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CENTERPIECE

Dancing for Joy

Exuberance of swing-era music inspires the young and old to adopt the fashions and footwork of a stylish and simpler time.

July 02, 1998|SONDRA FARRELL BAZROD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Arthur Murray Studio in Woodland Hills, Jerry Jordan, 23, is enthusiastically teaching the latest dance craze to sweep the Valley and the rest of the country.

He not only performs the steps but gives the history of swing-dancing to a diverse group of students.

Nancy, who is 28 but looks 18, said, "I'm taking lessons because it's great that you can now dance with a partner. If you have to dance alone, you can do that at home. Of course, dancing alone took the pressure off, but with a partner it's so much better."

When 70-year-old Ann, who is married and full of pep, was asked why she needed to learn a dance that was popular in her era, she answered, "I never really danced when I was young, and now it's such a lift in life and so invigorating."

As with Nancy, Ann looked younger than her years, so perhaps all that exercise is as good as a face lift. It is certainly more fun.

Jordan takes his students back to the 1920s by demonstrating the Charleston, then the shag, Lindy hop, Balboa (so named, he says, for Artie Shaw, famous bandleader of the '40s who played at the Ballroom at Balboa) and jitterbug, which brought them through the '40s.

In the '50s came boogie-woogie and East Coast swing, and in the '60s West Coast swing, which Jordan says is done in more of a straight line. He points out that all these dances are called swing. He delights in showing the differences and similarities.

Jordan and his friends are so entranced with swing-dancing that they have studied old movies to be sure they perform the steps exactly. He is writing the Arthur Murray syllabus of steps and has done a great deal of research.

"I go dancing as often as I can. We follow the good bands to various locations around Southern California," he said. "There is a core of swing-dancers--about 200 to 400, ages 20 to 25--who do this."

Most, he adds, dress in the style of the period.

At the Arthur Murray Studio in Studio City, Alisia Embry, 22, teaches all the ballroom dances, but swing is her "thing."

She was 18 when a friend invited her to a restaurant where they did swing-dancing.

"It wasn't yet big then," she said. "It was a culture shock. I had no idea someone could dance with you."

Now, she said, it is a lifestyle for many young people who dress only in vintage clothing, even when not dancing. Vintage clothing sales have boomed. The '40s period has captivated devotees who admire the glamour of the era. The young women style their hair in pompadours and wear seamed stockings and platform shoes.

"It's a classy, chic look," says Embry. Young men, she adds, are the biggest buyers and wearers of vintage clothes. Some have zoot suits custom-made, and others wear more preppy '40s looks with suspenders and two-tone shoes.

Embry's partner, Christian Perry, 22, can be seen swing-dancing in a nationally televised Gap commercial.

"It's running every day in the Valley and it's also international," said Embry, to emphasize the wide-ranging popularity of swing.

Embry and her friends, too, learned the steps from looking at old movie videos. They make tapes of certain scenes so they can watch them repeatedly. Frankie Manning is one of their favorites.

It was in the early '30s that Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Ethel Waters and Bill Robinson went on the road with their bands, dancers and comics. Manning, considered to be one of the founding fathers of swing-dancing, traveled with many of those big bands. He's now 83, lives in New York City and is still dancing. He travels to cities around the country and abroad to teach people to swing-dance.

Embry, who has taught the dance to junior high school students, believes the swing era was a more wholesome, fun-loving period.

"I think there was a better lifestyle in the past," she says, by way of explaining her own generation's interest in that era. "It's a clean, nice, fun hobby and great exercise. That era represents modesty and morality. The clothes were less revealing and were made with quality and dependability."

Some of the more popular bands the young people follow are Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Zoot Band, which is playing at Pasion Club Restaurant in Studio City.

"Swing-dancing is high-energy and exciting to watch," says Alden Adel, owner of Pasion, which offers free lessons Wednesdays and Sundays. There is a younger crowd on Wednesdays when the emphasis is on East Coast swing, which includes the Lindy hop and jitterbug, dances that are energetic and fast. West Coast swing, done on Sundays, draws an older crowd.

"Part of the whole nostalgia is the clothes and hairdos," said Adel. "The style is simple but sophisticated. You enjoy looking at the dancers."

Lenetta Kidd is a singer and owner of the Moonlight supper club, which opened 10 years ago. Then, she says, the only group doing swing-era songs were the Step Sisters, inspired by the Andrews Sisters.

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