(header photo of Indigo Swing and Brian Setzer, by John Ambrosino of City Rat Photo)
I recently read a little pop culture missive about the swing revival in the 90s. While the article had some good information, it didn’t capture (for me) what it was like to be there. It was a different time. A naive time. But, it was absolutely exhilarating, intoxicating and probably the most excitement around the dances of the swing era since they were first invented. For some people (like myself), swing was an instant match to what we were looking for in life. It was decidedly grassroots, the vibe was counter-culture but all about good manners and positive vibes, it was interactive, happy, and grounded in early American culture. All the media exposure meant a constant influx of people, and a youthful lack of good judgement meant aerials that created a ton of excitement and jam circles served as inspiration for scores of new thrill-seekers. It was a rocking, rolling, high-flying, self-publicizing fun machine that attracted nerds, punks, trend-followers, couples, empty nesters, pre-hipster-hipsters, theatre kids and just about everyone else. At the peak of the 90’s swing boom, my mid-size hometown of Denver had a whole section in the newspaper devoted to the different swing nights, and some nights there were 5 places to go, and lines around the block at each one.
On a bootleg VHS documentary about swing, we heard about how dancers at the Savoy would cast shadows from the windows onto the sidewalk below and the people outside would do their best to imitate the shadows. We did the same, trying to figure out which foot to rock step on, and which way to turn when the hand went up ; and so history repeated itself on moonlit sidewalks. We danced outside listening to the sounds of horns coming from open windows until there was space for us inside.
How did it all start?
In the 90s, MTV was our Spotify. The VJ’s at MTV ensured the selections were more diverse than a radio station, and the production quality of a music video could make a fairly mediocre song quite awesome. Grunge was big, early rap and hip hop, and rock songs that still live on in Karaoke glory were brand new to us then. Ska was enjoying its third wave and from the same vein as Rancid, Sublime, No Doubt and Reel Big Fish, a new sound came from Southern California. It was a serendipitous intersection of Ska’s reintroduction of the horn section as an element of popular music, and the pendulum swing resulting from blues, swing, and roots music being out of the public eye for too long…or maybe people were a bit over grunge. Neo swing had arrived, and with it everyone, everywhere wanted to learn to swing dance again.
I remember lots of older folks rejoicing at the fact that people wanted to partner dance again (touch dancing, some called it). As happy as we were to dust off the old records and find a treasure trove of music that spoke to us on a deep and meaningful level, our grandparents were overjoyed to tell stories of the bands they saw back in the day. “We used to Jitterbug,” my grandparents told me. I thought to myself “but did you drive cross country on a lark, go out 5 nights a week, and scour old VHS tapes for a single new move?” We were positively obsessed.
It came down to the fact that Neo-Swing in the late 90s was a breath of fresh air that music desperately needed, and a way to revisit or create some roots we didn’t have. Pulling out a Bobby Darin record, or cranking some Glen Miller and agreeing with your parents and grandparents on music for the first time was pretty cool. They still liked the rather sanitized stuff, but the common ground was a new experience. A lot of old-school cool held up over the years.
The 90s and early 2000’s were pre-tech crash, pre real-estate boom and crash (and boom again), gas was ridiculously cheap, flights were much more affordable and overall it felt like people had a lot more time and resources to travel and enjoy life. The rifts that divide us (particularly in the USA) weren’t there, or maybe they were tucked away so that we didn’t notice. Life was a lot simpler, and it opened up the space for us to be obsessed, engrossed, and dancing nearly every night away.
Since literally everyone except for a tiny handful of people were new to the genre, there was almost no politics, no infighting, no bad blood among scene promoters. It was come-as-you-are and dance. East coast was as cool as Lindy Hop. Making things up was cool. Showing other people moves was cool. The best dancer in the room was only a few months more experienced than the newest dancer for the most part. We were all excited together.
Some of the early swing dance venues, places like the Mercury Cafe in Denver, the Fenix Underground in Seattle, the Derby in Los Angeles, Swing 46 in NYC were destination spots, with live music (often of many different genres), connections to local celebrities, and great press. Most places were 21+, which meant that lots of us (myself included) had to sit out for a few years and explore the lesser-known clubs for a while. However, the big clubs had the money to bring in national acts who would often pick up other gigs with smaller venues in town, venues that would never have gotten to book those acts on their own. So you never knew when you might roll up to a little dive bar with some act like the Jive Aces giving an amazing, intimate concert.
It was hard not to love neo-swing when it was new. The horns were punchy, the style was compelling but yet punk-rock and the music was an 180 degree change from the dark introverted Sub-pop sounds that dominated at the time. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy put on really energetic shows, and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were almost like a modern day Slim and Slam. Hyper-talented musicians with a gimmicky vibe and they could go from country to ska to swing and back again in one set. Steve Lucky, The Bill Elliot Swing Orchestra, Lavay Smith and dozens of others released albums that featured new music as well as redone classics.
I’d heard the music on the radio, seen “Swing Kids” and one day I walked into a vintage store to complete my standard issue ska fan “Jabsco” look, and a random girl with a cute ribbon in her hair walked up to me, pointed at a poster on the wall advertising swing lessons, and said “I need a partner for this, will you go with me?” And so it started.
We had no idea what constituted vintage
There were a few people that flocked to the newfound swing craze, (notably Rockabilly enthusiasts and the like) who were fairly educated as far as what styles belonged to what era, but for the majority of us, we latched onto anything that looked like it was from before 1960.
Neo-swing’s suits and hats and vintage ties were the opposite of what we were wearing, and it came at the perfect time. Grunge had left us looking a little shabby: When I think about it now, the Doc Martens, jeans, plaid shirt, and wallet chain that was our uniform then isn’t too far off from the pseudo-mountain-man look that seems to dominate the Pacific Northwest now. Swing is still the counter-culture to counter-culture.
Dressing well is the way that Jazz musicians and dancers has postured themselves as cultural creatives and visionaries. Back in the day, people got nicknames like Count, Duke, Prez and Lady, and joined socialites as equals. We followed suit (no pun intended). Ties that could be gotten for a few dollars at garage sales or thrift stores gave an opportunity to express personal style that I never had a way to express before. With ties alone, I learned veritable lexicons of terminology: Figuratives, geometrics, dead-stocks, peek-a-boos and brocades. Collar bars, tie bars, bow tie knots, four-in-hands, and half-Windsors. I went from a pretty schlubby dude that had rocked cargo pants un-ironically to a guy who could put together an outfit with (gasp) mixed patterns and fabrics, I discovered classic cocktails and danced a few different dances from a forgotten time. Discovering swing made me feel like James Bond.
We weren’t purists in any sense of the word — for music, fashion or moves. We were as glad to borrow a turn pattern from West Coast Swing or a vintage video or something we saw on the floor. It was a bit of a mess. Some of the music was from the 90s, some was from the 30s. The flyers were made with fonts from the 50s, and I don’t know what era the bowling shirts came from. The Zoot Suits were unintentionally in bad taste, and the wallet chains were decidedly 90s. We went from 30s to 90s to 50s and back, and the only thing that really mattered is that we wanted to dance all the time to just about everything.
On the whole, most dancers (myself included) were blissfully uneducated about music. Songs tended to be fairly fast or fairly slow: It either had to be fast enough that 6 count didn’t seem boring, or slow enough that our newfound Lindy Hop steps would work without us having to think too much. Very very few dancers knew how to do Balboa. For the first 3 years that I knew of Balboa, we had basics, fall off the log, and maybe 3-4 turns. Fashion was much more relaxed. We’d put bowling shoes with a 70’s suit, a 40s tie and a hat that made no sense. House dresses were worn like evening gowns, snoods like an up-do, and that was all before the Modrobes, the split-soled sneakers and the athletic wear came along. Then the era of bedazzled denim. We dressed like our favorite teachers, most of whom had very personal fashion choices to say the least. We danced in a restaurant if the song moved us, and generally did not give a f*ck, for better or for worse. Lindy bombing (as it was known) makes me cringe now, but it shows how much we loved swing. Nothing could stop a swing out when the music hit, not lack of room, manners, other people’s comfort, or the safety of small children nearby.
There was a feeling that swing was here to stay. We saw our friends dancing in movies and it made it feel like it wasn’t a fad. Royal Crown Review was on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. TV stations and talk shows all over the country had frequent guest slots with dancers showing off. Even cartoons got in on the swing craze. GQ did an article on Frankie Manning.
There was always a jam, and it inspired so many people to start. Jump in, show off, jump out. There was no hup-hup-hos, no need to start on a chorus or not. People went in and showed off tricks, and came out. The people who went in had no idea that the moves they did would be featured in annual event recap videos, which would be the inspiration and source of next year’s tricks.
How to get moves in a pre-Youtube world
The thing that really separated Swing from other trends and scenes was that while most scenes settle on music/ fashion / some other mutually understood norms is that we also had an insatiable appetite for moves and dance knowledge. Was it a sport? An art? A pastime? It was kind of all of the above, and we looked pretty much everywhere for ideas and influences.
In a pre-youtube world, learning moves required a fair amount of gumption. There was an entire underground economy of traded VHS tapes, which famously degraded after the umpteenth copy. We had a great deal of excitement around travelling, simply to see how people in other parts of the country danced, because we couldn’t see it online. Road trips were much more of a thing, and we often piled in cars and make near impossible road trips. Swing dancers invented Exchanges. One city would host people from all over, and a weekend of dancing from 8pm till the sun came up were originally named for the “exchange” of knowledge inherent. Austin, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle had some of the first that I remember, many of which still go on today.
When I started travelling to dance the first place I went was to Southern California, and I got to see many of the dancers I had learned from on VHS tapes. Southern California was decidedly 3-4 years ahead of the rest of the country as far as swing dance knowledge. We took many ill-advised journeys, for example leaving on a 17 hour road trip Thursday afternoon to make a Friday evening dance in another state. Other common trips included dancing in Portland Friday, Seattle Saturday and Vancouver on Sunday.
‘Zines and Forums
‘Zines have long been a part of underground scenes, especially pre-internet. Here’s a few from James Glader (All Swing Events), a few that I put together (Guide to Swing…), and even one Gaby Cook and I put together in Seattle a few years ago.
We tracked events through online forums, not Facebook. You could find fierce debates, long threads debating dance styles, and even various levels of private forums devoted to different in-groups. It had all the charm of Reddit in that people could make anonymous accounts and be quite mean, and most people had aliases rather than their real names, so keeping track of who was who could be difficult. It made for some good reading at work.
Every few years, things change…
There were a few distinct phases of the early swing revival…
90’s Swing :: Neo Swing
We listened to a LOT of Cherry Popping Daddies, a (formerly ska) band from Oregon, Brian Setzer, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Squirrel Nut Zippers was my personal fav, and I’m often pleased to find how much I like the music of their members even currently including Charlie Halloran, Duke Heitger and Andrew Byrd. Having these bands all over TV really fueled getting people in the doors of swing venues. We were hungering for the sounds that we didn’t even realize were in the background of our childhood. Our grandparent’s record collections, the black & white movies our parents loved (and tried to get us to love), the classic musicals, Cab Calloway on Sesame Street. I think there was an element of swing music in the background for all of us, and when this music came back into the spotlight, it was like something we’d all been hankering for.
The early adopters of swing were those kinds of personalities who were eager to try new things right when they are new. It was the same crowd that was into grunge and ska, and they were scenesters. They were big, confident personalities, and a few of them remain in the scene now.
90’s Swing :: Rock & Roll & Jump Blues
As I began to explore all things swing, I interfaced with Rockabillies who danced English Jive, dressed the era, and loved music with a slap base, amplified guitar, and emphatic, powerful beats. It was pretty good to dance to, and the fact that it’s people indeed had a better grounding in the history surrounding the dances and music was not lost on me. Like playing a game of “Where in the world is Carmen San Diego”, I felt like I was closer to something… there were more clues around. Plus the chance to break out of the regular dance venues and bring dancing out to some cool bars was a welcome change of pace.
Blues musicians were in ample supply, and many of them had studied Louis Prima, Buddy Johnson, Big Joe Turner, and Lucky Millinder long before I started dancing, so the crossover was solid. They were playing music that had some intersection with what I knew from swing venues, and the energy also propelled a good era in my dancing. Jump Blues still speaks to me, and I’m always happy when I hear a DJ play it. The idea of solo jazz didn’t extend much past the Shim Sham and weekend workshops, so this punchy music was intoxicating and powerful.
At this time in my dance career, I was still trying to figure out how to understand Jazz. I think the big reasons that the Lindy Hop scene never fully went down the route of being more integrated with the Rockabilly community is that 1) we didn’t dress the part 2) dancing is far less the main focus of that community and more of a side note 3) While it’s great music to Lindy Hop to, lots of the community’s visionaries a the time pushed the music towards the era / artists that Lindy Hop was originally danced to, which I believe brought forward more jazz movement, more texture and ultimately better dancing, but on the negative side, it feels limiting that we aren’t open to more genres of music at times.
90s Swing :: Hollywood Style
For some, Hollywood Style was their only experience of the re-popularization of swing. In Southern California, there was a pretty consistent thread from Dean Collin’s time, to the Balboa dancers of Bobby McGees and Golden Sails, to early swing dancers with direct connections to many early dancers. Southern California was an amazing place to dance in the 90s and 2000s. The venues were from the era, the percentage of dancers that were “good” was much higher, and they seemed much more immersed overall. Hollywood style dancers didn’t have a hobby, they had a lifestyle.
Southern California had amazing caricatures of people. There were people that did vintage impeccably. There was a guy who always tried to sell me clothes out of the back of his van who looked like he was an extra in an old movie. There were great aerialists, and exceptional recreationists of old movies. They have a linkage to the old films and the Golden Age of Hollywood that no place can claim to have. The actual sets of old movie footage were in their neighborhoods.
Often when I meet dancers that don’t dance anymore, this is the last stop on their train. For them this was the one true swing dance, and looking back, I can see why. It was complete: a lexicon of character moves, a fully defined wardrobe era, a set of clips to watch, a nostalgic ethos. In the corner of one Southern California venue was Freda Wyckoff, a dancer from old movies who loved to be recognized. We sat and talked for a few minutes and she told me that besides dancing, she had also modeled in Playboy back in her day. It was adorable and touching to meet someone I’d seen in old footage, still enjoying swing as a delightful coquette was one of those moments that turns a hobby into your own personal history and story.
90’s Swing phase: Groove
In a world filled with Neo Swing, staid big band music (CDs of the 90s era tended to feature pop hits of the 40s with sugary, soulless tracks), and 50’s era jukebox micro-hits, Lindy Hoppers were left wanting. There were also influential teachers pushing the community toward soul jazz: later-era jazz made of driving but smooth b-sides, which we collectively called “Groove”, though I think the more correct musical term is “soul-jazz”. The perfect tempo was described as “in the pocket”, but that was more about the forward motion rather than a particular beats-per-minute. It was a speed and energy combination which had just enough energy to keep the dance going but was slow and relaxed enough to make every movement feel almost effortless.
Groove was a welcome opposite to what we were doing at the time. It gave us a soulful feeling we were missing, easier tempos, and a new set of skills that seemed easier to master, being more cerebral and less physical. And the implied dress code could not have been more relaxed. Like college dorm relaxed. People started making less effort to dress up and at the same time imitated our modern idols. There was a number of short lived fashion trends, most of which were so cringe-worthy that we’ve since burned all picture evidence. For example “skants”, a skirt-pants-pigtails combo or split-soled sneakers, or exceedingly large pants from a store called “International Male.”
The music slowed down and every class seemed to be about connection, or other fuzzy concepts that were taken to odd extremes. Quotes like this come to mind: “I can make a follow move their leg by circling my finger on her back” (cringe). I’m not sure if these were hyperbolic tongue-in-cheek references, or meant to be taken seriously, but I think it was a bit more of the latter. Entire class hours were spent dangerously close to contact improv, feeling every nuance of pressure, leverage and compression in trance-like states. I think that modern teaching has come up with ways to teach these concepts in dramatically shorter amounts of time, and the emphasis ultimately made a lot of overly heavy dancers… but it was a really fun experience, even if it wouldn’t sit with our attention span now (at least mine).
This was around the time that Blues dance started to become more a part of the scene, and the opportunity to really slow down was pretty cool. It opened up a whole lot of music. And of course it brought out a lot of dancers of other genres who invented mashups like Swango and Swalsa. House parties were all the rage and made for some memorable times. I see the path of blues dancing as having righted it’s course well, exploring more authentic music, and taking some of the dangerous, sexually charged energy and replacing it with consent culture and more advanced dance concepts. While I don’t do a ton of blues anymore, I still see it as Lindy Hop’s sister scene.
The Trad Jazz / Dancer-led bands era
This era of the modern swing scene was the hardest to find a few quintessential songs that would personify it. It’s still living, vibrant, and conforms to what is in my mind the most important aspects of jazz:
- That it is best experienced in person
- Any attempt to capture it in any media form is going to fail to capture it’s ephemeral magic
- The closer the dancers and musicians are physically (and friendships too) that something better will come out.
The kicker of this era of Jazz is that a lot of New Orleans stuff is what I would describe as “pre Lindy Hop” or sometimes too staccato, too jumpy or too influenced by Zydeco, Caribbean, New Orleans Funeral Dirges, or one of the other myriad of New Orleans influences to be comfortable Lindy Hop music. Luckily that’s balanced by some modern bands that play all Lindy Hop era music, with more of a direct relation to the origins of the dance. Of course having both is also a blessing, because this era reminds us that listening, enjoying and appreciating is important too.
It’s a shame, because as much as the living tradition of New Orleans music embodies (and is probably the closest we’ll ever find) to the roots of Jazz, it still requires some curation, some imagination, and some physical alteration of the root moves of Lindy Hop to be enjoyed. The other side of this coin is that in the past few years, there have been a number of bands led by dancers, and all of them are pretty amazing. They created something wonderful, which is entire evenings of completely danceable music. Spoiling us rotten, but also completing the dancers-musician circle.
Throughout the early 2000’s, New Orleans events continued to break the paradigms that Lindy Hop had borrowed from the West Coast world. Contest formats were invented like tap-out, audience judged, battle, and eventually made their way into most other national events as dominant formats. Up until then, all we really had was formats borrowed from the slightly more mature West Coast Scene, which had been mixing up 6 and 8 counts since most of us Lindy Hoppers were but gleams in our parent’s eye.
Pop Swing and Electro Swing as the new Neo-swing
Fortunately, the people who really care the most about dance participate in this wave only as observers. Though I suspect many who come to this blog will be dancers who enjoy Post-Modern Jukebox, Caravan Palace and the like. Electro-swing is the modern neo-swing. A gateway drug thats a little too far removed from the roots of the dance for those that have discovered and learned to appreciate its progenitors. We’re lucky to be living in an era that has re-discovered the classic cocktail, the bowtie, and the small jazz combo playing standards, Americana and chunky melodies on banjos, but still a long way from resurrecting the music and dance in a way that doesn’t whitewash it.
If there is a positive, it’s that this is what is hooking people into the music and getting them to look deeper, and that’s not a bad thing. Though, the swing community that grew organically out of the 90s has been there, done that with pop-swing and for better or worse is gate-keeping it a bit more than the experience I had.
When literally no one knew the first thing about anything swing, and all we had to work with was with some 6-count moves from some ballroom teachers that had their moves passed down from later era Lindy Hoppers during the invention of East Coast Swing, each copy of the dance and moves degrading a little, just like our VHS tapes used to. When we put it all back together, the dance changed from the original, but how could it not. The music, the influences, the people who were doing it had all changed.
Some would say that the swing scene of the 90s/ early 2000’s was undiscerning, or didn’t know better. It wasn’t that. It was that the catchy, innovative music on the radio was driving people to dance halls en masse, and we were honestly stoked that there was an alternative to the alternative. Grunge and punk were cool, but this new stuff made people happy and gave us something fun to do besides just listen to the music. Once people were out, we could mix up the stuff they heard on the radio with some stuff that stands the test of time.
One thing that keeps the swing scene alive is that things evolve. That’s just the way it is. And has always been. I fondly remember lots of friends who danced, but then dropped out when they didn’t prefer the next wave of music.
Some people are devoted to the preservation of different eras, some are devoted to building on the work done by earlier dancers, some people build community, some want to prove out their skills, while others are just here for a cocktail and a fun evening. Diverse goals and diverse music tastes keep things lively.
The 90’s and early 2000’s were an amazing fun time, I wish I had taken more pictures, saved more scraps. I’m glad for positive changes, but also nostalgic for great energy and a time when I had more time to be immersed at that level.
Have a memory from the swing era? Post below.