Headbangers' Ball

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."

What's the appeal of such acrobatics? "It's fun, it's totally different, and people like to watch it," Pringle says. "If you're an entertainer person like me, you have an audience waiting to see what you're doing. It's exciting, and for a long time, dancing has never had anything like this." Likewise, dancers have never had a chance to get spine-tingling thrills in the confines of their local bar. "In the Nineties, our adrenaline rushes are all by ourselves," says Bustos, who considers aerials only a small part of her repertoire. "You go skiing by yourself and snowboarding by yourself--you do all these rad, amazing things by yourself. But when you have someone to do it with, there's a meeting of the minds, so it's really powerful because of the social connection. And that's powerful for the swing scene. That's why it's so strong right now."

But according to Sandy Johnson, a certified personal trainer and massage therapist who works with professional lindy-hoppers, swingers may not be strong enough for the moves. She's seen everything from strained muscles to dislocated shoulders and knees, the kinds of injuries normally reserved for athletes. "Both the male and female need to have some weightlifting training," Johnson advises. "When you're doing the aerials, it's like doing the shoulder press or overhead press. The male has to be able to hold the woman up and swing her around, and she has to be able to hold herself up. But I don't know if the young dancers now are taking that into consideration. Just like you condition yourself for a Super Bowl, you condition yourself for dancing."

Frankie Manning certainly understands this approach. An astoundingly fit 84-year-old, Manning helped create the lindy hop some seventy years ago. Through the Twenties, Thirties and Forties, he led some of Harlem's most famed troupes and created many of the more open-stanced athletic moves that characterize the lindy today. He's also credited with performing the dance's first aerial maneuver back in 1935. (Manning's work can be seen in a number of black-and-white films, including Hellzapoppin, Killer Diller and Hot Chocolates, and numerous new instructional releases.) He's pleased by his creation's resurgence, but he's also concerned about the emphasis on acrobatics, which were a threat to dancers back in the early years.

"Most of the newcomers now, they might see the Gap commercial or a movie, and all they see is the air steps, and they study them to see how they are done. Then when they come to the club, that's all they know how to do, rather than learn how to dance first," Manning says from his home in New York City. "You should learn how to do the dance before you learn air steps and aerials--that's my contention. And when I teach the dance, I don't teach the air steps." What's more, he notes, "the steps should not be allowed out on a crowded floor where everybody is out there dancing."

Victor Ward is doing his part to make sure swingers understand this philosophy. A member of the Flying Aces, a loose collective of swing dancers who lead classes at area clubs, he includes details in his classes about the dangers of the lindy hop. Among some of his peers, discussing these possible dangers is almost taboo, since it might scare off possible converts. But Ward says it's something people need to know about. "It's a problem, and it's real," Ward says. "I'm not gonna lie to people and say you can't get hurt--of course you're gonna get hurt trying to learn aerials and stuff like that. It might hurt the scene a little bit, but I don't care. It's all growth."

During a recent dance class at Brittany Hill, a Thornton restaurant that hosts swing nights on Mondays and Fridays, Ward leads sixteen couples through some intermediate paces. The class is marked by an emphasis on footwork and ambitious steps, and there's no mention of aerials. But as the lesson wraps up and Ward takes a few questions, a student hollers, "Aerial!" Ward denies the lesson request but thrills the class with a quick twirl of fellow Ace Kari Crawford. After a few quick steps, Crawford executes a perfect somersault over Ward's arm, her legs tucked tight in a neat backflip that flashes her black briefs to the audience. Above the students' heads is proof that this room has seen its share of less-skilled frequent flyers: Four massive chandeliers tilt at various angles--victims, Ward says, of the room's occasional airborne rangers.  

Marilyn Megenity has seen similar high-altitude activity at her long-lived establishment, the Mercury Cafe, but has discovered a tool for limiting the number of takeoffs. After installing fans in the ceiling of her upstairs dance hall, she discovered that the swirling blades help keep her mainly twenty-something and high-school-age crowds in line. "But occasionally," she says, "they knock the fan out of kilter."

Around the country, some dance venues have taken to banning aerials during open-floor sessions and limiting them to contests and "Cat's Corner" jam circles. Metro-area clubs haven't embraced these no-fly zones, opting instead to police their floors as needed. "We don't bar aerials here," says Mathew Donelan, the general manager and dance instructor at 9th Avenue West, "but if somebody is trying to do aerials or doing aerials that they don't have the skills to do, we ask them not to. It's like, 'You just flipped that girl and you almost put her heel in someone's eye. Let's not do that anymore.'" Those dancers who refuse to stay grounded are asked to leave the dance floor, Donelan says, and if they fly again, they're removed from the club. "We teach some very basic aerials here," he adds, "and we're very concerned that people learn the etiquette that goes along with them."

But despite this approach, the club has seen a few serious injuries, including a pair of concussions. One was Kindy Bustos's. "The other one was a girl who was doing a Charleston into a dip with another couple," Donelan recalls. "As her partner dipped her, the other couple kicked, and the girl's very heavy shoe went right into her head.

"Both of them were well-trained, professional dancers who were sober," Donelan says. But that's often not the case. "People will come in after the lesson and see people swinging around. They'll have a couple beers and a couple shots and think, 'Oh, I can do this. Come on, honey, let's get out there.' But they don't know what they're doing; they take up too much room and ruin it for everyone else."

Christine Hauber, another swing instructor, says most of the troubles in local swing clubs can be traced to dancing under the influence. "I do quite a few aerials and I've yet to get hurt, and it's because I do not mix alcohol with dancing. Most of the good swing dancers don't drink at all," she says. "I've seen people who've had too much to drink that throw people into each other and step on you." She says swing injuries have more to do with the youthfulness of the scene than anything else. "With young adults, you still have their rebellious side and their need to go beyond what is safe," she says. "But I think it would be unfair to stop kids from doing aerials, because that's not what causes the problems."

Donelan thinks a maturing swing brigade will remedy its own thrill-seeking behavior. "You get someone twenty-five or thirty years old--they don't think they're indestructible anymore like a seventeen-year-old," he says. "Our scene here is young," notes Crawford, who suffered a concussion, a few broken fingers and a broken tooth while learning her craft in her earlier years. "And as it ages, it's progressing and getting better. Two years ago it was dangerous at the Mercury, but you go there now and it's very safe--very few aerials, and those who are doing aerials are doing them safely."

Victor Ward thinks the swing circuit's risk factors could be eliminated with more safety lessons and a dose of common courtesy. "There is this golden rule that if there's not enough space, you tap somebody on the shoulder and say, 'You've been out here a while dancing. Is it all right if I take this dance with my partner?' But nobody realizes it. But I always tell people in my class: If you really want to dance and you don't want to get stomped on, tap on somebody's shoulder that's been out there the whole night and say, 'Let me in for a second.'"  

While it's unlikely that helmets will be de rigueur in the near future, hipsters understand that swing dancing will remain a contact sport for some time. "It all depends on who is on the floor and who you're dancing with, and how many people don't care, and how many drunk people there are," Bustos admits. "But you get this in every crowd; it's not this way with just swing. You just have to deal with it and not let it stop you from dancing."

"I want people to know that you can have a lot of fun doing this," Ward says, "and that there are dangers to it. It's real and a legitimate problem. And if you don't acknowledge it, there are going to be more people out there dancing, and more people are going to get hurt.

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