Swing Low

Has everyone's favorite retro-dance fad already faded?

It's been more than three years since Miramax released Swingers, the film that helped the swing-dance movement creep out of the underground and guaranteed that we'd all hear the phrase "Vegas, Baby, Vegas," every time that desert city was mentioned. Then, after legions of potential Gap shoppers heard Louis Prima for the first time on a TV commercial and decided it might be fun to take a stab at swinging, the scene spread across the country like E. coli in a bad beef shipment. It infected New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Eventually, it even came to Denver. Thing is, scenesters will tell you, swing was already here, existing as a small but viable community of people who liked to get jitterbuggy with it way back when. And despite recent decrees that swing is on its way to that netherworld where social phenomena eventually go to die, many maintain that the scene is still as sturdy as a well-gelled pompadour.

Diagnosing the health of swing in Denver depends on where you go looking for symptoms. Some claim the scene is slipping away, being fed intravenously by a few diehards before vanishing like the breakdance, the Vogue, the Twist, the Freddy et al., ad infinitum (that's Latin for shitloads of other dance crazes that have come and gone since the Egyptians first got their groove on out in Giza). The recent discontinuation of two major weekly swing events has fueled this argument. First, Swing Night at the Church was replaced by hip-hop and DJ dance music more befitting that club's cosmo image. The more recent announcement that Ninth Avenue West will no longer host its tri-weekly swing nights has struck many as a swift and fatal blow -- something the club goofed on in its final swing event last week, an evening boldly titled "Swing Is Dead" and complete with a hearse and faux-funerary vibe.

Ninth Avenue general manager Matthew Donelan cites the usual reasons for the club's decision to discontinue swing, its primary cash cow since opening in July of 1997: Dancing is hard. Dancing requires concentration and good reflexes. Dancers -- the good, dedicated kind who might be able to sustain three nights a week of swing music -- aren't drinkers. And Ninth Avenue is a bar. Yet beyond this relatively simple business equation, Donelan cites a discernible decline of enthusiasm within the scene itself, the scientific term for which might be "the petering-out syndrome." In the wake of all the swing hype, he says, Denver suffered from over-saturation; with five or six places hosting events, a person could dance almost every night. The swing supply far exceeded the demand.

"Six years ago, when it was very underground, you would sit around with your friends and dance in your living room. You'd go out to bars to find jukeboxes with one or two good songs on them," Donelan says. "Every two months a band would come, and everyone would get dressed up and everyone would go. Now it's like, 'Yeah I want to see that band, but they'll be coming back soon,' or 'Yeah, I want to go out, but maybe tomorrow night.' I think the newness and the excitement of the scene has been hurt by all of that availability. After the first of the year, we saw a drastic change in the vibe. There's a lot of wonderful hardcore lovers of the genre, the music, the dance, that have maintained the consistency of coming in here. There's a core, but beyond that, there's no other peripheral excitement anymore."

Dan Newsome is a big part of that core, and to hear him tell it, swing fans have plenty to be excited about. Newsome maintains the online version of All Swing Events (www.allswing events.com), a recently deceased local newspaper that stopped publishing when editor James Glader moved to New York City in July. Yeah, Newsome says, the number of dancers filling up local bars has declined, but that doesn't mean swing is dead. It means the swing scene has been streamlined to a more a serious crowd of people who prefer dancing to drinking and whose interests in the movement were never motivated by fads, anyway.

"Lots of people in Denver have a long investment in dancing," he says. "It's more of a leisure activity for us, like tennis or golf is for some people. But people have different levels of involvement. Some are into it for three months, and yeah, it is a trend for them. But there are people I've seen around for four years or more. It's part of our lives, and that doesn't just change."

Newsome, whose Web site still receives about 800 hits from new users every month, says that swing dancers are simply moving out of the bar scene -- spaces generally too small and smoky for swing purposes, anyway -- into alternative venues. "What seems to be happening," he says, "is that a lot of the dancers are taking control of the venues. Dancers are very concerned with making venues more hospitable to dancers." The bigger dance floors and smoke-and-alcohol-free environs of places like the Denver Turnverein, at 16th and Clarkson, offer ideal environs. David Mot has recently begun hosting a Monday swing night at Club Boca, 2101 Champa, a space normally used for large-scale corporate parties and weddings that functions more as an event hall than a bar.

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