Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Big Band Theory

Swing music was big, big, big during WWII.

San Diego is a military town: Army, Navy (air and sea defenses, both), Marines, and Coast Guard have long operated here. Historic Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma was an Army installation, dating from the turn of the 20th century, for the country's coastal and harbor defense. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Fort Rosecrans became an integral part of the early war effort. Signalmen lived in the old lighthouse, searchlights were installed on what's now NPS land, and huge gun batteries built.

Every year on Pearl Harbor Day, the National Park Service holds commemorative events at Cabrillo, with reenactors and authentic costumes. This December they're doing it again, and also holding a big dance, with a live swing band. A real dress-up event and hot music.

Everyone recognizes swing music when they hear it, right? Unmistakable. And it's never been called anything else but swing. Whether it's played by a big band in ballroom, or played by a small group or trio in a club or auditorium, swing is a universal name for that style of music.

But the names of the dances...that's a whole different story. These days if someone asks you if you swing dance, and you say yes, it often turns out their idea of a swing dance is not the same as yours.

When swing music first hit the ballrooms shortly before WWII, what most people danced to it was a foxtrot. Foxtrot is a 6-count dance, a slow slow quick quick pattern, very easy. Very versatile, too. For decades it was the first dance almost anyone learned, and many never learned any other. You could certainly attend a WWII-style or big band dance, dance only variations of the foxtrot at different speeds, and be historically accurate. And have fun, too: foxtrot isn't always sedate.

Lindy was actually a style of dancing that had emerged more than a decade before swing music, in jazz clubs; the name honoring Charles Lindbergh. Instead of the dancers being close together, they were "open", farther apart. Dancing at almost arms length, and they often let go of each other; you wouldn't do this in foxtrot, no matter how wild your foxtrot is.

Lindy evolved several different forms, one of them known specifically as lindy hop. Back then, everybody danced, and the lindy hop was increasingly popular with younger dancers -- the ages of the vast majority of soldiers, sailors, and airmen in whose honor many dances were held. Morale boosters, fundraisers, standard dinner accompaniment...dances (and movies) were THE entertainment of wartime. And swing was THE music to dance to.

In the years before Pearl Harbor, many people had began to call all those fast, jazzy dances to swing music jitterbugging. Credit goes to Cab Calloway for coining it. The new name became more used after Lindbergh moved to Europe, fell from grace, and anything "lindy" did too. Just like anything else with German or Japanese origins was renamed so Americans could go on enjoying it and still feel patriotic.

Post-rock 'n roll, swing died as a popular music form; the dances died with it. Forty years later a revival of jitterbugging and swing dancing revived the lindy name. And here is where it gets confusing.

An explanation:

Lindy hop also revived as a very specific dance. For decades the king of the lindy hop revival was Frankie Manning. His story is a pretty interesting read, even on wikipedia, and you can find a lot of Frankie Manning videos on youtube. Lindy hop style of swing dancing incorporates lots of lifts and requires athleticism and practice. A lot of practice.

West coast swing is a name and style that grew out of the swing dance revival. (Which was concentrated initially in California.) Like lindy hop, it's danced to 4/4 music (110-130 beats per minute), it's often in an 8-count pattern....but, just to confuse things, it can also be danced in a 6 or 10 count pattern. Because of the linear footwork pattern, it can look like the dancers are constantly trading places in a rectangular slot. Add a ton of rapid turns and tricks, and the linear appearance is lost, but it's still the same dance. Also like lindy hop, west coast swing is hard to learn and takes practice, and there are dozens of different regional styles of it; knowing one style doesn't mean you'll be able to dance smoothly with a partner who knows a different regional style.

East coast swing was dubbed that even more recently, and only to distinguish it from west coast swing. But it did not originate on the east coast, and is just as old a swing dance as the 8-count pattern lindy. Sometimes known as triple step, or boogie-woogie, or even called the original jitterbug, it's the easiest of the swing dances to learn. A 6-count pattern, this is the dance that was the sock hop swing in the 50s. It's danced to 3/4 time music, usually around 140-175 beats per minute. You can squeeze in lots of fast turns, or dance it gently and quietly. If you already know how to two-step (either a county two-step, or a foxtrot), this is the dance for you. The rhythm is exactly the same as a two-step or foxtrot: quick quick slow slow, and many of the turns are the same; it's just stylized differently.

And then there's Balboa. A closed lindy style that focuses on footwork, no lifts, and hardly any turns, Balboa occupies the smallest area on the dance floor, can either travel or stay in one place, and can be danced to all kinds of swing music. It's an 8 count pattern.

I hear there's going to be a lesson at the beginning of the Liberty Dance, but I don't know which style it'll be. And none of these are dances you can learn well in fifteen minutes. Except the foxtrot. Possibly east coast swing, if you're already a dancer. Want swing dance lessons in San Diego ahead of time? There's a HUGE swing dance community here, lots of lesson choices, lots of venues, swing and rockabilly bands (rockabilly music is great for practicing all kinds of swing dancing), and plenty of dances, clubs, and opportunities to practice. Here. Or here. Prefer to learn at home? Here's a video lesson of east coast swing. Very basic, and the sound is pretty bad, but it's an outstanding video for showing the basic steps and turns of this swing dance version.

And what are you going to wear to the Liberty Dance? Period attire? I hope so. One of the best online resources I've found about 30-40s vintage style are the LisaFremont pages: a website, blog, and a youtube channel. (Lisa Fremont was the name of the Grace Kelly character in Rear Window; but Ashley is the name of the girl who operates the LisaFremont pages.) Ashley is the queen of 1940s hairstyling! Dozens of videos on her youtube page showing to style all kinds of hair, particularly for the 1940s. And she's not even a hairstylist, so it's very DIY and common sense. Her website also has lots of links for retro costuming and products, too.

I can't even begin to think about any kind of costume until I finish all my artworks for the exhibition...but I'm gonna start brushing up on my swing dancing right away! 

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