Thursday, 14 June 2012

"If it ain’t got that swıng"

The summer is upon us, the dresses are wide, the bands are big and it seems the whole country is dancing to a glorious old tune.

Written by Melonie Clarke
The Savoy Ballroom, New York, 1935: Frankie Manning and his dance partner Frieda Washington go against George 'Shorty' Snowden and his partner Big Bea in a dance competition in Cat's Corner. Chick Webb was playing Down South Camp Meeting, a request of Manning's. As Manning and Frieda danced, he threw her over his back, performing a backto- back roll. The crowd went crazy after seeing this new step. Fast forward 77 years and crowds at swing dances still go crazy when this move is performed.

The Savoy was the stomping ground for dancing stars of the future, which included Frankie Manning who, with another partner, Norma Miller, took their passion for dancing to a professional level. They danced worldwide both on stage and screen, as well as with the dance group Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the crème de la crème of swing dancers.

During the Savoy Ballroom's great days, you could dance there every night of the week. People would queue for hours to see Glenn Miller and Count Basie perform on the two bandstands. The ballroom could hold four to five thousand people, although that would include passing trade. The only question that was important once you got through the doors was 'Can you dance?' and dance they did.

Over in the UK, the dance-crazy GIs stationed here during the Second World War brought swing to our shores, and in a way it has never left, its history inextricably linked to our 'special relationship' with our American cousins. Although dance styles such as the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug originated in the backstreets of Harlem, they can be traced through the years to our own hit TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing. How much we have taken this lively art form to heart.

But for diehard fans, it has been a rocky ride. In the post-war period, an entertainment tax in America made booking live performers too expensive. As a result, recorded music was used more widely. Ballrooms became smaller, and the dance moves themselves evolved to accommodate these changes.

During the 1980s, however, bands started to release music with an old swing sound. People loved it, and after seeing clips from old films that featured Whitey's Lindy Hoppers and other swing dancers, a new generation of practitioners was born.

Original dancers from the Savoy were hunted down, in the hope they would teach the moves. Frankie Manning, who had long since disappeared from the dance scene and gone to work for the US postal service, spearheaded this revival, going around the world, putting the swing back into people's steps. He taught original steps and routines, including the famous Big Apple. Frankie died in 2009, but he had started a dancing revolution, and now, with the aid of the internet, you can find dance classes teaching swing all over the UK.

The resurgence in swing's popularity is mirrored in film, fashion and music. The highly acclaimed film The Artist has given people a taste for fashions of the time, with girls recreating the marcel wave hairstyle, and tea dresses becoming a wardrobe staple. New bands such as the Shirt Tail Stompers, Top Shelf Jazz and Alex Mendham & His Orchestra are bringing back the sound of yesterday in new music for today's dancers.

Today, there is no single place that modern dancers can go, but with summer upon us, a whole host of events is on offer. Perfect for mothers, daughters, grandmothers (and grandfathers) to enjoy, Twinwood Festival, for example, is a yearly event where people from all over the world come to get their dancing shoes on and celebrate swing music – and Glenn Miller in particular. Look out for swing dancing picnics in parks over London, or Lindy Lunches – where you can swing on your lunch break.

Whatever your age, remember... it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!

  • Twinwood Vintage Music And Dance Festival, with more than 60 bands, is on 25, 26 and 27 August at Twinwood Arena, near Bedford: 01923-282725, www.twinwoodevents.com
  • GNSH Goodnight Sweetheart, the UK's international swing dance camp, will be held next year on 15 to 18 February: www.gnsh.co.uk

What is... West Coast Swing?

Originating on America's West Coast, it's a branch of swing that is very structured, with the most moves executed in lines. Today, the dance has been modernised by taking out this rigid line formation to allow for improvisation and a wider choice of music genres. It has been described as 'progressive', with performers encouraged to bring their own style and moves to the floor. London Swingvitational is one of the biggest West Coast Swing dance weekends in the UK, with attendees from all over the world. The next event takes place from 16-19 November in Slough: www.londonswingvitational.co.uk

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