|Do The Right Swing|
|Written by William Ricchini|
A CULTURE REVISITED: Inside the Latest Retro Movement
A cool cat wearing a zoot suit spins a cute dame clad in a vintage skirt and Mary Janes. She kicks for the ceiling, exposing a vintage stocking, as he leaps above her head, almost losing his fedora. Then he dips her before heading home to check his e-mail.
Unless you've been living in a cave, you've probably noticed that kids are swing dancing like their grandparents did 50 years ago, except many have tattoos, bleached hair and multiple piercings to match the shiny spats kicking into the air.
Blame it on the movie Swingers, blame it on clubs such as Philly's The Five Spot or even blame it on the death of Sinatra, the king of the Rat Pack himself, but everybody is swing dancing. Just walk into a local swing joint on any given night and it can be a bit of a culture shock. Sure, everything that's old is new again, but zoot suits, martinis, cigars and red meat?
What started as something for a select group of throwbacks has become a hip alternative to flannel-clad cover bands and beer-swigging happy hours. But as most of the scenesters who were interviewed for this article will tell you, swing isn't just music, it's a lifestyle.
So guys, grab your fedoras, and ladies break out your grandma's stockings—this is your guide to the swing culture. From cocktails and fashion to the best swing bands and hottest dance classes, we've got you covered. Get ready to ring-a-ding-ding and start your own zoot suit riot.
With new clubs springing up every day (and old ones adding swing nights) there's plenty of swingin' options out there. But if the local swing scene has a headquarters, it's probably The Five Spot. Located in Old City, Philadelphia, the club is where many credit the birth of the local swing scene. While the club has always booked great live swing acts and had the perfect, dimly lit décor that could make Sinatra stop in his tracks, it wasn't until a Californian named Jacob Morris hit town in 1987 that things really stated to heat up locally.
Morris, who you've seen dancing everywhere, from the film Swingers to VH1, called Five Spot owner Phillip Cohen and suggested offering swing dance lessons.
"I got involved for very selfish reasons," Morris says. I had just gotten here from L.A. and I didn't know anybody. I was really just looking for people to dance with."
While the initial reaction was lukewarm, with only two students taking him up on the offer, soon lessons became more and more popular, as did the Five Spot. Today, a lesson can pull in as many as 120 students. "It's incredible how it's grown," Morris says. "Phillip was brave to open this club. And of course Swingers helped."
But Morris teaches more than dance steps; he teaches etiquette, romance and style to the crowds of guys and dolls who come eager to learn the steps. "It's about romance," he says. "I mean, do you really want to meet your future spouse in a disco dancing to 'Me So Horny?" Women have always wanted to be treated this way—lie a lady. The number one problem in this world isn't crime, it's a lack of politeness. For these guys, it's about opening doors, carrying packages; it's way beyond a fad, it's a new way of life."
One such local who adopted this new way of life is Joe Wood, a Philadelphian who maintains the scene welcomes you with open arms if you have the right attitude.
"I was so sick of hanging out on Delaware Avenue," he says. "Then I heard about The Five Spot from a friend at work, and after going I found a whole different culture. I've been there ever since. It's a great group of people hanging out and the music is excellent. But the big thing for me is that it is so sociable. You can ask a girl to dance and not have to feel like you're hitting on her."
After his initial visit, Wood says it didn't take long to pick up the steps. "It took four weeks of lessons with Jacob at the Five Spot for me to get it down. I'd kept my eyes open for moves I liked and I'd just ask people how they did certain moves," he says. "Everyone is open to helping you improve. I give Jacob a lot of credit, though. He's one of the best teachers. And more important than that, the guy really brought swing dancing to the area."
Since November of last year, Wood has been dressing the part, complete with fedora and zoot suit. [For the record: none of us at the Five Spot ever wore a zoot suit. Double breasted, yes. Zoot, no.] Now he books swing bands at local clubs—he most recently brought the San Francisco Bay area's Lee Press On and the Nails to Philly's District for a gig. Wood encourages checking out the new clubs, but shares a little insider advice for what to look for in a swing club.
"Most people don't realize this, but what makes or breaks a club is the dance floor," says Wood. "Always try to dance at a club with a wooden floor, never cement. Because we dance so acrobatically, if we aren't on a softer surface like wood, we're going to be awful sore from dancing."
In addition to The Five Spot, many other clubs in Philly, the suburbs and in Delaware offer swing lessons and live swing bands. West Chester's Café Chicane and Philly's New Market Cabaret both offer Thursday night swing parties. Non-swing clubs such as the Eighth Floor, Philly's Katmandu and the Edge are also getting in on the action with swing nights. Delaware's Continental Ballroom and Crystal Ballroom, both in Wilmington, offer swing lessons.
Jim Clark, who has been teaching ballroom dancing for 20 years, heads up the swing class at the Crystal Ballroom. They have a popular open dance class on Wednesday nights that focuses on swing. He says he uses the basics of ballroom and tailors them to more athletic style known as swing.
"Swing has more movement, kicks, jumps and hops than ballroom," he says. "We get people of all ages, a lot of college kids and young professionals. It's a lot of fun and it's also a good workout. We have people coming here and swing dancing instead of going to their aerobics class."
At Café Chicane, their swing night has turned into their most popular night of the week. "People are really into this whole retro thing," says Jonathan Nutty, the club's manager. "It's simple a fun way to meet people and it's high energy. People come in, sit at the martini bar, smoke a few cigars and really get into it." Thursday nights feature three swing classes: 8 o'clock for beginners, 9 o'clock for intermediates and a 10 o'clock class for the most advanced cats.
One of the more distinctive swing events in Philadelphia is the infamous Rat Pack Night. It began every first Thursday of the month at Philly's Silk City Lounge, buy recently moved to the suave 700 Club. While many clubs solely focus on the big band and hot swing music of the '40s, Rat Pack Night is firmly rooted in '50's cocktail culture. At Rat Pack Night, you'll hear crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., right along with big band favorites like Benny Goodman.
Along with his partner, Aaron Werner, former Silk City bartender and now co-owner and DJ at the 700 Club, Kurt Wunder says the music is timeless. "I worked at Silk City and I'd hear that music; everyone would always enjoy it so much," Wunder says. I like to play different music at our club for different moods. Cab Calloway is crucial. His tunes are amazing and his players were great. But I also love Benny Goodman, Harry James and, of course, the Nelson Riddle, finger-poppin' swing that Sinatra did so well."
For your personal collection, check out RCA/Victor's excellent Jazz Greatest Hits series featuring everyone from Glen Miller to Benny Goodman to Louis Armstrong. There's also some good compilations like Swingin' Singles (Rhino) and Wild Cool and Swingin' (Capitol). But the essential '40s and '50s swing collection should have everything from the jump swing of Louis Prima to the cool sounds of Bobby Darin, Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
But besides the legends of swing, many new bands are gaining popularity in the scene. Now that swing is a full-on cultural phenomenon of cocktails and Cab Calloway, it only makes sense that the scene has broken down into different sub-genres, each with its own identity.
There's jump-swing like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, traditional Glen Miller style big band, Latin swing and even ragtime incarnations such as Squirrel Nut Zippers. While swing's presence in the Top 40 has been somewhat exaggerated by the media (only a handful of bands have had actual hits and platinum record sales), the music has finally gone truly mainstream—hell, they're even swinging on VH1. Locally, the scene is largely live music driven.
Bands such as the City Rhythm Orchestra (voted best big band in Philly by Philadelphia Magazine in 1998) and Ronnie James and the Jez Hot Swing Club are at the forefront. Indigo Swing and the Brian Setzer Orchestra are known more for a boogie style of jump-swing, while the excellent Bill Elliot Swing Orchestra are more throwbacks to the big band era., playing a mellow Glen Miller-style swing that is elegant and more refined.
A lot has changed even in the last year since Wood started swing dancing. Swing is everywhere, no longer just a cool activity for those in the know, but one to be shared on the dance floors with kids wearing Birkenstocks. As a response to the media craze surrounding swing, a few months back, Wood and his friends started a club of sorts called the Swing Bomb. It's there way of spoofing the GAP ads you may have seen with actors swing dancing in khakis to Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive an' Wail." Wood and dancers Dante Murphy, Donna DeLong, Jacob Morris, Sharon Choi, Adrianna Lee and Marty Albion have been visiting GAPS dressed in T-shirts and khakis, armed only with a boombox and their best steps. "I thought the commercial was funny, so we started showing up at the GAP and spoofing the ad," he says. "We just hit 'play' on the boombox and go right into the dancing in the middle of the store. The GAP staff employees had no idea what [was] going on, which makes it even more fun. People see us swing dancing and they look confused. They wonder where we came from and why we're doing this."
SWING 101: How To Be A HEP CAT
A good place to hear new swing music and check out old favorites is on a few radio shows dedicated to the genre. One of the more popular programs is aired on WNJC 1360 AM, which features a swing show every Wednesday at 3 p.m. hosted by Mr. B. Swing information is also available on the Internet. Web sites Total Swing (www.totalswing.com), Pennsylvania 6-5000 (www.pennsylvania65000.com), Hep Cat (www.hepcat.com), and Jacob Morris' site (swankdaddy.com) are also excellent sources for learning everything from fashion tips to hot venues for the swinging set.
But it don't mean a thing without the right outfit. For some, getting the right outfit can be the most challenging aspect of all. Swing fashion expert Ashley Paine has written a guide that can be seen on swankdaddy.com, giving advice on putting oan authentic swing look together for men and women.
For the ladies, leather-bottomed shoes are recommended to get the proper pivot on your dance steps. Mary Janes with bobby sox are always a sure fire hit, says Paine. While heels are necessary, she warns not to get anything too high to avoid injury from dancing. Stockings (seamed or silk with a garter belt) are the next key element. For skirts, dancers actually go for '50s skirts rather than '40s skirts. Because of rations for the war, '40s skirts were closer cut and harder to dance in, so go for a wider cut '50s skirt. A vintage hat or retro haircut for the diehards will take care of the rest.
Now for the cats. For men, a nice suit, preferably pinstriped, will do nicely. For a soot suit look, simply buy an oversized jacket and pants. "Anything extreme is good,"she says in her style guide. "Try to mix stripes, satins and bright colors." Also, she says to avoid a wool suit if you plan on a night of dancing and don't want to sweat the night away. Vintage or new will do. Leather-bottomed two-tone shoes (black and white, brown and white, brown and beige) are a must. For accessories, suspenders are key, as well as a short tie, which can be found in most vintage stores.
For a more '50s Rat Pack look, Paine says to go for a skinny tie from a vintage shop.
Morris gives a word of advice on the most important accessory for men—your cocktail. "I highly recommend drinking gin and tonics, the most macho of drinks," he says. "Never, ever be seen drinking a chocolate martini, guys."
This article was originally published on September 11, 1998 by the Brandywine Valley Weekly and was reprinted with permission.