A common variation on the question “How did you start swing dancing?” is “When did you start swing dancing?”
My invariable response is that I started swing dancing in 1997 and lindy hopping in 2001. The point of that distinction is that I mostly danced East Coast Swing for my first four years, and it wasn’t until much later that I got hooked on what came to be my real passion, Lindy Hop.
I think it’s pretty common for people to start out swing dancing by learning East Coast Swing. A few months later, those who want to stick with swing for the long-term usually gravitate toward learning Lindy Hop, which is, in my opinion, the more versatile, challenging and rewarding dance. Lindy Hop is often called the granddaddy of swing dances, having evolved in the 1930s and 40s in the Harlem Ballrooms of New York City.
The reason it took so long for me to start Lindy Hopping is that I was attending college in New York City for those first four years; school took priority. Nevertheless, during those four years, I made it out swing dancing whenever I could. That meant heading downtown once or twice a month to dance to the great live bands of the time: Yallopin’ Hounds, Nick Palumbo & the Flipped Fedoras, Bim Bam Baby and more. The swanky clubs like Swing 46 and Jack’s Joint usually offered a short East Coast Swing dance lesson before the bands, and I devoured each and every move they taught. There were also a few semesters when one of the New York dance studios sent an instructor out to teach swing on campus, and I took those classes religiously every week.
During the summers, while at home in San Francisco, I would drag whomever I could scrounge up out to the swing dance lessons and dance party at what was then the Metronome Ballroom. The first summer before I shipped off to college, and a few months after my ferryboat dance lesson, the Metronome was holding swing classes at the smaller Block Party studio on De Haro Street. When I returned the following summer, however, swing had become The Thing, and the dance lessons were held in the enormous main studio with throngs of people in attendance.
The first time I saw Lindy Hop was at Swing 46 in New York City. I was out with a friend, a follower, and we saw several of the dancers out on the floor doing some fancy steps, but we just couldn’t figure out what they were doing. We finally asked someone and they told us it was Lindy Hop, and they tried to break down the 8-count basic step for us. I think my friend kind of picked it up, but I really wasn’t getting it, so I just pretended I wasn’t really into it and stuck with my comfortable 6-count repertoire.
Once I was back in my regular weekly campus swing class, however, I practically begged our swing dance instructor to show us some Lindy Hop. He reluctantly agreed and in the final weeks he taught us what he knew of Lindy Hop. Looking back, I cant’ quite remember if he actually taught us a swingout or just some fancier East Coast swing steps, but at that time, it didn’t really matter…because we were dancing to Zoot Suit Riot. It was a grand and innocent time.
I remember purchasing my “vintage” swing outfit, which consisted of a pair of khaki pants, a vertical pinstripe shirt, a newsboy cap and suspsenders! I had seen many of the advanced swing dancers dancing in their black and white two-toned shoes (Blyers), but I had made a solemn agreement with my swing dance buddies that we would only let ourselves purchase the shoes when we got really good.
That was the crux of my first four years of swing dancing, mostly East Coast Swing, but all of this is simply the back story to what I would call one of the defining moments in my swing dance story…and that is the summer that I encountered my Lindy Hop Angel.
It was summer before my junior year and I was back in San Francisco for the break. My high school friend, Alex, who’d been a part of the ferry boat dance lesson, called me up and invited me to go to an outdoor jazz festival where some swing bands were playing. I met him at the stage where Lee Press-On and the Nails were playing. It was a gorgeous day outside, and the band was putting on an entertaining show. There we were, dressed in our swing outfits, bopping our heads, tapping our feet and wishing desperately that some cute swing dance girls would show up to dance with us.
As if in answer to our silent prayers, a beautiful girl walked towards us. She was drop-dead gorgeous, a total knockout, blond-bombshell, dressed in a flowing, glowing white Marilyn Monroe-esque dress — the type that flares out when you spin. Sporting black sunglasses, she was beautifully tanned and curvaceous to the max. My eyes just about popped out of my head. Alex too. She asked if either of us boys wanted to dance, and me being somewhat shy, somewhat in shock, and always the gentleman, let Alex take her out for a spin.
He returned a little later beaming with excitement, but she was no longer with him. He told me that she had to go because she was heading out to this place called the Doghouse to go dance, and she had offered us a ride in her, get this, gleaming white Camaro. A beautiful swing dance babe, dressed all in white, driving an all-white Camaro; how can that not be a sign from above? Don’t ask me how, but somehow we turned her down! I know! What were we thinking?
Back at our respective homes, Alex and I were on the phone scolding ourselves and trying to figure out how to redeem ourselves. The only thing we could come up with was to get to the Doghouse and find the girl. The problem was that there was no listing for a club called the Doghouse in the phone book. These were the early days of the internet too, so it wasn’t like you could just google the answer. Somehow, by some stroke of luck, I figured out that the Doghouse was the Saturday swing dance at a dance studio called Rhythm and Motion. I called the place up and learned that they had a beginner dance lesson before the DJed dance started. I called Alex back with this info, but he dropped another bomb; it was Saturday, Shabbat, and he had to stay in. Aye caramba! I had no wingman, but I wanted to dance and I wanted to find the girl!
So I went. I showed up for the beginning swing dance lesson, heading upstairs to the main studio with its enormous bay windows beckoning onto Mission Street and balconies on either side of the dance floor that reminded me of my own mental imagery of the interrogations from Kafka’s the Trial.
The swing dance lesson was a little scary because I was one of only a handful of students out in the middle of the dance floor along with the instructor, but I stuck with it, and then sat to watch the Intermediate dance lesson. I recall that at that point in the evening, I wasn’t very impressed, not to mention that our Angel was nowhere in sight.
The intermediate lesson wrapped up and I was just about was on the verge of leaving when people suddenly started trickling in and taking partners on the dance floor. Most were dressed casually, but hip: jeans, track pants, brightly-colored trendy T-shirts and sporty sneakers. As the sun set, causing the room light to dim and casting warm shadows about the hall, the dancers started dancing, only this dancing was unlike any swing dancing I had seen before! I was mesmerized. The dancers were flowing, floating, gliding effortlessly, grooving, swaying and swinging gracefully to the elegant sounds of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and more. This was new music to me too, because I had grown familiar with the hard-hitting sounds of the neo-swing craze — bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. This kind of dancing was so much cooler, hip…groovier. I just sat and watched, transfixed.
This was Lindy Hop.
Our Lindy Hop Angel never showed up to the dance. It didn’t matter. I knew at that moment, at that tiny instant when everything clicked: I was going to learn to Lindy Hop.