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Swing History 101: SoCal Swings (1935-1939-ish)

January 17, 2019

This continues our series on the history of swing era dances. This is part one of two for Southern California swing era dance history. See Part 2 here. For extra geeking out, check out the footnotes. Such as this one.(*)

Unseen Forces

benny-fans

California fans await Benny Goodman.

In 1935, suddenly and surprisingly, New York discovered there was a region that could compete with its love of swing. That region was Southern California, and Benny Goodman famously discovered its fanaticism for himself after a rough cross-country tour that had left him almost certain that swing was not going to get anywhere outside of the East Coast.

Based in New York, the clarinetist’s band was the featured midnight swing act on a radio program called “Let’s Dance.” (The program also had a Latin band and a “sweet” band that played ballads and romantic tunes.) When the program completed its broadcasts after a year, Goodman decided to take his band on the road for a cross-country tour, but the further west he went, the more audiences booed the swing music and requested the sweet stuff. By the time they got to California, the band was broke and Goodman was considering quitting.

At their first gig in the Palomar Ballroom in L.A., even though ticket holders were stretched around the block, Goodman played it safe and cued up the sweet stuff. The audience suddenly seemed to have the same apathy toward the band that Benny had been experiencing throughout the tour. Gene Krupa — Benny’s drummer and personal thunder god — encouraged the band, saying that if they were going to fail, they should go out playing the music they love. From the first roar of the snare, crashes of the cymbals, and blares of the horns, the crowd erupted. This was the music they had been waiting to hear.

That night marked the arrival of swing music as the new American popular music form, and almost overnight Benny Goodman was hailed as the “King of Swing.” (Despite King Chick Webb having having had the crown for years.*)

Why did this one corner of California become such a hot spot for swing music? One surprising reason that is often mentioned is the time difference — when Benny went on the radio at midnight in New York, it was 9pm in California. On a Saturday night, in an area full of teenagers out on the town or hanging out with friends, listening to the Benny Goodman broadcasts became the thing to do. But the reason Southern California in particular was primed to embrace the new music was probably thanks to a popular L.A. radio DJ named Al Jarvis. Jarvis loved swing and played it all the time. Even though Benny Goodman didn’t know it, the city was ready for him.

That concert was August 21st, 1935.

On the East Coast, Lindy Hop was already around 8 years old by the time the teenagers were lining up around the Palomar Ballroom to hear their first swing music concert. The new dance scene about to explode in Southern California, however, didn’t have a dance like Lindy Hop.

When a new dance music comes around, there are three things a community can do: They can update an old dance to the new music, they can import dances that already go with the music, or they can invent their own, new dances.

SoCal would do all three.

Local SoCal

snookiedamron

Swing dancers Roy Damron & Snookie Bishop. Photo courtesy of Beth Grover.

Let’s take a look at the dances you would see on the dance floors of SoCal’s early swing era.

First off, it wasn’t like Southern California was a desert barren of partnership dances before swing music came. There had been basic ballroom dances for decades, and in previous years, the Jazz Age had left around some dances like Foxtrot and Partnered Charleston. Fox Trot was on some of the floors of the swing era SoCal ballrooms, and Partnered Charleston definitely influenced some of the dances that would come out of the era.

However, when we think of the swing dances that Southern California developed and shaped, a few specific ones come to mind.

Quick Note: The modern use of the words “Balboa”, “Pure Bal”, “Bal-Swing”, and “SoCal Swing / L.A. Swing” are words that are meant to make things more accurate, but unfortunately can lead to a lot of confusion for dancers until they get their heads around them. So bear with us as we take their history slowly and with ample explanation.

“Swing”

A dance they invented.

By 1936, a popular dance in L.A. and other parts of Southern California had been evolving that they called “Swing.” Since that’s the kind of music they were dancing to, no reason to have another name for it, right? (At no point did they seem to consider how confusing it would be for us in the modern era to have a specific dance called “Swing” when all of our dances are categorized as “swing” dances.)

They seemed to start evolving their dance from a loose, lazy ballroom embrace as a starting point — not quite chest-to-chest, but a partnered position that still has a leader’s arm around the follower’s back and their other hands held up. (Original SoCal “Swing” dancer Roy Damron, for instance, thinks this dance started growing from the simple box step which kids like him learned if they took dancing lessons. Others used what little partnered Charleston they knew to help shape it.) Growing from this position, new steps were made up which were copied and changed, and which in turn inspired new steps.

From this ballroom-style closed position, a few dance mechanics are more natural than others — it’s easy to move a little side-to-side, or orbit around each other clockwise or counter-clockwise. It’s also pretty easy to twist you and your partner back and forth, or stretch away from one another and come back together in an “out & in” fashion.

Twisting a partner can lead to turning a partner easily enough. And, in general, the close-ish position and the occupation of both arms puts emphasis on footwork as the natural avenue for a lot of expression, rather than arms and torso. **

With all of that in mind, here’s what “Swing” looked like as done by three couples in September, 1938. (Also note a little “Collegiate” Shag in the background.)

“Swing” Dancing, 1938

 

As you can see, “Swing” was a dance that had a closed ballroom position, twisting, turning, orbiting, some out-and-in stretching, and an emphasis on footwork. (An interesting thing to also note is that almost all of the “Swing” dancers in this clip are dancing with their heels out of the ground, some of them dramatically, which seemed to be a trend among many “Swing” dancers at this time.)

All evidence suggest “Swing” was the mainstream swing dance of Southern California in those years 1935-ish to 1939-ish. Many of the SoCal dancers you might have heard of — Jean Veloz, Betty & Hal Takier, Jewel McGowan, for instance — learned this as their first swing dance.

Modern dancers tend to call this dance “SoCal Swing” or “L.A. Swing” in order to differentiate it from swing dancing in general.

Balboa

A dance they adapted.

Another dance from this area was linked to a location about an hour’s drive south of L.A., the Balboa Peninsula. By all the evidence we have, this was an older dance, around since at least the 1920s, and possibly even earlier. It was a simple, chest-to-chest partnered weight-changing dance, likely done to the jaunty popular music of the 1910s and 20s, and it was probably easily evolved to fit the new swing in the music.

Here is some footage of original swing era dancers doing it in their older age.

Balboa (“Pure Balboa”) Old Timers

 

We have been told this dance grew up on incredibly crowded floors, floors so packed you weren’t allowed to break away. In fact, a few of the ballrooms had rules you couldn’t break away — and the dance looks like it. Balboa is a small, hardly-traveling, chest-to-chest swing dance; just the kind of dance that would evolve on very crowded dance floors. And this aspect of the dance is probably what made Balboa generally a philosophically different kind of swing dance than the “Swing” or New York’s Lindy Hop.

Here’s what we mean. Everything the Old Timers have ever told us about Balboa leads us to believe it was not a performative dance by nature. If the dance did indeed grow up on very crowded floors, it makes sense that it wouldn’t be a performative dance — no one is watching you do it when all the onlookers can see is a sea of smoothly floating heads on the dance floor. (Now, just because the dance isn’t performative by nature doesn’t mean they didn’t care about how it looked. They certainly did. They just wouldn’t choose Balboa as the kind of dance they would do in a contest, for instance. To quote Roy Damron, there was “no such thing as  Balboa contest.” ***)

To the Old Timers, this dance they called Balboa was more about the feel — of both their partner, and the floor. Balboa dancers cared about the partnership and how it moved together, and the shuffling motion that went along with your steps (probably another byproduct of the dance having evolved in small spaces).

Some Balboa dancers, like the last couple in the clip above, danced a range of ad-lib steps (steps that add movement or change the rhythm), but most of the original Balboa dancers danced their basic quick-quick-slow pattern over and over again allowing variations on weight changes and shuffling and rhythms to shape their dance. As you can see in the video, those dancers aren’t trying to throw in impressive or even highly expressive moves — it’s more like they’re meditating, floating in a sea of swing.

The modern scene doesn’t tend to call this dance “Balboa,” the way the Old Timers did, but “Pure Balboa” or “Pure Bal” for short. Why do we need a different name for it, you ask? We’ll get to that soon.

The footage above was of these SoCal dancers in their older age. Some of them had been dancing almost exclusively Balboa with their partners for more than forty years.

Most of our footage of Pure Balboa back in the swing era is from background dancers in movies, likely because people in the film business realized Pure Balboa dancers were great at filling out a crowd while not taking too much attention away from the “Swing” dancers and Lindy dancers that would be placed front and center for the cameras.

Bal-Swing

An invented combination.

The Pure Bal dancers didn’t exist in a vacuum. With the exception of those few “no break-away” ballrooms, dance floors across the region could have dancers doing both Pure Bal and “Swing” on the floor, and some of the big dances in L.A. would apparently have Balboa dancers collecting on one side of the stage and “Swing” dancers on the other. Dancers would mingle, and some would learn both dances. Some of those “Swing” dancers even began putting Balboa into their “Swing,” adding it to their collection of steps.

Balboa fit nicely into “Swing,” giving some dancers a new basic starting point, and making the dance even more dynamic. This also lead to a specific type of “Swing” that would eventually be described by the name “Balboa-Swing” or “Bal-Swing.” The dancers who created and developed this specific dance style included Willie Desatoff, Maxie Dorf, Anne Mills, and Natalie Esparza, to name a few. This was not all “Swing” dancers, by the way — only a subset of people linked the two dances together, especially in the way leaders like Maxie and Willie did.

These two dancers were the most nuanced dancers of this style who stuck around to teach it to future generations. For them, “Bal-Swing” became more than simply adding Pure Bal to their “Swing” dancing — it became its own, separate, cohesive dance. They both expressed how a motion they called the Out-and-In motion (which we briefly mentioned in the “Swing” section) was the basic movement of their “Bal-Swing.” You’ll see that motion when you watch them dance in the clip below — and you can see how that Out-and-In motion is the glue they use to link everything together, and a major source for their momentum, expression, and swing. It’s also the Out-and-In motion that allows them to so easily go from the chest-to-chest Balboa to the more open “Swing” and vice versa.

It’s a defining aspect of the dance that someone new to the Balboa family of dances might not realize quickly, because it’s not called “Out-and-In-Bal-Swing,” which is perhaps a more accurate (though less accessible) name.

Here are some of the original masters dancing what they called “Bal-Swing.” Look for how often they use that Out-and-In motion to manipulate momentum and express the swing of the music.

Bal-Swing

 

Once again showing no concern for the modern scene, some original dancers would sometimes shorten “Bal-Swing” and refer to this dance as “Bal,” seeming not to care that there was already a dance called Balboa that they were already shortening to “Bal.” Hence, the need for the term “Pure Balboa” to talk about the actual “Balboa” dance we discussed earlier.

Probably helpful enough to put in a box:

Once the modern scene was beginning to comprehend all of this history, it said “Fine! We’ll just lump all of these things under ‘Bal.'” So, when we hear the name “Balboa” or “Bal” today in a workshop title (such as “The All Balboa Weekend” or “Cal Bal”), or when discussing the dance scene (as in “the Bal scene loves the music at Lindy Focus”), it is almost always referring to “The dances of Pure Balboa, Bal-Swing, and possibly even the larger category 1930s SoCal “Swing” dance, and the modern interpretations of those dances.”

However, it’s good to know that when you are asked to dance “Bal” by a person at a dance, it almost always refers specifically to the dance “Bal-Swing, and the modern interpretations of it,” and you are not expected to dance only Pure Balboa.

If you are entering a “Bal” contest in the modern era, it almost always refers specifically to the dance “Bal-Swing and the modern interpretations of it.” (Competitors have to look closely at a contest description so see if it includes the phrase “L.A. Swing” or “SoCal Swing,” which means the contest welcomes the freedom and inspiration of that broader 1930s “Swing” dance, which we will go into even more below.)

If you are entering a “Pure Bal” contest, then ideally it is referring to the dance done by the Old Timers shown in the Balboa section video above, though in all honesty we don’t know what some of those judges are thinking.

Even though it all sounds overly confusing, a great shortcut is to think of the modern “Bal” scene as mostly a “Bal-Swing” scene that has lots of additional interests in Pure Balboa and “Swing.” We will get more into why that is in a future history article.

There, we’re glad we’ve now completely cleared all of that up.

We deeply apologize for any confusion,

— The “Bal” Scene

Shag

A dance they imported.

The SoCal dancers imported some Shag, what we tend to call Collegiate Shag today, early. We won’t go into this very much here, but not because we don’t think it’s important — on the contrary, we think Shag is so important it needs its very own history post. After all, Shag is arguably the most nationwide swing dance of the Swing era, and has a very rich history. So we will leave that to a more fitting post, rather than one that concentrates on Southern California.

We will throw out the name Connie Wydell, who by 1938 had brought his specific style of Shag to SoCal from North Carolina. According to original SoCal dancer Roy Damron, Wydell caused a huge stir when he came to town, and his Shag was all the rage. He and his partner, probably a dancer named Barbara Plum, are the couple doing Shag in the Venice Beach clip posted above and discussed in more detail here.

Jigtrot

Who knows?

By the way, there was also a dance that people did called Jigtrot, which looked more or less like a kickier version of Pure Balboa, or a chest-to-chest version of Shag, and was by all accounts just a step or a couple of steps, not an expansive dance like Lindy Hop or “Swing.” ****

(By the way, its important to know that, when discussing things from this time period, “jig” could be referring to the traditional Irish dancing style, or it could be an offensive racial slur against Black Americans used at the time. Since Jigtrot is an expression of lively, kicking footwork, it’s probably safe to assume its name came from its resemblance to traditional Irish dancing. However, it’s good to be aware of the offensive meaning of this term in the larger context of the era.)

Here is a brief example of Jigtrot:

Jigtrot

 

Everything-And-The-Kitchen-Sink “Swing”

All of it together.

Finally, as more dance influences came into SoCal, a section of “Swing” dancers would take these influences and throw them into their dancing whenever they wanted to. So, they might start with “Swing” steps, but then throw in some Shag, then maybe some Jigtrot, then maybe some Lindy (once Lindy Hop came to town). Many of these dancers were geared towards performance, competition, and entertainment, and came up with their own collection of tricks, stunts, and mini-choreographies.

Here is some examples of those dancers and their “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” style of “Swing” at work:

Everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-“Swing”

 

So, a dance floor in Southern California in 1938 could have easily had dancers doing what we could call Pure Balboa, Bal-Swing, “Swing,” Shag, Jigtrot, and the unique, unnamed steps the partnerships would invent.

What’s important to take away from SoCal’s mid-30s primordial swing dance swamp is that the young dancers themselves were either adapting things to suit their own styles or needs, or just making it up as they went along. There isn’t a governing body on the creation of street dances, and so very rarely are things clear-cut, and almost always is there an exception to a rule.

For instance, even though Pure Bal is almost always done chest-to-chest, Pure Bal dancer Dean Raftery mentioned shortly before his death that they had a step that would break that close embrace. He was not able to recall or demonstrate the step. But it makes sense — what is less likely is that a group of teenagers inventing a dance all got together and agreed that you had to stay in one position.

And though they had a lot of the same names for their dancing, as you can see in the videos above, Maxie Dorf’s “Bal-Swing” was, in some ways, a pretty different dance than Willie Desatoff’s “Bal-Swing,” which was different yet again from Hal Takier’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink “Swing.” Yes, their “Swing”s shared a lot in common — the loose ballroom closed position, the use of twisting and twist-created turning, the use of Out-and-Ins, and Pure Bal steps — but their differences reveal how individualism could blur the hard definitions of a dance. Definitions that the modern student often desires to put on the dance in an attempt understand it better.

In trying to force these dances into a clearly defined box, it often keeps the student from understanding the true nature of them. There are boxes, but some of the edges are weak, and the dances can spill over the sides.

Jamming the Works

cal-jam

If New York’s Savoy Ballroom was a dance floor of many different ages, the California dance floors were almost all teenagers and 20-somethings — after all, they hadn’t grown up with swing like the Harlem neighborhood had. To them, this was a new music, and when it comes to new music, the youth are almost always the first carriers and the most contagious.

New York’s Harlem nightlife culture set a dress code of nice wool suits and dresses for a night at the ballroom, something Black Americans in the city, especially the adults of the era, took great pride in upholding.*****

The California dancers, however, wore what California teenagers wore: sun-friendly fabrics, t-shirts, sweaters, sneakers, loafers, rolled-up pants, saddle shoes. Dressing up for a dance meant adding a sport jacket and tie, not a suit. It meant a blouse and skirt, not a knee-length dress and nice jewelry. (Dean Collins, who kept his New York dancing fashion when out social dancing in SoCal, was known to many as “the guy in the suit.”)

As the picture above shows, the dance floors of swing era SoCal were also integrated. Many ethnic groups lived together in communities or neighborhoods, but you could go to any dance you wanted. For instance, original SoCal dancer Roy Damron (who is still with us today) said his group of friends would often travel to the Black neighborhoods to attend their dances, and always felt welcome on the dance floor, even if they were the only White faces there. When Roy would see Black American dancers at the White neighborhood dances, Roy said was treated warmly and was often asked when he’d be coming back to the Black neighborhood’s dances. This crossover meant everyone could see each other dance, and could be influenced by one another.

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The original caption of this 1939 photograph read: “Ernstid Davidson and Herman Harrison, who took first place in the “Negro” division of the International Jitterbug Convention held in the Los Angeles Coliseum. ” Based on the appearance, it’s probable they are doing a shag step.

When asked what dancing in the Black neighborhoods was like, Damron said, “They did everything we did, but looser.” In the context of the conversation, this meant “Swing,” Shag and Lindy, and possibly even Jigtrot and Balboa. Historian Peter Loggins, working from many interviews with Old Timers, agrees that there were Black SoCal dancers doing “Swing,” and eventually Shag and Lindy Hop.

Southern California was a diverse place, and there were certainly Latin and Asian American youth seeing and doing these dances. Balboa dancer Izzy Hignett remembers a very good Pure Balboa dancer of Latin descent, and Hignett’s own bridesmaid was a person of color Pure Balboa dancer. (We will also discuss the diversity of the SoCal dancing experience more in Part 2 of this article.)

A night of dancing in Southern California would go like this:

All over the area, dances would happen, especially at Elk Clubs and Masonic lodges, which embraced the swing craze as a dependable way to rent out their ballrooms.

Many teenagers would choose which dances to go to that night, and then hop on the region’s extensive bus and street car lines, or borrow their parents’ cars, or get rides with friends. Groups tended to be from the same high school, and there were enough dances that dancers had to have a good reason to travel. To drive the hour-and-a-half  from Alhambra near L.A. to the Rendevous Ballroom in Balboa, for instance, it’d have to be a really good band, because there were always several other dances happening closer.

It sounds like most of these teenage dancers moved in groups — again, often affiliated with high schools. Alhambra High had the Alhambra “Alligators,” lead by Roy Damron. (“Alligator” was one of the several slang terms for “jitterbug.”) Their group would mostly move as a unit and mostly dance with each other, because they all knew each other’s steps and could dance well with one another. Anne Mills was part of a group called the “Five Bal Gals,” who specialized in Balboa and were known for being able to do it at blazing speeds.

This group-oriented dancing is a major reason why many Old Timers have said they could tell which parts of SoCal you came from — sometimes even which high school you went to — based on what you danced and how you danced it. For instance, coastal dancers were known for doing Balboa on the balls of their feet, whereas the inland dancers were given the nickname “The Inland Flat-Footers” because they didn’t pick up their feet at all when they danced, and slid flat-footed across the floor. (You can see both those styles represented in the Balboa clip above.)

The scene was small enough that the names of great dancers got around, but big enough that you could dance during the entire swing era in Southern California and not necessarily meet them or see them dance. (For example, two great dancers, Maxie Dorf and Anne Mills, didn’t meet until long after the swing era. And Roy Damron had heard of Maxie in his youth, but had never seen him dance.)

Competitions were a normal part of dance nights at the height of the SoCal swing craze, and sometimes multiple contests were happening every night around Southern California. These often came with small money prizes, and that served as a big incentive for a lot of the teenagers to work on their dancing. These contests were often either a simple everyone-dance-until-a-judge-taps-you-out format, or a spotlight-and-audience-judged format.******

The nature of these contests was clear to all the dancers of that era: throw down. It didn’t matter what style you danced, you just had to be the most impressive. It didn’t hurt that doing well in such contests was a good sign you could probably get some parts in movie dance scenes. The number of contests and competitions lead to an ongoing culture of performance dance in Southern California that is probably one of the major reasons its dancing is so inspirational to us today. SoCal dancers trained hard to catch an audience’s eye.

It was very common for dance partnerships to begin as romances or become them. Unlike Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, which had an (occasionally-broken) rule that you couldn’t be romantically involved with your partner, the Southern California teenagers had no manager telling them what to do, and many of them ended up dancing primarily with their significant others. Developing material and dancing as a partnership was a priority for many of them.

haltakier

Hal & Betty Takier jam at the International Jitterbug Championships, a giant competition held in Los Angeles in 1939

Most Old Timers would tell you the greatest of these competition couples was Hal and Betty Takier, shown in several of the clips above, especially the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink style “Swing.” Like dancers of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Hal and Betty spent a lot of time developing their own steps and strove to make a big impact on an audience. Hal treasured his individuality and always tried to do stuff no one else was doing, and was always looking for inspiration. In fact, he was one of the few White dancers of Southern California who went to see Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers perform when they were in town.

The Takiers were also part of a performance troop, The Ray Rand Swingers, which was more along the lines of a group of dancers doing gigs and mock contests together rather than a well-honed group routine act like the Whitey’s. They did apparently have a short choreography they’d do that also had a singing part. The group included Maxie Dorf and Lolly Wise (as in the fundamental Bal-Swing move “Lolly Kicks”), and according to historian Peter Loggins, occasionally had Black couples involved in the group.

rayrand

1939, caption read: “Jitterbug dancers on the City Hall portico came to invite Mayor Fletcher Bowron to attend the International Jitterbug Championships.” Ray Rand Swingers Hal and Betty (on right) are joined by the Black members of the Ray Rand Swingers, including Lucius Smith (left) and Ricky Burch (Shag leader, back right). We will revisit Burch in Part 2 of this article series. (Special thanks to historian Peter Loggins for this info.)

Contests were so big in Southern California that they held several of them in stadiums. In 1939, for example, the International Jitterbug Championships was held in the Los Angeles Memorial Colosseum, and it narrowed down more than a thousand competitors in heats throughout the day and ended with finals seen by tens of thousands of people.

One couple in the contest was doing a dance that had been seen around the SoCal dance floors a little before, but never in a way near as sharp and exciting as this.

The couple went by the names Dean and Jewel. And that dance, “The Lindy,” was about to change Southern California swing dance forever.

But Southern California was about to change the Lindy, too.

flourish

The Pacific Swing Dance Foundation is a new non-profit working to preserve the history of the California swing dances. A great deal of the research in this piece was possible because of their support. Readers of Swungover can play a role in preserving these dances and the stories of those who danced them by donating. Check out their website for more details.

Special thanks to Sylvia Sykes and Nick Williams for their great help with this article, as well as David Rehm for his historical work and his willingness to share so much of it so freely to me over the years. Also special thanks to Peter Loggins for his research and sharing it with us, Nicholas Centino for his cultural insight, Lewis Orchard for his historical findings, and historian Dwight Lupardis, who’s preservation of the Balboa and “Swing” dances and their history is one of the greatest treasures we as a scene have. (Most of the films of the Balboa and Bal-Swing dancers in their older age was documented by him.)

And huge thanks to Jessica Miltenberger for editing this piece — Swungover’s usual editor Chelsea Lee had to take this one off due to a very busy schedule.

FOOTNOTES

(*) — Constructing this essay was very tricky. As readers of both parts of the essay will notice, I first discuss the SoCal local swing dances, and then talk about the culture of the scene. Then in part two I talk about Lindy Hop, then talk more about the culture of the scene. I tried numerous combinations of the two parts, as well as a single, super-long version (which seemed less accessible to the beginner reader), and a three-part version that divided up the local dances, Lindy Hop, and the cultural aspects.

By no means did I feel it came out perfectly, but I think mixing them up does help reinforce how much the culture was linked to the dancing, and that separating them from each other, even in article form, would be a spiritual mistake.

Also, please note that, as with all history articles, this is the history as we currently know it. New information and research may update these beliefs, and often does. Though, we are pretty sure any updates to the information in this article would be small-picture updates, like the addition of new experiences or adding more nuance to the facts already presented above.

Finally, it’s been awhile since the last entry of this series. You can find those previous entries here. Please note the videos have not been updated with new information, whereas the text ones have.

Swing History 101
Made in Carolina: The Charleston (??-1928)
Birth of Lindy Hop (1900s-1929)
Video 1: The Birth of Lindy Hop (1900s-1929)
Video 2: The Dark Ages (1929-1937)
Golden Age of Harlem Lindy Hop (1935-1942)

* — Unfortunately, it seems an obvious example of how 20th century race relations and ignorance of Black American art forms caused the primarily White mainstream to elect “Kings” that matched their own demographics. A similar thing happened in the next generation with Elvis, “the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” despite Chuck Berry obviously being its first dominant voice. (Fun facts: Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good” is the only rock ‘n’ roll song they put on the Voyager space craft’s golden record. “Meloncholy Blues” by Louis Armstrong was the only jazz song.)

Though the crowning of Benny Goodman the “King of Swing” was a sign of unfair race relations and ignorance, it did allow him to bring swing into the mainstream homes and help change those race relations, in small ways at least, for the next generation. And if a White face had to be crowned the “King of Swing,” Goodman was a great person for the role — he used his influence to create the first mainstream integrated jazz bands, to showcase then-unknowns such as Lionel Hampton and Charlie Christian, and to make sure Black American musicians were able to share the stage with him when he performed at Carnegie Hall in his famous concert in 1938. By no means a perfect world, but in this case, it could have been a lot worse — like a generation earlier, when Nick LaRocca, leader of the popular all-White Original Dixieland Jass Band (which made the first jazz recording), claimed that he alone had invented jazz, and would later claim he also invented swing.

** — Other ideas, like the long, linear stretching of Lindy Hop’s open position, are not as natural in this closed ballroom position — the “Lindy” handhold is a lot more natural to open position dancing than the classic ballroom handhold is.

This is something crucial for understanding the difference between “Swing”/ Bal-Swing and Lindy Hop mechanics. Whereas Lindy involves a lot of linear momentum, “Swing” and Bal-Swing are based more on rotational momentum, such as the torque of twisting the body, or the momentum of coming in towards each other while rotating

Lindy dancers often learn to default to linear energy because it helps keep Lindy Hop successful — they might automatically travel away from their partner to create stretch, for instance. However, if they learn Bal-Swing, and automatically add linear energy to the dance, it interferes with the rotational momentum and basically makes everything wonky.

In part 2 of this article, we will see what happens when things go the other way, and “Swing” dancers try to learn Lindy Hop.

*** — So, why do we have Pure Bal contests in the modern era? Near the end of this article we discuss competition philosophy during the swing era era, which was simply to impress audiences. That is very hard to do with a small, chest-to-chest dance that is almost never expressed in “showing off,” hence why Pure Balboa was never considered a competition dance.

We in the modern era, however, do contests for many different reasons — including appreciation of a dance as an art form by having a panel of experts recognize great examples of a subtle craft. That is usually the goal of a modern Pure Bal contest.

**** — There was apparently a “King” of Jigtrot, according to Dean Collins: Lorrie Shermoen. I don’t know of any footage of his dancing. (If you find any, let us know.)

***** — A constant struggle I have as a writer is trying to find the most respectful way to describe the American people and culture that were the major force in creating jazz, swing, and many of the dances that are danced to them. “African Americans” vs “Black Americans” vs “Black,” etc. There has always been a debate about which choices are more accurate and/or more respectful, and there are many reasons why each of them is a reasonable choice (for instance, this style guide explains a few). So, know that, though I have chosen one of them, I recognize all have value when used appropriately and respectfully.

For these two articles, as you can see, I have chosen to use “Black” and “Black American” instead of the more common “African American” (which I have used in other articles and films, and may continue to use again in other articles). I have chosen “Black” and “Black Americans” for this essay for a few reasons.

First, from my understanding, many of the Black Americans at this time did not relate themselves to Africa or an African heritage — I know that is not exactly the point of the phrase “African American,” but it seems important for this instance that most of these 1930s Black Americans were trying first and foremost to be recognized as Americans, period, let alone African Americans. (And I know this struggle continues in many ways.) So, anyway, it seemed strange to define them by a relationship most of them would not have defined themselves by. “American” is already implied by “Black” to American readers, but considering Swungover is read worldwide, it often seemed appropriate to add it.

Secondly, “Black” is beautiful, and, just as importantly, powerful. In writing, words have force and power, and the shorter, punchier words tend to hold the most power. Thus, saying “Whites” and then saying “African Americans” can ironically be taking verbal power away from the group you’re trying to empower with respect, because you’ve added syllables and a technical-sounding experience to the phrase. Compare that to “White Americans” and “Black Americans,” which to me, when used with respect, has true equality in the power of the sounds of the words. This is a smaller reason, but, still something I thought worth mentioning.

With “Black American” there is the problem that there are many different shades of skin tone among Americans who have descendants from Africa. So, here, we are taking our cue from the Black Power movement, which used “Black” as a cultural shorthand, not a literal description.

Again, I do not debate that “African American” is perfectly respectful in its own ways and that there are great reasons why it exists as a term. There are also great reasons why “African American” is a particularly apt term to use when discussing jazz and swing dance, since various African heritages, especially many West African ones, played a large role in those things.

So, I myself am also conflicted about the decision. Regardless, please know that our main intent is to be respectful to this rich American culture, its history, and the people that composed it then and compose it today.

As a side note, we recommend checking out this article by economist Margaret Simms, who argues that, whether White Americans use “Black” or “African American,” what’s most important is understanding how structural racism works in America, so that we can change more than what terms we use.

****** — It even became a thing for groups of dancers to go to clubs and offer to do contests for the audiences. They’d bring their own records, do little spotlights, and then an audience would judge and the winners would make a little cash. For some of the groups, they’d simply split the money outside. We know this was done by at least two groups of dancers.

It might even be worth trying out today.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2019 4:44 pm

    Is there a chance that Lonnie is related to Lance Shermoen?

    • Bobby permalink*
      January 23, 2019 4:57 pm

      Good Question, I will ask Sylvia that. (the source of that fact)

    • Bobby permalink*
      April 1, 2019 2:14 am

      Apparently it was his dad! (Via Nick)

  2. Tom Koerner permalink
    January 17, 2019 6:50 pm

    As usual, a nice and well-researched posting of one part of the complicated history of swing which, hopefully, will become a book on swing. And the videos are a terrific addition. I hope folks who read this are encouraged by seeing that the dance is not a static art form, but is instead a synthesis of different material from various sources.

  3. Bobby permalink*
    January 23, 2019 5:04 pm

    UPDATED 1/23/19

    — Added that many dancers used the buses and railcars to get around to dances, which is important to imagining the SoCal dancing experience. Some dancers couldn’t get to certain dances cause they weren’t on the rail lines.
    — Also added the more accurate time of 1 hour and half for a 1930s car to get form Alhambra to Balboa. Original post said just 1 hour.
    — Also added Lewis Orchard to the list of thanks for all his historical detective work.
    — Added a little more explanation to the note about how updated information will likely change the article in the first footnote. (In short, probably not a lot.)
    — a little sweeping up around some of the text.

Trackbacks

  1. Swing History 101: Lindy Comes to SoCal (1937-ish-1945) | Swungover*
  2. A Way-Too-Breif History of Balboa | Swungover*
  3. Consider This: The Nature of (Pure) Balboa | Swungover*

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