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The Scientist, The Madman and The Mechanic.

March 24, 2020

As a professional dance instructor in the time of COVID-19, my income for at least the next three months has been erased. This post is composed with a suggested donation of $3. If you read it, especially if you found it thought-provoking, please donate! You will be *literally* helping support an artist, and have my sincerest gratitude. If you think someone else will enjoy it, I will also appreciate it greatly if you share it on social media. 

madman 4 shaded magic .jpgEvery time I step onto a dance floor, they’re with me. You can’t see them per se, but if you look closely, you can certainly tell when one of them isn’t doing their job, (or is trying to do the other’s job).

The Madman.   They are called the madman partly for lack of a better term. (Envision a person of whatever gender you prefer.) But, it is fitting in that madmen are not necessarily creatures of conscience — they go from their guts, their emotions. They have crazy ideas. They operate on a different plane. You don’t know what they are going to do next, because they are of the moment. They whoop and shoot from the hip.

The Mechanic. Brawny, covered in oil and grease, trustworthy. They are keeping an eye on the ship that is your body.  Like Scotty, or Kaylee, they are intimate with their ship — they know how it works, and how to keep it working, and they are aware when something doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.

The Scientist. Logical, reasonable, calm. Constantly keeping track of the captain’s choices and ideas, constantly learning new information about the ship. Knows that the knowledge we need is often just a few observations away.

These three are with me at all times in my dancing, but what’s important is which one is doing which job, and at which time.

Read more…

The Swungover quick guide to coping with COVID – 19

March 12, 2020

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If you are reading this, you are probably an avid swing dancer. Perhaps you consider yourself healthy, maybe you don’t have immunity problems, and maybe you have a pretty good healthcare situation. If that’s the case,  it might not have hit home yet what lies in wait for those communities that get hit with COVID-19. Which is most likely coming to your community soon, if it hasn’t already.  

And, as you are a swing dancer, your favorite hobby involves going out and touching a bunch of people while being around a bunch of other people.

So, sadly, our favorite hobby would help spread the disease more quickly than most other human social activities, and would play a role in what we are trying most to avoid at the moment: the overcrowding of our health care facilities. We really, really want to avoid this as much as possible. (More on that below.)

So, here’s some quick advice provided by some experts (not me).

Read more…

R.I.P. Irene Thomas (1921-2020)

February 26, 2020
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Irene Thomas dancing with Chris Grover. Photo by Dave Welch. Courtesy of Rusty Frank.

It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Irene Thomas, one of the greatest Southern California swing dancers of all time.

Well, we may be sad, but Irene was thrilled. On a visit with her a few years ago, she had mentioned several times that she was ready to go (and even seemed a little annoyed it was taking awhile). And, when her good friends — swing dance instructor Rusty Frank and others — visited her for the first time in hospice, Irene greeted them by saying “Hallelujah! Strike up the band! Here I come!”

So even though we have lost Irene, we take comfort that she was prepared to go.

Irene was born November 23, 1921 in Missouri. She grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma, and spent a lot of her childhood learning and performing tap, ballet, and gymnastics. She moved to the Los Angeles area as a teenager and, around 1939, learned some Lindy Hop steps from a dancer named Bill Alcorn in just one sitting before becoming a Lindy social dancer and, soon after, performer.

Read more…

R.I.P — Izzy (Hignett) Bishop (1922-2020)

February 18, 2020

Izzy.jpgIzzy Hignett, one of the last living original Balboa dancers, passed away on Valentine’s Day.

She was born July 31, 1922 and grew up in Compton in Southern California. She first learned to dance when she was 13, learning a box step by stepping on the corners of a newspaper. By 1936 she and a good friend would hop on the “Red Line” and travel down to “The Pike” on Long Beach, where they would split — her friend would go to the “slower” music spot Cinderella Ballroom where they did Fox Trot, and Izzy would go to dance at The Majestic Ballroom, known for its fast music and “Bal” — the dance we now call “Pure Balboa.” 

In the the height of the swing era, she was a young teenager who went to the Easter-and-Spring-Break Bal-Week event (with a chaperone), missed going to see her favorite, Benny Goodman, on Catalina because of a cautious father, and partnered with one of the So-Cal swing dance legends, Bob Ashley before deciding a life as a movie dancer wasn’t for her.

In 1952 she married a fellow Southern Californian and fellow (Pure) Balboa dancer Jim Hignett, and dancing was very important to them. She felt there were two kinds of (Pure) Balboa, and described themselves as “steppers,” not “sliders.” Izzy and Jim were part of the only Pure Balboa contest that I know of to have existed before the modern swing era. (It was put on by an early West Coast Swing event decades after the swing era, and all Balboa couples involved were apparently angry that the winning couple was actually doing Jig Trot — a pulsing, kicky dance similar to Balboa.)     

Izzy and Jim were married for 40 years before his death. Here is footage of their Pure Balboa and a partnership decades in the making. (Not seeing anything fancy? Pure Balboa is more often a meditative dance about the feeling of partnership, rhythm and swing rather than doing a lot of different movements.)

I was fortunate to interview Izzy on two occasions for the Pacific Swing Dance Foundation and with the assistance of fellow Balboa historian Lewis Orchard. Izzy was open and giving with her time and enjoyed greatly reliving memories from her earlier days. Because of her openness we now have rare recordings of one of the original Pure Balboa dancers discussing their life in dancing. Her memories helped paint a more accurate view of the world of Southern California swing dancing and we were very grateful she was willing to spend time with us. We very much enjoyed her lively, funny, and straight-talking personality.

Want to know more about the history of Southern California swing dances, or are confused by the terminology? Check out these history posts:

Swing History 101: SoCal Swings (Part 1) 

Swing History 101: Lindy Comes to SoCal (Part 2)

 

 

Long Live the Queen

December 3, 2019

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Norma Miller was made of spit, and fire, and grit, and hustle, and truth.

And she would have been 100 years old today.

Known as the “Queen of Swing” to Lindy Hoppers, she died May 5, 2019, in Florida, of degenerative heart disease. She died in bed, surrounded by loved ones, having watched some of her friends Lindy Hop for her, having listened to some of her own recently recorded new songs, as well as the hauntingly sweet song “Stardust.” And, apparently — in the makings of the kind of myths that are passed down through the jazz ages — she died just as “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” was coming on the speakers, as if the waves of Basie’s opening piano tide carried her away.

She was 99 years old.

Stories

Most dancers probably know a few famous pieces of her story: She grew up behind the Savoy ballroom. She became a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper and traveled the world and was in Hellzapoppin’.  And, oh yeah, wasn’t there something about getting taken into the ballroom as a child to dance in a contest or something? Read more…

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

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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.

Read more…

Swing History 101: Lindy Comes to SoCal (1937-ish-1945)

January 17, 2019

This continues our series on the history of swing era dances for beginner dancers. In Part One, we discussed the terms “Bal-Swing,” “Swing” and “Balboa” and their origins. This is Part Two of Southern California swing era dance history, and these two posts are meant to be read together. For extra geeking out, check out the footnotes.

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The Audience at a night at Club Alabam on Central Ave in LA.

Missionaries

We know of two different, important times when New York Lindy Hop came to SoCal and truly influenced the dancing there.

The first is when Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers first started coming to Hollywood in 1937. When in town for film shoots and performances, the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers would perform and social dance at Club Alabam, an integrated ballroom that specialized in Black American performances and jazz. This club, and its nearby Dunbar hotel, were part of L.A.’s “Little Harlem,” with its own rich role in Black-American history.*

Throughout the years that followed, the Whitey’s would come stay for stretches of time, and by 1941, when they were there filming Hellzapoppin’, Norma Miller mentions their “new-found friends,” whom she calls the “West Coast Lindy Hoppers.” With a little bit of help from the greatest performers in the dance, Lindy had been delivered directly to the Black American dancers of SoCal.

Unfortunately, we have very little evidence of what this Lindy Hop looked like. Even though Hollywood did put out a few films aimed towards the Black American community, we only know of one film that featured Black American SoCal Lindy Hoppers social dancing — 1943’s Cabin in the Sky. Read more…