‘Swing dancing’ and lindy hop in Sydney: an exercise in speculative fiction

This is a story about live music in Sydney, and how lindy hoppers and swing dancers use it and find it. I’m really going only on anecdotal evidence, backed up by my own supposition and thinking. I don’t have a lot of hardcore facts about the history of Sydney lindy hop to back me up. So I’ve tried to avoid talking about anything besides the 2008-2011 period, and to keep my comments about stuff I don’t know anything about to a minimum.

Sydney’s swing dancers like live music.

Perhaps the most important factor in attracting a dancing crowd to a live music gig is a sympathetic venue. This means venues actually letting dancers dance, and then understanding that they can cater to both dancing tight-arse dancers and drinking, non-dancing punters. The Unity Hall Hotel always hosts a group of dancers on Sunday. The Camelot Lounge hosts some of the best live jazz in Sydney (from interstate and local artists). Venue 505 has initiated its own dancer-centred gigs showcasing some astonishingly good Sydney musicians. The Sydney Festival always attracts a zillion dancers, particular events like the Trocadero Dance Palace and Spiegeltent. In contrast, while the Sydney Jazz Club hosts some of the finest jazz bands in the country (and from overseas), it uses venues with smaller dance floors, rubbish food and lame, ‘old people’ vibes. RSLs. Outdoor parks. Yacht club function rooms midday and mid-week.

Our live jazz music (music suitable for lindy hop or ball or blues or whatevs) scene is healthy: lots of good bands, made up of jazznick elder statesmen and young guns. The older jazznicks largely cater to a rapidly aging jazz fan base, neglecting a potentially lucrative market. This is a shame, as Sydney is home to some of the country’s finest (older) musicians. I can go on and on and on about the Ozcats. Or the Unity Hall Jazz band. But these musicians and bands have a weak online presence, relying on face to face promotion, flyer drops at events, local radio announcements and the powerful Sydney Jazz Club old school social network: word of mouth. Nanna power. Sydney lindy hoppers use a combination of online talk (mostly through faceplant) and face to face talk to decide which bands to go see and when.


(The Cope Street Parade)

Younger jazz bands and musicians – many of whom have been associated with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music – are an interesting group. They’ve made good use of online tools. They have faceplant pages, myspace pages, a presence on sites like Reverb Nation, their own websites and occasionally twitter accounts. Faceplant is by far the most influential of these tools, but really only in concert with other media (a solid website or myspace page, soundclips or videos on faceplant itself). A group of these younger musicians are involved in a number of bands showcasing different types of early 20th century American folk music – from sacred singers (you can find the Surry Hills Sacred Harp Singers on faceplant) to bluegrass and hot jazz combos. They’re also launching a record label, Yum Yum Tree Records.
These musicians have strong relationships with younger lindy hoppers who travel or who are otherwise plugged into the modern lindy hopping world, via faceplant, youtube and other online social media. The Cope Street Parade has a core group of keen dancers following them to their (pretty much) weekly gigs. Cope Street’s popularity can no doubt be attributed to their musical style. They have much in common with popular American ‘street jazz’ bands like the Careless Lovers, Smoking Time Jazz Club, the massively popular Tuba Skinny and The Loose Marbles. This sort of music has been hugely popular with American and European lindy hoppers lately, and many of the younger Sydney dancers in particular are on board with this trend.


(image lifted from this site)

Pugsley Buzzard also has a keen fan base. His month long residency earlier in 2011 at The Mac in Surry Hills attracted dancers even with only a carpeted space for dancing. He’s also performed at the Sydney Lindy Exchange a few times, is booked in for the Sydney Swing Patrol christmas party next week, and has played for dancers at Canberrang this year. He is, sadly, relocating to Melbourne.


(The Velvet Set)

This brings me to the neo swing or ‘swing’ bands which cater to a slightly different audience. Bands like the The Velvet Set offer neo swing and crooner jazz rather than proper swing, but are very popular with ‘swing dancing’ crowd, some lindy hoppers and the rock n roll crowd. That’s what I want to talk about, but I think I need to talk a bit more about Sydney lindy hop and swing dancing demographics first.

I wonder if Sydney’s interest in live music is in part an indication of some of the troubles this scene has had over the last two four years. Sydney is an old scene – the oldest in Australia, founded in the mid 1990s or so. But its numbers and cultural complexity have fluctuated. Numbers had been down, with more experienced hardcore lindy hop dancers suffering some teaching fatigue and newer dancers not sticking around til they become hardcore. But our numbers have picked up in the last year. This means that Sydney is essentially a ‘newer’ scene and an older scene: a mix of very enthusiastic newer dancers and experienced dancers in a range of age groups.
It’s really not been until the last couple of years that we’ve seen Sydney dancers traveling to interstate events in significant numbers, though they have always travelled overseas, often in quite large numbers. There’s always been one or two or a handful at interstate events, but the last two years in particular have seen whole squads traveling to Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra. All this travel within Australia has seen personal relationships developing between Sydney and interstate dancers. Relationships fostered by faceplant in a really important way: this is where people share videos and email addresses, encourage each other to visit again and finally get to talk to people they’ve only danced with. Interstate travel has also been important for making Sydney dancers aware of the limitations of their very small pond. They may be big fish at home, but they’re meeting and seeing and dancing with some much larger fish from much larger ponds. This sudden reality check can break a dancer’s confidence, but it can also spur a sudden interest in improving dancing skills. Competitions are, once again, a space where these sorts of realisations occur.

There are three (or four – I’m not sure exactly; the western suburbs are a mystery to me) major teaching entities in Sydney, and there isn’t a whole lot of interaction between all the schools. Two of these schools, catering for inner city and inner suburb areas – have plenty of students in common, which I think is a really good thing. If you provide diverse learning environments for students, you stimulate their interests and you create a market for mo social dancing and mo classes. Win! Only these two schools run DJed social dancing nights and have a real connection with other cities’ scenes and large events. The other schools are quite isolated, in terms of international lindy hopping culture, and I think this has had a detrimental effect on their dance skills and (dare I say it) musical taste.

But to get back to the whole neo swing thing, Sydney overall has a much stronger link with neo swing and rock n roll than Melbourne or other cities. There’s a hardcore lindy hopping/balboa crowd, but there’s an even larger group of dancers who are often older, began dancing in the 90s, or have much stronger links with rock n roll dancing and music. Many of the people guys often think of themselves as ‘swing dancers’ or ‘doing swing dance’, but I wouldn’t call them lindy hoppers. They may take the odd ‘swing dance’ class from lindy hoppers, but their first love is rock n roll (or rockabilly)
The younger ones are a lot more interested in looking good than the average lindy hopper. Many of them have stronger links with the goth or hardcore vintage fashion scene than with a dance scene. Dancing might be part of their social lives, but only part. Lindy hop tends to absorb your whole life, to become your lifestyle. This ‘swing’/rock n roll crowd have hardcore retro/vintage outfits, ride or drive vintage motorbikes or cars, and bring much more money to the bar. I suspect that their interest in looking good impedes their dancing ability. Rock n roll is easier than lindy hop, and guys can stand around looking good while they manhandle their (ALWAYS female) partners through endless spins. I am being quite harsh here, but while they look very good, this scene is not really all that when it comes to mad dance skills. Although, if you’re looking for a hot partner for a quick shag, this is a much better place to look than your average lindy hop scene.

The best attended live music events are in that neo swing/rock n roll vein.

This Swing V Rockabilly poster is a good example of the sorts of things I’m trying to explain. The ‘swing’ guy in this poster (on the left) is what I associate with late 90s lindy hop – zoot suits, black and white shoes, wallet chains, hats. Very Hey-Pachuco! It kind of makes me cringe, because I associate it with the scene when I started dancing in Brisbane, and which I tend to associate with the neo swing scene, which was much more closely linked to ska and punk than jazz. Sure, it’s lots of fun – it was lots of fun – but the dancing was a bit rubbish, and it’s a bit dated. Lindy hoppers kind of got game these days.

Hardcore badass top shelf lindy hoppers look a bit more like this:

This is a photo by Bobby Bonsey, which I found here. He’s taken some really lovely photos of dancers. He’s also a badarse dancer. I particularly like this one of Chance and Giselle competing. I think that Bobby’s photos really capture the feel of American lindy hop today, which is much more athletic and physically exciting than 1990s Australian lindy hop. Lindy hoppers today look a lot more like the Whitey’s lindy hoppers – sinewy, fit, athletic. Like long distance runners or gymnasts. They wear form-fitting clothes that won’t impede their speed. They’re a long way from the zoot suits and silly cheap black and white shoes of the 1990s. And the ‘swing dance’ scene of Sydney today.

When I look at that ‘swing v rockabilly’ poster, I wouldn’t count any of those bands as ‘good lindy hopping bands’. They’re really rock and roll bands, but with mo brass. Most of them are quite good bands – lots of fun, lots of energy, good live shows. But not as musically accomplished as bands like Glenn Crytzer’s Blue Rhythm band. Crytzer’s band combines the exciting, rough-edged ‘authenticity’ of street jazz (and Meschiya Lake contributes in a big way to that feel in this clip) with solidly ‘authentic’ hot jazz instrumentation, arrangements and feeling. Here, let me show you what I mean:

linky

This band feels like a real progresion – musically, technically, stylistically – from what’s been popular with dancers lately. Old school music and dancing. Street jazz ‘honesty’ and emotion. Exciting, committed musicians really connecting with dancers. Crytzer’s been engaged with the lindy hop scene in a big way (I’ve written about this before in Bands For Dancing), and his band is really top notch, swinging hot jazz. Also: uber exciting fun.

In contrast the Velvet Set are trotting out almost exactly the same set lists as swing DJs were playing twenty years ago. Crooners. Covers of ages-old neo swing songs. I don’t particularly like neo swing for lindy hop (because it doesn’t swing, and because it’s a bit naff), but I respect neo swing bands writing their own songs, improving their skills and really bringing their best to music they love. Here, check it out:

linky

I don’t mean to badmouth the Velvet Set. They really are filling a niche in the market – there are plenty of dancers in Sydney who really like this stuff. They like the crooners, the covers of neo songs. Either because they were there in the 90s when this was the swing scene (this 2001 clip kind of gives you an idea of that scene), or because it moves them now. I think neo swing is accessible for many dancers – especially those from the rock n roll scene and new to lindy hop – because it’s a lot more like modern rock music and a lot less like proper swinging jazz. Swinging rhythms and hot jazz can be quite alien for new dancers, and neo swing has a clear, unswinging beat that sounds a lot safer. And people really like that pin-striped, zoot suit look.


(img lifted from this 1944 newsreel)

This is quite interesting, because 1930s and 40s Australia really didn’t have the sort of ‘pure’ lindy hop culture that the US did. The sort of dancing these modern ‘swing dancers’ do, with its emphasis on 6-count steps like pass-bys, under-arm turns and so on (rather than the swingouts and more varied, complex counts and rhythms of lindy hop) actually look a lot more like the ‘swing dancers’ of the 1940s in this 1944 newsreel (thanks to Bobby White for reminding me of this).

This means that we nerds harping on about lindy hop – Harlem or LA – style, are actually less historically accurate (for our geography) than the ‘swing dancers’ at the Swing v Rockabilly gig. But then, a bunch of modern day middle class Sydney kids pretending to be working class black New York kids from the 30s is kind of dodgy, historically (and ideologically) speaking anyway.

To sum all that up, we’re looking at two different ‘swing dancing’ cultures in Sydney, the lindy hop one and the one more closely associated with rock n roll and neo swing. There’s lots of cross-pollination (usually lindy hoppers visiting ‘swing dance’ events), but they are distinct musical and dancing styles, and overall equate to a large Sydney dance scene which has always had strong links to the live music scene. It’s just that only one really gets into 1930s and 40s swinging jazz music. And that other likes it with a backbeat and a well-stocked bar. All this means that Sydney has a labouring DJing culture, a scene obsessed with live music, and lots and lots of social dancing nights – run by dancers and by local venues putting on bands.

Sydney’s interest in live music also means that we’ll turn out in force for visiting musicians from interstate or overseas. And by force, I mean a few hundred dancers – both hardcore lindy hoppers and ‘swing dancers’ of the more rock and roll variety. Sydney is a great town for live music, and that has bled into the dancing community, something that didn’t really happen in Melbourne, for instance, until very recently.

I might not be a fan of neo swing, but I do realise that having a vibrant partner dancing scene is a very good thing for lindy hop. And an interest in live music is good for musicians, and good for dancing.

[Edit: if you’re still struggling with the zoot suit thing, I wrote a post called zoot suit riot (riot) about it.]

[EDIT: This is one of a number of loosely-associated posts about music in Sydney lindy hop today. This list includes:

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1 thought on “‘Swing dancing’ and lindy hop in Sydney: an exercise in speculative fiction”

  1. This is a great article to stumble across. Determined to quit moaning and do something I recently launched a band ‘Swing & Things’ into my area, the upper North shore where there have been virtually no dance gigs for many years. We are 4 long time musos with years of experience in every kind of gig around Sydney . We are carefully bringing a dance crowd previously aligned to the old time ‘Rock’more to the centre of Jitterbug and swing at our first residency, Asquith Bowling Club each 4th Friday of he month. I’m also getting a good response for a bi-monthly event at a Wahroonga church hall.

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