MLX ’10 and swing dancing in Oz

One thing that’s especially nice about having a hobby is that it gives you a way to connect in familiar ways with people in unfamiliar countries. And so it is that while, as I’ve said here, Australia already doesn’t seem all that unfamiliar, I’m quite excited that the denizens of my new community share one of my passions: swing dance.

I’m not entirely sure, culturally speaking, what comes up in other people’s minds when I say “swing dance”, and a montage of unrelated images runs through my head: 1950s-style sock hops with Chuck Berry or Little Richard on the jukebox and pompadours and poodle skirts flaring; ’20s-style dance marathons with flappers in bob haircuts doing Charleston all night; contemporary ballroom dances such as jive and West Coast “swing”. Generally when I say “swing dance”, I mean partnered dance done to more traditional jazz music and comprising the following collection of dance forms: East Coast (or “six-count”), Lindy Hop, collegiate/Carolina shag (no snickering you Aussies and Brits, this dance is done vertically!), Bal-Swing (as distinguished from pure Balboa which is technically a ballroom dance), and Charleston (in both its ’20s and ’30s forms). Although blues dance has a lot in common with these other dances and is danced by many of the same people (including myself), I consider it a different form with a different feel; more on that later.

Lindy Hop got its start in the 1920s in Harlem in New York City, shortly after its namesake (Charles Lindbergh) “hopped” the Atlantic. But it really got going in the ’30s and ’40s as the hep cats would cut their rugs to the likes of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Artie Shaw and their respective orchestras. Read Wikipedia or subscribe to Three Perfect Minutes if you want to learn more about the music, and read Frankie Manning‘s autobiography if you want the perspective of one of the dance’s until-recently-living legends and most beloved spokesmen. Lindy as a dance is alive and well today, danced the world over and subject to the variety of different stylings and music picks that any living social dance ought to enjoy. Though you’re welcome to do so, you don’t have to wear a zoot suit to dance it, and you definitely don’t have to dance it only to Royal Crown Revue; that’s much more 1995 than 1945. (Indeed, if I’m DJing I hesitate to play the music of any band the name of which contains any combination of “Cherry”, “Voodoo” and “Daddy”… but your mileage may vary.)

Anyway, back in the States we’d have these things called Lindy Exchanges, where if you dance Lindy you could buy a plane ticket to Chicago, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Hartford or any one of a number of other cities of varying sizes, and dance the weekend away. Sometimes the action would start on Thursday night wherever the normal local Thursday dance venue happened to be. But usually it would start Friday night from 8 pm to midnight, with a “late-night” afterwards which would go till 5 am. On Saturday there might be afternoon dancing in the park running from, say, 1-5 pm, then a Saturday night dance from 8 pm to midnight and another late-night ending at 5 am. Then a Sunday picnic and a Sunday night dance for those die-hards still left standing. The local scene would hire out their best live bands to keep the energy high. The merriment would range from impromptu “Lindy bombs” of local establishments which happened to be playing danceable music, to Frisbee and food fights at the picnics, to dog-piles and backrubs somewhere around 3 am when all but the fittest of the fit had begun to wilt. If you came from out of town, you’d be paired with a local host who would offer you the hospitality of their couch or floor or air mattress, along with other dancers from other places, and you would thereby camp out in the living room and make new friends. I always volunteered to host and once had as many as eight dancers crashing over in my one-bedroom apartment in New Haven. Those were good times.

Needless to say, Lindy Exchanges are hardly a by-gone phenomenon, and they are thrown the world over; Australia has a proud tradition thereof. I attended the tenth Melbourne Lindy Exchange, and my first Lindy Exchange in Australia, last weekend. Many things were much as I would expect, and I made many awesome new friends from many countries and from all over Australia. A few things were different…

The Hellzapoppin' super-fast Lindy dance competition.

For one thing, the Australians are hard-core crazy fast dancers who don’t seem to need rest. In the States, the late-nights would usually feature at least two separate rooms: a Lindy room where relatively fast music would still be played, and a blues room where slow music would be played. Dancers could then flit between the two rooms as their tastes and energy levels dictated. At MLX, the late-nights also had two rooms: a Lindy room, in which relatively fast music would be played, and a “gangbusters” FAST Lindy room in which nothing under 180 bpm would be played. On Saturday morning, blues only appeared in the gangbusters room after about 4:30 am, when the DJ asked what he should play and everyone still present screamed BLUES!!! On Sunday morning, the gangbusters room was instead filled with funk and soul, which was challenging to swing dance to, and blues appeared after about 3:30 am. In each case the party went till 6 am. There was also, incredibly (for me), a Sunday night late-night which also went till 6 am on Monday. I spent the entire following week being bitchy and cranky until recovering on Thursday after 10 hours of sleep the previous night.

My lovely hostess Lexi posing with a dapper gent in uniform.

Another thing is that Aussie dancers seem to get more of a kick out of dressing up than their Yank counterparts. MLX ’10 featured an Indiana Jones theme, with names for the dances such as “Hellzapoppin’ and the Tempo of Doom” and “Kingdom of the Flying Charleston”. Pith helmets and saris featured prominently at the Friday night dance. The Saturday night dance had a wartime theme, and was held at Hangar 5 of Melbourne’s Essendon Airport, complete with two planes to set the mood. A full third of the participants actually bought into the World War II dress theme, with sailor suits, Army greens, nurses and even Rosie the Riveter making appearances. The rest of the crowd didn’t wear uniforms but were still dressed to the nines (my own clothes were more 1930s-era). I only caught one poor bloke in a baseball cap and jeans at that dance.

The orchestra swings the night away.

The Friday afternoon revels, for those of us who didn’t have to work, included the thrift shop tour of Melbourne. My new Swedish dance friend Lovisa and I slept in and so joined the tour in the middle somewhere, but even half the tour was entirely worthwhile. I didn’t find much I could wear, but I did manage to score an amusing tie patterned in warm colors which fit well with the khakis I wore to Friday night’s safari theme dance. The Chapel Street Bazaar was a veritable museum, a sort of shrine to stuff, none of it organized in any terribly ordered fashion, so it was a minor miracle that I found anything there I felt like buying rather than simply gawking at. The tour was wound up with Spanish hot chocolate at San Churro, an artisan chocolatier with attitude. One piece of cake sufficed for the whole tour group.

All in all it was a really rewarding trip and I now feel properly welcomed to Oz. I’m totally going next year. But, note to self: Don’t even try to go to work on the Monday after an Australian Lindy Exchange.

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About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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