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It Don't Mean a Thing...Does It?
by Elizabeth Weaver Engel

The swing revival. Depending on who you ask, it's either the greatest thing since sliced bread or the end of civilization as we know it. Media opinion generally seems to lean towards the fad explanation. Meanwhile, college kids all over the United States and beyond are combing thrift stores and attics to find clothes their grandparents wore and flooding dance classes to learn "The GAP ad dance" (aka Lindy Hop). So what's the story? Cheap fad? Change of lifestyle?

From the admittedly biased viewpoint of someone who's been a part of the DC swing scene since BEFORE the current frenzy, all I can say is that the jury's still out. On the one hand, the whole scene could represent a major lifestyle change for people from their 60's to their teens. Say what you will about the 1950's and early '60's (and there's an awful lot of bad) - at the very least, adults had places to go and be with other adults (and without the kids) and do adult things, like dance, drink cocktails, dress up, and hold intelligent conversations. Flash forward to the 90's, and the adults either have kids and have no lives of their own (Junior has soccer, and piano lessons, and tap lessons, and Little League, and play dates, and Mom and Dad live in the car and according to the kiddies' schedules), or who don't have kids and hang out - often not to their satisfaction - in bars and clubs where the music is so loud that conversation is impossible and the dancing serves to increase alienation rather than alleviating it.

This is part of the appeal of swing - giving adults a place, other than work or home, to go to be grown ups together. People dress, if not formally or beautifully (yes, many people think that vintage clothing and black and white shoes look goofy - philistines!), then at least intentionally. There's a great deal of etiquette involved in negotiating partner dance on a crowded dance floor. Asking for a dance requires a certain degree of politeness, and, unlike in clubs, there is no necessarily implied pick up.

And then there's the issue of music. On the music front, there are only a few swing bands (or bands that call themselves swing bands) who are nationally recognized right now: Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra. That's pretty much it - three fairly good ska bands and a talented rockabilly guitarist. Yep, none of these bands is really playing swing. Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of very good bands who are playing swing (or at least jump blues, which is the next best thing) in local scenes all over the country, and you can certainly dance to the music of any of the above bands (although for many of the national bands' numbers, you better know some varsity shag because the songs are too fast for anything else). But we have yet to see the Benny Goodman (or Artie Shaw, or Count Basie, or Cab Calloway, or Duke Ellington...) of the swing revival. Without great music, people won't want to listen.

But what really draws the crowds is the dancing. Right now, would-be dancers are flooding the classes and clubs, wanting to learn to Lindy Hop and look like the folks on TV - whether it be the GAP ad or the Brian Setzer video or whatever. Ultimately, this is what is going to make or break the current interest in swing. Dancing is a skill, partner dancing even more so. It takes time, interest, practice, and dedication (and maybe a certain degree of obsession) to master. No one would reasonably expect to play like Tiger Woods his or her first day on the links.

Likewise, you want to be a really good dancer, you need to shell out for lessons with a good teacher (not just the free lesson in the basic step included in many dances), spend time practicing, and have some patience - Tiger was not built in a day (or a year), and chances are, neither was that couple you see at every local dance who have tons of great moves, smoothness, style, and a whole passel of great - and safe - air steps. In the DC area at least (and I suspect other places as well), the only people who stay with this thing called swing for more than a few weeks, or a few months at the most, are those who actually devote time, energy, and resources to the dance. Three hours of the basic step and not being able to lead anyone but your girlfriend gets old in a hurry.

Which brings me to my second point: the reason swing dancing fell from popularity in the first place was that the good bands broke up due to the combination of WWII and the rise of bebop, and the quality of the dancing declined as it became Arthur Murry ballroom "swing" and lost its essential character. People don't want to watch three hours of bad dancing and listen to three hours of bad music. They have better things to do (Junior's Tae Kwan Do lessons are calling!). If some of the really fine "smaller" bands (Indigo Swing, George Gee and his Make-Believe Orchestra, the J Street Jumpers, Nick Palumbo and the Flipped Fedoras, etc.) get the recognition they deserve, and the Johnny Swingers out there flinging each other around with little regard for the music, the dance, or the safety of innocent bystanders actually buckle down and master some dance skills, I think we could see a major lifestyle change that, as Frankie Manning points out, could last another 30 years. If not? Flash in the pan, after which those of us who were dancing before will continue dancing on less crowded floors in fewer venues with a more limited selection of bands, and everyone else will move on to something else, to our occasional relief but mostly great sorrow.

b i o
Elizabeth Weaver Engel, besides being a budding writer, is a stealth geek, a manager (but NOT the Pointy-Haired Boss) at a non-profit association, a distance runner, a "rabid" Lindy Hopper, and a connoisseur of fine B-grade movies. 

Currently a resident of Washington, DC, Elizabeth grew up outside of Philadelphia and holds a Master's degree in political theory from the University of Virginia.  She fell into working with computers by accident and has since been struggling to pull herself out.  Writing for Mindjack is one of the steps she's taking to do so.

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