Are You Hep to That Jive?: The Fan Culture Surrounding Swing Music

When Sue Turnbull (a scholar who has written very interesting work on murder mysteries, their female readers and writers) asked me to be the outside reader on a PhD dissertation being written by one of her students at LaTrobe University (in Melbourne, Australia), on contemporary swing dance, I was resistant at first, insisting that I knew little or nothing about the scholarly literature around dance. Sue pushed me harder, suggesting that this project had much more to do with my own work than I might imagine, and being a trusting sort, I agreed to read the work, satisfied in having made my own lack of credentials clear, intrigued by why she was pushing so hard, and a bit pleased to be reading something on swing since I am a closset enthusiast of the new Swing revival (though I certainly can’t do the Lindy Hop to save my life.)

Thus, Sam(antha) Carroll entered my life. Carroll’s dissertation did indeed fascinate me — it is frankly some of the best work by a graduate student in cultural studies I have read in some time. She draws not just on the literature in performance studies on popular dance traditions in America but it also shows a deep familiarity with cultural studies work on fan appropriations and transformations on media content as well as work in digital studies on virtual and online communities. She captures the world of swing dance culture — from the inside out — and traces it across multiple media channels, showing how their lives online are connecting to their physical encounters in geographic space, and especially exploring how they trade video clips of obscure dance performances which become core resources in the development of their own performance repertoires. And, hey, the dissertation came with its own dvd of amazing clips — and you could dance to it!

I felt that some of her work would be of great interest to readers of this blog given our ongoing discussions of various fan cultures, of the ways digital media is transforming traditional cultural practices, and of the poetics and politics of remixing media content. (And to add to my pleasure, she writes about Hellzapoppin’, a much beloved film in my household, and one which I regularly assign to graduate students in our program.) Even if, like me, you think this may be outside your field of interest, think again and give it a closer look.

The following entry was written specifically for this blog by Sam Carroll. I asked her to give us some more biographical data and here’s what she wrote:

Sam Carroll has just completed her Phd at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, Australia. In that doctoral thesis she discussed contemporary swing dancers and their use of digital media in embodied practice – or, in other words, what dancers do with computers. In addition to writing about dancing (and computers), Sam also likes dancing very much. And watching footage of dancing on her computer. She began learning lindy hop in 1999 in Brisbane, but found the swing dancing community an excellent complement to academic life when she moved to Melbourne in 2001 to pursue a postgraduate degree – less writing, more dancing. Sam is now trying to learn as many authentic jazz routines from the 1930s and 40s as possible. Her progress is more a performance of fandom than an embodiment of elite fan knowledge.

THE FOLLOWING WAS WRITTEN BY SAM CARROLL

This is a clip of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dancing a Big Apple routine (choreographed by Frankie Manning) in the 1939 film Keep Punchin’. In the last section of this clip they dance lindy hop on a ‘social dance floor’.

And here’s footage of dancers in the US dancing the same routine in 2006.

If you follow this link you can listen to the Solomon Douglas Swinged playing the same song on their recent album.

Both dancers and musicians have painstakingly transcribed what they see and hear in that original 1939 clip.


Lindy hop – the partner dance most popular today in swing dance communities – developed in Harlem in the late 1920s and early 30s by African American dancers. Over the following years it moved to mainstream American youth culture, carried by dance teachers and performers in films like Keep Punchin’ and in stage shows, and then moved out into the international community, again in film and stage plays, but also with American soldiers stationed overseas. Though it was massively popular in its day, by the 1950s changes in popular music, where jazz was replaced by rock n roll or became increasingly difficult to dance to with the rise of bebop, saw lindy slipping from the public eye.

In the 1980s, dancers in Europe and the US began researching lindy, using archival footage like Keep Punchin’ but also including films like Hellzapoppin’ and Day at the Races – popular musical films of the 1930s and 40s. The aim of these dancers was to revive lindy hop, to recreate the steps they saw on screen. Learning to dance by watching films, particularly films that were only available at cinemas or in archival collections, was unsurprisingly, quite difficult, and these revivalists began seeking out surviving dancers from the period. Among these original lindy hoppers were Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, Sugar Sullivan and Dean Collins.

Twenty years after these revivalists began learning lindy, there are thriving swing dance communities throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan and Korea. They come together in their local communities for classes and social dancing, and also travel extensively for camps and lindy exchanges. My research has focussed on the ways these contemporary swing dancers utilise a range of digital media in their embodied practices. This has involved discussing the way DJs in the swing community use digital music technology; the way swing dancers use discussion boards (Swing Talk, SwingDJs), websites (Dance History), instant messaging and email to keep in contact with dancers in their own community and overseas and to plan their own trips to other local scenes; and the ways in which swing dancers have use a range of audio visual technology. These uses of audio visual technology include the sorts of revivalist activities first practiced in the 1980s, but continuing now in lounge rooms and church halls in every local scene, but also to record their own dancing and local communities and also performances (on the social or competitive floor) by ‘celebrity’ lindy hoppers.

The Big Apple contest from Keep Punchin’ is a useful example of the ways swing dancers make use of digital media in their embodied practices. But it’s also the focus of my own dancing obsessions at the moment. I’ve been dancing lindy for at least eight years, and dance a few times a week in my local, Melbourne scene. I’ve travelled extensively within Australia to attend dance events, I’ve run events in my own city and I’ve travelled overseas for large dance events (such as the Herräng dance camp). This year, having just finished my Phd, I’ve decided I finally have time to work on my own dancing, in the sweaty, embodied sense, rather than the academic or abstract.

Writers in fan studies like Henry Jenkins and Matt Hills and Camille Bacon-Smith have discussed being a scholar-fan (to use Matt Hill’s term), where you’re a member of the community of fans you’re researching. This approach is fairly standard in much of the dance studies literature – it is notoriously difficult to write about dance and dancing with any degree of convincingness if you don’t dance – it’s a little like dancing about architecture. I’ve also found that combining my academic work with my everyday, making my everyday experiences my work, has been a satisfying way to extend my fanatical obsession with dance into every corner of my life (a little like Henry’s writing about Supernatural, a program I also love, here on this blog).

So when I decided I needed to get back to some level of dance fitness, to end the thesis-imposed hiatus from hardcore dance training, I chose this Big Apple and a number of other ‘vintage’ or ‘authentic’ jazz dance routines as my focus. I’ve learnt the Big Apple and Tranky Doo (another venerable jazz dance routine choreographed by Frankie Manning) before, but this was to be my first solo mission, using clips garnered almost entirely from the internet, though also making use of sections of an instructional DVD produced by a famous teaching couple.

Dancing alone is an essential part of lindy hop. The dance itself revolutionised the European partner dancing structure with its use of the ‘break away’, (which you can see danced by the last couple in the film After Seben), where partners literally broke away from each other to dance in ‘open’ position. In open, partners are free to improvise, and the most common improvisation in that historical moment and today, is to include jazz steps from the vast repertoire of steps developed by African American vernacular dance culture over centuries in America. Learning to dance alone not only offers dancers the opportunity to work on body awareness, fitness, coordination, individual styling and expanding their own repertoire (a point upon which I was relying), but also encourages a creative, improvised approach to music which they can then bring to their lindy hop for those 5 or 6 beats of the 8 count swing out – the foundational step of lindy hop.

I’ve written a great deal about the gender dynamics at work in lindy hop, a dance which prioritise the heterocentric pairing of a man and a woman, beginning with my own discomfort with a dance where the man leads, the woman follows, and traditional gender roles prevail. But I’ve also written a great deal about the liberatory potential of lindy. The open position and the emphasis on improvisation are an important part of this – in those moments both partners are expected to ‘bring it’ – to contribute to the creative exchange within the partnership. Lindy, as it was danced by African American dancers in that original creative moment, also embodies a history of resistance and transgression, as a dance with its roots in slavery and created during a period of institutionalised racism and oppression. One of my own research interests has been the extent to which the resistant themes of lindy hop, of African American vernacular dance, have been realised by contemporary swing dancers. The fact that most of these contemporary dancers are white, middle class urban heterosexual youth goes some way to discouraging my reading of contemporary swing dance culture as a hot bed of radical politics and revisions of dominant ideology and culture. Yet I have also found that lindy hop and African American vernacular jazz dances like the Big Apple structure and the Tranky Doo offer opportunities for the expression of self and resistance of dominant gender roles.

As a woman, and as a feminist, I’ve found that archival footage such as that Keep Punchin’ clip offer opportunities for reworking the way I dance and participate in the public dance discourse. When we watch that Big Apple clip, while we can clearly see that each dancer is performing synchronised, choreographed steps, they are also clearly styling each step to suit their own aesthetic, athletic and social needs and interests. We see the personality of each dancer as they execute a set piece of choreography. The very concept of a Big Apple contest involves dancers performing specific steps as they are called, and being judged not only for their ability to dance the correct step in time and with alacrity, but more importantly (in a setting where dance competency, as Katrina Hazzard-Gordon has written, is demanded by the social setting – everyone can dance), for their individual interpretation of the step. This is a performance of improvisation within a socially, collaboratively created structure. The representation of individual identity within a consensual public discourse. This is the sort of thing that jazz musicians do – improvise within a given structure.

And man, is that some serious fun.

For contemporary swing dancers, the idea of taking particular formal structures and then reworking them to suit their own discursive needs extends from the dance floor to the mediated world. Online, swing dancers upload digital footage of themselves dancing, edited to best display their abilities. Or they edit whole narrative films like Hellzapoppin’ and Day at the Races and edit out the sequences they’re most interested in – the dancing. And dancers like myself are still watching these edited clips, recreating entire routines, and then, even more interestingly, editing out particular steps and integrating them into their lindy on the social dance floor, or into their own choreographed routines.

The notion of step stealing is not new in African American vernacular dance – it reaches back to Africa. And Frankie Manning himself is often quoted as saying ‘dance it once and it’s yours, dance it twice and it’s mine’. For me, as a dancer, this is exciting stuff. If I put in the time and effort, I can learn these steps (well, some of them – watch that Hellzapoppin’ clip and you’ll see what I mean). And if I practice, time it properly and really bring it, I can pull that out on the social dance floor. Perhaps. Contemporary dancers enact that philosophy on the dance floor every day -stealing steps that catch their attention on the social dance floor, or ‘ripping off’ moves they see performed in footage of dancers in competitions or performances or in social dance settings all over the world. Or from seventy years ago.

For me, swing dancers’ tactical use of digital media in their embodied use of archival footage is not only a source of academic fascination, but also a very practical skill to develop. I have had to learn how to watch footage of dancing in a way that lets me apply my knowledge of dance to separate out distinct steps, then figure out how they work, practically. Learning to poach dance steps from archival footage is a useful skill for lindy hoppers. But the testing of my skills is not online or in my ability to write and talk about these things. The real challenge to my creative and critical faculties comes on the dance floor, when I have to bring it – to bring the right step at the right time, but with my own unique, creative twist.

Bacon-Smith, Camille. (1992). Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

—. (2000). Science Fiction Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Clein, John, dir. (1939). Keep Punchin’. Film. Chor. Frank Manning. Perf. Frank Manning and Hot Chocolates. USA.

Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. (1990). Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hills, Matt. (2002). Fan Cultures. London and New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. (1992). Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York and London: Routledge.

Kaufman, S. J. (1929). After Seben. Short film. Perf. “Shorty” George Snowden. USA.

Potter, H. C., dir. (1941). Hellzapoppin’. Film. Chor. Frank Manning. Perf. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and Frank Manning. USA.

Solomon Douglas Swingtet. (2006). Swingmatism. USA.

Wood, Sam. (1939). A Day at the Races. Perf. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. USA.

Comments

  1. Exceedingly cool stuff. I had no idea. I love the glimpses into other fan cultures I get through your blog!

  2. I’m so glad to see scholars documenting this unique pocket of modern jazz history. We (Utah swing dancers) have been enjoying Sam’s analysis of swing dance/lindy exchanges. Oh, and thanks for linking to my clip of Whitey’s Lindyhoppers in Hellzapoppin!

  3. Grant (aka Troach) says:

    If viewers of this post hadn’t noticed, I sadly report that youtube.com has recently ‘permanently disabled’ my account. I apologize for the broken links to the Hellzapoppin’ and After Seben clips.