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  • Writer's pictureBenji Schwimmer

The Re-Rebirth of Swing

The Re-Rebirth of Swing

The Re-Rebirth of Swing

Times are tough…

Probably the toughest since World War 2…

I know for me personally that is the case. Never in my life has something threatened my ability to take care of myself both emotionally and financially. I know this has been the case for many if not most of you.

Professional dancers, such as myself often travel nearly full time where touch, larger groups and togetherness are an integral part of our dance community and its economy. Moreover, there’s nothing I like doing more than dance; be it teaching, performing, choreographing and the like.

Covid-19 has changed us all. The outcome so unknown. More questions than answers. An end to it all not immediately in sight.

I’m no world historian, but I believe many during the Great War felt something similar. When pressed, the realization that we are living in a Life or Death situation makes things like dancing and art seem ‘non-essential’.

And for now, they’re not.

But that will change and I hope much sooner than later. In the previous Modern Swing Podcast episode, I went over ways we can continue to train from home while away from the social dance scene. To weather the storm if you will and how to set goals in becoming both a better dancer despite the obvious rust we will develop. I had also mentioned ways we can be a more woke and aware community in hopes to further Swing Dancing’s growth worldwide.

Piggybacking off that idea, (in today’s episode), I would like to share some thoughts that I hope each of you treasure. If I could share one thing right now to the swing dance community, I think it would be this very message :

Swing Dancing is the Cure.

… Put on your tin foil hats for a moment with me, folks. (This is the Modern Swing Podcast) ((queue intro music))

Swing Dancing is the Cure.

Now before you scoff at the notion, bare with me a bit here. I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV and in no way am I saying Swing Dancing is the cure to SARs-Cov-2 directly or virally. But what this pandemic has done to our happiness let alone our way of life need a saving salve. I believe swing is the key and perhaps in some ways one would not think. There will a time in the near future where vaccines and herd immunity will be wide spread. Both the financial and emotional damage could echo much longer beyond that. But this isn’t the first time Swing has been in this situation. We need only to look back at our rich history to see…

The Swing Era (1935-1946) and World War II (1939-1945) overlap almost perfectly. Swing music, along with its subsequent dance hit its peak at the beginning of the War. Pioneer artists used its creation an d development as a means of escape from a post-depression economy that effected over 2/3 of the world. Swing legends of old used dance movements from Africa, Charlston and Ballroom to physically express the new ‘Swinging’ Jazz music that had become so popular at various danceclubs throughout Harlem, New York. For the first time in the world, Swing dancing had an economy as people waited hours to get into popular dance clubs of that time. Could you imagine people waiting to get into a convention nowadays or having a waiting list to attend one thats already full? Swing did that in the 1930’s - almost 100 years ago.

Soon into the war, a 30% tax was imposed on Nightclubs that had dancing in them. The economy had hit a terrible strain due to the ensuing war and the need to prioritize ‘essential businesses’. This weakened the ability for record labels and management to create tours with these mammoth-sized bands. There was a shift in promoting music with less moving parts with an emphasis on who the vocalist was instead of the composer. This lead to simpler musical structure, heavy on lyrics and less dynamic changes of rhythm and complex musicality.

To those die-hard dancers, and to the music industry, by late 1946, The Swing Era was essentially over as they knew it. It’s music - considered ‘non-essential’. Sad as it may be, this was not all bad. This difficult economic transition led to what music historians call the creation of “ Progressive Swing Jazz Music “. Or in other words, the birth of R&B.

Swing would find a very quickly changing resurgence over the next few decades. Musical variations such as Western Swing, Bop and Gypsy Swing ushered in what we now know as Neo Swing; the umbrella term for Rockabilly, BeBop, Punk, Ska and of course Rock & Roll. Somewhere during this time there was a disconnect between Swing the music and Swing the dance.

Sure, there was and still is an incredible community of Vintage Swing dancers around the planet. They strongly uphold the essence and culture of such and important era. Often in West Coast Swing and other break off swing dances, not enough credit is given to our rich history-preserving Lindy Hop family. And sadly that feeling can often go both ways for you see, post-Swing era swing dances have an immense and vastly diverse history.

I recently posted two episodes of The Modern Swing Podcast on my ‘Mount Rushmore’ of swing. A common thread that all of these aforementioned legends shared was their having trained in other styles of swing dancing outside of just purely West Coast. They both carried the legacies of their past but also pushed new boundaries with the varying musical pallets that have come about more recently in popular music.

With that being said, “ How is Swing the cure? “, you might ask. Well, its rather simple. When the war ended, and soldiers returned home, the one thing they had carried with them during that time was the desire to swing dance. This dispersement of men and women caused the varying post-swing era styles to blossom as returning soldiers were once again able to connect with others, party it up, flirt, connect and jam out to whatever music was popular in their local areas. Truly, Swing Dancing became a celebration of bad times coming to an end.

Now let’s fast forward to the end of the Vietnam War. My father was an Army medic who was returning to what felt like a new world where both music and culture had changed drastically. Disco was the ‘in’ thing at the time. No longer did people ‘have’ to have live bands. DJ’s and emcees alike were starting to make empty buildings feel like the ballrooms of yore. Many non-swing partner danced began to thrive such as Hustle, the Two-Step, Mambo as well as more traditional international ballroom-based dances. Despite the vast popular flavors of the day, swing held on, if not by a thread.

The biggest threat to swing dancing in the post-Disco era was a lack of globalization. But soon events like the US Open and later Grand National Dance Championships started to pop up which finally gave us all there ability to see what looked like if someone else planted it in their neck of the woods. Sprinkle in the coming arrival of digitized media and the internet and BOOM, the Modern Swing Era as we know it.

To call this dance simply ‘West Coast’ would be a vast oversight if not downright unfair to the many styles and local communities that have heavily influenced the dance’s growth that were not from the western seaboard. The same way the end of the Swing-era gave rise to the “Progressive Swing” movement, perhaps what the entire world needs once this mess is over and done with is dance that is inclusive to all walks of life from everywhere. Where Swing grew from Americans having the need to celebrate victory, the world itself will soon be in need of a very similar celebration… coasts begot.

After the dust settles and we aren’t sheltered in place anymore, it is my deepest desire that we can give the world what Swing dancing had already given us before Covid-19 spread; escape, connection, goals, exercise, creative outlets, opportunities, friendships, community and ultimately a chosen global family. A family that accepts all walks of life, no matter where you’re from, no matter the style of music you prefer and no matter the level of your talent.

Through the deep devastations of a world war came the universal need to swing. To break free from traditional norms. We will need that. The world will need that. This is no different than our founding black legends of swing who were oppressed by disgusting racism. Their need to escape into the creative realm when everything else was out of their control. The same way soldiers needed to escape the atrocities they had witnessed and taken part in during times of war. The answer was always swing.

We have a cure to this sadness.

We have a balm for this emptiness and isolation.

I know no greater dance no community that emphasizes freedom in movement than Swing…

… let alone a community that knows how to throw a party like no other.

If we can just reach outward a little more, to share to non-westies how amazing this dance is and to make it all the more accessible to any walk of life, we have the chance to make what once was called “ California’s State Dance “ into the biggest dance the world has ever seen and desperately needs. Name a more musically open and evolving progressive dance… go on… I’ll wait…

As we ‘progress’ forward with a new-found sense of spreading this dance gospel and the joy in connecting with one another once again, remember that each one of us carries a responsibility to share this dance with others. That responsibility is a legacy and an absolute privilege. A legacy curated by the genius of post-charlston black dancers who were mused by some of the greatest composers the world has ever heard. It is through their efforts that masses of people have had the gift of swing dancing through times of Great Depression, World Wars, turmoil and the ever-familiar feeling of uncertainty. The anchor itself is symbolic of being able to break from a soldier’s stance, throw their hat in the air after the anchor was dropped and dancing the sailor shuffle (or our modern-day Triple Step). It symbolized stability. It symbolized freedom. It symbolized home.

Swing is the dance of celebration.

May we get to celebrate with one another soon…

… alas a celebration that bad times are coming to an end.

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