Learning and Doing

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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

Coast.

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

fun.

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

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Learning and Doing

Actors Dance Studio, 1012 Brunswick Avenue, Lawrenceville,

609-882-6099. Swing and ballroom dance lessons and open dancing, with

refreshments, $8, Saturday, February 20, 7 p.m.

Broadway Ballroom, 4 Hulfish Street, 609-924-9499. Del

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.

Club Bene’s Leopard Lounge, Route 35, Sayreville, 732-727-3000.

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.

Dance Spectrums, 51 Everett Drive, Building B, Lawrenceville,

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.

Dancing by Peddie Lake, Swig Arts Center, Peddie School,

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.

Hyatt Regency, Route 1, 609-430-0211. West Coast, Lindy,

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.

KatManDu, Trenton Waterfront, 609-393-7300. Swing and

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.

Lawrence Evening School, Princeton Pike, Lawrenceville,

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.

Next Step Productions, 609-448-6665. Geralyn Berkery schedules

a range of swing dance workshops. Call for information.

Paso Doble Ballroom, 4501 New Falls Road, Levittown, 215-547-2311.

Regular dances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Singles, line dances,

mixers, ladies choices.

Pennington Dance, Pennington Presbyterian Church, 13 South

Main Street, Pennington. 609-737-7596. Candace Woodward-Clough teaches

five-week Latin and ballroom sessions.

Princeton High School Studio Band Dance, PHS Cafeteria,

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.

South Brunswick Community Ballroom, South Brunswick Upper

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.

Candace Woodward-Clough, 112 Etra Road, Hightstown, 609-443-8990.

Teaches private and semi-private lessons, by appointment.

YWCA Princeton, Paul Robeson Place, 609-497-2118. Four-week

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.

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