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Jitterbug Perfume

May 28, 2014 | by

Jitterbugs_(II),_by_William_H._Johnson

William H. Johnson, Jitterbugs (II), c. 1941

This week hundreds of passionate practitioners, armed with their passports and their dance shoes, have descended on the city where it started to celebrate the man who was one of its early creators.

“It has a universality,” said Cynthia R. Millman, who co-wrote a memoir with that man, Frankie Manning, who is revered for creating a gravity-defying move. “That’s why it was a phenomenon back in the day and why it’s a phenomenon today.”

 —“A Celebration of the Lindy Hop’s Founder,” The New York Times

Like many people, I have no wish to revisit my high-school years. Although my experience was relatively benign and I have fond memories of the institution itself, I have deliberately hidden my yearbooks and was not tempted to attend this weekend’s reunion. That is why, for a long time, I avoided Irving Place.

Through most of high school, my set of friends—some five girls and four boys—and I spent every Sunday evening at Irving Plaza, swing dancing. This was in the late nineties, and the swing revival was in full effect, with Brian Setzer picking up Grammies and the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies getting semiregular air play. Even at the time, I found things about it sort of embarrassing—the cherry prints, the Swingers-style bowling shirts, the general L.A. cheesiness—but it was still a highlight of my week.

Back then, Irving Plaza, the deco-era theater off East Fifteenth Street, had not yet been renovated. It was splendidly gloomy, draped in mouldering red velvet and bedecked with a giant, 1930s mirror ball. My friends and I learned about its Sunday night swing concerts at the 92nd Street Y, where, on Saturday nights (at my instigation) we would sometimes attend the Argentine tango classes offered by a pair of octogenarians to a largely geriatric crowd. Probably someone told us that the Irving Plaza scene would be younger.

In fact, when we started going, we were among the youngest people at Irving; most of the crowd was made up of serious swing dancers who’d been doing the Lindy-Hop since long before the “revival.” These devotees were immediately identifiable by their two-toned swing-dancing shoes and, later, by their confident aerials. At first, it was a minor ordeal when a proficient dancer with Brylcreemed hair and wide-legged trousers up to his armpits would sidle up and commandingly present his hand for a dance; what followed was, one assumed, disappointment for him and trauma for me—being jerked and tossed around and risking treading on those confident, two-toned feet. Worst of all, because I was tiny—when we started, I had yet to begin my growth spurt, such as it was—people sometimes wanted to throw me.

Usually we danced with each other, or with a series of old men who showed up by themselves and ranged from creepy to benevolent. Somewhere in the middle was a gent whom we privately named “Uncle Leo” because he so strikingly resembled the Seinfeld character. Uncle Leo took a strong interest in our education, often dancing with us, or making pairs of us dance in front of him while he barked orders and criticism. “RELAX!” he’d scream, or, “HEAD UP—LIKE THERE’S A BALLOON ATTACHED TO IT!” or, least helpfully, “THE JOY OF DANCING IS ANTICIPATING WHAT YOUR PARTNER’S GOING TO DO NEXT!” In retrospect, this was all pretty good advice.

There was another regular—no nickname ever stuck, although he did look like the Yiddish star Hy Anzell. He would stand, motionless, face blank, and sort of dance us around himself while we tried to look game. It never seemed to occur to any of us that we could refuse.

A couple of my friends turned out to be really good dancers. One shy boy was a natural leader with great rhythm and a real gift for invention. My friend Anna had the confidence to follow any partner. And Elaine quickly picked up the intricacies of the line-dances, the “Shim-Sham Shimmy” and the “Jitterbug Stroll.” But after a few months, even the least coordinated of our group knew how to dance.

It didn’t dawn on me until years later how valuable a life-skill this was. Knowing how to dance is useful, sure, at but what I mean specifically is learning to follow. Ginger Rogers famously talked about the rigors of dancing backwards and in heels, but there are other, subtler challenges: those of putting your trust in another person’s judgment—or, at any rate, seeming to. And that is something that needs to be taught. The same skills can be learned in any number of ways—sports, theater, music—but rarely is it as direct and immediate as on a dance floor. (Maybe there’s more utility to the cotillion than I realized, growing up in a cotillion-deprived milieu.)

What were we looking for? Was it the theatricality of dressing up, or the big-band music? Certainly high school is a theatrical age, and my affectations tended to skew toward the sepia-toned. But I don’t think it was about some romanticized nostalgia: the scene was too immediate and frankly, too bizarre. It was freeing to be around all these weirdos.

Do I need to say that my friends and I were dorks? I don’t think so. That’s obvious. We didn’t even smuggle in drinks. When I look back at us, I know I ought to be embarrassed by the enthusiasm with which we threw ourselves into the enterprise, and the contrast to the lives of our cooler classmates. I’m sure they weren’t listening to Artie Shaw on their bedroom CD players, or wandering around in too-big vintage housedresses, let alone doing the Charleston with random old men. And yet, when I am honest, and go back to those days—or when I pass the marquee of Irving Plaza—I remember only the exhilaration and excitement of it. And I remember Uncle Leo’s advice—which, in fact, applies to most of life.

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