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.
According to Ron Cope of the Hot Tomatoes Dance Orchestra, the perception that swing is faltering has been largely perpetuated by club owners who lack the business moxie to make swing work in their clubs. "Swing will not just die and go away, because it is appealing on so many levels," he says. "It's not just moving around on a dance floor. You actually get to touch somebody. It's definitely a retro thing, but the steps are just as fresh as they ever were. It exudes fun, and people aren't going to just stop having that fun, even if some of the fringe drops off." He cites Mercury Cafe owner Marilyn Megenity as someone who's figured out the formula to keep the swing community alive. The Mercury, which has hosted swing events since 1991 and still hosts them three nights a week, is an all-ages, smoke-free venue that doesn't rely on alcohol sales for revenue. It's an appealing place for dancing -- visually, atmospherically -- and the food ain't bad, either, which gives swingers one more reason to don their wing tips and gingham dresses.
"I think what differentiates [the Mercury] from other clubs is that we don't have the bar-pickup vibe and we're all ages," Megenity says. "This dancing is a spiritual revolution for people under 21; they are rejecting corporate consumerism for something they are participating in, dancing to. They're rejecting the concert/ spectator type of music experience and seeking out something more authentic. Plus, we have the best musicians in town: David Booker, the Dalhart Imperials, Cathy Burns."
"This is good music," she adds. "It stands up like Beethoven."
Check that, Daddy-O.
Attention, ye of local bands: If you've ever fostered dreams of landing that million-dollar recording contract after bumping into David Geffen at a down-home barbecue joint, now's the time to submit your materials to the mighty South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. Sure, the annual schmoozefest ain't what it used to be -- now more of a nonstop series of label showcases for already-signed bands than a real opportunity for unsigned talent to be heard by industry folks -- but it's still a heck of a party. You'd best get moving, as entries for the early-submission deadline must be postmarked by October 15; the "absolute drop deadline" is November 15. And why not get your materials in early? Fabulous as it is, your music will have a much better chance of actually being heard if it arrives before the deluge. There are three ways to obtain a showcase application: check www.sxsw.com, call 512-467-7979 or write P.O. Box 4999, Austin, TX 78765. Packages must include a CD or cassette of original materials as well as a photo, bio, press kit and $20 processing fee. Acts selected to play SXSW -- to be held March 15 through 19 -- will be notified by February 15. To the post office, minstrel!
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.