Corrections or additions?
Again, Swing’s the Thing
This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on February 10, 1999.
All rights reserved.
Something old, something new, lots that’s borrowed,
not much blue." That’s swing dance in a rhyming nutshell. Depending
on who you talk to, it’s new, it’s big, it’s fun — or, it’s old,
it’s big, it’s fun. In both cases, it’s definitely hot. It’s been
hot for at least a couple of years now, and looks to stay hot for
a while. It’s the dance to be doing if you’re doing dance.
Isn’t swing the same as jitterbug? you might ask if you’re a person
of a certain age. Yes, but that’s not all it is. Doesn’t it involve
Big Band music? you say. Yes, but wildly different music too. Isn’t
it related to ballroom dancing? Yes, but it’s also happening at Sweet-16
parties and dance weekends and swing cruises and nightclubs. In short,
"it’s the dance sensation that’s sweeping the nation."
For those who like to dance, swing is the thing. Some do it wearing
zoot suits, fedoras, and watch chains, or ’40s-style clothing, starting
with Mary Janes for the girls. Others, like dancers at Trenton’s Katmandu,
on a Sunday night in late January, do it in baseball caps and jeans
or sweats — or tank tops and mini skirts — or black velvet
dresses. Whatever they’re wearing, they’re having fun.
Who does it? Teens, dating couples, singles, and old married folks
of practically all ages, all body types, all professions, all ability
levels. And, amazingly, the great majority of swing dancers start
with lessons. They have to know the footwork before they can improvise,
insists Candace Woodward-Clough, an area dance teacher and choreographer
who’s now heavy into swing. Further, "the guy has to lead or the
couple doesn’t do it," she adds. If dancing for fun is a sign
of these times when other forms of recreation for couples has become
risky, then the emphasis on men leading in swing dancing is equally
retro. Some men love it just for the chance it gives them to call
the shots (again).
And it’s not even as simple as lessons, because, unlike Gaul, all
of swing is divided into two parts: "East Coast " and "West
Coast." Once again, what each term means can depend on who you
talk to — or who you watch dancing. Back to Katmandu, where swing
dancers crowd the dance floor, those doing West Coast swing closer
to the stage, and East Coast dancers occupy the rest of the area.
Now it’s pretty easy to see the difference.
In general, East Coast swing is faster, looser, jumpier. Dancers move
to the music of groups that range from "Squirrel Nut Zippers"
to "Cherry Poppin’ Daddies" or "Royal Crown Review"
— as well as Glenn Miller. If you know Louis Prima’s "Jump,
Jive, and Wail" in either the original version or Brian Setzer’s
take on it, you’ve heard what might be the anthem of East Coast swing.
That song was part of a now-famous Gap ad, showing kids dancing (yes,
in khakis, but we’ll overlook that), which is credited with rallying
the East Coast swing troops.
On the other hand, though not the other coast, West
Coast swing is slower, more sensual. Its music is more likely to be
jazz, or rhythm and blues. Carol Feldman, who teaches swing dancing
at Katmandu says West Coast is harder to do than East Coast. She compares
it to a college course: "intense, lots to learn." Woodward-Clough
agrees; she elects to start with easier-to-learn East Coast swing
and wait until her dancers reach intermediate level to introduce West
Drawing on her New York dancing connections, Woodward-Clough tells
a story about the origin of West Coast: Hollywood, she’d been told,
adapted East Coast swing, a circular couples dance, into the "slot
dance," or straight-line dance it is today, to accommodate earlier
camera limitations. Sure enough, for whatever reason, West Coast swing
dancers at Katmandu are going back and forth, not around.
Swing harks back to earlier dances. Woodward-Clough tells it this
way: In the late ’20s and early ’30s, teens were dancing at New York’s
Savoy. Their dance was very athletic, including aerials and all. Looking
at them, an observer remarked, "You look like jitter-bugs,"
after a real bug. Thus, "jitterbug," the dance. More on origins,
she notes that the "Lindy Hop" dance derived from aviator
Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the big pond. From such beginnings,
swing developed, and stayed with us, so now, Woodward-Clough says,
there are four or five kinds of EC swing alone, and at least two styles
of doing it — Savoy and smooth.
Asked if he knows about swing dancing, an area bartender readily said
yes, mentioning that his girlfriend is taking swing dance lessons.
Which bears out this truism: You don’t just drop in somewhere and
start swing dancing. Carol Feldman escapes her day job as a prison
therapist spending four evenings a week at Katmandu, teaching and
dancing swing. "If you love your job, you never work a day in
your life," she says, clearly enjoying herself one Sunday evening.
Her dance job includes bucking up the men in her Katmandu classes,
which precede the dance time by about an hour. She usually guesses,
correctly, that most men in a beginners group were dragged there,
and she tells them they’ll have fun and they’ll come back. (Usually,
they do and they do.) Men on view the Sunday night we watched included
teens in baseball caps, middle-agers in sports jackets, and a few
granddad types. They all looked happy on the dance floor.
Woodward-Clough concurs on the need for swing dance instruction —
and for coddling the men a bit. In this country, she says, men just
haven’t been exposed to social dancing the way European men have.
American men think they have the proverbial two left feet, when in
reality they just need bringing along."
Furthermore, Woodward-Clough must usually build a music lesson into
her classes. "A lot of people don’t know how to identify a downbeat,
and if they can’t do that, they don’t know how to get started."
To most of those who spoke about swing, music is considered the big
motivation. Woodward-Clough believes kids hear the music first, then
they’re attracted to the look, the scene. She remembers visiting a
club in the area where "the kids didn’t know how to dance, but
they were dressed for the part." Terry Lee Barrett, deejay at
Katmandu, also credits young people for reviving what he calls "retro
swing" music. He interprets the swing movement as an anti-grunge
statement, a desire by kids to recreate what was best in American
culture, starting with optimism.
The wide range of people dancing swing suggests it’s much more than
a singles scene. Woodward-Clough divides her students into three groups:
people preparing for the social dancing that occurs at weddings, couples
looking for a romantic activity, and professionals wanting to look
good for events. And though they may dance more with others than with
their date or spouse, couples also frequent Katmandu. Swing protocol
calls for both men and women asking others to dance, then thanking
their partners for the dance afterwards. Feldman points out that switching
partners and learning from others helps dancers get better faster.
"The dance community is wonderful," she says, "a good
place to meet nice people."
A recent swing dance participant at the Hyatt Regency Princeton, Eileen
Connolly concurs. With colleagues from Bristol-Myers Squibb, she tried
the Hyatt’s new Tuesday night swing dance event, and was "amazed"
at how many others came out for it. From 7 to 8 p.m. there’s a lesson,
followed by dancing from 8 to 11 p.m. "We have only four moves
so far," she says, laughing. "Everybody’s doing the same steps."
But as of late January, she was going back for more: more steps, more
Darron Stark, also of Bristol-Myers Squibb, describes the Hyatt dance
evening as "a nice way to get out of the house, better than just
going out to dinner." While confessing uncertainty about the difference
between East and West Coast swing, he evidently liked it enough to
try another venue, in Pennsylvania, after his Hyatt initiation.
Stark’s colleague, Shawn Knipple, missed a week’s session at the Hyatt
because of a business trip to New Orleans. Once there, he checked
out the hotel’s "where to go" magazine — and went swing
dancing. However, "we had only four steps, so we had to ad lib,"
he says. "You need to get eight to twelve moves in your portfolio,
then you can free-dance." Knipple confirms the need for lessons
and, he thinks, for levels of instruction where prospective dancers
stay and practice until they get it and can move on.
Like the other swing dancers we talked with, Knipple hasn’t seen,
or worn, retro-clothing for swing dancing. But he’s aware of those
who got into country line dancing awhile ago, then went out and bought
cowboy boots and big belt buckles. Given the right party, he says,
it could happen with swing.
Some committed swing dancers vote with their feet. Katmandu staff
talk about the "hard core" regulars who bring their own dance
shoes and stay till the last dance. (Unlike the old style ballet shoes,
the ideal swing shoes have heels, a steel shank, suede soles, and
a strap across the instep. Career dancer Woodward-Clough buys her
shoes from England.) Katmandu offers swing dancing of some kind Sunday
through Wednesday — and the menu is varied and notable enough
to attract even those more interested in eating than dancing.
Do we need further proof that while swing may be popular now, it’s
sure not new? Duke Ellington, whose centennial year this is, had the
last word on the subject (not to mention the first) in his 1932 song:
"It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing." Amen.
— Pat Summers
609-882-6099. Swing and ballroom dance lessons and open dancing, with
refreshments, $8, Saturday, February 20, 7 p.m.
Camden, director. Swing classes on Thursdays and Fridays. Swing dances for all ages and levels, singles and
couples, first Saturday of the month, at 8 p.m., $8. Dances Friday,
February 12 and Saturday, March 6.
The club’s lounge dedicated to swing music features Gotham City Swing.
The Leopard Lounge is open every Friday for all ages; Saturdays for
ages 18 and up. Free lessons from 9 to 10 p.m., followed by live music.
Vendors sell vintage ’40s clothing and music. $10 admission. Saturday,
February 13, 8 p.m. Also Valentine’s Day Dinner Dance package
with dance lessons and music by the Blue Saracens, $57.50, Sunday,
February 14, 6 p.m.
609-799-9165. Thelma Horowitz teaches ballroom dance, and also at
community education programs for Princeton, West Windsor, and East
Windsor Schools. Classes culminate in a dance social.
Hightstown, 609-490-7550. Eight-week sessions in waltz, fox trot,
swing, and Latin dancing taught by Candace Woodward-Clough. No partner
required. Register at first class. A ballroom dance social completes
the series. $60 per person; $100 per couple. Next session begins Friday,
March 26, 7:30 p.m.
and country swing every Tuesday, with lessons by Tim Marlow followed
by open dancing 8 to 11 p.m. $8. Tuesday, February 16, 7 p.m.
country dance Sunday through Wednesday nights, lessons taught by Carol
Feldman. Sunday lessons at 5 p.m.; Mondays at 7:30 p.m.; Swing and
blues jam Wednesdays, $5 cover. Also Valentine’s Day Swing Gala,
with lessons and dancing to music by the Gregg Carpenter Band, Sunday,
February 14, 4 p.m.
609-771-9753. Ten-week spring sessions in Ballroom and Latin Swing
Dance taught by Marjorie Duryea. $50 single; $85 couple. Wednesday,
February 24, 7 p.m.
a range of swing dance workshops. Call for information.
Regular dances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Singles, line dances,
mixers, ladies choices.
Main Street, Pennington. 609-737-7596. Candace Woodward-Clough teaches
five-week Latin and ballroom sessions.
151 Moore Street, 609-683-4480. Big Band Dance to swing and big band
sounds of the ’40s. Proceeds benefit the band’s travel to spring competitions.
Donation $5. Saturday, March 13, 7 p.m.
Elementary School, 635 Georges Road, Monmouth Junction, 732-297-3510.
Twice monthly dances on first and third Saturdays (except July through
September). Dances begin with free lesson at 8:30 p.m., with ballroom
dancing from 9 to 11:30 p.m. $8 per person.
Teaches private and semi-private lessons, by appointment.
Latin Dance series taught by Candace Woodward-Clough. Beginner class
at 4 p.m.; intermediate class at 5 p.m. Preregister. $35 single; $62
couple. Sunday, February 28.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.