October 22, 2018

Lindy Hop puts swing in filmmaker’s step

In the new documentary “Alive and Kicking,” the world’s renewed interest in the Lindy Hop — popularly known as swing dancing — is presented as more than a series of improvised steps; it’s a life-altering experience.

A former Marine named Augie, for example, discusses post-traumatic stress syndrome and how he couldn’t relate to people in his own country after he left the service — until he started going to swing dances, where he found an outlet, a purpose and a bond with other people.

“I came back [from Iraq] and I just wanted to kill myself,” he says. “And the dancing was a huge outlet for me — to see people doing all the crazy footwork and the aerials, doing the splits. They were dancing to this old-time music and dressed up in vintage clothes. That just blew me away, and I thought to myself, ‘If it takes me the rest of my life, I’m going to learn how to do that.’ And it gave me a reason to live.”

Filmmaker Susan Glatzer recalled, in a phone interview with the Journal from her home in East Hollywood, one point in her own life when she was the primary caretaker for someone who was suffering from cancer and dancing provided her with an important relief.

“I found that, if I could drag myself to a dance for two hours, I could smile and giggle and laugh and have fun,” she said. “It didn’t change my situation, but it changed my attitude, and gave me the strength and the wherewithal to keep going another day. And I discovered, as I started doing this film, that that was such a common occurrence. You change the names and the disease, but this was really something that people were using to keep themselves going.”

An exuberant dance done to jazz music, the Lindy Hop had its heyday during the Depression and World War II. Back then, it was an antidote to the angst of the era, but it was resurrected during the 1980s and has given rise to an international subculture.

Glatzer, a Lindy aficionado for almost two decades, said when she is doing this dance, the world disappears. “You’re not thinking — at least as the follower, I’m not thinking — you’re just feeling. You’re feeling the music, you’re feeling the way your partner’s interpreting the music, and then you interpret the music, and you just move together, and it’s a high. It’s truly a high, without being on drugs.”

The Lindy is mainly improvised, although it is built on a basic step called the swingout. The dancers’ hands are linked as they twirl away from each other and then snap back again, almost in an embrace. The more adventurous dancers add spins, tosses, overhead flips, slides between the partner’s legs and other acrobatic-style movements.

Social dancing is at the heart of the Lindy Hop, Glatzer said, and there are weekly dances at clubs and other community spaces in large cities, including Los Angeles. The dancers dress in vintage clothes, come with or without a partner, and dance with as many people as they can.

Glatzer added that there also are swing camps offering lessons, such as Camp Hollywood, which lasts for a weekend, or the camp in Herräng, Sweden, that goes on for five weeks.

“They usually have the top instructors from all over the world,” Glatzer said.  “That’s why our characters [in the film] are always traveling. They’re going to these big events. And, in the evenings, they’ll have social dancing, but then they’ll also have competitions or a performance. You might have a dance troupe. In that case, when you’re in a troupe, the dancing is choreographed.”

Created by African-Americans on the streets of Harlem, the Lindy was performed in several films of the 1930s and ’40s, among them “A Day at the Races” (1937), with the Marx Brothers, and “Hellzapoppin’ ” (1941). It spawned such dance stars as the late Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, still going strong at age 97, both of whom appear in “Alive and Kicking.”

“Norma talks about the Savoy Ballroom, which, back in the day, was the first ballroom in Harlem to integrate Black and white dancers,” Glatzer said. “At all the other ones, the dancers were the hired entertainment and the white people would dance. But when it became integrated, a lot of the white people who danced at the Savoy actually were Jewish. In fact, there was a woman and her partner, both of whom were Jewish, that were part of the troupe called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, but because things were so segregated, even in the North, they couldn’t travel with the troupe, and they weren’t in the movies with them, because they couldn’t show Black and white interaction.”

Glatzer, who is Jewish, said she had a very secular upbringing. “My father escaped the Nazis and came here when he was 3, with his family, and half my family died in the Holocaust. I think, out of that experience, he is sort of an agnostic or atheist. So we weren’t really observant. We belonged to a Reform temple. I was a Hebrew school dropout.”

But, she added, her father did believe she shouldn’t be working on the High Holy Days out of respect for what those holidays mean to her people. “My father does not believe in God — it’s not a God thing. It’s not religion. I think it’s more of an identity. It’s a heritage. And that’s why I feel so strongly that young Black kids need to see this movie, because that is their heritage. They own that; it belongs to them.”

Several of the older Black Lindy hoppers who appear in the film say that, unfortunately, the young African-Americans of today are not as involved in the Lindy’s revival as they should be.  They don’t realize that their community gave rise to this dance, which eventually faded from the scene when musical styles changed, the big-band era ended, and clubs that had large dance floors started to close.

As explained in the film, it wasn’t until the advent of videotape in the mid-1980s, when studios began rereleasing old movies on tape, that young people who were watching them became fascinated by Lindy hopping. There were also films made in the ’90s that focused on swing dancing, such as “Swing Kids,” as well as Gap commercials in which the dancing was prominent. The result is that the rediscovered Lindy has become a worldwide craze.

As for her film, Glatzer wants it to be more than just a history of the dance.

“I personally would love it if there are people who’ve never heard of the dance or the music that say, ‘Hey, I really like this music. I want to listen to more of it,’ or ‘Maybe I’ll take dance lessons.’ Obviously that would be great.

“But even if they don’t have that, I do feel that we are living lives of quiet desperation, and I would like people to consider whether they have a source of joy in their lives. If it’s not dancing, that’s fine, but find something that really gives you joy, because life is short — or, if it’s long, it’s really long if you don’t have joy.”

“Alive and Kicking” opens April 7 at the  Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts theater in Beverly Hills, as well as on demand, Amazon Video and iTunes.