not Balboa!”

———————————————————–

*–So, I woke up in a cold sweat the other night, and realized a possible problem: I might have accidentally stolen this sentence from Douglas Adams, who once wrote a great introduction to P.G.Wodehouse’s final book, and wrote a very similar sentence–I meant only be inspired by it, then, after having written my own sentence, and having tweaked it and fixed it so it worked right, I accidentally got it way too close to the original. (I can’t dig it up to make sure, though, as the book’s in storage at the moment). But, it’s a great sentence, so I’d like to keep it in, just knowing that it’s really Douglas Adams’s. All the rest are mine, (as far as I know.)

13 Comments leave one →
  1. John Bedrosian permalink
    May 18, 2010 2:59 pm

    Bobby,
    The first thing I want to say is how I enjoy your articles and the time you have invested in research.

    Now in reference to your paragraph;
    The Old Timer’s never had a set-in-stone dance vocabulary, an important fact every new dancer should know. For instance, the question “Does Balboa have a pulse?” could mean something totally different to five different old timers, and another ten wouldn’t know what on earth you were talking about.
    You’re correct in the statement that the old timers “never had a set-in-stone dance vocabulary”, and for what I know, growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, with parents who were great dancers, had no vocabulary at all. (By the way, I remember seeing them dance at times what I call Balboa.) I started dancing in the late 50’s as a very young fella with my older sisters and their friends. Back then, as I heard Bill Haley, Jackie Wilson, and others, I never heard anything mentioned about “pulse”. The word “feeling” comes to mind, which could mean the same thing to some. Here in St. Louis, and I believe I can safely say, the rest of the world, the young people have taken the dances of much, much, earlier years, and for lack of a better term, “dissected” them into what may be an easier way to teach.
    I am happy to say I am still involved with the young dancers here in St. Louis, and always enjoy hearing their takes on these dances that you talk about, and what makes the dances tick. But when it comes to “pulse”, now that may be the new term to become “dissected”.
    I know my writing isn’t as eloquent as many of the young and very educated people of today, but it’s me with no artificial make-up.
    Keep up the good work Bobby!

    Respectfully,
    John Bedrosian

    • jackthevampire permalink*
      May 18, 2010 3:27 pm

      Thank you so much for your reply, John. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. May 19, 2010 4:01 am

    Thanks for this Bobby and I hope this is a precursor to a comprehensive history one day (when you have time). Isn’t it uncanny that Vasco Núñez de Balboa bears a striking resemblance to Willie Desatoff (especially on the Panamanian coins)?

    Harry

  3. Lindy Dandy permalink
    May 19, 2010 11:45 am

    Thanks for the awesome post; that’s a ton more history about Balboa than I’d ever heard.

  4. May 23, 2010 1:33 am

    Bobby, this article was a joy to read. I would love to hear your understanding of how Maxie Dorf fits into the history of balboa. I’ve heard that he was not a “balboa” dancer yet his patterns are often the 1st anybody learns.

    • jackthevampire permalink*
      May 23, 2010 12:01 pm

      Hey Shesha,

      Thanks for the compliment! From my understanding, Maxie comes in mainly on the “swing” side of the Bal-Swing equation. I believe Sylvia and a few others have told me that he considered himself a swing dancer first, in the “So-Cal Swing” sense of the word.

      I’m not sure at what point he picked up pure Balboa steps in his dancing career, but he definitely did do it, though it might have been more a “swing dancer’s style of Pure Balboa” rather than a “Pure Balboa dancer’s style of Balboa,” if that makes sense.; when Syliva learned Pure Balboa and Bal-Swing, she learned a ton of it from him. On top of that, people like Nick Williams studied all of Maxie Dorf’s basics when he was shaping his Balboa, and if Syliva and Nick teach the same basic basic, then a lot of people are going to learn Maxie Dorfs basic.

      But I don’t want people to think it was an arbitrary decision that a lot of us teach Maxie’s Pure Balboa basic, and that we’re shoving out the chance to learn a great many other dancer’s Balboa basics. With most of us, it’s because Maxie’s basic happens to be simple (in a good way), with clear cut weight shifts that create a great foundation for people to add layers to.

      Also, most people only get passed a very simplified version of Maxie’s basic when they are learning. His specific “lilt” and the other subtle aspects of his leading that were very much a part of the way he styled his basic are rarely taught explicitly and done on the dance floor, especially to non-advanced dancers. So even then, someone could make the argument that it’s not really Maxie’s basic that’s being taught, just a simplified version of a basic balboa step, as handed down by one particular dancer.

      The result is that if you learned a very basic Balboa basic today (“break time,” “down hold,” or “single time,” with holds on 4 and 8), you could probably guess it came from Willie or Hal as much as Maxie, since all accept the very basic styling is probably stripped away when you learn it in a one-hour class. (Ooo! I actually have completely solid, single-handed proof of this very thing! I had the honor to have private feedback with Willie Desatoff once, and he looked at our basic (the one we learned from Sylvia and Nick Williams) and he said “Good, yes, that’s the basic.”)

      But it is correct to say, I think, that most of the basics taught today are shaped after the ones the big-time swing dancers did, dancers like Willie, Hal, or Maxie–and not so much from the “Pure Balboa-only dancers” from the era.

      That’s my understanding of things, though I confess I don’t know near as much about all the original Pure Balboa styles, aside from what I’ve seen in Bobby McGee Clips, old movies where you can occasionally catch a basic in the background, and what Dean Rafferty and some other Old Timer’s have told me.

      –Bobby

  5. Chris permalink
    November 29, 2011 6:51 pm

    Thanks so much Bobby, for this very interesting and entertaining article! I do enjoy following your Blog …
    I would be interested in your opinion on the history of balboa videos pt.1-5 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTB0GuAGd_s), esp. as they seem to paint a slightly different picture of the early development.
    Looking forward to your reply.

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