|Swing and Spirituality|
Mark Judge has been keeping a chronicle of Swing
The Home of Happy Feet:
It usually takes about an hour for it to start to happen. Heavy with sweat, I feel exhilarated, transcendent with a mystical inner peace. As I cradle my partner, I'm preternaturally calm and at totally at ease with the world. It is a state of trusting infancy, as if my ego and it's confusion, worry and entanglements has drifted out of my body. I am outside of myself, filled with spiritual ardor.
No, I'm not talking about sex. The feeling I'm describing comes over swing dancing. As documented in films, television, and articles in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and New York Times , swing dancing is now hot. To those of us who have been at it for a while - even, believe it or not, before film Swingers began filling previously empty jazz clubs - this is good news. Popularity means more bands and more places to dance, as well as an opportunity to spread the gospel of what a remarkable gift from God swing is. It's also a chance to separate swing, once and for all, from that most loathsome of current fads, lounge.
I first became interested in swing at a New Year's Eve party in 1993, a full three years before Swingers came out. I had quit drinking the year before after a diagnosis of alcoholism, and was at the party, which was thrown by some sober alcoholics I had met, because after the excitement and romance of ten years of drinking I wasn't adjusting to sober life well. Frankly, I found a life without all-night, booze-sodden bar conversations, sex with strangers and wall-smashing parties a bore.
For the first two hours, the party didn't help matters much. As I reported in the Washington Post at the time, for most of the evening the DJ playing contemporary rock music, the kind of stuff grunge crap that emotionally and musically runs the gamut from A to B. I shuffled around the perimeter of the dance floor aimlessly, not knowing anyone and feeling too awkward to ask anyone to dance.
Then, after ringing in the new year, the unexpected happened. The DJ, for reasons I never discerned, slipped on Glen Miller's "In the Mood." If it was intended as a kitschy joke, it backfired. There were two people at the party who actually knew how to dance, and before anyone could move they were on the floor swinging. The entire atmosphere of the party suddenly changed; the crowd started clapping to the beat, watching the dancers jump, twirl, and spin around each other with a precision that a mathematician would appreciate. The party, despite it's best intentions, became fun.
Yet this was more than just a spontaneous explosion of joy. It was a clear indication that my generation, those snarling, cynical, sexually and morally libertine X'ers, were not opposed to a little class and style. People always assumed that, like the baby-boomers, we have rejected the social and cultural mores of America's past. The truth is we were never offered the choice. The reaction to the dancers and Glen Miller's blast of horns signaled a desire for an alternative to the dominant "alternative" rock culture, with it's predictable power chords and mirthless celebration of alienation and nihilism. This was confirmed in the subsequent articles on swing, which all seemed to come to the same conclusion. Generation X actually liked the idea of people getting dressed up to go out, of having an environment of rules and manners and romance.
After the New Year's Eve party, I went to my first dance. My hometown of Washington, D.C. has a big swing community, so there wasn't any trouble finding a place. The most popular spot is the Spanish Ballroom, which was built as part of Glen Echo amusement park in the early 1930s. Although Glen Echo, which sits on a tree-covered hill above the Potomac River, closed down in the late 1960s, the Ballroom has remained open as part of the National Park Service. In its history the Ballroom has been the bandstand for the Dorsey brothers, Benny Goodman, and other swing greats. It is the size of a small airplane hangar, and, although there is no heat or air conditioning, the Ballroom boasts a dusty, antiquated charm that is deeply spiritual, as well as the original springboard floor so renowned that it attracts dancers from hundreds of miles away.
Watch Mark's Documentary on Glen Echo as you read
When I arrived for the dance, I was terrified. For the past ten years alcohol had been my crutch in social situations. The only time I had danced before was when I had been blind drunk at clubs in Washington or at the beach. In a way, I was emblematic of my generation. Narcissistic and immature, I had ben raised in the comfort of suburbia, without community or generational links to break the boredom. What I had developed, like most of my peers, was a thick shield of irony and smugness that prevented expressions of genuine joy. I was a product of Christopher Lasch's culture of narcissism, or poet Robert Bly's sibling society; like the rest of my generation, I was sullen, self-absorbed and afraid to feel.
I paid my eight dollars and stepped into the ballroom. Immediately, I could tell I was in a strange new environment. For one thing, there was no alcohol served. Unless someone had gone bar-hopping beforehand, all of the 300 people in the ballroom were sober. They were also dancing. Near the front of the stage where the big band played were about twenty couples swinging, but it was unlike the swing I had seen at the New Year's Eve party. The Glen Echo dancers were doing a step that was more complicated and fluid - the Lindy Hop or jitterbug, the original swing dance.
The Lindy Hop, which was derived from the Charleston, was born in Harlem in the 1920s, at the then-famous Savoy Ballroom or the corner of 140th street and Lenox Avenue. Most people think of swing dancing as what they've seen on reruns of Happy Days - or in Swingers for that matter - a kind of easy, back-and-forth motion that requires little effort. In fact, that kind six-count, side-to-side dancing, called East Coast Swing, is indeed swing, but only a very small part, the way the fan belt is part of a car's engine. It is a piece of the larger, more complex and exuberant eight-count Lindy Hop.
When Lindy spread across the country and into mainstream society in the thousands of ballrooms that sprang up during the swing era (1935-45), the dance became diluted by less skilled imitators, becoming East Coast Swing. There's nothing wrong with East Coast Swing per se, but to Lindy Hoppers it's a little, well boring. (For a good look at how much more boisterous Lindy is, rent the film Swing Kids and watch the first ten minutes.) the difference between Lindy and plain old swing is like the difference between shuffleboard and championship aerobics; during the summer at Glen Echo, the expert jitterbugers are the ones with extra shirts for they can sweat through the one they're wearing.
I shuffled into the hell hesitantly walked towards the stage, and was about to sit down when a woman about my mother's age asked me to dance.
"I don't know how," I stammered.
She grabbed my wrist and pulled me out onto the floor. "I'll show you."
We stood in the middle of the floor. She took my left hand in her right, then told me to put my hand on her back. "Can you could to six?" she said.
"Okay, step to the left and hold it for a beat." I stepped, the woman mirroring my move.
"Now do the same thing to the right."
I stepped to the right and held.
"Now step back and forward with your left foot."
"Now put all three together."
I stepped left, then right, then back.
"You're doing it!" she cried.
I was. I was dancing. I felt a rush of exhilaration, like the feeling when your dad releases you on your bike for the first time.
From that moment on, I couldn't get enough of swing. I went to Glen Echo the next week, and the week after. Then I started finding dances during the week. I took lessons from the local champions, and bought tapes to practice at home.
Then, after about a month, I was at a dance when it happened - my first swing-related high. I was twirling my partner to a jump blues number - I think it was "Good Rockin' Tonight" - when my consciousness seemed to take off. I felt lighter, yet more comfortable and assured in my body. Hoots of delight popped out of my mouth, and my partner laughed along. While my description sounds a bit flaky, my experience is somewhat common among dancers as well as athletes. As far back as 1922 anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe-Brown described similar euphoria among a group of Andaman islanders who dance in religious ritual: "As the dancer loses himself in the dance, as he becomes absorbed in the unified community, he reaches a state of elation i which he feels himself filled with energy or force immediately beyond his ordinary state, and so finds himself able to perform prodigies of exertion."
Athletes describe such feelings of euphoria as being "in the zone"; in a recent article on "The Spirit of Athletics" in The World and I magazine, journalist Mark Barna recounts some of the "emotional and physical peaks" reached by athletes. Barna recounts a quote from former NFL great Joe Greene: "It's almost like being possessed. [but while] it is a kind of frenzy, of wild action...you are never out of control. You have great awareness of everything that is happening around you and your part in the whole."
Both Greene and Radcliffe-Brown's descriptions emphasize not only their feelings, but how those feelings tie in with those around them, leading to another one of dancing benefits: it's ability to foster community and teach etiquette that reaches outside the dance hall. In his book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You Through the Day, which has just been reissued, sociologist Ray Oldenburg examines the broad social, spiritual, and psychological benefits of "third places," those spots outside of work and home that offer solace from the rat race and requirements of family. What is perhaps most remarkable about these places - which range from Irish pubs to Japanese tea gardens - are there roles as democratic meeting spots and the strict manners and self-restraint that govern them.
In third places, writes Oldenburg, a natural kind of "leveling" takes place. Unlike work, there is no hierarchy of status and power: "those not high on the totems of accomplishment or popularity are enjoined, accepted, embraced, and enjoyed despite their 'failings' in their career or the marketplace. There is more to the individual than his or her status indicates." Thought he doesn't name them, dance halls fit perfectly into Oldenburg's thesis. In ballrooms, dancing is the great leveler. Money, status, privilege, even looks are not appreciated as much as ability.
This was no more true than at Harlem's Savoy, one of the only integrated dance clubs [of its time], where the best spot on the floor was reserved not for whites [or blacks] but for the most electrifying dancers. The Savoy, called "the home of happy feet," took up an entire city block and boasted bandstands at two end. As Ralph Ellison would later note, the Savoy was "one of the great centers of culture in the United States," offering the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Ella Fitzgerald on any given night, artists whose talents lured not only dancers but classical composers like Stravinsky and Poulenc to Harlem.
Perhaps more than in other third places, in the dance hall unwritten rules of etiquette. If you ask a women to dance and she says no, it is inappropriate to pursue the matter any further. Bolstered by swing songs, with their soft melodies and romantic imagery, men learn how to behave, something they forgot in the 1960s. In Swing, Bop and Hand Dancing, a documentary about the history of swing and hand dancing, an modern offshoot of swing done primarily in black communties, Howard University dance historian Beverly Lindsay sums it up nicely. "The benfits of swing go far beyond just learning cool moves," she says. "In the old days of swing, there were entire rituals surrounding the dance. Men went and picked up their dates, then escorted them to the dance. They learned how to dress up, and how to behave. They learned how to ask a girl to dance, lead her onto the dance floor, then, at the end of the song, return her from where she had come."
One trip to Glen Echo or the Washington clubs where hand dancing takes place can teach a lesson that was lost during the Sexual Revolution: that there can be gradations of contact between the sexes. The dictum of all-or-nothing fostered by thirty years of pornography is a lie; worse, it is one that paradoxically cheats us out of some of the finer sensual pleasures of relationships.
So how did something as enervating as swing dancing die? Music historians point to material shortages of World War II, which made it hard to produce records, as well as the expense of employing a full big band and the rise of be-bop jazz, a style more attuned to ears than feet. However, one overlooked fact might be the most important: taxes. In 1944, a 30 percent federal excise tax was levied against dancing night clubs. Later, jazz great Max Roach recalled the devastating effect the tax had on dancing and other entertainment: "It was levied on all places where they had entertainment. It was levied incase they had public dancing, signing, storytelling, humor, or jokes on stage. This tax is the real story behind why dancing, not just tap dancing, but public dancing per se and also singing, quartets, comedy, all these kinds of thing, were just out."
In 1959, the Savoy was demolished and replaced by a government housing project. As much as the assassination of Kennedy, Vietnam, or Watergate, this was the death knell for a certain America, the place of self-made communities, truly interactive entertainment, and tough spiritual resolve. When the Savoy went down, a new America emerged from the rubble. Out went style, to be replaced by drugs, rock n' roll - which in the beginning was just swing music plyed leaner and tighter - and television.
And yet, there is hope of swing become firmly reestablished in American culture. Recently the Black Cat, a punk rock club in Washington, has started having swing bands four times a year. The place fills with dancers, and occasionally a black-clad wallflower is encouraged to drop their angst and give it a try. More and more jazz musicians, weaned on "free-form," are coming to appreciate dance music. In the book Bebop and Nothingness New York swing band leader Loren Schoenberg described to author Francis Davis the moment when she was born again in swing. "I never fully understood [Duke Ellington's] ‘Ko-Ko' until I saw dancers respond to that minor key, that baritone saxophone, that bass drum," Schoenberg said. "It's like the difference between hearing a concert performance or arias and seeing a fully staged opera."
Predictably, when writing about the rebirth of swing, the media, which never met a complex idea it couldn't reduce to cliche, takes the angle that swing returned in the wake of the lounge revival of the last few years. Yet even a cursory tour of the lounge circuit shows a real disparity between the two cultures. What you find in Washington, D.C.'s lounge spots like Crush and Felix are is exactly what you find in most urban clubs: hip, ironic self-conscious young people getting drunk and trying to look cool. The music is not swing, but lounge faves like Dean Martin - swing on ludes - or even the latest dance music. The atmosphere is as thick with irony as cigar smoke. People might dance, but it's not swing.
On the other hand, D.C. places like Glen Echo, the Twist and Shout and the Vienna Grill, which book real swing bands that cater to Lindy Hoppers, the atmosphere couldn't be more different. There's much more of an age mix - these days the communication breakdown is not only between races but generations - and there is very little hipness in the air. People are there to dance and have fun, and they love the music the bands play - not the way post-grungers love Tony Bennett, with that knowing, self-conscious smirk. And at Glen Echo, it seems like every week-end more teen-agers appear for the free lesson given before the dance, looking uncomfortable and nervously examining their shoes. More than once, I've seen those faces become alive with laughter by the end of the night.
Mark Gauvreau Judge is the author of Wasted: Tales of a Gen X Drunk.
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