What do classic movie fans do when they want to pursue their passion in other avenues? They wear vintage clothes and shoes. They style their hair in mid-century up-dos or slicked back styles. They collect big band albums and jazz records. They frequent estate sales and thrift shops. They attend historical revivals. And... they swing dance. Did you know that the resurgence of interest in classic movies of the home video era was instrumental in revitalizing swing dancing?
"Once they see those films, they really want to do it."
Let's start from the beginning. Swing dancing originated in Harlem during the Great Depression. It was a street dance with roots in the Charleston dance style of the 1920s. This dance was influenced greatly by the music of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The African-American community brought swing dancing to the ballroom. Herbert Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, made up of dancers including Norma Miller, Frankie Manning and others, brought it to Hollywood in films like Hellzapoppin' (1940), the Marx Bros.' A Day at the Races (1937) and shorts like Groovie Movie (1944). Swing dancing transcended its Harlem roots to become a nation-wide phenomenon. While the Lindy Hop is the most popular, many styles found their niches including West Coast and East Coast swing, Boogie-Woogie, Collegiate Shag, Jive, Rock n Roll, Blues dancing and countless others.
"It was the one relief you had from the bad times." - Norma Miller on dancing during the Great Depression
Swing dancing went out of fashion in post-WWII America. New dances came into fashion and swing dancing was soon forgotten. Movies came to the rescue in the home video era starting in the 1980s and escalating into the 1990s. People watched swing dancing on screen and felt the urge to do it themselves. The craze caught on again and legends like Frankie Manning, who had retired from dancing and became a postal worker to make ends meet, were in demand again. According to dance historian Rusty Frank, the movies Swing Kids (1993) and Swingers (1996) and the widespread appeal of Gap's 1998 Khaki Swing commercial firmly established swing dancing as part of American culture again. However this time around it wouldn't become a mainstream fad. Instead it would find a home in a community of enthusiasts who put their heart and soul into this rediscovered dance style.
"Nobody does social dancing than Lindy Hop." - Norma Miller
Susan Glatzer's new documentary Alive and Kicking (2016) explores the culture that grew from the resurgence of swing dancing. In today's technology age, everyone is constantly connected yet disconnected. Dancing forces you to be out of your head and into your body and to connect with someone face to face. It's the ultimate rebellion against the isolation of modern life because it forces you to me intimate with strangers. This documentary explores swing dancing as a community, a spiritual experience, as therapy, as a secret conversation between two people and as a way to bridge the generations. Swing dancers come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, genders and ages. They travel the world to compete against and to connect with other dancers. While there's some money to be made by winning competitions, most dancers work full-time jobs and swing dance on the side or they make a living through teaching their art.
"Swing dancing is the pursuit of happiness." - Evita
Alive and Kicking isn't a historical documentary. Nor is it instructional or specifically about swing dancing competitions. It truly is about the culture of the dancers. Interview subjects include swing dancing legends Frankie Manning, Norma Miller and Dawn Hampton as well as young up-and-comers Evita, Emilie and Rebecka and Steve and Chanzie. We learn about what motivates them, why they love dance and how they approach the lifestyle and prepare for competition. The film mainly focuses on these rising stars but it also includes interviews with many other dancers and experts. I enjoyed learning about these young dancers as much as I did about the legends. Manning and Hampton have since passed away and Norma Miller is still with us at the swingin' age of 97. Fun fact: you can watch all three of these dancers in the Lindy Hop scene of Malcolm X (1992).
"Happiness is just a few steps away."
This documentary includes many dance numbers with a focus on the Lindy Hop style, an improvised dance which is also highly technical. I appreciated this documentary for what it taught me about the culture and the dancers. I would have loved to learn more about the technical aspects of the dance but that was not the intention of the film. It did make me want to take a swing dancing lesson or two!
Alive and Kicking is a contemporary documentary but I think it'll appeal highly to the vintage community as well as to classic movie fans. It revitalized my interest in the vintage life and awakened my curiosity about swing dancing.
Alive and Kicking (2016) will be in theatres and available online April 7th. Visit the official website for more information. Thank you to Magnolia Pictures for the opportunity to review this film. Stay tuned as I'll be sharing my interview with writer, director and producer Susan Glatzer as well as swing dancing legend Norma Miller soon.