U students are swingin’ in the USA

Editor’s Note: The following column is part one of a two-part series on the current swing craze by Rob Kuznia. Part two will appear next week.

From every direction we are being urged to put an end to experimentation, in the arts and elsewhere.” — Jean-Francois Lyotard, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Paris-Vincennes and philosopher.
In the late 1980s, a postal worker named Frankie Manning received a phone call from a swing aficionado, asking him if he would teach a class on swing dancing. The Lindy Hop guru from the 1930s refused because he had to make a living. Besides, the swing thing was history. Then, thanks to nostalgia, history repeated itself, and opportunity knocked. At 84, Manning is no longer a postal worker. Now he spreads the word of swing all over the country. His touring schedule is booked halfway through the year 2000. On his 85th birthday this year, he’ll be celebrating it twice — once in Los Angeles, Calif., once in New York City. In both places, he plans to dance with 85 women. On April 7, he hits Minneapolis.
According to Michelle Borok, an anthropology student at the University and avid swing dancer, this is one motive for the latest cluster of swing workshops at the University.
“I think it would be good for us to prepare for his arrival,” she said.
Whether or not this has any bearing on why the 80 or so people showed up for the $25 aerial swing workshop in Comstock Hall this weekend, it’s obvious that swing is still big at the University, and around the country.
In the last two weeks alone, I have seen numerous swing event postings for contests, dances and workshops like the one Saturday in Comstock. There, dozens of bright-eyed students risked their heads, elbows, ankles and pride to learn how to toss each other in the air like the people did in the Gap commercial.
Worried for my own personal safety, I sat in the corner of the ballroom, watching the students bravely attempt to imitate the agile moves of their expert instructors. The workshop had a steady beat.
The class would sit on the floor, watch the instructors do something dangerous, listen to them explain it and then try to do it themselves. As the main purpose was to learn how to toss and be tossed, there was danger involved. The woman in each pair jumped into the man’s arms, kicking her legs toward the ceiling, while others stood around them, providing moral and physical support.
Sitting in a chair at the end of the gymnasium-sized ballroom, I couldn’t see female dancers very well, as their partners, who eventually took their own turns at dancing, always surrounded them. But I could see a pair of legs pop into the air among the heads every so often. Sounds of laughter, clapping, feet landing and bones thudding onto the ballroom floor intermingled with the sound of Frank Sinatra or Duke Ellington from the boom box.
The legs didn’t always pop into the air completely vertically or completely together. However, I noticed that the pairs of ceiling-bound legs that did achieve both goals had feet that tended to be covered with two-tone wing tips or saddle shoes — ’30s style. Apparently, some people take this a little more seriously than others.
Karen Turman agrees. The sophomore French major is a swing instructor at The Whole on Wednesdays, and she swing dances up to four times a week. For Turman and her friends, swing is not only good exercise; it’s a way of life. For instance, one wouldn’t find Turman and her friends dancing in jeans and a T-shirt.
“The guys always wear suits and ties and stuff. I always wear a dress and Mary Janes, the little black shoes with a buckle.”
“Guys wear wing tips, girls wear saddle shoes,” added Borok.
One might consider this style of dress to be the polar opposite of the styles associated with the withering alternative music scene. For Turman and her friends, Swing is a breath of fresh air from alternative music.
“I think (alternative) is boring,” she said. “I can’t stand it. All their music sounds the same. And you can’t really dance to it.” Because Turman thinks of swing as alternative music’s opposite, she loves it. “It’s just so happy,” she said.
The theory that the swing movement is a reaction to the alternative scene isn’t new. In a CNN interview, Jason Moss of the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies offered his insight.
“It’s probably a reaction to years and years of the grunge sound kind of dominating the radio,” he said.
The writer of an article from the Boston Phoenix expressed similar thoughts: “Swing represents a fun-loving, dressed-up backlash against the dressed-down angst and rage of alternative rock, a point that wasn’t missed when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy broke into a cheeky snippet of Nirvana’s ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ at the Roxy.”
So swing is a way of life, and therefore a backlash to alternative music. Seems similar to how alternative was a backlash to heavy metal, and how heavy metal was a backlash to disco, and how disco was a reaction to the flower-child folk of the ’60s, and so on. The difference between swing and the rest, however, is that while being a backlash, swing is also a throw back.
True, people have always had nostalgia for past blasts, but how often is a retro fad transformed into not only a novelty, but also a way of life? I suppose the one example that comes most readily to mind is disco, which is still going strong. The Fine Line, for instance, has an ad in the City Pages this week promoting just two bands: Vic Volare — a swing band, and Boogie Wonderland — a ’70s disco band. “Can you dig it?” queries the ad.
To me, that question led to some broader questions. Have we finally seen and done it all? Is our data bank of pop music — from Duke Ellington to Nirvana — now so huge that the only backlashes we can think of are those of things that have already come and gone? Has the information age left today’s generation with no identity of its own? Next week, hopefully I can answer some of these questions with the help of sociology experts, Vic Volare band members and possibly yourselves, while swinging away at The Whole, so watch for me.
Rob Kuznia’s column appears every Tuesday.