Sept. 23, 2004


Swing is her thing — Rusty Frank keeps swing dance kicking in Playa Del Rey

Through thick and through thin, Rusty Frank sticks with swing.

The swing dance teacher hosts weekly swing dance events. Her latest is a Big Band swing dance with a World War II-era swing radio broadcast theme scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 28th, at the Westchester Elks Lodge, 8025 Manchester Ave., Playa del Rey. Tickets are $12, and swing dancers are encouraged to show up dressed in Allied Forces attire or 1930s/1940s period clothing.

Frank has not only been a touring performer, but also a writer and producer of programs and books on swing. But Frank first emerged as a professional tap dancer and teacher.

She authored Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and their Stories 1900-1955. The nature of her work — nostalgic dance — exposed her to another vintage form. She eventually fell in love with swing dance, especially the Lindy Hop, and swapped it for tap.

In 1996, she started hosting swing dance events and swing culture has gripped her since.

"I love the social side of swing dancing," she says. "With tap, you go to your class, do your routine and go home. With swing, you dance and interact with other people all night long. And afterwards, you socialize or go to a diner."

Swing music originally hit its highest peak from the mid-'30s to the mid-'40s but fell off the pop charts after the introduction of bebop, rock 'n' roll and rhythm-and-blues.

So what attracts someone to swing nowadays?

"I think people are attracted to it because it's upbeat music," says Frank. "It has a happy heart to it. It's not about death and destruction and violence, and I think a lot of people are craving music like that."

And swing making a comeback is not just a pipe dream of Frank — it actually happened. In the late 1990s neo-swing outfits like the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy hit the pop charts and a swing craze swept the nation. The retrofitted style and attitude was back.

"I had a surge in students during that time," says Frank.

"And the strange thing was, I could suddenly go out any night of the week and go swing dancing at a club instead of just occasional special events dedicated to swing. It was definitely a fad again, back above the radar."

One memorable moment of the '90s swing resurgence for Frank was when senior citizen Pete Vincent was walking his dog past one of her classes.

Vincent was a swing aficionado back during the first wave of swing. When Vincent heard swing music coming from the class, he had to poke his head in.

What he saw put him in a state of awe. Here it was 50 years after the swing scene of his youth, and he was witnessing a class full of youngsters dancing to swing music. Swing was back, and Vincent and other old-timers hadn't been clued in.

He was so excited, he stayed until after the class and introduced himself to Frank.

Vincent dusted off his old dancing shoes and became a regular at Frank's swing events.

Frank's senior citizen participant Fae Callen had a similar story. Callen started showing up at Frank's events and before long, Callen was a popular dance partner of the younger men, an original swing dancer showing the younger generation her moves, says Frank. Callen would write about her swing dance resurrection in her journal, says Frank.

"One time afterwards, I went up and asked her how many guys she danced with and she said, ‘Oh, I danced with 26 guys,'" Frank remembers. "I was shocked? Where else can a senior woman go out and dance with young guys all night?"

One tricky but essential element of a swing dance party is having a live Big Band. Putting together a sixteen-piece big band is often economically infeasible.

But there are a few neo-swing bands out there nowadays and even some neo-Big Bands that find ways to survive, often by making the band a nonprofit organization, allowing the band easier fundraising options.

Due to their sparsity and the financial issues, Frank books about one big band every two months at her dances. She's hosted the Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra and The Fabulous Esquires and will have the Wartime Radio Revue at her upcoming dance.