My new editor and I got off to a rough start. Bossman tried to send me to a ballroom dancing class. Yeah, I know. So I say to him, "Hell, no, Daddy-O. No way I'm taking our righteous readers to the fascists of social dance, to the frame fanatics with the rods up their ass and threaded through their spines. This zoot-suited bendy-backed cat wants to swing!" Then I snapped my fedora, did a little spin, and strutted off to find Atlanta's sultans of swing.
Well, anyway, that's the way I remember it.
About a week later, I find myself at the Garden Hills Recreation Center, a Buckhead log cabin where a group of swing dancers gather every Monday night at the "Hot Jam" to dance the Lindy Hop, the Balboa, the Jitterbug, the Collegiate Shag, and, well, whatever the hell it is that I'm doing out here on the floor with my friend Terra McVoy, an occasional CL contributor who came along with me to learn how to swing.
OK, so, in theory, it's the East Coast swing we're doing in the free class held before the dance. It's allegedly the simplest of swings, though it does make you bend a 4/4 rock 'n' roll-raised brain to a six count. "Rock-step, step [pause], step [pause]," calls out Bobby White, co-founder and organizer -- along with Kate Hedin and Nima Farsinejad -- of the weekly Hot Jam.
"I was a dorky white guy in high school," White tells me before the class begins. "I had no clue how to interact with people other than the drama group." He'd seen the movie Swing Kids (1993), in which German youth rebel against the Nazis by dancing the forbidden dance (seriously, swing was forbidden in Nazi Germany). So White was primed when nouveau-swing came along in the mid-'90s, courtesy of ska's fondness for swing jazz and that 1998 Gap ad where khaki-clad twentysomethings went all Matrix on aerial swing.
Hedin was already a dancer when nouveau-swing came along. She'd trained in classical ballet and modern. Then, in the late-'90s, she started showing up at the Masquerade. "They had swinging on Sunday night, and it became this mecca, just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people."
That heyday of nouveau-swing has since passed, but a solid core of dancers is still swinging and bringing in new converts all the time. About 35 of them show up on this night, as Terra and I crash and stumble and spin and laugh and go back for more. The DJs are playing big band and blues, jazz and rockabilly. We break off and try to figure out what the dance becomes with other partners.
Three times over the course of the evening, I dance with Marie Lovejoy, who has been doing swing for a little more than a year. The first time, I'm still talking myself through it -- "rock-step, step [pause], step [pause]" -- dancing stock straight and stiff as a board, like I'm cringing in anticipation of a ballroom scream. The second time, I forget about counting steps and just move semi-smoothly through the patterns we learned in the class. The third time, I let go and just let the music take us, sometimes stumbling and blushing, where it will.
And here's what I quickly learn to love best about swing: The crazier I dance, the more I let the music release me, the more compliments I get from the seasoned swingers. There is a core discipline and structure of steps, but the magic is in the "swing out," that seminal liberation of swing, that break with the close hold of the original partner, the Charleston. You start out together in a close embrace, but then the lead swings the follow out so that the two are connected only by one pair of hands, freeing each to go nuts at the end of that elastic tether. The core steps matter, they are the discipline, but once you get those down, the art is in invention, in wild, crazy, spontaneous improvisation.
"You're kind of taken out of the world a little bit," says Hedin. "I'm not really worried about what I look like or what's going on around me. It's just that connection you have with your partner and the music."
Terra and I sit down to watch the veterans for a while. White and Hedin dance a Lindy Hop with bits of Balboa to a high-tempo rendition of "Can't Buy Me Love" by Michael Bublé (the Beatles put to swing, imagine). They're throwing in kicks and dips and drags and so many other embellishments that I can't begin to track them. Enthralled, Terra tells me, "It's no wonder people in the '40s used to fall in love and get married and make babies to this."
Several times we decide we should probably get going, but we stay for "just one more dance." At last, with a vow to return again and again, we say our goodbyes and head out the door to a gorgeous spring night, six counts still pulsing in our knees.
It don't mean a thing ...
OK, all you cool cats, here's where to swing:
Hot Jam Swing: Mondays, 7:30-8:30 p.m. (class), 8:30-11:30 (dance). $5. 307 Pine Tree Drive. www.hotjamswings.com.
Wednesday Night Swing at the 57th Fighter Group: Wednesdays, 8-8:30 p.m. (class), 8:30-until (dance). $6. 3829 Clairmont Road, Chamblee.
Friday Night Live: Most Fridays, 8 p.m.-midnight. No cover. A Point of View Lounge at Nikolai's Roof (Hilton Atlanta), 255 Courtland St. 404-221-6362. www.nikolaisroof.com.
Georgia Tech Dance Association: Next dance is May 26. Monthly, see website for details. $5-$10. www.gtda.org.
And for many more local and national swing classes and dances, go to the Atlanta Swing Era Dance Association's website: www.aseda.org.
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