Love & Swing (1): “To Meet Boys”
Part 1: “To Meet Boys”
This is the answer Nina Gilkenson gives whenever people ask her why she started swing dancing in the first place.
“Actually, I got into dancing because I liked it, but I did go out to a ‘real’ swing dance for the first few times with a boy I liked. Actually, two boys — twins.” Nina said. “I was home schooled, and as a 13-year-old without a real social outlet or school environment, I thought it would be a good place to meet people in general. Boys were just the icing. Oh, sweet icing.”
“To meet girls” is also one of the main reasons I would give as to why my bony 18-year-old-self started swing dancing. Like Nina, that wasn’t all of it. I was drawn to almost everything about it. But it was a large bonus that it would allow me to spend time with well-dressed girls and give me little chance to destroy it all by quoting entire Monty Python films.
Some might argue that this is why partnership dancing exist in modern cultures in the first place: so that people can touch members of the opposite sex.* You only need to mention how English country dances, Viennese waltzes, and German polkas offered a great excuse for young adults to meet other young adults. And anyone who has read Anna Karenina or any Jane Austen novel knows that, at least in their cultures, a dance was never just a dance. Of course, the act of dancing implies expressing the emotions music produces, but to do so while holding onto another human being implies at least some form of human connection, of intimacy. And Lindy Hop is no different.
In a recent panel discussion, when asked what the best dancing nights were at the Savoy, Norma Miller didn’t tell the story of when Chick Webb battled Benny Goodman or Count Basie, nor anything about the nights all the Whiteys Lindy Hoppers were in town from their gigs and dancing fierce. Instead, she talked about the Savoy’s Ladies Get-In-Free Nights on Thursdays. And how those nights brought in all the men in Harlem, dressed up in their finest suits. Norma couldn’t count how many marriages — and consummated affairs— were brought about because of the Savoy Ballroom. We also know that the Savoy Ballroom was a meeting place for people of almost any sexual persuasion to meet, as well as those who desired to date above or in spite of the color barrier.
And, when Frankie Manning was asked about his fondest memories of being a Lindy Hopper, on several occasions he gave a surprising answer. He didn’t mention the payoff of seeing Hellzapoppin’ come to life, or tell the story of the contest where he threw down the first air step. Instead, he mentioned the time, as a servicemen in WWII, when he had the opportunity to dance with Betty Grable in a USO show. “Her Lindy wasn’t all that great, but what did I care? I was dancing with Betty Grable,” Frankie said in his autobiography (pg. 200). “She was so soft, and she wore this perfume that was intoxicating. I was in heaven, heaven-n-n…I had to take a cold shower that night.” It might sound a bit anticlimactic if you haven’t been in a war or recently watched The Pacific. After all, Frankie had been through hell in the Pacific, and hadn’t had many chances to see a woman, and for almost every man who saw the kind of combat Frankie did, every day could easily be his last. Frankie dancing with Betty Grable was a memory of being a young man who got to live a little bit of an intimate dream at a time when it probably mattered the most.
Though partnership dancing has a lot of history in allowing people to meet others and connect with them, many partnership dances have evolved to the state of an art form — and Lindy Hop and the other original swing dances are at this level. With dances as sophisticated as Lindy Hop, Balboa, and Collegiate Shag, and with music as upbeat and “light hearted” as swing music, a person needs no other motive to go out dancing than simply to dance. [A question to the Blues community, for I am ignorant: Does Blues philosophically require this intimacy as part of it’s expression? Is a blues dance without human intimacy in some way missing the point and not really blues? Anyway…] The result is that now there are swing dancers who are at it just to use their artistic voices, or to play with physics, or merely get some exercise, both physical and spiritual.
Because of this, there are now two kinds of people you will now find in a ballroom: those who are mainly there to connect with other people, and those who are mainly there to express themselves through dance. (And of course the third, that one creepy guy.**) In reality, most people desire at least a little bit of both these forces. And sometimes the stars align and the two become one. But often the two — expression as a dance artist, and human connection — can be very different forces, as any person married to their dance partner can tell you.
In this series, we’ll discuss the interesting ways in which love, swing, and the love of swing can interact with each other, whether it be the romantic couple struggling to be dance partners, the traveling instructor attempting to hold down a long-distance relationship, or the conflict of those who have to choose either love or swing.
Next: Part 2, Non-Dancing vs Dancing Significant Others
[Dear Readers: Though I have interviewed a lot of great people for this series, I invite anyone who’s interested to send me their stories of love and swing if they feel like sharing. For instance, for the next installment, the basic question will be the pros/cons of non-dancing significant others versus dancing significant others. Do you have any interesting stories or experiences that have lead you to choose one or the other? People will not be quoted directly unless I discuss it with them and get their approval beforehand. If you’d like, simply send me a message on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/robertwhiteiii%5D
[Unedited simply for the sake of getting this out on Valentines’ Day, which was the originally planned day. Will be edited soon.]
* — Unfortunately, I imagine it has yet to be *100%* comfortable for same-sex people to publicly partner dance with each other in most cultures.
** — But we won’t talk about him anymore, though he may be very tied to the subject matter of love and swing.)