When was the first time you saw Lindy Hop? Was it a social arena or a theater/entertainment event?
I first saw Swing dancing in the movie “Swing Kids” with Christian Bale. Then I saw the Swing Gap commercial. But I really fell in love with Swing dancing when I saw other kids performing it as a freshman in college. I vividly remember it. I was at the University of Texas in Austin at a student talent show. I was also in the show but I was dancing with a different group doing Janet Jackson / Madonna-ish choreography. During this show I saw the Swing Tips perform a full routine to Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” with four enthusiastic couples. I was in complete awe. I was attracted first to the happiness and the energy of the dance. Next, I was fascinated by the partnership between the dancers, especially the aerials which looked like so much fun. And then, the music.
Jumping in as fast as I could to learn how to partner dance sent me on a frustrating journey of humility and patience. I always thought I was pretty good at choreography but this was all about improvisation and following.
Having solo danced since I was 3 years old, the rules of following a leader were very difficult for me. But I quickly developed within 4 years to be a playful and courageous dancer. I entered Jack and Jills, I performed and I saved up my coffee shop money to attend the biggest contest in the North East at the time, ALHC (American Lindy Hop Championships 1999) which was a big deal for a young Texas kid. Later on when I met Ryan Francois and Jenny Thomas in Los Angeles, who became my most influential teachers and mentors, I returned to my perspective that Lindy Hop was suppose to be a flashy, fast, acrobatic act that belonged on stage.
I spent probably a span of 6 years conflicted between whether or not Lindy Hop, and specifically my path as a dancer, should gear towards social dancing or stage performance. This confusion lasted for so long because I had well paved roads to carve out both paths at the same time.
I genuinely loved going out social dancing and did so at least 4 nights a week. I enjoyed playing with my partners, riding their momentum then sending it back, and my appreciation for dancing to live music grew.
On the other side, I also had the great privilege of training aerial technique, posture, lines, staging and numerous routines under Ryan’s direction. I also created my own choreographies with partners and eagerly took any opportunity to perform Lindy Hop on stages, events, festivals, parties, sometimes even for money!
Contributing to my question, “is Lindy Hop meant to be social or for stage”, was also the fact that I had great experiences with several wonderful dance partners who influenced my thoughts on the dance.
Scott Angelius and I worked together from 2000-2002 in Austin teaching and coming up with routines for competition. He helped me codify steps, combinations and style for looking polished. At the same time my social dance skills developed as I played with Sully Ross, Mike Lenneville and most successfully, Jeramie Anderson. Jeramie and I accidentally made it to finals at ALHC and won a few other competitions with out any rehearsals or prepared material. He sparked my belief in spontaneity and trust.
More recently in my life I’ve had the phenomenal balance and luxury of partnering Nathan Bugh and Michael Jagger. Nathan’s strength is usually his advanced musicality and ability to improvise complex rhythms. Michael’s strength is presentation, comedy and character, story telling and sweeping movements with his partner. Both are absolute pros and overlap in many ways, but I would say Nathan more confidently represents the social art of Lindy Hop and Michael represents the performative stage presence of Lindy Hop.
Again, I am stuck in the middle, understanding the values of both paths. I have dragged myself into the conversation that I imagine many people have had at some point which asks, “is this art meant for an audience or is it art just because it is an expression of one’s self?”
Is the collaboration between two dancers on the social floor the height of the art form? What if no one was watching?
Is the height of the art form a well conceived, rehearsed, perfected routine of huge difficulty that wins 1st place in competition?
Are aerials and other tricks necessary for the dance to be appreciated by an audience?
I have been challenged by these questions over and over again in my career of being a Lindy Hop dancer and teacher. I discuss, and more often argue, with my colleagues about what way Lindy Hop should be viewed in the larger, commercial world.
I argue that we as a community should elevate the dance and put it in theaters, commercials, TV, movies and regard it as the gorgeous American art form that it is. I wish universities and institutes such as Alvin Ailey and Jazz at Lincoln Center would recognize that Lindy Hop is and can be taught the way Ballet, Jazz and Tap have been. I think, I hope, that is on the way in the near future.
And yet, if the dance was institutionalized, how would we preserve the freedom of inventing steps and the space to improvise? We wouldn’t want to lose the individual stories and style passed down from generations. Or has that already started to happen? How many “air steps” are taught these days? Who does them? Do you know what they were originally called? Are they required to win a contest or when you are “hired” to perform Lindy Hop?
Perhaps I’ve asked too many questions. I didn’t promise you an answer at the beginning. I guess my 6 year span of conflict has not ended. As I mature, my body is not as able to execute all the tricks I use to do. Nor do I want to flip around as much. More and more, I find incredible joy in the music, the rhythms and the connection of a social dance. However, I still feel the pressure to demonstrate a version of Lindy Hop that I have believed audiences want and expect to see. I still wonder which is the more important path.
What are your thoughts about Lindy Hop?