From the archives: The guy is in charge and you obey

More from the archives, this was written over twenty years ago. Attitudes have changed a bit, the man doesn’t always lead these days but female leads are still an usual sight at most venues in London:


Dudley, Judith. The Observer (1901- 2003); Jun 18, 1989.

They’re hopping mad on London’s dance floors as young Londoners have a nostalgic fling with the Thirties and Forties. Sex, drugs and disco are taking a back seat to the high morals and energy of an era when jive was alive and swing was the thing. JUDITH DUDLEY takes a spin with the new lindyhoppers who have abandoned Acide House to give shimmy a whirl. Sharp-suited men are firmly in the lead and full-skirted women fall willingly into step – until the music stops.

‘IT’S NOT ONLY THE CLOTHES and the music, it’s courteous manners and romance. These are the values reflected in swing dancing and they’re basic to our way of life. It’s good to see women being feminine, and I’m not being sexist, plenty of strong women enjoy jiving,’ says Simon Owen, who has just come off the floor at Le Palais. Fellow jiver David Ford adds: ‘People can show what they feel about each other on the dance floor without being vulgar.’ Both look in their early twenties and are immaculately turned out in zoot suits with short-back-and-sides crowned by greased-up quiffs. They are regulars on London’s jiving circuit.

Attempting to personify the Forties, they have rejected the individualism of Acid House and disco. ‘Disco is shit,’ proclaims Steven Berkoff, also at Le Palais – a view echoed by most of the dancers. They have blown out drugs and are chary about alcohol – the dances, lindyhopping and its up-tempo variant, jitterbugging, require concentration as well as high-level energy.

This is ‘touch’ dancing. ‘It allows people safe contact with each other and breaks through the social stigma of asking complete strangers to dance,’ say lindyhoppers Simon Selman and Amelia Hill Count Basie’s Begin the Beguine sets their beginner’s class spinning at the 100 Club, preparing them for the dance later on, as well as for swing nights at Jitterbugs or Fortissimo’s.

Male and female roles are clearly defined. The man always leads, stepping out in his sharp Forties bags, wide-lapelled, double-breasted jacket and kipper tie. The woman mirrors his steps in her slim-waisted, full-skirted dress and obeys cues to spin, twirl, distance herself and come close. ‘Someone has to lead and we stick with tradition,’ says one lindyhop aficionado. ‘But on the other hand, a woman can ask a man to dance without the sexual connotations that you get at discos.’ Everyone knows their place. ‘It’s a macho thing,’ says Elaine, a clinical psychologist doing the shimmy at the 100 Club. ‘The guy is in charge and you obey. But then you get out of there and go back to running your life.’

Nostalgia is a potent driving force behind jiving junkies, who dance two or three nights a week. They have kept lindyhop alive, learnt the original steps and continually strive to perfect their style. Unlike the disco scene, no on is afraid to show they are having a great time and on one is ashamed of ordering orange squash. Indeed, low bar takings and dissatisfied landlords have sounded the death knell for many swing dances, says Warren Hayes, co-founder of The Jiving Lindy Hoppers.

Lindyhop, named after the pioneer solo pilot Charles Lindbergh because of the improvised ‘solo hops’. Was threatened with oblivion until five years ago, when Hayes saw Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’ featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. This was the company that gave birth to ‘the dangerous dance’ of Thirties America that mixed races as well as classes at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, and took it around the US and Europe.

Hayes went to New York, tracked down 74-year Frankie Manning, one of only two survivors of Whitey’s dancers, and persuaded him to teach The Jiving Lindy Hoppers the original steps. ‘It was very urgent to build a connection with the first generation of dancers because the original steps were in dancer of being a victim of America’s throw-away society. Frankie Manning connected all the old steps to modern-day dance and taught us moves we could never have picked up from film clips.’

More than 50 years on from Manning’s first film choreography on Day at the Races, he is back on Broadway with the jazz revue, Black and Blue, for which he was nominated for a Tony Award. Talking at the Cat Club, home of the New York Swing Dance Society where Manning leads the floor in the Shim Sham every Sunday night, he said: ‘It’s such a revelation to see the youngsters of today interested in lindyhopping, and I feel very good about the fact that I’m able to contribute something.’

Beginners swing classes are held Wednesdays, 8.30 p.m. to 10 p.m., at Jubilee Hall (836 4835), and at the 100 Club on 2 July at 1.30 p.m.


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