By Dean Paton, Community Coordinator
I began swing dancing because of an injury. I had been a lifelong baseball player and throughout my thirties and early forties I played both hardball and softball. In the summer of 1993 I broke a bone in my hand—and, for a professional writer, that was serious. I took it as a sign: that I needed to quit playing baseball and find a new physical activity where I wouldn’t have so many collisions with big, fast-moving jocks.
I decided to take up swing dancing.
Immediately, I fell in love with partner dancing. I’d actually tried partner dancing a few years earlier, but what I had not understood at the time is that there are actually two drastically different worlds of partner dancing—social dancing, and competition-ballroom dancing. Continued below
Looking for a chance to jitterbug, foxtrot or swing? Don’t miss these swing showcases at the 2017 Northwest Folklife Festival!
Hot High School Swing Dance Presented by KNKX
Friday, May 26, 3-6pm, Armory Court
Swingin’ the Great American Songbook
Saturday, May 27, 1-3pm, Fisher Pavilion
Swingin’ Blues or Bluesy Swing?
Saturday, May 27, 6-8pm, Fisher Pavilion
Western Swing and Alt Country Ass-Kicker Wake-Up
Sunday, May 28, 11am – 1pm, Fisher Pavilion
West Coast Swing with Seattle Swing Dance Club
Sunday, May 28, 3-4pm, Armory Loft – Dance Workshops
Swing! Swing! Swing!
Monday, May 29, 3-5pm, Armory Court Stage
That dancing you see on “Dancing With The Stars—this is in the competition-ballroom world. It’s dancing, yes, but mostly it’s choreography, where you practice and practice the same moves over and over. And because choreography is a lot of work there’s a tendency to dance with the same partner over and over.Because I didn’t know two worlds of partner dancing existed—like parallel universes of dance—I thought I just wasn’t cut out for partner dancing, and I was so disappointed by this that I didn’t even finish the series of lessons I’d purchased.
It wasn’t until several years later that a friend told me about a different type of dance lessons in Seattle. I took my first series of swing-dance lessons in January of 2004—and I was hooked. It was like a drug. Not long after that I took one of their waltz classes, and suddenly I was hooked on two drugs. I like waltz so much I ended up founding the Valse Café Orchestra, which has become one of the premiere dance ensembles in the region.
History of Swing
By one definition or another, you could say there are seven or nine kinds of dances that go with swing music. There’s the original swing dance—Lindy Hop—which is the dance that started it all in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. A collection of African American dancers had been developing this new dance, blending Charleston with other jazz steps, and one day a reporter asked one of the dancers what this new dance was called. According to legend, this was very soon after Charles Lindbergh has hopped the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, and the dancer, struggling to come up with a name for his dance, blurted out, “It’s the Lindy Hop.” The name stuck.
Jitterbug came along not long after that, in the early 1930s, and without getting too complex, one of the key differences is that Lindy Hop is based on an eight-count footwork pattern, while Jitterbug tends to be centered more around a six-count pattern. Not long after that some of the New York dance studios decided that Lindy Hop was too difficult for many of their white dance students, so they created a dance style they called East Coast Swing. You dance East Coast Swing the the same grand music, but the moves are simplified: not as much rotation, and not always to fast swing.
In fact, “East Coast,” evolved into three variations, depending on the tempos of the music: For slow music—Triple-Time Swing. For mid-tempo swing—Double-Time Swing. And for fast music—Single-Time Swing. The same moves tend to work with all three variations, and this makes East Coast Swing an ideal entry level dance drug. East Coast Swing is where I started dancing.
When Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, along with other cowboy bands, started playing the Great American Songbook (but with a bit of twang), the result was Western swing. Most of the same moves from regular swing apply, but flashy Western swing dancers mix in what they call “lassos and lariats,” which are flashy arm movements, neck wraps, and sweetheart positions that add a bit of “hick” feel to the dance.
In the late 1940s, in Los Angeles, dance teachers created yet another variation, this one called West Coast Swing. Danced in a slot, where dancers move back and forth trading places as if on a track, West Coast Swing is slinkier than other swing-dance styles, and typically is danced to slower music: blues, some funk, and other more contemporary music.
Another dance—not called swing, but danced to extremely fast swing music—is Balboa, where both partners dance pressed against each other and take the tiniest of rapid steps. Finally, from Eastern Europe, came “bug,” a version of swing based on a four-count footwork pattern.
What’s that—nine different dances you can do to swing tunes?
Wait—I’m forgetting Foxtrot, a traveling dance perfect for swing music. I always mix Foxtrot with my swing. I’ll dance a bit of Single-Time Swing and then shift into Foxtrot and dance my partner around the floor a ways, and then, when the music suggests a change, I’ll switch back into swing. Knowing a bit of Foxtrot gives your swing a great second dimension. I can’t imagine doing one without the other.
The Music behind the Swing
What I look for in a great swing band is the same thing I look for in any good dance band—a solid rhythm section. It might sound funny, because it’s the melody players we always hum along with—the saxophones, the trumpets and clarinets and trombones. But people aren’t dancing to the melody; they’re dancing to the bass player, the rhythm guitarist, the drummer and the piano players’ left hand—they’re what drive the dancers, and those musicians are kind of the unsung heroes of a good dance band. Without a solid rhythm section laying down a serious grove, the music loses its cohesion, and dancing become more challenging, even more tedious.
When I’m choosing bands for dance sets at Folklife, I listen first for a solid rhythm section. If a band has that going for it, it usually guarantees a good time for the dancers. After a solid rhythm section, I look for bands that give dancers spaces in the music to “play,” which I guess means places at the ends of their musical phrases where dancers can do freezes, check steps, pivots or other joyful embellishments. Not all bands know how to build such flexibility into their music.
For my money, one of the best—and most unusual—swing-dance sets at this year’s Festival will be on Saturday night from 6 p.m. till 8, when Breakers Yard and The Dunghill Rooster Strutters, both from Oregon, take the stage in Warren’s Roadhouse. Neither band is what we’d call a classic swing band, but both blend blues with swing and Foxtrott-y melodies with an old-timey feel, and I think the combined effect will be irresistible.
Technically, swing is defined by a set of triplets in the music. Northwest bass player Pete Leinonen passed along the best definition of “swing music” I’ve ever heard. It was a statement the great jazz clarinetist, Wm. O. Smith, reportedly told his students at the University of Washington’s School of Music. Simply put, Smith said, “Swing is when everybody gives,” meaning when the band plays the music selflessly, without one player or another trying to be the star.
“When everybody gives” seems like a perfect definition for not only swing music, but also for the Northwest Folklife Festival.
Dean is a longtime Community Coordinator, coordinating the partner dances at the Northwest Folklife Festival.