Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson in "Hellzapoppin'"

PHOTO: Courtesy of Cynthia Millman 

Stepping out of the past

Pasadena instructors publish book on the history of swing dancing

By Jana J. Monji 12/01/2011

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Pasadena is the place for swing dancers.
 
On Thursdays, the LindyGroove draws people from as far as San Diego to the Grand Ballroom of the historic Pasadena Masonic Temple. On Saturday nights, the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association features live bands and energetic swing dancing at Grace Lutheran Church. 
 
And every third Saturday of the month, there’s the relatively new swing dance party at the Arthur Murray Dance Studio organized by Ben Yau and Sheri Kang, who lead the award-winning One2Swing Jitterbugs performance group.
 
Sisters Erin and Tami Stevens have been promoting social dancing since 1983 through their Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association. But don’t be fooled — even though the name of their organization has ballroom in it, swing dancing (jitterbug/East Coast, Lindy Hop and West Coast) is their mainstay.
 
Tami has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Cal State LA. Erin has a degree in dance teaching and choreography from UC Irvine and has taught swing dancing around the world, even performing once at the White House.  
 
Together, along with their work with the association, the sisters also organize the Harvest Moon Swing festival and the Swing Camp Catalina. So it should come as no surprise that this year, Tami and Erin have written a book called “Swing Dancing,” from the American Dance Floor series. 
 
Of course, determining when a certain social dance originated can be difficult, which Tami acknowledges. But the book traces swing’s beginnings through its African-influenced roots — from minstrels to ragtime to jazz, and finally to the era when swing dance got its name. In the book, the sisters look at the Savoy nightclub in Harlem and the start of the performance team, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, the call of Hollywood and the eventual incorporation of different styles.
 
Swing, as the sisters explain, is now an umbrella term that covers different styles of dance, some of which are regional. Southern California was also an important center for swing dancers, particularly after the movies came to Hollywood. Here, the smooth style, West Coast swing, developed. In fact, West Coast swing is California’s designated state dance.
 
Swing dancing, like other types of couples dancing, declined in the 1960s, but there was a renewed interest in the 1990s. Remember the 1993 movie “Swing Kids,” starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale, Robert Sean Leonard (currently Dr. James Wilson on “House”) and Kenneth Branagh? How about the 1996 movie “Swingers,” starring Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau? Those films and the 1999 Broadway musical “Swing!” along with Bette Midler, Manhattan Transfer and Brian Setzer, were part of the resurgence in swing dancing.
 
Setzer, for his part, became famous in the rockabilly group the Stray Cats, but in the mid-1990s, he formed the Brian Setzer Orchestra, which plays swing and jump blues. Los Angeles also had its own neo-swing bands, such as the Royal Crown Revue.
The sisters drop lots of names, and if you’re reading somewhere with Internet availability, you can look up some of those dancers and the movies that preserved their fleet-footed, high-flying aerials and flamboyant expressions.
 
Dense with information and well researched, the book is the perfect gift for your swing dancing friends, people interested in dance history or fans of the big band sound.

“Swing Dancing,” by Tamara and Erin Stevens, is available for $35 at amazon.com. To purchase a book, call 
(626) 799-5689. For more on the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association, visit pasadenaballroomdance.com.

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