Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Beat Beneath Your Feet: A Conversation with Lindy Hop dancer Nancy Hitzig

Nancy Hitzig & Carl Nelson (photo by Jess Keener)

The Lindy Hop is wildly acrobatic, fun without gravity. But there is an underlying political dimension to the dance that swings. Born in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1920s and practiced throughout the 1930s, Lindy Hop was among the first American social dance forms to bring whites and blacks together for a common cause: the beat beneath your feet. Named for Charles Lindbergh, the legendary aviator whose aerial feats the dance emulates with spectacular air steps, Lindy Hop sparked a cultural revolution back in the day, a subject explored by Alive and Kicking, the 2016 dance documentary examining Lindy’s revival in the disaffected 21st century. The energy is today as manic as ever, but with a whole new set of controversies fuelling the fire. As Toronto-born, London-based Lindy Hop dancer and teacher Nancy Hitzig, a participant in the upcoming International Lindy Hop Championships taking place this week (Aug. 24-28) in Washington, D.C., explains, touch dancing remains as contentious today as it was during the Great Depression.“The basic lead and follow structure of Lindy establishes a conversational connection, making it incredibly complex,” says Hitzig who, in January, will present original choreography she has created for Lindy at The Rag Factory, an intimate performance space on London’s Liverpool St. “But in what other environment do you get to have an informal, but structured conversation with a stranger? In what other environment do you get to hold another human being in your arms in a carefree but respectful way?”

dk: Lindy Hop is a vernacular dance form that a group of African-American kids created in Harlem, eventually taking it to Hollywood and the movies. How did you first discover it, born white and middle-class in Toronto in the 1980s?

nh: Studying voice and double bass as a teenager I loved early traditional jazz. I remember buying Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller and Sidney Bechet CDs in my neighbourhood used-record shop, Vortex. There was something about the rhythm that always made me want to move. In April 2005, I took my very first Lindy Hop class in Toronto, with local teachers Alana Hock and Mandi Gould, and went social dancing at the Reservoir Lounge that first week and was hooked. I was 19 years old then. I’m 31 now.

dk: You have lived in London since 2013 where you now teach Lindy yourself. How did that come about?

nh: I have been dancing for 12 years and teaching Lindy Hop for 8 years, in Canada and also abroad. I came to London in 2013 to pursue a Master’s degree in international marketing, to broaden my horizons as an arts producer, and found myself locking into an international dance career as a professional swing dancer. Most recently I have been winning contests in Washington, D.C. at the International Lindy Hop Championships, the European Swing Dance Championships and London Jitterbug Championships. I'm getting asked to teach all over the U.K. and Europe, which I think is pretty incredible considering that I had back surgery in 2009 and didn't know if I'd ever dance again.

dk: How popular are your classes?

nh: On average, I teach more than 6,000 people to dance each year across Europe and the U.K. Lindy Hop continues to be a participatory dance, an opportunity to meet new people in a structured and highly fun environment. At Swing Patrol, the school in London where I teach weekly, there are 1,200 people taking class each week.

dk: That’s a massive amount of people learning a dance that hasn't been in style since the outbreak of World War Two. Why is Lindy Hop, which made a comeback in the 1980s, still going strong, do you think?

nh: Lindy Hop is formalized but not codified. There are set moves but they are interpreted, not slavishly performed. How you dance those set pieces depends on how you connect with your partner. You are as percussive as the music. It is all-consuming – you can’t even check your phone. Which is a good thing.

dk: How can it be taught, then?

nh: It is taught in set-piece moves and patterns: 6-count, 8-count, Charleston. The patterns and movement are meant to be mixed and matched – but always honouring the rhythm, the music, the essential backbone of the dance. I think of it as a marathon sport: it takes time for the dance to settle into your body and once in there it changes with you and your body. I am such a different dancer today than I was even two years ago.

dk: You underline that the Lindy Hop is a partnership, a dance where two people, usually of the opposite sex, touch each other. How does that work at a time of gender diversity and an increasingly multicultural society? 

nh: The contemporary Lindy Hop community has seen its fair share of controversies surrounding these issues over the last three years, particularly with regards to creating a culture of consent as it relates to partner dancing, power dynamics and gender and dance roles. In Lindy, men lead and women follow. There are very few exceptions. The DecaVita Sisters, composed of the Swedish siblings Emelie and Rebecka DecaVita, are the world’s leading same-sex professional swing dance team. Even in London we rarely have same-sex teaching partnerships. The thought is that cisgendered men, especially those who grew up believing that ‘men don’t dance,’ ought to have a male teacher as a role model. I also know many women who would naturally prefer to lead. But they rarely get the opportunity.

dk: Is that really a problem? I mean, the women in Lindy Hop are hardly wallflowers.

nh: It’s hard in a partner dance to push ahead when you feel a bias, be it conscious or subconscious to your gender and primary role – particularly if you are primarily a female follower.

dk: How might you go about changing that?

nh: I have a personal mission to empower women who lead or follow to own their space on the dance floor. I want to turn them into guardians of the rhythm and willing to make mistakes. When you are a follower, you often are told to "just follow," which is ridiculous because it’s incredibly difficult to follow movement. Better to say, "Be clear about your weight placement and honour the rhythm of the song and your dance partner." There is no "just follow." Lindy Hop is about active dancing and active listening. At heart it is a social dance. It encourages interaction.

dk: What about the music? How do you think Lindy will regain a foothold in a culture in which hip hop and rap, which you can hardly dance to, have replaced the liquid rhythms of jazz and swing?

nh: Lindy Hop is exploding, right now. YouTube is helping tremendously to make the dance and its music more widely known. But more needs to be done. Swing dance teachers need to talk more about the importance of the music to their students, offering playlists and artist recommendations. Event organizers need also to engage key players in their local jazz scene. Jazz artists don’t learn how to play for dancers in the conservatoire. They learn by doing. It’s an art. Chick Webb was a heavy player and his band was a dance band. There are best practices and approaches to making that music sound authentic in a modern context. As scene leaders and dancers, we need to broker stronger relationships. We play a powerful role.

dk: Lindy Hop connects people. But how does it connect with today?

nh: We live in a global society. But we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other. We crave in-person, real-time connection. But we are losing those skills with our increasingly digital lives. Often those who come to a swing dance class or social want to meet people. They are looking for friends, a romantic partner, interesting folk. Lindy Hop reminds us how to relate to each other. How to ask meaningful and body-related questions. It encourages us that to ask for consent to touch another person and to thank that person for their time, energy and three minutes of triple steps. That is the bare minimum. It also reminds us to applaud for a live band whom we honour with our feet. Lindy Hop is a political stance. It gives you licence to connect with another human being in order to do something joyful together.

dk: Lindy's revival in the 21st century is the subject of Alive and Kicking, featuring Norma Miller, Frankie Manning's partner in Hellzapoppin'. Have you seen it? What do you think? Will it make more young people want to dance again?

nh: Swing Patrol brought Norma Miller to London in 2015 and I got to perform for her. When Frankie passed away she said she wanted to honour his memory by traveling and spreading the gospel of the dance and its wonderful community spirit. I have a number of friends in that film, including The DecaVita Sisters. I haven’t seen it yet mostly because it’s not available on Amazon in the U.K. Perhaps the film will motivate young people to try swing dance or other types of touch dancing for the first time. The time is ripe. There is growing interest in partner dancing in the culture already. That should serve as the catalyst for many more dance social forms to come.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style.

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