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Swing History 101: The Golden Age of Harlem Lindy Hop (1935-1942)

January 13, 2017

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Updated 4/19/17 with additional socio-economic details; see comments for more discussion.

Setting “The Scene”

As we discussed in the last episode, as the ’20s passed into the ’30s the new “swing” sound was evolving away from the hot jazz of the 1920s. Bands were smoothing out their rhythm into a steady, rolling-thunder beat. Drum sets were getting more drums and cymbals, and bands were getting more musicians and creating sections with them. They were also using more written arrangements that countered the sections off of each other in growing sophistication.

In the 1930s, the neighborhoods above New York’s Central Park, known as Harlem, became a hot spot for the new swing sound. Harlem was a primarily Black neighborhood, though its East side also had strong Italian and Hispanic communities. Though 1920s Harlem was a pilgrimage for Black intellectuals and artists, the early ’30s Depression brought high rates of poverty.

Though it greatly affected the lives of its residents, the Depression didn’t stop Harlem from swinging. In many ways, the joyful swing music and dancing of the area was a welcome relief from the hard times. Clubs and bandstands littered the area, making it a destination not only for locals but for people all over the five boroughs and tourists from outside the city. The biggest of these clubs was called the Savoy Ballroom, at 141st Street and 7th Avenue. It took up an entire block length and had a sign that read “The Home of Happy Feet.” This integrated ballroom (reportedly America’s first) was the mecca of Harlem social dancing night life and where visitors of all races expected to see the Lindy Hop being done by the best of the best. Many visitors, knowing of the Savoy Hotel in London, pronounced it the “SAV-oy.” But if you were in the know, you pronounced it “Sa-VOY.” Read more…

History of Caucasian Dancing (Returns!)

December 21, 2016

A few years ago, Nick Williams and I were at a workshop and made this parody of the “Al & Leon Playboy Clip.” Though we adhered to copyright laws (like not using more than 30 seconds of a sound bite) the video was taken down from YouTube. Here it is, uploaded again for your pleasure (or disgust, or apathy), right here on Swungover. (Until they possibly make us take it down again.)

“Practice-Swing”; The perfect gift for every single person in your family.

November 29, 2016

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Practice Swing is not just the easy gift for the swing dancers in your life.

So your uncle is currently serving a sentence for an incident at Sea World that all began with the good intention of freeing a killer whale. With plenty of reading time on his hands, Practice Swing will help him understand how to “play the game” while still staying true to his own character, and the sections on partner communication will give him crucial advice in forging healthy compromise with his cell mate, Hurricane.

So your non-dancing friend is trying to simultaneously rise to the top of his multi-national conglomerate head-hunting corporation, and eventually ask out the cute guy at the gym. Practice Swing will teach him how to be his own coach to victory, and the section on anatomically and aesthetically-pleasing good posture will allow to impress both the shadowy head of his company, Candler Bryant, and, the cute guy at the gym, who’s name he discovers is also Candler Bryant. Practice Swing will prepare him for the tricky road ahead.

So your great-grandmother has been having trouble installing her Linco transmission into her ’77 Challenger, and Gladys Ethelberry’s Camero has been revving engines at traffic lights all around town itching for a fight. Practice Swing will give her the useful mental tools she needs to re-focus her attention and plan for success. And failing all that, at 450 pages, the book can soak up a lot of grease.

There you go: Practice Swing: Perfect for all holiday gifts, even belated ones.

Also, please note that your purchase of Practice Swing helps directly support an artist.

The Listening Leader

October 17, 2016

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Essay by Bobby White
Edited by Chelsea Lee
Illustrations by Courtney Sieh

 
 

Ultimately, aren’t we all just looking for the most fulfilling dance?

And in a true partnership dance, fulfilling dancing is about other skills in addition to having good lead/follow technique and knowing moves and variations. These other skills are not often touched upon in classes.

One of the most important leading skills that isn’t emphasized much in the classroom, for instance, is listening. In fact, we would argue it’s one of the most important partnership dancing skills there is.

Here’s what we mean. The best swing dance leaders…

Listen to the music

Seems obvious, but you’d be surprised.

Part of the secret of being a musical dancer (leader or follower) is waiting for the music to tell you what to do. First the rhythm and feel of a song will start to lead the way. Then, a good melody and solo will give even more direction.

To improve at listening to the music you can take musicality classes, or even just watch Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz , but we recommend first and foremost simply listening and re-listening to great early jazz and swing music, which should give you a great subconscious education. You can hear this music at your local dances, at dance events, or even online on Spotify or Pandora.
Read more…

Practice Podcast w/ Michael & Evita

August 31, 2016

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Over Beantown camp 2016 I was asked to do an interview with Michael and Evita for their podcast about Practice Swing. It was a lot of fun doing such a conversational interview with two friends, and they have just released it:

CLICK HERE FOR THE INTERVIEW

Scenes from a Movie Shoot

August 1, 2016

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A huge amount of our noteworthy swing-era dance footage comes from movies, from Day at the Races to Hellzapoppin’, to the many Southern California jitterbug clips where dancers like Dean and Jewel and Hal and Betty danced in packed scenes. Having watched so many great dancers on film and wondered how that experience shaped their dancing, I’ve had it on my bucket list for a long time to dance in a film. A few months after I moved to New York City, a few of the professional dancers in the city got chosen to dance in a new film set in the swing era, and one of them asked me to be one of the Lindy Hop leaders. These are my notes from that day of filming.

Due to my confidentiality contract, I cannot mention the name or plot of the film, nor the specific names of the actors/actresses involved at this time.
 
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Being 6’2″, I am used to never finding vintage that fits. Before I arrived on set I corresponded with the costuming department, and I offered that I had my own vintage suits that *do* fit in case they wanted to see those, but the responding email I got didn’t mention my request, and seemed to not mention it coldly. Knowing both my share of costuming designers and vintage fashion nuts, I wanted to respect that the costume department knew what they were doing and that fit wasn’t going to be a problem.

When I got to my fitting on the day of filming, they pulled out a pristine 1940’s shirt that fit me perfectly. And 1940’s shoes so thick that you could think of a lot worse things to chuck at someone in self-defense. The shoes somehow felt like they were made for my feet (unlike the vintage heels the followers were going to spend the day dancing in). The suit coat, however, was too short, as usual. It would have to do. I never did see myself in the outfit, because they didn’t have mirrors around.
Read more…

Norma Miller Interview: Growing Up Next To The Savoy

June 29, 2016

A few years ago I did a “clip interview” with Norma Miller at Beantown camp (which you can find here) where we went through her great film footage while she talked about it. For this year I thought it’d be great to do a clip interview without any of the performance dancing — no Day at the Races, no Hellzapoppin — and talk instead about her every day swing dancing world in New York, where the dance was born and raised.

In this interview we use film footage to discuss 1930s Harlem, the Savoy ballroom, and rent parties. The result was, in my opinion, a fantastic companion piece to that first interview.

Also, some of the audio content is not safe for work. Love you, Norma. :)