my soul delight (Feet! Feet!)
– Frank O’Hara.
Stories start at the end of things. The Odyssey began at the end of the Trojan War. This morning snuck up before I’d quite slept off last night. In Waterlog, my favourite writer Roger Deakin begins his swimmer’s pilgrimage around the British Isles ‘at the end of a long love’. We do it all the time; we divorce, move town and start again. We leave school and start work. At the end of three years living the high emotion of an activist’s life in fields and on picket lines, of shouting myself hoarse at first one government then the next, and at the premature end of my best friend’s life, I started dancing.
As I understand it, the Lindy Hop comprises sets of steps danced over a count of six or eight to syncopated music, goofy movements of the arms and lower body, and glib one-liners: ‘the only count that matters is Count Basie.’ It is easy to get started and difficult to do well. It is at the heart of a new scene in Brighton; the communication of lead-and-follow and the community of organised class knit together disparate bands, parties and events into a sepia-tinted sub-culture that is gaining traction week on week. This seductive world of old-fashioned glamour and dress-up romance marks time around one place. The bar is called The Mesmerist and it is the place where, once a week, myself and all of my friends take time out of busy midweek lives to face the music and dance.
The Swing Ninjas
‘We made this together. We come here every Wednesday night, the Ninjas and you guys, the dancers, and suddenly it feels like something ongoing – this community that we’ve created.’ Will Hood is the saxophone player in the Swing Ninjas, and we were talking late one night about our lives in Brighton, his as a musician, mine as a writer, and our different places as part of the jazz scene. ‘Until we started to play every Wednesday at The Mesmerist – it was all kind of a series of disparate one-offs for us. So many different nights. They could all feel very much the same – now we come here, we meet people this way, people come back. There’s a shape to it – there’s kind of a story to it now.’
The launch of the Ninjas’ second album was a genuinely wild night. There was partner dancing, a Charleston troupe, and a fire-eating, feather-wearing burlesque dancer. There was no room to move around the bar outside of the dance floor and little enough there; as dancers, we held each other close and upright, or ebullient leads swung laughing follows into one another like battering rams, vying for space. There were cocktails and canapés, and it was hard to tell by looking precisely who was part of the show: Brighton came out for the night in her best fancy dress, and the whole affair has turned sepia in my memory.
Lead and Follow
There is a Frank O’Hara poem called At The Old Place, about dancing with John Ashberry at a gay club in New York City. Every time I go to Honey Hush, I think of them at their ‘L B T T H O P’. Ours is at The A Bar; there are sailors on the flyer and the tagline is ‘dance however you want, kiss whoever you want’. It’s a gay swing night, and the most fun I ever have on the dance floor. The mood here is lighter than at all-lindy dances, where people are, sometimes, so serious about their dresses and their dance. Honey Hush is an evening in the company – and in the arms – of friends. As O’Hara has it ‘Button lindys with me / (It’s heaven!)’
Because Honey Hush is a gay space it is a relaxed space. People are less formal in their attitudes to one another, and it is one of few nights when the pseudo-rival schools of Lindy Hop and Jive share the same dancefloor harmoniously, alongside people who have never danced a step of either, spinning each other happily and erratically around. I am more confident leading at Honey Hush than elsewhere. Last night I danced most of my dances with women, and didn’t feel in that scenario that they would think my lead a consolation prize.
Lindy is a lead-and-follow dance, and because of media attitudes and social trends the image that has survived from the 1940s is heterosexual one: men lead, women follow and in every dance there is the frisson of possible romance. My friend and sometimes dancing partner Emma said: ‘People ask you to dance, and then you go hand in hand to the dance floor. It’s really tender; because you’re part of this particular dance scene, you have that contact that – well – certainly I would usually only have with my lover.’
Following a dance is a role that seems passive. More women dance than men and it is still the case, here at least, that most women prefer to follow, or at least begin following as new dancers, almost by default. I have seen groups of beautiful women in perfect vintage outfits standing in a line at the edge of the dancefloor, waiting for leads to become free and dance with them. The stigma attached to follows asking leads to dance has gone, but it is still an intimidating step to take, and it still creates the illusion of wall-flowers waiting for him to ask them to dance.
It bothers me, sometimes, the way that my behaviour changes in accordance with the received Lindy aesthetic. There are rules about asking for a dance, rules that encourage people to accept but rules that nevertheless formalise the process in such a way that we do, essentially, flirt our way onto the dance floor. One night at the Crazy Turtle Club, I even leaned against a booth and said to its occupant, ‘Alright, fella. You dancing?’ He looked up from his drink, smiled, and said, ‘You asking?’
As your dancing improves, following ceases to feel passive. Leads decide the figures of the dance, but they do not decide the way that you carry yourself, the way that you move, the way that moments of comedy are generated as you play off or play against them. A dance succeeds not when the follow is a rag-doll in the lead’s arms, but when lead and follow match their energy to one another, catch the beat and communicate. My friend said to me once, ‘You always know when you have had the best dance that you are going to have all night. It might be someone you dance with every week, or a complete stranger. You can’t predict it. They might not even have been dancing for very long at all. Your energy just comes together, and you hit every break, and maybe you mess up some of the steps, but that process of getting it wrong – that’s creative. It’s communication; it’s pure lead and follow.’
‘It’s about human touch,’ said Emma. At a Lindy Hop class you hold hands with sometimes more than twenty strangers. They spin you in their arms and dip you over their legs, and you move fast to loud music, and there is a huge endorphin high, and you are momentarily close to them in a very physical way. Dancing is intimate, rhythmic, communicative and social. You create a whole dance with one person, that transforms the song and finds submerged rhythms in it; your dancing changes as you learn from one partner, and then you go on, and do the same thing with someone else.
When I was broken and grieving, and I had lost the most certain connection with another human being that I had known in my life, I went and sought out dancing. At the time all I wanted was something else to think about. Something that would be, as one dancer puts it, ‘effortful’, to take me out of my sad, confused head, and put me back in my body for a little while. And suddenly I found myself at the heart of an exploding scene, often dancing three nights a week quite apart from class. Meeting people, learning about music, making connections with other hearts, other heads, other bodies, everywhere I went. When my friend Kieren was out of the country for work last week, he wrote back to us to thank us for the community we had created, and in particular to thank the follows for trusting him and his abilities, ‘sometimes more than I do myself.’ Lindy Hop has caught a cultural zeitgeist right now, with the vintage festivals around the UK and the emergence of electro-swing and burlesque scenes, but at bottom is about three things: music, communication, and human touch. And it is heaven!