In Full Swing
It goes something like this: The follower places her hands lightly in her partner's palms, like a trick poodle begging for treats. The pair then counts together as they execute the fundamental moves that constitute the East Coast swing--step left, step right, step back.
Once these basics are mastered, the endless embellishments that epitomize swing dancing begin. Of course, one can only learn the dance by actually doing it, and that's exactly what Denver is doing--in droves. A cross-generational audience is flocking in phenomenal numbers to big-band bashes hosted by community centers, lodges and, more recently, night clubs like the blue room nightlounge, the Bluebird Theater and the Mercury Cafe. Multi-piece jazz outfits such as Big Band Swing Inc., Joel Kaye's Neophonic Big Band and Jazz West are finding dance floors at their gigs packed elbow-to-elbow--or foot-to-head in some cases--with a new stripe of fan.
The sudden rise in popularity of a music and style of dancing that originated over sixty years ago may baffle many observers, but not pianist Ron Cope of the Hot Tomatoes Dance Orchestra, perhaps the best and busiest of the area's big bands (see "Hit Pick," page 90). "There's a million reasons why this music has stuck around as long as it has--why it hit the first time around and why it's hit ever since," he says. "But the bottom line is that it's just fun."
The Tomatoes cannot be accused of capitalizing on a trend: They were jazz veterans and musical archivists years before the current mass conversion took place. The group's roots stretch back to the early Eighties, when Cope met a collector at a jazz festival who offered him a list of yellowing scores for dirt cheap. "I bought about a half-dozen of the tunes and got a group of people together to rehearse them and realized these were a bunch of old stocks from the Twenties and Thirties that sounded just great if you could play them.
"Originally, we were playing late Twenties/ early Thirties music--Bix Beiderbecke, a lot of Charleston tunes, Gene Goldkette, Fletcher Henderson," he goes on. "And as we started doing more and more music, we found people really wanted to hear 'In the Mood,' 'String of Pearls,' 'Pennsylvania 6-5000,' 'American Patrol.' I started getting more old charts from the same guy in San Diego, and we started playing all those songs, as we do now. We do an awful lot of our own arrangements or transcriptions of original material, and then we adapt them for the band."
While the chops the Tomatoes bring to the table translate into exhilarating live performances that are worthy of close attention, the majority of attendees at big-band shows are there for a singular purpose: to dance. Many of the younger people at such dates are so passionate about doing so that they often swing-dance to the recorded music piped into the venues between live sets, as if trying to make up for lost time. And in a sense, they are. Senior citizens who glide across the floor during Tomatoes concerts may have done much the same at USO-sponsored get-togethers half a century ago, but to those in their twenties, the ritual is often entirely new. "I'm 41, and I grew up with Lawrence Welk--which was kind of a stigma," Cope explains. "If you said you were a Lawrence Welk fan, you were considered really square. The kids nowadays, they come to this music without any stigmas attached to it whatsoever. They don't sit down and say 'Chick Webb was a great drummer, and he was better than Gene Krupa, and the greatest of them all was Buddy Rich.' And there's no raging controversy between Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw or how commercial Glenn Miller was. There aren't those kind of issues. They just say, 'Oh, this sounds good. This is really cool. This really swings. You can dance to it.'
"Also," Cope offers, "this music is still considered art. Jazz, even though it's fun and is good music, represents an era, from 1930 to 1950, that was one of the most creative eras around. When you look back at what was accomplished in a musical sense, it came and went so fast and affected so many people."
Marilyn Megenity, proprietor of the Mercury Cafe, a venue that has wholeheartedly embraced this revival, speculates on the sudden appeal of swing from a cultural standpoint: "Maybe it's such a rough, tough world--and maybe because they've seen so much violence on television and in the movies--that they want something sweet and romantic for a change. And this music was certainly romanticized after World War II. But for those of us who have not experienced war, I don't know if it was really an innocent time. Perhaps people's experiences in World War II left them feeling that they wanted something sweet in life also."
Since the Mercury Cafe's 1978 inception, its philosophical foundation has been one of artistic inclusion. As a result, the club has hosted everything from chamber music to hardcore--but no longer. After enduring a riot at her establishment spurred by problems at a death-metal show featuring Deicide (covered in Feedback, October 10, 1996), Megenity recently closed her doors to most punk and heavy-metal acts. The decision was a difficult one for her. "I've always felt that original art and music were important--that people expressing themselves and their ideas is important," she says. "I grew up in a time when musical expression was really part of a cultural revolution that I believed at the time was going to make the world better. I think that got co-opted by corporate industry: business for profit. Rebellion by corporate design is what we have today, and it's really not making the world better. It's not thinking and feeling. It's just part of a corporate package kids are buying."
Although the gaps left by her new booking policy (which Megenity sums up as "not babysitting teenaged boys anymore") have created financial pressures at the Mercury, the resurgence of interest in swing dancing has come to the rescue--almost. Dancers are usually too busy tripping the light fantastic to get loaded, and truth be told, nightclubs count on liquor sales to remain viable. However, revenue shortfalls haven't dissuaded Megenity--who began hosting big bands five years ago for her own pleasure--from eagerly filling her calendar with swing-oriented events. Nor has Megenity been swayed by the contention that refusing to book aggressive acts is a form of prejudice. "I grappled with that for six years, because I wanted to be open to all voices," she admits, laughing. "Then I decided that this was a destructive voice, and I don't want to be open to destructive voices. I don't want to advocate violence, and I don't want to have boys being violent to each other as sport being a part of my business."
A staunch advocate of punk in its heyday, when the movement was still a vital form of rebellion, creativity and consciousness-raising, Megenity doubts that something as shot through with nostalgia as swing dancing can serve as a vehicle for radical change--at least not by the common definition of the term. "I don't think it's deliberately political at all," she says. "But what I think is revolutionary about it is that it creates joy and community. Having a Saturday night dance in a small town is a thing America really lost."
Likewise, today's teens have grown up without experiencing the art and pleasure of partner dancing. The last vestiges of this tradition faded at the end of the disco era, a period associated with Saturday Night Fever-vintage John Travolta and portrayed as a warmup to unabashed, gold-chain-in-the-chest-hair narcissism. Keith Hellman--a computer programmer by day, a swing instructor and dancer extraordinaire by night--was among those bored by the club dancing disco spawned. To him, swing dancing is "a lot more diverse, ironically enough. In the dance style I did before, you go out and dance completely on your own, and it's by definition 99 percent improvisational. Swing dancing is a lot more challenging. When you get to the point where you become good at just doing the dance itself and become good at leading the person you're dancing with, then you reach this whole other tier where you start having so much fun with the music yet stay within the framework of the dance. It's much more dynamic and interactive. You have the opportunity to dance with a real, live person and to a live band, and if they're a good band, they are changing their solos or changing their charts around and keeping things interesting."
Due to the reticence many men feel about moving their bodies in public, there's something of a swing-dancing gender gap. But this void seems to be narrowing thanks to swing's simplicity, which can accommodate both the neophobe and the big-footed. "It's a very quick dance to pick up on and the ideal dance to learn if you're someone who hasn't done a lot of dancing," Hellman attests. "I don't know what women think about dancing, but for guys, there's a one-upmanship--and it's a friendly one with a lot of camaraderie. If I see someone who looks good, I say to myself, 'I have to go out there and look better than that. I have to come up with something new that looks better than that.' Dancing for guys is friendly competition. That's how dance evolves."
Such rivalry often leads to wild aerial displays among dancers who also patronize rockabilly shows--and their behavior can sometimes lead to tension between the various subcultures on hand. People who've spent years in the mosh pit have a different orientation toward chaos, random contact and, well, injury than those who slow-danced to Frank Sinatra at their senior prom. "There's a tangible community of people who do what I would best call 'slingshot swing,'" Hellman notes. "This is really popular in the under-26 crowd. You're essentially just whipping your partner around, and occasionally you decide to throw her in some fashion. Unfortunately, I only know of two people who do that kind of dancing who will actually look around and say, 'Am I going to throw my partner into someone?' or look above them to make sure they're not under the low beam at the Mercury. Everyone else simply won't do that. I've been kicked in the head before. There was an older gentleman that got kicked in the head a couple of weeks ago. That's one of my concerns--that there's a community that's coming and dancing that hasn't picked up on the idea that it's everyone's dance floor and not theirs to claim.
"I think it's great that so many new people are showing up and dancing," he continues, "but they've missed this particular phase when you learn from someone and they give you some hints about, 'Look, this is how you don't break people's ankles--and this is how you lead your follower so she can turn on her own and you don't have to pancake-stir her around and make her fall on the floor."
"It's aggressive lindy-hopping, and I do think it comes from a group of kids who have been around the punk scene," Megenity comments. "But I think the dance teachers, the dancers and the bands will keep it from becoming a problem. It's a little skirmish, that's all. I think slam dancing evolved out of the fact that when we were partner dancing, it was considered slightly impolite to bump into someone. If you were constantly doing it, you were a rude dancer. Slam dancing sort of came out of that affront--'Yeah, I am a rude dancer.' Bump! And it was a little bit affectionate and peaceful when it started and women did it. Then it got into something completely different."
Nonetheless, Cope sees the influx of under-thirties as essentially positive--something that's given the big-band scene a not-unwelcome shot in the arm. "The younger dancers want their music to really swing hard, and they're not shy about asking for tempos that are faster than normal," he relates. "It gives us a chance to present the music more like it was originally performed in places like the Apollo Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom and the Roseland Ballroom in New York. These were the places where the best lindy-hoppers and swing dancers used to hang out and it was all one big party.
"There's a vibrancy in the music that comes from not only playing for these people who like to hear it, but also because it's a mutual thing coming back at you as you play," Cope adds. "The hotter you play it, the better they dance. For younger dancers, specifically, the music is as enthusiastic as they are. The sound of the music is a vibrant, pulsating sound, and these younger people have a tendency to portray that just by their presence. Sometimes they don't even ask; you can just see them dancing, and you know exactly what it is they want to hear. So you give them plenty of it."
In Cope's opinion, live music is a key part of this formula. After all, a club DJ can only hope to approximate the kind of symbiosis that links a big band in the throes of dueling horn solos on "Take the 'A' Train" to the dancers flailing like a single organism at the foot of the stage. "I like that swing music brings back acoustic instruments. The interaction is a neat thing," Cope says. "That's why I don't like to be too far from the dance floor. It's great to feel them dancing by."
The electricity generated by a big band playing directly to an audience of dancers is palpable, as are the sparks that fly between people who might never have met were it not for the opportunity to hold hands and swing till midnight. It may be old-fashioned, but as Megenity says, "I want my own life to be lovely and nice and romantic and quality--and not some piece of corporate garbage trash that's been sold to me.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.