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THE  HISTORY  OF  SWING  AND  LINDY HOP, Page Three

Rick Archer,  SSQQ,   January, 2000  (last update: 2004)

Jump, Jive, and Wail: The Story of 90s Swing!!

Everyone says the famous 1998 Gap Commercial started the Swing Craze. Nonsense. Nor did "Saturday Night Fever" start Disco. Instead, both were individual moments that stirred pent-up energies to create an explosion! 

The roots of the Swing movement go back to the late 80s, early 90s. Some of today’s top Swing bands like the Cherry Poppin Daddies and Royal Crown Revue started as punk bands playing Seattle-style grunge rock. Tired of the scene and looking for a change, they noticed some of their most requested music were neo-swing songs of their own creation. Taking a hint from the increasing popularity of their Swing songs, some bands as a form of rebellion against the shabby Grunge look decided to go retro. They adopted 40s swing attire complete with flashy Zoot Suits, black and white Bleyer shoes, and chains. Now they were more outrageously dressed that the tattered shirts and jeans of the other punk bands. Nevertheless, the clothing inspiration came first from the early success of their music.

Movie One: Swing Kids

The 1993 cult hit "Swing Kids" struck a major nerve. It was a sad and highly romantic movie about German teenagers reacting against the Nazi disapproval of the Black and Jewish-inspired 30s Swing music. It featured many excellent scenes filled with terrific Swing dancing, Benny Goodman classics like "Sing, Sing, Sing" and the same spirit of rebellion against authority that helped drive the popularity of "Rock Around the Clock" in the 50s. 

Movie Two: Swingers

California is given most of the credit for the Swing Movement. Not long after "Swing Kids", another sleeper hit called "Swingers" came out in 1996.  Featuring a couple of losers in LA who were going nowhere, a young man named Mikey suddenly finds himself snapping out of a movie-long depression when he dances with his new girl friend to the hot Swing music of the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies.

Although this is the only dance scene in the entire movie, the dancing was so fun and spontaneous that it was the highlight of the movie. Oddly, no explanation was given why Mikey's dance skills are better than someone with six months of Swing classes at a dance studio, but then probably no one noticed or more likely no one cared.  The point taken was that Swing dancing looked like fun and the music was great!

Coupled with these two movies, the interest in the neo-Swing music continued to grow. Groups like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Indigo Swing combined with the previously mentioned Cherry Poppin' Daddies with their famous song "Zoot Suit Riot", Royal Crown Revue,  the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies, and original Stray Cats band member Brian Setzer to sell a lot of records.  Not only did the great Swing beat and  terrific instrumentation appeal to the younger generation, but the fabulously rhythmic music managed to get some over-30 people stompin' their feet as well!

Closer to Home: The Gap Commercial and SSQQ Swing Classes

Swing Dancing was quiet here at SSQQ at end of 1997. However interest in Swing classes improved steadily in 1998 with attendance doubling in the first six months from a year earlier.

The event that started the inferno was the famous Gap Jeans Commercial in the spring of 1998.

The Gap Commercial featured sexy Lindy dancers doing aerials and cool moves in Khaki pants to an infectious rendition of "Jump, Jive, and Wail" by Brian Setzer.  Just as ordinary people had been riveted to the silver screen twenty years earlier by "Saturday Night Fever", now the entire country was mesmerized by how much fun the dancing appeared to be and how good the music sounded. 

Previously nearly everyone had vaguely heard some of neo-Swing music. For example,  MTV had been playing the outrageous "Zoot Suit Riot" video in their mix and some of the music had been playing on local radio as well. In the background of their minds, they remembered "Swingers" and "Swing Kids".  Plus there had been various news stories on local TV and CNN chronicling the emergence of Swing music and dancing. But it was the Gap Commercial that announced to the world that Swing was Back in Town!  Now everybody sat up and took note!!

The effect was instantaneous! Once the Gap Commercial came out in the late spring, attendance in Swing classes immediately went through the roof at SSQQ. All summer long, classes that were 40 people a year ago were now 80 strong. We had two Swing nights a week a year ago, now we were up to three nights.  And the numbers kept growing!! 

At the start of
1999, the Beginner classes had grown to 100 people a night and we had to add a fourth Swing night as well. The Swing Extravaganza on the first weekend of 1999 had well over 200 people participating. These are the biggest numbers in the history of SSQQ. Swing classes were so big that it even bought us a new dance floor, thank you very much.  We poured our profits back into the studio by investing in a beautiful new dance floor.

Is Swing going to crest or it is going to go higher?  America hasn’t seen anything like this since the Days of Disco. My hunch is Swing has more room to grow. We shall see.


(Author's Note:  It is now 2004 and we now have our answer to the question above. 

The amazing Swing era has come and gone. The numbers in Swing Dance classes here at SSQQ have now retreated to the same numbers as 1997, the year before the Gap Commercial and the Swing Explosion.  All the SSQQ Swing Kids are adults now in their 30s and 40s.  They now wear normal clothes and hold steady jobs.  And each pay me a small fortune not to put incriminating pictures of them from the 90s Swing Era here on the web site.

But I know a secret.  If you surprise them and play 'Jump, Jive, and Wail', each and every one of them will be right back on the dance floor Swing Dancing in an instant!)


The Amazing Story of the Lindy Hop !

By eerie coincidence, just as interest in Swing music was growing, an extinct dance known as the Lindy Hop was returning from the dead thanks to a couple of kids and a 70 year old post office worker in New York. It was such a million to one shot, obviously no one could ever have predicted the outcome of such a simple moment in time.  I honestly think the story would make a good movie. Here goes!

Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell

One day in the mid 80s Erin Stevens and her dance partner Steven Mitchell were watching vintage 30’s movies. Their eyes bulged as they saw the fabulous aerials being performed in Lindy scenes from movies like "Hellzapoppin’" and the Marx Brothers "A Day at the Races". They both thought the dancing was cool. Erin Stevens was curious to know if anyone was still around who might be able to show her that style of dancing. Armed with some of the names she had found in the credits from the movies, she started to do some investigating. Calling around the country from LA, at one point, the name "Frankie Manning" was suggested to her. Not knowing him from Adam, she found the name in the vast New York City phone book and simply called him up. "Are you Frankie Manning, the famous dancer?" she asked.

Frankie Manning

Frankie Manning was stunned. "Famous" was not exactly the word he would have used. When Frankie had returned from fighting in World War II, he came home to find that interest in Swing/Lindy dancing had begun to fade. Frankie had been a championship dancer in the 30s, an original Lindy dancer at the fabled Savoy Ballroom in Harlem who danced to the swing music of Count Basie. In his time Frankie had won numerous contests, invented aerials, was filmed dancing in movies, had performed with his dance company before Royalty and famous people, and even found time to hang out with the legendary singer Billie Holliday as his dance company toured the world. Now after fighting brutal hand to hand combat in the Pacific, Frankie had come home to find the world had changed during his absence. As Dinah Shore lullabies like "Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy" dominated the radio and the Big Bands exited stage right, Frankie didn't need any help reading the writing on the wall. As the 40's reached their conclusion,  he decided to hang up his dancing shoes and move on. There was absolutely no way for a black man to make a living with his dancing ability now, so he got a job with the Post Office, settled down, and raised a family. A quiet, private man by nature, forty years had come and gone. No one knew anything about his past.

Frankie Manning had been a great dancer, the best. In some ways, this was like asking Michael Jordan if he ever played basketball. But Frankie’s past was anonymous. He even had a co-worker who offered to give him dance lessons. Now at 72, single with grown children in their 40s, some kid in LaLaLand he had never heard of calls out of the Blue to ask him about a part of his life he thought had ended long ago. The next thing he knew, Erin Stevens started to beg him to teach her how to dance like the 30s.

Apparently it took a lot of coaxing and pleading, but finally Frankie agreed to meet with her and her friend Steven. Erin and Steven got on a plane and flew off to New York. From what I gather, the lessons did not go smoothly. His rust combined with little experience at explaining footwork, leads, and timing were a big handicap, but apparently the two students were determined to learn.

Getting the Ball Rolling!

After Frankie taught Erin and Steven how to dance the Lindy, they returned to the West Coast to turn people onto the Lindy in California. Meanwhile Frankie decided to come out of retirement and began teaching Lindy in New York.  10 of his original Lindy students banded together to form an organization they named the "New York Swing Dance Society".  These people were intelligent, media-savvy New Yorkers. Not only did they get hooked on the dance, but using their contacts, they were able to spread the "word" in much the same way a forest fire starts from a single spark. These people were literally Swinging before Swing was cool again. They had been interested in the music and the dancing long before the Gap Commercial came along.  What the commercial did was make it obvious to the whole country that interest in Swing music and dancing was shared by everyone, not just a few pockets of people here and there.  The New York Swing Dance Society was at least five years ahead of everyone else.

Frankie's 80th Birthday Party in 1994

In the next 8 years, Erin, Steven, and Frankie did everything they could to promote the dance. They did workshops across the country, went to Europe to teach, performed, made instructional videos, appeared on TV, and basically did whatever it took to continue the Lindy Hop Revival. Frankie in his 70s was becoming quite a celebrity in the dance world.

Interest in the Lindy had become very strong in two places: LA where Erin and Steven taught and New York where Frankie taught. In 1994 the NY Swing Dance Society threw a huge party to celebrate Frankie Manning’s 80th birthday. They rented a fabulous dance floor, invited the best dancers from New York, California, and Europe to perform, and had a wonderful black tie and gown dance. Rallying around the cry "Can't Top the Lindy Hop", everybody who was anybody in the Lindy dance world attended. They videotaped the entire event and marketed the tapes. Through their efforts, now the whole world could see this wonderful dance!  Lindy had disappeared, but now had come back to life thanks to Frankie Manning and the two Swing Kids whose energy got the flames flickering again.  As you will see, these videotapes eventually brought Lindy to Houston, Texas, via SSQQ.

(Side Note: To avoid confusion, today’s Swing and today’s Lindy are not the same dance. They are very good friends that can be used to the same music, although Lindy is much easier to the slower tunes while Swing prefers the faster music. Lindy has an 8-count basic with intricate footwork and many Charleston variations. Swing has a 6-count basic with minimal footwork. Swing is more popular because it is far easier to learn and it fits the modern music better than Lindy does. Nevertheless, after learning both dances, students like to say that Swing is Hot, but Lindy is Cool.)

The Lindy Virus Invades Houston !

In the summer of 1995 a friend of mine named Lester Buck walked in the studio carrying videotapes from the 1994 Frankie Manning Birthday Dance.  Lester had taken a business trip to New York; he connected with the NY Swing Dance Society while he was up there. I thought the dancing looked fun, but quickly forgot all about it. Some visionary I am.

But Judy Archer was mesmerized!!  She took the tapes home and just sat in front of the TV watching the dancing over and over and over again. I honestly thought there was a chance Judy was a reincarnated Lindy dancer the way she was so instantly hooked.

Judy learned about Frankie's teaching videotapes and sent away for them. She studied the tapes daily. Nobody in Houston had a clue how to help her. She was the only person in the whole city working on this project. Judy didn’t even have anyone to practice with. I would walk in and see her dancing in the living room with her hand in the air leading an ethereal partner. I decided everything was too odd.

Judy makes her Move !

After four months of watching the instructional tapes, Judy decided she was ready  to teach the Lindy at SSQQ. The only problem was that no one had ever heard of it and didnít care about it. After her countless hours studying the dance, she was stunned to find that not everybody was a Reincarnated Lindy Dancer from the 30s. Should this knowledge have stopped her? Yes. Did it stop her?  No.

To her credit, Judy talked up the dance to anyone who would listen. She even found a guy willing to learn, Jack Benard, and taught it to him so they could demonstrate it to everyone. Now Houston had doubled its number of Lindy dancers.

In November 1995, Jack and Judy taught the first-ever Lindy course in Houston. They were not only the best Lindy couple in Houston, they were the only Lindy couple in Houston!  40 brave SSQQ dancers decided to show up and see what the fuss was all about. Then in February 1996, Judy started teaching 4-week Lindy classes as a follow-up to her successful Crash Course back in November.

Pilgrimage to Swing Camp !

Then Judy found out that the Erin Steven's LA Lindy people had organized a weeklong Lindy Swing Camp on Catalina Island off the coast of California. In June 1996, she made the dance equivalent of a pilgrimage to Swing Camp to meet the master himself, Frankie Manning.  While she was there, Judy even had the nerve to correct Frankie on a mistake in his footwork!  Knowing her, she probably fussed at him in her previous lifetime as well.

Inspired by her trip, Judy brought back a lot of infectious energy and many advanced patterns. Smitten by that terrific Big Band Swing beat, the Lindy caught on with several SSQQ students who banded together under Judy’s tutelage to create Houston’s first performing Lindy dance company in 1996.  When it came to Swing Dancing here in Houston, Judy was so far ahead of the curve that no one else was even in sight. 

Her work paid off in a big way. Judy was finally able to see some terrific results of her own pioneering effort. In 1999, three long years after she had brought the sacred Lindy flame to Houston, Swing and Lindy suddenly exploded into the public consciousness. 

Thanks to Judy's efforts, in 1999 SSQQ was named as the leading "Swing Studio" in Houston. Not comfortable to rest on her laurels, her Swing/Lindy dance company, the Swinging Skirts and Mugz, became a very talented group of Swing dancers.  The culmination of her efforts occurred in January 1999 when over 200 students from across Houston came to SSQQ to learn to Swing and Lindy at the SSQQ Extravaganza.  That night they stayed for a Swing Party as big as the city has ever seen!

SSQQ duplicated the honor as leading Swing Studio again in 2000 despite some pretty fierce politics.

As a result of Judy's efforts, during the 90s era, Houston developed a terrific reputation in national Swing circles. New York did originate the Lindy and California helped bring it back, but Houston was the first major city to pick up the early vibes ahead of the pack thanks to JudyHouston was one of just a handful of cities at the forefront of the Lindy Hop rebirth! 

Just like Erin and Steven had the privilege of starting an entire dance movement, for a moment SSQQ had the same heady thrill of turning an entire city onto to an exciting new dance!

bullet(I would like to acknowledge Swing writers Craig Hutchinson and Margaret Batiuchok  as my sources for the pre-1950 material. However after 1950 I didn't need any help. A major sign of aging is when you no longer read history, you just remember it. Thanks for reading !  Rick Archer)

This article was originally written in 1998.   Since this article was first written, a deeper and much darker chapter to the story of Swing Dancing in Houston, Texas, has been added.

The HSDS - SSQQ Swing Feud

I welcome any and all comments. You can leave a message for me by email at dance@ssqq.com

Thanks for visiting with us!    Rick Archer,

 
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