There was a time not too long ago — about five years ago, in fact — when you could hardly walk down the street without seeing something about swing, the newest dance craze to sweep pop culture.
The neo-swing fad of the late ’90s quickly made household names of such swing things as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer and even the Gap, with its omnipresent “”jump and jivin'”” commercial.
But times have changed and I am sure most of us are left to wonder, “”What the hell happened to swing?””
Well, for anybody out of the groove, rest assured that swing is alive and kicking, albeit in the underground. One of the most vibrant forms of swing just happens to have the strongest presence right here in San Diego. What could I be talking about, other than that unabashedly joyful dance with its constant eight-count rhythmic pulse flowing to the music of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s? Lindy hop.
This original swing dance of the ’20s began at the famed Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, N.Y. Although lindy hop existed before the opening of the club, it was not until dancers such as “”Shorty George”” Snowden, Leroy “”Stretch”” Jones and the legendary Frankie Manning revolutionized the scene that the dance really began to soar. Snowden is often credited for naming lindy hop after Charles Lindbergh’s triumphant 1927 “”hop”” across the Atlantic.
According to myth, shortly after Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic flight, New York City hosted a charity dance marathon. Among the many people in attendance that day was Snowden. After seeing Snowden performing an eye-popping maneuver, a reporter covering the event asked him, “”What was that?”” to which the dancer replied, “”The lindy hop.”” The rest is history.
One fundamental thing to remember about swing is that there are distinctions between the different dances. By now, most people are probably familiar with the terms West Coast and East Coast swing. A myriad of other styles exists — far too many to list. At the risk of making too gross a generalization, all other forms of swing dancing are simply variations on lindy hop, since it was the original swing dance.
San Diego’s current lindy scene traces its origins directly from the neo-swing fad of the mid ’90s. Swing had always been around, but you would be more likely to find your grandfather carrying on the tradition instead of your dormmate.
The dramatic resurgence of youth in the culture did not occur until after the media embraced swing. Before you knew it, swing was everywhere — on television, in the movies, even in clothing.
Clubs existed in San Diego, most notably the rockabilly club Tio Leo’s, but ones that were lindy-friendly were either rare or nonexistent. Not until the efforts of two pioneer dancers — Johnny Lloyd and Lisa Conway — did the lindy scene in San Diego take flight in the late ’90s. Following their lead were other prominent instructors who cranked out even more dancers.
Among these teachers were the self-proclaimed “”swing jack of all trades”” Meeshi Sumayao; instructors and current managers of the Rocket swing club Jim Cruzen and Margie Adams; and UCSD’s very own distinguished recreation class instructors, Tan Huynh and Valerie Yau.
In many ways, UCSD has played a large part since the beginning in contributing to San Diego’s lindy community. The rec. classes constantly feed dancers into the scene. Indeed, on any given night, the majority of people in one of San Diego’s many swing clubs is often made up of UCSD students.
Presently, the swing scene in San Diego remains small but loyal. So loyal, in fact, that the dedicated ones would never let swing die. Most local lindy hoppers are in their late 20s to mid-30s.
Unlike other cities that serve alcohol at swing clubs, San Diego typically does not. The reason is not hard to figure out. Dancing while drunk, especially to something as challenging as lindy, is dangerous. Practically every dancer knows this and prefers to remain sober on the dance floor.
The vast majority of the city’s venues are sponsored by dancers instead of bars, making big-time marketing an impossibility. This may explain why swing has become such an underground culture.
Unlike San Francisco and Los Angeles, San Diego has a more diverse mix of music and style. The City by the Bay is known traditionally for its slower tempos. Los Angeles, by contrast, is famous for its fast and frenetic rhythms. San Diego’s music varies greatly from fast to slow, allowing dancers of all levels of expertise to enjoy the experience. This is unique to our city.
Not surprisingly, out-of-town dancers appreciate the mix, regularly commenting on how much variety San Diego has in terms of its music and dancers. They never fail to remark on the genuine friendliness of our small yet dedicated swing scene.
With the neo-swing fad came a record number of new dancers, particularly when the craze was at its height. However, today’s swing regulars would attest that most newbies left the scene rather quickly.
A lot of them found the dance too difficult and intimidating, while others were more interested in the superficial “”Swingers”” style, which did not embrace dancing at all — its participants chose instead simply to dress up and go out, martini in hand, mingling old ’40s style.
Nowadays, while some dancers still get dressed up and play on all of swing’s nostalgia, the opposite is usually more common. The current scene in San Diego is far more laid back.
Over the years, the swing scene has made a progression from bars, where people dressed up in vintage outfits, to today’s underground clubs, where comfortable attire is preferred.
Without all the frills, dancers today choose to focus more on the dance alone. The emphasis is on feeling the music and connecting with one’s partner. Everything else is just details.
Only a few dancers ever get beyond the beginner’s hump, but those who do master the basic steps eventually stick with it. Dancers often remark on how they like the dance for its complexity and athleticism.
Of course, there’s also the social aspect. Few dances are as playful but at the same time as complicated as lindy hop. Some liken it to playing chess with a partner.
Another interesting feature of modern lindy is its many influences. Lindy hoppers like to spice things up by incorporating other dances, including Latin, tap, jazz and hip-hop.
Although not as visible as it once was, the swing scene in San Diego continues to resonate. Most lindy hoppers are certain of one thing — while it is true that fads come and go, swing will continue to live and evolve.