Headbangers' Ball

Swing dancing is Denver's llatest smash -- literally.

It's swing night at a Denver dance club. Sweating couples are whirling around a crowded dance floor. Decked out in glorious fashions from days gone by, the revelers juke and jive through a dizzying array of footwork as a combo blazes through a set of vintage jazz. The frenetic gathering parts briefly and a sharply dressed man turns his partner out before him, quickly reels her in, then sends her airborne over his shoulder. Her deft two-point landing falls square on the beat and draws polite cheers from the beaming onlookers.

A few measures later, another handsome couple launches into a similar move. But instead of returning to the loving arms of her suspendered partner, the young woman sails out of his reach and into the smoke-filled air. An instant later she crashes down on top of a nearby table, shattering martini glasses and the public's perception of D-Town's latest craze.

Swing's popularity in Denver has risen faster than its high-flying devotees. Two years ago dancers were hard-pressed to find a monthly swing night; today venues that once shut down during the week are welcoming capacity crowds. "Last year you might have found an event each night of the week," says James Glader, who started publishing All Swing Events, a monthly magazine covering Front Range swing culture, a year ago this month (what started out as a one-page newsletter is now Glader's full-time job). "Now, even on a Monday night, you can find five places to dance," he says. Rockabilly and blues musicians who used to sit at home during the week are now gigging steadily in local clubs by embracing a swing-friendly song list. The Shaken Martinis formed a year ago to earn a few bucks on the swing boom. "We could easily play four nights a week if we wanted to," says the band's Jim Dalton. "A good horn player can work seven nights a week around here," he adds, "and make good money doing it."

The swing music now filling area clubs is a nostalgic revival of America's days of touch dancing and its attendant social graces and polite company. But as the lindy hop (named for Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic "hop" of 1927) and its kinetic kin draw more practitioners to such establishments, hand-in-hand dancing is starting to resemble hand-to-hand combat. The craze is producing a surprising number of injuries--from concussions and broken bones to dislocated joints and countless bruises.

"I think we've all been hurt," says Jennifer Pringle, a Denver dancer and part-time instructor. "There've been times that I've been dropped and ended up with bloody fingers and things like that, and getting kicked in the ankles happens a lot." Victor Ward, another dance instructor, agrees. "A lot of my regular partners used to wear these little flat heels with little teeny buckles," he reveals. "Now they wear steel-toed boots."

Kindy Bustos, a frequent visitor to Denver's swing shacks, sports bruises as often as she does fishnet stockings. She remembers one particularly painful aerial move: "I was supposed to end up facing my partner, but I went up past his head level and all the way back down to the floor. I had a mild concussion and some nerve damage. People who do aerials," she says, "always get hurt."

In 1996, a Redmond, Oregon, woman died from injuries suffered in a failed aerial. While that hasn't happened in Colorado, local twirlers say the number of collisions caused by these moves is rising. And many swing devotees say aerials have severely injured the aesthetics of the swing scene here. Newcomers, they say, are taking up these moves to get the same adrenaline thrills once reserved for slamming, skiing and snowboarding--at the expense of the dance's more congenial merits.

The novices' lust for getting air has been fueled by such films as Swingers and Swing Kids, a 1993 straight-to-video release that serves as an anthem for today's younger dancers. Based on fact, the film takes a fictionalized look at a small sect of German youth whose love for big-band-era jazz and black dance culture was deemed unacceptable by Hitler's Aryan jackboots. It's a teen-angst lightweight marked by countless defiant liftoffs by the film's adolescent cast. Its peculiar finale has a youngster shouting "Swing Heil!" after his kidnapped brother, who is being carried away in the evil clutches of the dance-floor gestapo.

The film's us-against-them stance may be fueling some of the contact-is-cool attitude at local clubs. But an even greater irritant to serious swing practitioners is the television commercial for Gap khakis. The sixty-second spot features a gaggle of cotton-clad leapers and has inspired many a teen to "jump, jive and wail." It has also offended experienced movers and shakers. "I should have been happy when I first saw it, but instead I was insulted," Bustos says of the ad. "That's not dancing; that's gymnastics to swing music."

(A Gap spokesperson says the ad campaign has been very successful, and store managers report kids coming in and asking for "the pants from the swing ad.")

"The whole commercial is people doing these fancy moves, these big aerials," says Pringle, before hitting the floor at the Church, a downtown club that hosts a mid-week swing session. "And people see it and think, 'If we want to be good, we have to be doing these aerials.' But some of them never learn the basic footwork of how to use those moves and where to use them. I mean, it's pretty rare that the music says, 'Throw the girl in the air!' And it's very dangerous. It's like cheerleading, but cheerleaders have all of these safety precautions and spotters and all that. But there's nobody spotting people doing aerials, so if you drop a girl, too bad. Hope she doesn't bleed."

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