Swing's Social Spirit Woos Former Hoofer.
(Rusty Frank now teaching swing dance)
Dance Magazine, Nov, 2000
by Janine Gastineau
After a lifetime devoted to tap dancing, Rusty Frank saw a swing dance video and promptly made a career U-turn. Her reaction four years ago to a tape of England's Jiving Lindy Hoppers was electric: "I was so excited, I blurted out, `I've GOT to do that!'" Frank says. Now she's one-half of the Los Angeles performance/teaching team Swing Shift with dancer Peter Flahiff, and even a near-fatal accident while rehearsing a lift hasn't tamed her enthusiasm for spreading the swing dance gospel.
This L.A. native and dance preservationist has worn several hats throughout her jampacked career: tap dancer, author of the acclaimed book TAP: The Greatest Tap Dance Stars & Their Stories; producer of TV tap specials and instructional videos; a member of the Smithsonian Institution's Jazz Oral History Project.
Frank's tap resume reads like a Who's Who in the field: training with Brenda Bufalino, Steve Condos, Gene Nelson, Miriam Nelson, LaVaughn Robinson and her mentor, Louis DaPron; performing professionally with Six Feet, The Rhythm Rascals and many others; and producing/directing and dancing in three consecutive all-star Jazz Tap! revues, featuring the Nicholas Brothers, Savion Glover, Jeni LeGon, Arthur Duncan and Bufalino.
So why the switch? Frank explains that she was drawn to swing dance because of "elements in swing that do not exist in tap: working with a partner, without mirrors, in a social setting; dancing through physical contact, done in the moment to music--like having a conversation. It's thrilling. And getting good at it is not a solitary experience; an evening of swing is very social, lots of styles, people's energy, musical choices."
For two years after her 1996 about-face, Frank did a professional trade in the United Kingdom, teaching swing dancer Simon Selman how to tap and touring with him as featured swing dancers for the Glenn Miller orchestra's tour of fiftyone European cities. Back in the States by 1998, she met Flahiff and they teamed up to teach and perform. Flahiff, dancing just three years, had just begun to teach, but while working with another partner, he felt "like a mannequin. In those situations, usually only one person did the talking. I knew there had to be more to it than that." When Flahiff met Rusty, he recalls, "We both felt the same about what was missing and what we wanted to bring to it." They are one of the rare teacher-teams who give equal weight to both leads and follows.
Their teaching style incorporates an intricate etiquette while espousing a determinedly positive philosophy. "Our biggest goal" says Frank, "is to make it as friendly and upbeat as possible. We're very calculating about how we teach. Every little detail is there to help you have a happy time, feel comfortable and confident, and promote community."
Frank and Flahiff's "Swing Etiquette" teaches students much more than steps, instructing them how to ask someone to dance, how to offer your arm to a woman and escort her onto and off the floor, how to applaud the band, what to say when you make a mistake, how to thank your partner at the dance's end. They stress the importance of eye contact and frequent smiles. As obvious as these elements seem, they say everyone needs to learn them, and that their students--an average of 400 in a given week--are, as Flahiff says, "soaking it up. If we go back fifty years or so, we see that, anywhere in the world, etiquette and a sense of decorum was a given." Adds Frank, "We do this because etiquette is no longer a part of our culture: it gives them permission to be nice."
Crucial to "Swing Etiquette" are the talks that happen during lesson two. The women meet separately with Frank, the men with Flahiff, and each teacher talks about their role as lead or follow and what their responsibilities are. Frank says, "I sit the women in a circle and tell them, `Every man there is scared to death. While we were taking ballet or tap classes, these guys were learning how to spit!'"
Using humor to build confidence and comfort in what has become an alien social situation--partner dancing--Flahiff and Frank encourage their students to smile, be pleasant, discuss any mistakes in indirect terms: "Remember, it's about the dance, not you as a person," Frank says. "Talk about why the step didn't work."
In France, they call swing dancing le jive. In Germany, they boogie woogie. Swedes do the double bug. There's a thriving swing dance scene in Singapore, and swing is taught and danced in Spain, Italy, Japan, even Argentina--where the local style is, according to the experts, "85 percent identical" to America's East Coast swing. Annual festivals and camps are held in England, France, Germany, Sweden and Finland, while the United States boasts booming swing communities in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, San Diego and many more cities.
The lindy hop was born in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in 1928 and named after Charles "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh, the first solo pilot to "hop" the Atlantic. As the lindy hop developed and grew through the 1930s and 1940s, it became the jitterbug, a handle attributed to both Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman. Swing faded from view in the 1950s. As the twentieth century waned, an astounding swing resurgence began as the nostalgia craze fanned out from music and film into social dance. The lindy hop then became known by the same name as the music to which it is intrinsically linked--swing--with Frank and Flahiff unraveling its mysteries for new arrivals.
Now Swing Shift's generosity of spirit and good will--what their pupil Mike Ghekiere dubbed "The Rejection-Free Zone"--has returned to Frank in spades. Recently, while practicing "the safest aerial lift ever" she fell, breaking her neck in five places. Narrowly escaping both death and paralysis, she has regained her fine motor skills and constantly wears a body cast and halo, which keeps her head and neck stable while her bones knit.
Two teachers, Lovelynn VanderHorst and Kim Hampton, have stepped in to keep Swing Shift classes alive in Southern California: their "Lindy by the Sea" series in Manhattan Beach, the weekly Wednesday night swing class and dance at Pointe 705 in Hermosa Beach, and their classes at the University of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles. And Frank's pupils raised more than $1,000 to buy her a television set with a twenty-seven-inch screen and a DVD player, knowing that the hardest thing for a dancer to do is sit still. "The environment we set up has come back to us more than tenfold," Frank says. "I have received over 600 emails, and students have brought me videos, taught me to crochet, even play the ukelele. I've gotten letters from all over the world, some from [swing dancers] I've never met, telling me things like 'my faith in human nature is restored.' And our students are really standing behind us, both emotionally and financially."
Frank is expected to make a full recovery, though it will take two to six months; until then, she's basking in the love and concern of her students, her best friend and dance partner, Flahiff, and her relatives in the worldwide family of swing: "From the minute I hit the ground, I felt lifted into a cradle of love and compassion, not to be set down until I am back on the dance floor." In the meantime, Flahiff et al. keep the Swing Shift going at several Los Angeles-area locations. Those interested can join the dance by calling (818) 753-7968 or visiting the teachers' Web site, www.swingshiftontap.com.
Janine Gastineau writes about the arts and is a Colorado correspondent for Dance Magazine.
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