It donít mean a thing if it ainít got that swing. That swing! But what is it? It goes by many names: swing, jive, jitterbug, Imperial, the Balboa and Lindy. In 1943, Life magazine called it Americaís first true folk dance. Folk dance, you say? Yes, if you define it as expressing yourself through rhythmically patterned movements in a style determined by regional tradition. Scholars in their research find several interpretations of a particular folk dance passing from one generation to the next and from one region to another. In contrast, dance masters pedagogically teach social dance. Folk dancing is an expression of the life, history, and psychology of a people and is a basic part of their culture.
Swing fits these definitions. Emerging in the late 1920ís in Harlem, New York City in response to the jazz music that developed in the late teens and 20ís, swing grew out of the Charleston, Breakaway, Collegiate, Texas Tommy and Vaudeville dances. These dances in turn got their roots from the Cakewalk, Ragtime and Minstrel shows of the 19th century. Why arenít any of these the first ďfolk danceĒ of the U.S.A.? Primarily because they have not remained in the dance repertoire as a living tradition but were only dance fads or crazes which are now done only by dance historians and re-creationists. Folk dances are dances of the people. By the late 20ís, the American people were in an ever-expanding village, as dances and music could be spread throughout the country by phonograph, radio and the movies. Local enthusiasts could now emulate the top dancers of New York or Hollywood, but they continued to develop their own styles reflecting the personality of each region.
Swing is very much alive. People have been doing it in one regional form or another since its inception. As in any folk tradition, there were innovators and stars that changed the course of the dance. For most traditional dances, we do not know who they were. In swing we are fortunate to be close to the origins of the dance and to have records of the persons involved. One important innovator in swing is Frankie Manning. He introduced the ďair steps.Ē They are a hallmark of the Lindy style. He is still swinging and sharing his dance with dancers of all ages throughout the global village. If he were in Japan, they would call him a "Living Treasure." Here in the US we just call him phenomenal. He will be visiting St. Louis in October to share his knowledge, style and steps. (See ad on page 10.) This is an opportunity not to be missed--an opportunity to participate in a true American folk dance tradition.
We danced in silence. All around us in the old barn, trappers, traders, Indians and children were clapping and stomping and musicians were playing, in silence. We could hear the straw rustling amidst the rising clouds of dust at our feet. Actually, four of us had tiny radios in our ears through which we could hear the tune and therefore dance in adequate synchrony.
In the foreground, the corner of the barn closest to the cameras, they were recording the main actors in conversation. When the NBC miniseries A Will of Their Own airs this fall, you will hear the hot, lively music, which often was not there as we danced.
St. Louis has recently been quite successful in wooing the film industry to use it for a site. Because of my total lack of attention to mass media, I only found out about this miniseries by word of mouth, phone tag, actually. The production company was originally going to use studio musicians from New York, and professional dancers. Fortunately, we had a friend in the right place to persuade them to try a local band "Geoff Seitz and Friends" and local contra dancers. After that, we got our call. Our odds of getting in were better than those of the 10,000 who showed up for the cattle call for 1,300 extras a month earlier. Karen, my wife, and I both made the cut and got to dance together.
After two auditions and then two schedule changes, they had whittled us down to eight contra dancers to perform a 1903 Wisconsin barn dance, which was to be central to one brief scene in the series. After the second audition, they decided that we did not even need the professional choreographer, who did not seem to know folk dance. This was fortunate, because we found out on the set that the dance had to be modified from take to take to accommodate changing angles and even numbers of dancers. Folk dances, like contra dancing, are well suited to off-the-cuff and on-the-spot modifications in choreography.
One might ask how authentic was contra dancing to Wisconsin at the end of the nineteenth century? It was certainly more authentic than modern, country-western, square or line dancing would have been. One could argue that Scandinavian fiddlers and Bygdedansers, of which we have strong groups in the area, might have been more authentic. However, we got there first, and wanted our two minutes of (admittedly anonymous) fame. Contra dancing was legitimately traditional at the time, and we limited ourselves to dance moves that were in keeping with the period. These simpler moves also made it easier to let the main actors join us, peel away, and rejoin us at the whim of the director.
On shooting day, we were togged out in period-appropriate wool clothes, with the men as shaggy as we could get by not shaving for several weeks and the women coifed to the nineteenth-century nines. We then danced the same two minutes for several hours in that little barn under the hot lights and amid the clouds of dust, taking occasional welcome breaks in the relatively cool outdoors for camera and set changes. The people who were just standing around the edges complained about the dust and the heat, but it did not seem so bad to me, who had fun while aerobically kicking up and inhaling said dust.
So, if you can wrest your TV from the baseball series opposite which this miniseries is currently rumored to be scheduled, keep an eye and ear out for a brief portrayal of folk music and dancing, as well as glimpses of many St. Louis scenes and faces.
Here is a descriptive essay I wrote for some friends immediately after the shoot, which was not included in FolkFire, but I immodestly post it here for all to read.