Reminiscing about Swing:
When It was a Subculture
Cameron Sellers is now serving our country in Iraq
When time stands still in my busy life, I often wonder what my life would be like without swing. I reminisce about it at strange times. I will sometimes dream about swing when I a sleep, or I will dream about Chevy Chase while I am crawling on the ground through the dirt. I will be in an intense planning session, where I will be starring out the window, wondering who is playing this Friday. Swing has been come such a fabric in my life, I often wondered what my life was like before I discovered it. My old roommate Mike Perez used to refer to it as the cult. I had joined a cult? I would argue that point, but I would have to admit that it had profound effects on my social life.
January 3, 1997, is a day that I remember like it was yesterday. It was the day that I took my first Lindy Hop class. Ironically, I almost did not sign up. My friend Debbie called me at work and asked if I wanted to join a group (Fred, Cathy, and Liz) from church to learn the Lindy Hop. Swing wasn't foreign to be nor was Lindy Hop. I had gone every six months to Glen Echo to watch the "pros" in the jam. They would flip each other, do swing outs and Lindy Charleston to fast swing music. In the back of the dance hall, I would try miserably to learn the basic six-count swing step.
I had always had a fascination with the 1940s culture, music, and swing dancing. Growing up I wanted to learn swing dancing. I hated the music in the 1980s so I would sneak my dial to the Big Band station or the Oldie station. When someone asked, I would respond with an excuse that my car only had AM. My dad even asked on a couple occasions if I thought I was born in the wrong decade. Now I had a chance to learn to swing dance that I always dreamt about it. I met my fate with excuses running along the line "...if only you had contacted me yesterday!" Throughout the day I debated the idea of swing, I finally thought, "I just jumped out of an airplane. I am a paratrooper. If I can jump from a perfectly good airplane, I can learn the lindy hop. How hard could it be?"
After work, I drove through Rock Creek Parkway up to Bethesda and arrived early to a small dance studio called Dancers. I met Debra Sternberg who had just open up the door. Signing up for Tom and Deb's class was a random act. I didn't know whom they were other than I once watched Debra sliding down Tom's back and up through his legs. I was totally at the mercy of my friends. We didn't know whom the good instructors but we struck gold with them. If you believed in fate, maybe it wasn't random at all. I paid $155.00 which was truly expensive at the time, but my friend Debbie broke down the dollar cost. We would get 8 lessons with two hour practice sessions and DJs with four live bands. I remember Bernstein coming in after the Advanced Class to set up his equipment in the DJ booth. I can barely remember who was in the class. I think 20 couples showed up for the lessons. I only one that I remember by name from class is Susan Lusi.
The group and I struggled through the first lesson wondering if this was not a mistake. After the lesson, we had an hour break and we went to the Chinese restaurant down stairs under the studio. Amazing they did not hear the dancing feet above. After dinner, we watched in awe as the drop-ins arrived and intermingled with the students in the advance class on the dance floor. Couples were doing the swing out with ease, a move just an hour ago we were struggling with. I remember falling over me feet and trying to stay on the count when Debra said, "Now we are going to turn on music." I remember responding, "Music, you are going to turn on music. Now I am really going to screw this up."
Dr. Dan Fierer with Beverly Bixler
I still remember Dr Dan in his cool vintage suit dancing with Cherri Harris, Dave or Big Red" and Jen burning up the dance floor. Erica Kern was there with her mother. She was the youngest person there and a great dancer. I met Steve and Sue Devoney a week later in the backroom and they showed us some cool Charleston moves. However, then they were strangers and I would not get to know them until the summer. I watched my friends dance as I sat meekly in a chair by myself when a pretty lady asked me to dance. (I would later find out it was Carolyn Koerner). My response was a timid, "I suck. I am a beginner." She took pity on me and insisted that I try. I screwed up on every other step and I was probably never on the beat anyway. Carolyn just smiled and thanked me for a wonderful dance. I blushed and ran as fast to the corner as I could and sat down for the rest of the night.
Carolyn Bicsel Koerner with Cameron Sellers, c. 1998
For the first eight weeks, the group and I struggled through the classes. I couldn't keep moves straight in my head- Charleston, swing outs, the circle, the St Louis Shag. My head was about to explode. Stay on beat, lead your partner, and listen to the music. Like any beginner, you sit out majority of the dances and watch out of intimidation or because you believe in the false logic that I can learn this dance by watching. The real story is that I didn't have the guts to ask because I was afraid of the response, "No!" The group and I would go to Glen Echo and try to dance the Lindy Hop and fail. We would hide out in the back of the ballroom and impress our non dancing friends never realizing we were eight wonders that really "sucked." By the end of the night our friends would wise up and realize how bad we were when the "Jam" broke out. They would watch real Lindy Hoppers dance on beat and watch Tom and Deb do the spike.
After the first eight weeks, the group and I put down another $155.00 to enter the next level. If I was lost in the Intermediate Class, I was really lost in the Advance. Actually, I was hopeless. Tom or Deb would privately take me aside and help me with the move of the week. For the next five weeks, I continued to fall behind and was totally lost on the dance floor. I remember dancing with Erica and felt embarrass because she had a bored look in her face. I danced with Debbie a lot but she was as bad as I, so we really never improved. I missed two weeks of classes when I went off to Fort Bragg for school. Two weeks away from swing was devastating to my whip. I had lost every step and every move. I realized then that I was at a decision point whether I would continue with this thing called swing.
Further you drift away from any semblance of your normal life, the more you daydream about the things you miss. It is weird what triggers it. I was walking through the MWR building and I saw a Counter Intelligence poster telling us not to talk about we do in open areas. The poster has two soldiers talking about a secret plan and shadow of a spy is listening to their conversation. This poster triggers thoughts of old World War II posters. I start to drift to the swing scene of "Buck Privates". I picture Dean Collins dancing with Jewel.
Jewel McGowan and Dean Collins
I stop and wait in line for something and I think of Frankie Manning and I remember my first Virginia State Open Swing Dance Championships (VSO) and I remember how insular and small the swing scene was back then. Swing back then was a sub culture.
One could grow up in DC and never know that it existed. Stories about the birth of modern swing are varied, as are the storytellers. I remember Frank Morra telling me how swing revived itself out of the folk dancing community of Contra and Zydeco dancers. (1) Debra tells stories of the Washington Swing Dance Committee (WSDC) getting started in the basement of Temple Israel in Silver Spring. For me, being a new comer was still an overwhelming experience. In the spring, I remember when America opened up. It was the first time that the Group (Debbie, Cathy, and Fred) and I ventured beyond Dancers and Glen Echo. I think it was about the same time I was in the first set of Intermediate Class lessons at Dancers (2)
I remember showing up at America (3) alone. Back then I didn't show up at any swing dance alone. I usually showed up with a friend because I wasn't good enough or the confidence to come alone. But out of fate, I was alone that evening. Tom Cunningham Orchestra was playing "In the Mood" when I walked in. Debra was standing there and she saw me and asked if I wanted to dance. "Dance with my instructor?" I thought. "Am I crazy? I suck!" I agreed and for the next three minutes, I couldn't keep on the beat besides remembering any move that she taught me. It was a disaster for me. I remember thinking after the dance, "Am I ever going to get better."
I was gone for two weeks at Fort Bragg for Army training and during those two weeks I managed to forget every move that I had learn the last 14 weeks of classes. When I returned to classes it was the eighth week. In those times, the beginner and intermediate class were combined for the shim sham lesson that Debra taught. After the lesson, Tom Cunningham would play for three hours. I struggled with the Shim Sham like struggle with anything else that had a beat.
That night I ran into Frank Morra and his girlfriend Carole. They always dressed in vintage, and they were great dancers. At this time the good dancers were anyone who could dance beyond the swing out. I would watch Gay and Dave out there doing the tandem Charleston, and Cherri Harris cutting up the rug. Back then I did not know their names. They were just good dancers to watch. Debbie and I talked to Frank and he told us about his website and e-mail list. Curious, we gave him our e-mails and a few days we got his first e-mail.
Frank and Caroles Lindy Week in Review (5) opened up my eyes to whole different world. I would scroll through his weekly calendar and discover that you could dance three times a week. That was a lot back then. I would go to Dancers on Monday when I had lessons. I heard you could dance at a place called Vienna Grille in Virginia on Tuesday. On Saturday, twice a month, WSDC had dances at Glen Echo. I had heard of Tom and Deb's dance parties once a month at Dancers on a Friday night. I would scroll pass places like Avalon Studios and a venue in the Bethesda VFW basement called Twist and Shout. I would not become familiar with these venues until the summer.
At the end of the Intermediate class, the group was at a crossroads. We were deciding our future with swing. The group wanted to try different instructors at Glenn Echo under Ken and Donna Barker. I was torn with staying with the group or signing up with Tom and Deb again. I was further torn whether or not to go back and repeat the beginner class. After I discuss my future with Debbie, I decided to stay at Tom and Deb. The rest of the group decided on Glen Echo.
The following Monday I showed up for the beginners' class again at Dancers. Tom and Deb claimed that they were ruthless judges. In the intermediate class, they would run everyone through the basic moves that were taught in the beginners' course. If you could get through the moves, you got to stay in the class. If you failed, you were demoted. Later I would find out that it was all talk. As long as you paid your $155.00 you were in. My decision would only confirm this fact. When I showed up for their beginner lesson, Tom and Deb were surprised. They encouraged me to remain in the intermediate class. But I told them I needed the review if I would get better. So much for being ruthless!
This class was half the size of the previous one. I think there were only 10 couples. The people I remember were Scott and Karen Durland. Scott was a ringer. He had danced in Denver and he was good. Liz Turner was also in the class. Since this time, Liz has retired from the scene because of bad knees and I see Scott and Karen once in awhile. Taking the beginner class again was the smartest move (no pun intended) I had made in Swing. I think had I stayed in the intermediate I would have struggled through the summer and quit. But the beginner class gave me the confidence to learn the basic moves again. Everything was a little easier and after the lesson, I could ask girls to dance with less trepidation.
By late spring and early summer, I decided to take the big plunge. I decided that I really wanted to be a good swing dancer. I figured that I would never be an excellent dancer, but I wanted to be good enough to lead a girl on the dance floor. I decided to go out three times a week excluding the Glen Echo. I began to scroll Frank Morra's site for places. America and Dancers was easy. Looking for the third night would be somewhat a decision. I had a choice between Twist and Shout and Vienna Grille (4). I called Liz from the Group and asked about Vienna Grille. She definitely encouraged me to try the place even if it cost a little more.
That week I ventured out to Vienna Grille and was overwhelmed by the level of dancing there. I met Craig Hutchinson (Hutch) the operator of Tuesday night, founder of the Potomac Swing Dance Club and the organizer of the Virginia State Open Swing Dance Competiton (VSO). He didn't say hi and come to think of it, he just didn't say much. I sat out a lot of dances when I first started going there. I was too intimidated by the crowd. Most of the dancers were an older group and they had been dancing for a while.
I met Peter Gehring, Mike, Eric C., Tricia Iverson, Wendy, and Dave. I also met Sweaty Ed, Randi Rimmerman, Beverly, Diane, and Megan. I would later find out that many of them belonged to a Lindy team called the Fly Cats. They mostly danced at the Avalon Studios under the instructor of Leslie Coombs.
Tricia and Bil Lehman at Vienna Grille
Just dancing three times a week would not make a good dancer. It would make a better dancer, but I needed a method. I decided on "one step at a time" method. I decided that I wanted to be really good at Charleston dancing. I would practice it at home each day for ten minutes. I would Charleston all over the apartment. The next move would be the whip, and so on
When you went through Tom's class there were three events that were a rite of passage into the swing subculture. One was that you had to have the shoes. Tom and Deb used to always sell us on Bass two-tone saddle shoes. I swear at the time that Bass must be giving him a cut. Every serious swing dancer had to have a pair. After the first lesson, I told Debbie that "I a would not buy a pair of those "gay" things." Now three months later, I broke down and bought a pair. I remember showing up at dance class in them. Karen tried to step on them to get them dirty. Tom and Debra congratulated me. I made an announcement that I am the same person before the shoes. I have not changed. I have not joined the cult. Boy, was I wrong. Those shoes were just a beginning.
By the year-end, I was full fledged member of the cult wearing the attire that was expected of any member.
Second event was joining the Tom and Deb for a late night snack after the dance. During the early days, I would leave the dance around 10:00pm. I didn't even know about the excursions until Tom asked the group if we were going to join them for late night dinner at Cheesecake Factory. I thought, "Are you crazy! I got to go to work in the morning." By early summer, I was still on my three night a week schedule. I went to Dancers on Monday, Vienna Grille on Tuesday, and America on Fridays.
By the fourth of July I was addicted that after a day out on a farm in Virginia, I came back to DC to go swing dancing at America instead of going to watch the fireworks out on the Mall. By the summer America was packed with dancers. Every Friday the corner facing the mall was crammed with swing dancers jamming to TCO. But this Friday night, the room was half empty. I didn't care about attendance; I wanted to dance for three hours. At the end of the night, Tom asks me if I was going to join them for a snack at Silver Diner. I looked at Karen, Liz, and Scott if they were going. Scott and Karen came but Liz turned in early. I sat at the table with Tom and Deb, Gay and Dave, Psycho Boy and Cherri, Tom and Robin, Scott and Karen, and Ron and Steve Devoney. We ate and talked for two hours. Steve was sitting next to me talking about the Forest Glen Seminary restoration project (5). Ron Haron was nice as ever and wanted to know all about me. I thought what a great group of people. The night finally ended when I told the group what it is like to jump out of an airplane.
Sue Fedor and Steve Devoney
The rest of the summer I would join the group for a snack after dancing. On Monday's we would travel from Dancers to Cheesecake Factory down in Chevy Chase, on the border of DC. On Fridays, after America, we would go to Silver Diner. On Saturdays at Glen Echo, we would go to Amphora. The late night outing helped cement many of the friendships that continue to this day- Steve and Sue Devoney, Dave and Gay Shepardson, Ron Haron, Cherri Harris, and others... My development continued through the summer and into the fall.
I did not have a partner and back then because it was discouraged (even though it was not said directly). Swing was a social dance and partners discouraged dancing with others. Following this logic, I also found that in order to get better, one has to dance with better dancers. This created a catch 22. Better dancer usually did not want to dance with bad dancers. So every beginner has to figure out how to break the cycle. Usually one better dancer out on the dance floor will dedicate more time than usual to help you get better. He or she will help the beginner punch through the wall of beginner faux pas. It was no different for me. My savior was Liz. I had known Liz from church, and I did not realize she was part of the subculture at the time. She danced with me a lot at America. It was coincidental that we began to dance together so much because she intimidated me. But one night at America, she started complaining that guys did not ask her to dance. She did not care what level they were; all she wanted to do was dance. I was surprise and shocked by her statement. After I collected myself I asked for a dance and we ended up dancing four or five times that night. O.K. May be it was ten. Liz jumped started my improvement as a dancer. But it was not until the competition at VSO that was the final break through.
The third event that sucked you into the subculture was competition. By the end of July, Tom and Debra began to encourage their students to compete in the up and coming competition called the Virginia State Open Swing Dance Championship (VSO). I remember after a lesson, Tom encouraged me by telling me that competitions improved your dancing and plus VSO was really informal. No one practices for it. What he really meant was Tom Koerner doesn't practice for it. I bought into it. I partnered with Liz Turner and she did not buy into Tom Koerner's philosophy. She made me practice by listening to the song that we would be competing to: A missing tune from the Lost Recordings of Glenn Miller called "Jeep Jockey Jump."
I listen to it at work and home. Liz and I began to chorograph moves to the song. I thought, "I don't know that many moves so we are going to have to repeat the vary few that I new." I remember telling, "No new moves."
Paralleling the practice was the continued dances at the usual events. But one Saturday evening, Tom came up to me with a girl in hand. He told me, "Cameron, meet Carla Heiny. Show her all the moves that we teach in the beginner's class and tell me if she should skip it." I showed Carla and within seconds I realized that Carla didn't need to go through the beginner lessons. Apparently she wanted to take lessons but she attends college in Pennsylvania and she doesn't have much time so she wanted go straight to the intermediate class. I told Tom let her in. Carla and I danced a few more songs and later she joined us at Amphora for a late night snack. After the meal, I expected to see her at Chevy Chase Ballroom the following Monday.
Towards the end of the summer, Tom and Deb had to relocate their classes because Dancers was renovating. Tom and Deb found a studio near Friendship Heights Metro and so in August, we started taking classes at Chevy Chase Ballroom. I have no idea what happened over the weekend, but the first class at Chevy Chase the beginner and intermediate class double in size. Gay and Dave, Sue and Steve, and Ron joined the intermediate class as a refresher. Then there was new people in the class - Anne and Buck. But one person who stood out was a guy by the name of Steve Bailey. He came into the intermediate class and tore up the dance floor. He could soak up moves like a sponge. Carla never showed up for the class but after the lesson during the open dancing, she showed up with $5 in her hand.
When Labor Day came, Liz and I were mildly practicing for the VSO when we took a break and went to West Virginia for the Savoy Swings Again Weekend, sponsored by WSDC. I had never been to a dance camp. I thought I ended these with Church Summer Camps when I was young. I guess not. The guess instructors were Eddie and Eva from Sweden (then Swedes ruled swing) and Sylvia Sykes (she still rules). There were other instructors but because they did not teach Lindy Hop I cannot remember their names. The camp was full of people that I did not recognize, but there were many more that I knew. Carla came for the weekend as well as others from the Vienna Grille scene: Dr. Dan, Julia Stewart, Tricia and Thomas, Peter, Wendy, etc. The weekend was fun and I enjoyed the antics of Gay and Dave. Some of the highlights of that camp were Carla, Sweaty Ed and I running through the forest. Carla was a long distance runner in College and I was not going to be out paced by a girl so we challenged each other. Poor Ed never had a chance. Also that weekend, Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris. Gay reported that she was being chased by Paparazzi. I thought it was a joke. "Why would one of the three tenors kill the Princess, I thought? Besides he is freakin' fat. He could never catch her." Days later I learn paparazzi was another term for tabloid photographer. (And, that Luciano Pavarotti is an Opera singer…)
Elizabeth Engle, borne by slaves as Tom's 40th Birthday Present
Carolyn and Tom get Engaged
I felt foolish but I was not the only naive one, Psychoboy John McCalla (6) did not know either. Watching the instructors dance was awe-inspiring. I thought I would never get close to the level that they are at. Eddie and Eva were incredible with the aerials. Sylvia did a fast dance called the Balboa. I figured that I would never perfect the swing out and never do an aerial. And Balboa, that was too new to me.
Tricia Iveson with John "Psychoboy"McCalla
After Labor Day, Liz and I practiced hard for the upcoming VSO. I was never good at memorizing so it was frustrating process. The apex of the frustration was when she and I met Eric C. and Carolyn Koerner for a dual practice in College Park. Carolyn had a video camera and she taped Liz’ and my routine. When we watched ourselves, I could not believe how bad I looked. Liz looked fine. I had all sort of problems like a dead arm, looking down, and looking heavy. I just sucked. I had three days before the event to correct the mistakes.
VSO was an eye opening experience to the world of swing. I had no idea of the many branches of swing there were. Also, I did not realize that Lindy Hop had been marginalized by West Coast Swing. I figured that everyone danced Lindy Hop. I did not realize that West Coast Swing did not even dance to swing music. What a shocker it was to see glitter, rhinestone belts and spiked heels dancing to hustle music. All this time I thought Benny Goodman was King of Swing. I thought I had walked into the wrong event.
There was a minority of us who wore vintage suits and saddle shoes ready to dance to Benny Goodman. We did not blend in nor did we try. Bernstein (7) was playing music down by the bar so we spent most of our time dancing in the bar. Liz and I watched the Show Case Division wondering if we made a big mistake about this. Eric and Carolyn did well in the event. I actually thought their routine was the best. Mike Dugan and Jenny Manlove competed as well as did Psycho Boy and Lizzy Hess in that event. I believe Psycho Boy and Lizzy Hess won that event. Tom and Deb won the professional division.
(l to r: Jeff Booth, Tricia Iveson, Jenny Manlove, Mike Dugan
The next night Liz and I competed with eight other couples. That division had the most participants in years. We did our routine without the any big snafus or mistakes and placed five. Not bad when I thought I would place last. After my event, I danced until I dropped in the bar. I met Ellen that night. I had no idea she knew Steve Bailey. Steve and Anne came in second in the professional division barely losing to Psychoboy and Lizzie.
Steve Bailey and Mara Levy
Ann Bailey and Ben Rath
Some good lessons came out of the competition. First, never believe Tom. Second, your worst phobia is not has bad as you think. I really feared falling down on my butt. I expected something to happen when I landed on my ass and everyone would notice and that would be the talk for the rest of the night. I watched Debra fall on her ass in the Jitterbug competition and it took five minutes before I realized it happened. Also I don't think anyone in the audience noticed. She fell, laughed, got up and continued dancing. No big deal. I realized falling down was not the end of the world. Finally, I enjoyed competing. I signed up for Jack and Jill and came in second. VSO came and went, and I really enjoyed it. Those three events sealed my fate into the Washington DC swing subculture.
I was addicted. After the VSO competition, I thought I would take a pause. Instead the next night I was back on the dance floor at Chevy Chase Ballroom. The fall of 1997, I was still taking classes at CCB and going out to America, Vienna Grille, and Glen Echo. Reminiscing, I realize what an enchanted time that was. I met many of the friends that I still have today and the scene was set to explode with new dancers.
The scene was still small at the time, and the average dancer was in his or her 30s. Erica Kern was the only teenager in the scene and Jenn and Dave (Big Red) were the only couple I knew in their 20s. I was one of the younger dancers, and I was 29. Around Labor Day, Anne Bailey and Steve Cowles (later Steve Bailey - no, not by marriage!) joined the scene. Both of them were in their early 20s; one still in college.
Angela and Chris Bailey
In those days, 30 couples in Tom and Deb's class on Monday night was considered a lot of people. After VSO, the classes doubled. Soon, CCB, which used to makes its money solely from traditional ballroom lessons, was flush with money from swing. At the time I don't think any of us were ready for the invasion of the younger generation that was about to hit. And when I say young, I mean really young!
One evening at Vienna Grille, a group of kids (college looking) showed up. They danced in the corner. A kid sweating his ass off through his white t-shirt was really dancing up a storm. I was curious and after I danced with the all the girls in the group, I decided to talk to the guys. After the dance, we just kept talking in the parking lot. Those kids were Jeff Booth, Brian Bowhay, Tanya and Vicki (no last names required!), and one other girl who's name I can't remember. A month later, Jeff and Brian signed up for lessons at CCB, and that was the end of our cozy little scene.
Soon I started to see actual teenagers out; they came for the lessons and then left after a few dances. One night I managed to catch one of them and danced with her before she left. Her name was Naomi and her friend was Nina. This was back when Nina had died her hair bright red. More and more new dancers were showing up at CCB and America. It was hard to say what had caused it. I think both word of mouth and Tom and Deb's preaching the gospel were huge factors
Nina and Naomi, the Dyed Hair Period
Soon Tom and Deb were teaching on Sunday nights at America. Since I was addicted I added Sunday to my week of dancing. Certain weeks I was dancing five nights a week: CCB on Mondays, Vienna Grille on Tuesdays, America on Fridays and Sundays, and Glen Echo on Saturdays. Even though WSDC (Washington Swing Dance Committee) only had the first and third Saturdays, TCO, New Columbia Swing, and Peaches O' Dell shared a swing night on the fourth Saturday of every month. At the time I really didn't now the fourth Saturday was not a WSDC night, I just figured A swing night at Glen Echo was WSDC.
Jeff Booth was happily contributing to the Swing subculture by bringing in new people. It seemed like he always had someone new with him on Monday nights. I remember when he brought Christy Etcher, Heather Thompke, and Laura Avery all in one night. Christy was one of those rare gems who could literally learn a move by just watching someone. She would watch Debra or Carolyn and the next moment she was doing it. Jeff would come over to me and say, "Oh, my God! Did you just see what she just did?" It was always Christy doing something I probably still can't do.
Gretta Thorne and Cameron sellers
Gretta Thorne and Huy Pham
Debra and I used to talk on the phone about how her goal in life was to teach everyone how to swing dance. It was evangelism to her. Everyone had to hear the good news. Jeff was a disciple (literally), the new people he was bringing to the scene were from his Sunday night Bible study. He would call me at work around 10:30 and talk to me about the latest swing news. Then he would tell me about the Bible Study group. After a couple of months, I actually attended and there he was recruiting new people for swing. After the Bible Study, we would drive from Arlington to America (In Tyson's) to go dancing.
Tom and Deb had two main recruiting tools outside of Glen Echo: one was advertising in the Washington Post, and the other was simply going to bars that had good jazz bands and then showing off. One night in the spring, Heather and I were going to crash a bar called Witlows-on-Wilson. Jeff, Christy, and Heather, all showed up, but Heather couldn't get in because of her age. At first, the bouncer flat refused, but after pleading with him and promising it would just be one dance and then we would leave, he finally let us in. We met Frank & Carole, Tom & Deb, and Larry & Caroline inside. The J Street Jumpers were playing that night and on the first dance, Heather and I went crazy. The crowd was cheering and then we left. We went back to the bouncer to get her ID back and go, but he stopped us and said told us we could stay. At that point I think he realized we weren't trying to sneak in to drink, but really to dance. He also noticed that more people were staying to watch us, and that meant they were drinking. After Tom danced, he would talk to people and pass out flyers. He was ruthless. If you came to talk to him, you did not leave without a flyer. Tom and Deb worked the scene and the result was big classes.
Buck Smolow and "Sam"
I met so many new friends in the swing scene and spent so much time with them, that it was only a matter of time before I would be doing something with them at a non-dance event. On a Sunday afternoon in December, Sue and Steve Devoney had a Christmas party at their house. It was a perfect place for a party, they had just bought a giant Victorian house next to an old seminary in Silver Spring. I can't remember anyone not being there that year. Ellen, Rayned, Peter Gerhing, Julia, etc... All of the old dancers and all the new dancers were there. We danced in their living room and watched old video tapes. I remember Buck leaving early to go to America for a lesson. Around 9:00pm, my friends and I headed out for America. I remember that gathering because it was the first time I realized how close a community the swing group was becoming. Still though, it was probably the only time I actually saw all of the old dancer and all the new dancers in the same room.
Duke Davis vaults over Sara Fajkowski
When Christmas came around, I left for Phoenix for two weeks. At the time I wondered if I could go without swing dancing for that long. I thought I might go into a withdrawal. To ensure it did not happen, I surfed ahead for the places to swing. Cajun House, Rockin' Horse Salon, and The Bash were the places to go. So when I arrived in Arizona on Saturday I place a few calls ,and on Sunday I showed up and danced at the Cajun House in Scottsdale. The band was called The Swing Tips and they were pretty good. I came for the lesson, but soon realized that the real dancers showed up later. I also noticed that good swing dancers wore Buck's two tone saddle shoes even in Phoenix. The next night I ended up at Scottsdale again at the Rockin' Horse Saloon. I met a lot of people that night from Oregon and Utah. The band was a Rockabilly Band so it was a different tune to dance to. I remember being asked by a girl from Boston to dance, and I realized it was the first time a girl had asked me to dance. The following night (Ash Wednesday), I went to the Bash. Again I met people from all different places. I met Sue Meeks that night for the first time. She and I danced quite a few that night before I finally left.
I only danced at three places that the Arizona Lindy Hop Society website listed that week because of Christmas. The next week was completely dark without swing. I almost died. Arizona was such an ego boost for me because so many dancers told me how good I was. I thought, "You should see the dancers back in DC if you think I am good."
The winter of 1998 marked the first anniversary of swing for me. I also saw the continuing explosion of swing. Tom and Deb's classes were growing out of proportion. They were now expanding into Tuesday nights- not without some controversy. Frank P (I can never remember his last name) or Magic Frank was able to get Tom and Deb to teach at George Mason University on Tuesday night. Also, I noticed that high school students were showing up at Glen Echo but I never figured out where they were coming from. Apparent! ly, Tom was also teaching at their swing club at James Madison. On Wednesdays, Magic Frank was hosting the GMU Swing Club for two hours. Just mix up my schedule a bit, I moved my swing class night to Tuesdays at GMU and started to show up at the GMU on Wednesdays because Steve was going there.
Frank "The Magician" Papparozzi
Back in DC on Tuesday nights, I met some of Tom's high school students: Gretta Thorn, Sara Faj, John Gilmore, Kelli D., Sarah Jacobson, Theresa, Helen Soln, Catherine Sanchez, and Catherine Andrews. I suspect I met more. Outside of the high school kids, I met Tina (whom Buck picked as his partner), Cathy, and Duke.
At America the crowd was busting out at the seams. High school students were coming from everywhere (not just from Tom's class) and one tall lanky kid from Woodbridge started to show up every Friday night. His name was Matt Smiley.
Carla Heiney and Matt Smiley
A new group of even younger dancers invaded the subculture too. The scene had two 13 year olds in it (Erica and Nina) and a bunch of twenty something year olds and teenagers. The average age of the swing scene had just dropped by a decade.
It wasn't until spring when I was watching to TV when I saw a GAP commercial called "Khaki Swings" with two couples swing dancing to Louis Prima "Jump Jive and Wail." I remember telling Deb, and we talked about it one night at Silver Diner after a dance. All the signs were there, but I don't think any of saw that swing had just gone mainstream.
CPT Cameron Sellers
This chapter was started at Camp Doha and finished here in Baghdad. I have been editing it the past month when I was not tired. I hope you have enjoyed these. I have one more chapter to go and I should be done. My deployment could be titled " Dreaming About Swing from Kuwait and Iraq!" Writing about Swing has made me home sick which is a good thing. It reminds me why I am here. I love you all. Cameron
Weekly Letter: Reminiscing about Swing: When Hollywood was King
HOC House, Baghdad, Iraq
Overseas, soldiers, and pinups- I was showing MAJ Sicinski the pinup calendar of the Girls of Swing (Washington DC of course), and a flood of memories came to me of a time when Hollywood Swing was King.
Hollywood was introduced to the DC area in the spring of 1998, but it wasn't until VSO later that fall that people began to see it in competition. In fact, Erik and Sylvia were invited to teach at VSO and judge the competition. How fitting that they would be there when the first shoulder twist swing outs began to appear on the dance floor. Erik and Sylvia taught classes on basic Hollywood swing and the brought in a new dance called Bal-Swing. But it wasn't until the 1st Annual American Lindy Hop Championship at Great Gorge in New York that partners began dancing Hollywood swing.
I finally hit my stride with this new style. All those months of struggling to understand the dance and really dance well clicked with Hollywood Swing. A couple of friends from New York commented that my dancing improved at ALHC. But it wasn't until the next month up in Lowell, Massachusetts that I came into my own as a dancer: Sara Faj and I won the strictly Lindy Division at the New England Swing Dancing Championship.
I became a better dancer, and Lisa Morgan Brown became my dance partner. I had other random dance partners for competition. Heather Tompke and I won the VSO Amateur Classic Lindy Division, Naomi Uyama and I won the Jr. Class Swing Dance Competition and Carla Heiny and I did well up at ALHC (I think we came in fourth) in some category I can't remember.
I must admit we did well in these dances because Heather, Naomi, Carla, and Lisa managed to guide me through the songs and cover up my mistakes. I totally forgot the last minute of the routine with Heather. She just smiled to the judges through the mistakes. Carla back-led me through the Bill Haley song R-O-C-K, because I had never heard it until we danced to it. I can't even count the times I screwed up the routine and Lisa covered it up.
Hollywood Swing took the DC Swing scene to the next level. Either that, or the scene really headed out to left field (depending on the perspective you have on it). Hollywood swing was not just a style of dance, it was a lifestyle. Everything you did back then was warped back by the 1930s and 1940s. The clothes you wore, the music, the movies, and the trivia reflected "Hollywoodism." I remember countless weekends spent in vintage stores in the regional area, and even in Las Vegas, looking for a 1940s double breasted suit or a summer shirt for those hot nights in Glen Echo.
By the summer of 1999, Hollywood was at full throttle in DC. Dancers from out of town definitely noticed a difference of style in DC. Soon DC developed the reputation of being the center of Hollywood Swing on the East coast. Dancers from as far as Florida and Atlanta came up to DC to learn Hollywood swing if they could not make it to the West coast.
One of the signs of the shift from Savoy Swing to Hollywood swing was that people began to go to LA for Camp Hollywood instead of Harrang in Sweden. Also, Debra would come up to me and tell me that her beginners wanted to learn the swing out that we were doing. Another sign was that all my friends were dressing vintage. No more zoot suits, they were actually looking for real vintage suits from the era. The ladies wore vintage dresses or pants and put their hair up in nets or curls at every dance. My non-swing friends would show up at the dances and feel under dressed.
The final sign was that many of my friends were watching old movies from that era to develop style and steal moves. The masters at that were Jeff Booth, Dave and Marty. Jeff use to watch any movies that had Dean Collins, Maxie Dorf, Arthur Walsh, Lenny Smith, or Gil Brady. The girls would develop their style after Jewel or Jean Veloz.
Because of our dedication to the movies, many of the surviving dancers from the 1940s were considered stars in DC. For example, when Jean Veloz came to DC she was treated like a star. She was one for me! Whenever she was here, she was the main attraction at the special dance weekends that Tom and Debra put on. She was such a draw that she began to have special billing on advertisements: "Groovie Movie the Sequel," etc.
Jean Veloz will always have a special place in my heart. I love to dance with her and I love to hear her stories of the LA swing scene back in the 1940s. I also love her humility. I don't think she realizes what an impact she had on so many generations. I remember a conversation Duke and I had with her at Amphora once. She was talking about how much fun she had with Groovie Movie and that it was a short take that nobody cared about back then. Duke spoke up, "What do you mean nobody cares about that movie?! My grandmother learned to swing dance because of you. She used to make the film man at the local movie theater replay the short so she could learn Jean's movie." Jean looked shocked by Duke's statement. She had no idea the impact her "short that nobody cared about" had on the audience at large.
One of my fondest memories of the time was the pre-dance barbeques at the Fajkowski's Family house. It would be packed with dance friends from Boston, LA, New York, or wherever. Dad would be at the grille, Mom would be in the Kitchen, and Alex would have his Cornell friends in the living room. I also remember all the games of "Nertz" at the Thorn's house. Gretta Thorn was open to any swing dancer who passed through town. They came to learn "Nertz" before heading out to dance.
While I have many good memories, the scene did have growing pains. The proliferation of venues caused the close-knit group to fray. When you went to these venues you were never assured of seeing your friends there like in the past. For example, there were four places to swing dance on Friday night. You could dance at America, Zoots, Politiki, or the Royce's venue in Centerville. For one reason or another, dancers felt obligated to support certain venues. Like anything that grows, it must shrink as well, I suppose. As many of the venues quickly sprouted, just as many suddenly closed. Zones lasted 2 years before it closed. Politiki closed its doors by the fall of 1999 after a couple year run. Lucky Bar on Connecticut closed around the same time, and the over crowded floors of Glen Echo began to slim down. It was at Lucky Bar that I met Erik Newton for the first time. It took me awhile for me to figure it out that Erik was the one who was writing about George Mason Swing Club in Frank and Carole's Washington Week in Review.
Also, people moved on to other obsessions. Tom always said that Swing dancing had a high attrition rate. Many of the dancers began to leave the scene because of job transfers, college, or marriage. Dave and Jenn got married. The high school kids went to college. The college kids got jobs. Swing dancers who met on the dance floor got engaged and then married. Even Tom Koerner fell victim to that trend. Some Swing dancers got pregnant like Sue Devoney, Jenny Dugan, and Carolyn Koerner.
My final memory of the Hollywood Swing era was my going away dance at America. Being an Army Reservist, I received orders for deployment to Bosnia for nine months. Tom and Deb had a going away party for me at America. Sara had a barbeque for me at her home. It was a great night. George Gee from New York was playing and during an intermission everyone formed a circle and the ladies lined up to dance with me. I must have danced with 50 ladies for 15 minutes. It was the longest dance that I ever did. Half way through the dance, Tom and Deb brought out Jean Veloz. Apparently, they had flown her out to DC for my going away dance as a surprise.
At the time, I didn't realize it would be the last time I would see America Restaurant in action. America would close six months later. But my last memory of America was when Hollywood Swing was King!
Weekly Letter: Reminiscing about Swing: When Swing Changed
Looking out my window at the Jordanian skyline, I realize my time here in the Middle East is coming to an end. I will be going home in a month (or so they say) and I will finally be able to go swing dance again. I have not been dancing since last December. This will be the longest period of time away from dancing since I started.
This installment of the swing chronicles begins when I came back from Bosnia.
I was in Bosnia when swing changed. When I got back in March 2001, the swing scene was different. The music was different, the style was different. People I knew were not dancing anymore, and others had moved. Through e-mails and periodic phone calls I had heard stories that the scene was changing. I worried about how much the scene had changed. Do I really want to go back? I was having fun in Bosnia! Do I want to go back to a world I don't know?
When I returned to Washington, DC, I was met by a crowd of friends at the airport welcoming me home. The next night I went to a new venue called Clarendon Ballroom for my welcome home dance. Leave it to Tom to make money off of my bad fortunes. It was a fun night but it masked the changes that I would discover later on.
The first change was the closing of America. As one of my friends told me, "When America closed, we lost a classy place to dress up and go swing dancing, and I lost the desire to go out anymore." I'm not sure many felt like her, but it seemed like the crowds were smaller. Many of my friends that came up in the scene with me were no longer going out anymore. Genea Callahan, Erik Newton, Christy Etcher, and Meridith Byrne had all moved on with their careers.
Finally, the music changed. Long gone were the days of fast music and vintage clothes. Hollywood was out and smooth Swing (or "jiggly swing" by the harsh critics) was in. The Andrew Sisters, Benny Goodman were replaced with jazzier music of the late 1950s: Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and Nina Simone. The songs were longer and slower. The new style put less emphasis on foot work and more emphasis on individual movement of the upper body and limbs. I got the full force of this movement at the North Atlantic Swing Dance Championship that spring. Those who still clung to Hollywood Swing were at a disadvantage to the smoother style. The DJs seemed to want to play the slower stuff. The majority of the dancers at the event seemed to enjoy the newer style. Hollywood swing was out.
One legacy of the Hollywood era was that I became closer to my friends from that time like Erica and Leslie, Erik Newton and Marina, the Thorn Family, Steve and Sue Devoney, Dave and Gay Shepardson, Jeff Booth, Debra and Tom, Ron and Judy, Rob Petrie, Tricia and Thomas, Nina and Naomi and The Faj Family.
It did not take long for me to find my stride in the dance scene again, though. I was dancing three nights a week and getting used to the new style. Susie Bussard and I became partners and we began preparation for the up and coming VSO. I met new dancers like Leslie Catherwood, Angela, Craig, and others. And Susie introduced me to her circle of friends.
That was the end of Summer 2001.
The swing was not ready for the horrors of September 11. No one was. Many of us had friends or knew friends who were killed or wounded in the WTC or the Pentagon. To express our grief and support for those who lost loved ones, we put up a giant sign on an overpass above 495. Painted on a giant sheet in red, white, and blue, the sign read "WE'RE IN IT TOGETHER!"
Those events overshadowed VSO that year. The competition managed, though, even in the face of so many losses and the lack of many participants like Erik and Sylvia. Two weeks later, I was mobilized again for Operation Enduring Freedom and was sent down to Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
During the year I was away, I learned to appreciate the DC swing scene even with its changes. Yes, I regretted that Hollywood was no longer king but the high spirit and motivation was still there. Maybe DC was not the place to go for the latest style, but it had the crowds and the venues that other places still envy. The swing scene in Tampa and Orlando was amazed by the number of dancers at the DC venues. Even the Florida towns had great venues like Gulfport Casino and City Jazz, they never had the numbers DC does.
While I was down in Tampa, I met many cool dancers like Haley, Don, Seth, Cindy, Lauren, and Gil. From Orlando I met Erin, Michael, John, and others. I began to realize that there was a common spirit among all swing dancers no matter the location. Dancers tend to be learners. I could tell who the Jeff Booths, the Erik Newtons, the Gretta Thorns, the Steve Baileys, the Carla Heineys were. But most of all what was common was their desire to swing dance.
The entire six months I was in Tampa, the war on terrorism never did deter my dancing. I may have gone to Pakistan, Kuwait, UAE, and even Tokyo, but I managed to swing dance. I danced three times a week in Tampa and managed to travel to Orlando on Monday nights. I worked on my skills with the new style, and realized I had gotten it when Rob commented how impressed he was with my smooth style at the DC Exchange in April. No matter how much I became better at the smooth slower style, I stilled loved to Collegiate Shag to Bugle Call Rag or dance fast to Roll'Em. I still loved to Lindy Charleston to Please Mama Please.
In May I deployed to Afghanistan where I thought I would put swing on hold, but the interest in swing was high at the US Embassy in Kabul and I taught swing a couple of times to the Embassy staffers under the cool summer stars. 120 days later I came home and a month later I left the Army. The traumatic changes I experience when I came home from Bosnia were absent when I came home from Afghanistan. I expected the changes and I accepted them.
With new people in the scene, my status had disappeared. A year away, old friends not dancing anymore, an influx of new dancers will do that. It was no longer, "Cameron's home," but "Who's Cameron?"
I wasn't upset; I just determined to earn the respect of the new dancers and get to know them. This time around I realized that change is the normal cycle of life. As the old saying goes, "The only constant thing in life is change!"
Glen Echo was shut down for renovation; attendance was down at some venues. New venues had become the hot places to be (K2). I went to American Lindy Hop Championships that fall, I went swing dancing in New York with my friend Molly, and I danced in Arizona at the Lindy Exchange. But, it was hard to get in the stride of things when I knew I was just going to be called up again. My last dance was at Virginia Ballroom on Sunday night before I left for Fort Bragg. Nine months later I have not danced a step; no shag in the sands of Kuwait and no hot-lindy in the Iraqi desert. I don't know if I will even do a single triple step before I leave. But I will be ready to swing dance when I get home! I don't care if I don't recognize a single dancer. I don't care if they're swinging to Vanilla Ice. I am ready to dance. With everyone!
I am not afraid that the scene may have changed this time. Why? Because I have changed!
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