|Jump, Jive an' Wail|
|Written by John Woestendiek|
From on generation to another, swing takes root again.
"May I have this dance?"
There, to blaring syncopated jazz rhythms, their legs bounce around as if they have somehow come loose from their sockets. Their arms wave wildly, at least when they're not clutching, spinning, dipping, or, for the truly accomplished, launching a partner into the air in such a manner that she will—believe it or not—land safely.
All of which, of course, is done in the appropriate attire (Mary Janes, stockings and a billowy dress or skirt for her; fedora, wing tips, watch chain and suspenders for him) and with the proper attitude—one that looks a lot like (could it be?) carefree exuberance.
Surely, this can't last.
Certainly this feel-good, dancing-as-a-team, touching-your-partner thing will give way to some new craze, or reincarnated old one, or a fusion of the two (country-line slam dancing, anyone?), sending swing into history for a second time.
It's just that, up to now, it's showing no signs of fading, leading some to believe that swing may stick around, if it hasn't already, far longer than your average fad.
"I'm not sure why it came around again," says Philip Cohen, owner of the Five Spot, an Old City supper club that opened in 1996. "Perhaps the better question is why it ever disappeared in the first place."
As dance instructor Jacob Morris sees it—which is from under the brim of the fedora that tops off his zoot suit—swing was a casualty of America's lost refinement.
Somewhere in the 1960s, a night on the town lost its elegance. Men decided they could just sit in the car and honk for their dates; music got more into itself, and so did dancers, letting go of their partners to strut solo.
"I think it's just a total reaction to what we've been experiencing—music you can't swing to, dancing at a distance, smelly bars and ugly rock singers," says Morris, 36, who began swing dancing at the Derby in Los Angeles in 1994 and appeared in the 1996 movie Swingers.
"I got here and I was miserably homesick and I had nothing to do," says Morris, who came to Philadelphia in 1996 to start an Internet advertising company. "I saw an advertisement for the Five Spot. I went there, but nobody was dancing, and nobody would dance with me."
Cohen, who admits to borrowing the idea for the idea for his swing-era supper club from California, agreed to let Morris, whom many credit with bringing swing dancing to Philadelphia, hold dancing classes. Cohen stuck with the concept through some lean months and is now reaping the benefits. The club fills nightly, and the classes attract about 300 people a week.
Indeed, some patrons have immersed themselves in the past, not just dancing the dance, but wearing the clothes, drinking the drink (martinis) and talking the talk (a swank cat, for example, would say "threads," not clothes.)
Morris encourages everyone to try as he runs the steps, spins and dips. And, proper swing etiquette: thanking a woman for the dance and returning her to her seat, apologizing when you collide with another couple, keeping drinks off the dance floor.
In addition to Morris, the Five Spot has a core group of regulars who stated coming early on. Many of them perform and teach swing dancing across the city, taking advantage of an increasing public hunger for all things swing, including books, music and, perhaps most sought after of all, vintage clothing.
It's not unusual for the music, dance and clothing of times past to resurface in America. We tend to recycle pop culture by decades, whether they're worth bringing back or not. In the '70s, the '50s were in. In the '80s, the '60s made a comeback.\
In the 1990s though, the way-back machine skipped a generation. Instead of a surge of interest in their parents' era, young people became enraptured with that of their grandparents and a style of dance that, though it raised eyebrows in its day, now seems to make a different statement.
With swing, the rebellion is against rebellion.
"I think a lot of young people are just tired of being cynical," says Adrianna Lee, a 27-year-old advertising copywriter. "You still have your punks and your goths, but there's a section of young people who are tired of all that. Pessimism is out."
Like others her age, Lee, who now teaches and performs, had seen swing dancing only in movies before visiting the Five Spot.
"It's uniquely American, one of the few things we can call an American tradition," Lee says. "Because of that, it will never go away for good."
Truth is, it never entirely did. There were always pockets carrying on the tradition in large cities. The Philadelphia Swing Dance Society has been holding dances (no alcohol or smoking) since 1987—years before it became cool.
That didn't start happening until around 1993, when the owner of the Derby in Los Angeles restored the landmark restaurant to its old Hollywood look and reopened it as a swing club.
Within six months, it was drawing huge crowds, at least partly due to the increasing popularity of the big band sound and groups like the Royal Crown Revue, Brian Setzer Orchestra and Cherry Poppin' Daddies. Old crooners like Tony Bennett were in again, and young crooners were busy trying to fill his shoes. Frank Sinatra's death pushed the music even more to the forefront, and not just in California. Swing was bursting out all over.
Then came the Gap ad.
That half-minute of young people dancing and flinging each other to the tune of "Jump, Jive an' Wail" while clad in khakis—never mind that khakis are not what the well-dressed swing was wearing in the 1940s—boosted swing into the mainstream.
So now, when even Buick ads have a swing motif, does swing have anywhere to go but down?
"I don't thing it's dying," says Jerry Segal, a board member of the Philadelphia Swing Dance Society, which has seen an influx of high schoolers and junior high schoolers at dances.
Neither does Cohen, though the Five Spot owner knows public tastes are fickle and fleeting.
"Every month it grows. New clubs keep adding it. I doubt it can be this popular forever, but it's got so many intrinsically solid, good, enjoyable aspects to it—touching while you dance, people getting dressed up, music that is shared by generations—I'd hate to see it go."
So would those whose only investment in it is a good time. But why worry? It's not in keeping with the swing attitude. Besides, when you're dancing on borrowed time, moving your feet to the sounds of yesterday, maybe it's best to dance like there's no tomorrow.
This article was originally published on January 24, 1999 by the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine and was reprinted with permission.