Exclusive Interview with Rusty Frank on the 20th Anniversary of Rusty’s Rhythm Club!!
By, Brian Shim
Posted on 9/21/2017, Updated on 6/13/2022
If you live on the West Side of Los Angeles like me, you’ll know what it’s like to constantly have to drive all the way to Downtown L.A. or Pasadena to go Swing dancing. For some reason, the West Side and beach cities just can’t seem to hold on to Swing venues.
The one exception is Rusty’s Rhythm Club, a cornerstone of the L.A. Swing scene that is an oasis for Swing dancers on the West Side. It’s celebrating its 20th anniversary with a special event at the Automobile Driving Museum on Sunday October 1st (more on this below).
Its founder, Rusty Frank, is a lifelong dancer and has made immeasurable contributions to the Los Angeles Swing scene. To help celebrate this milestone, I asked Rusty to take a look back at her dance history and the numerous experiences she’s had while running the club for the past twenty years.
Here’s my exclusive interview with Rusty Frank!
Who are you?
Rusty: I’m Rusty Frank. Dancer.
Why do you love Swing dancing?
Rusty: I love swing dancing for so many reasons. It is such a happy dance. It brings people together. It never stops being fun, challenging, and interesting. I love the music. I love the quick relay from physical contact to dance. Boy, that’s exciting!
What did you do for a living before Swing dancing?
Rusty: Gosh, I’ve done so many things. I worked for Greenpeace. I worked for a human rights organization. When I was earning my Masters degree, I drove a taxi and then drove a limousine. I worked at Disney Feature Animation.
How did you get into Swing dancing?
Rusty: I always did swing dancing, but it was East Coast Swing, kind of a Jitterbug – step, step, rock step sort of thing. My dad taught me that when I was about 14 years old. When I lived in San Francisco, there was a swing dance to a big band every Friday at the Hyatt Regency right down there on the wharf. That was when I was living on a sailboat, and I would put on my roller skates, and skate all the way down the Embarcadero to the Hyatt, hide my skates in a bush, and put on my dance shoes and dance the night away.
But, how I got into Lindy Hop is another story. It kind of crept in slowly then hit with a bang. See, Bill Elliott started playing every other week at the Sportsman’s Lodge around 1994, and I used to go to all his shows. There were a few Lindy Hoppers there… though really just a handful. But, I was so excited to meet Bill and find a new big band… we became instant friends. And then at that same time Johnny Crawford was playing at some places, The Derby (before it was “THE” Derby, and the Rose, and The Atlas). So it was sneaking into my life, but mostly I was still a tap dancer.
Then a couple years later, the Stevens sisters (Erin & Tami, of PBDA) hired me to teach tap dance at their Swing Camp Catalina in June of 1996 (I had been tap dancing since I was 6 years old, and professionally since college). I walked into that ballroom and saw hundreds of people swing dancing, and that was it! You see, I always loved the music and I always loved dancing. I just didn’t know it existed to that extent. That’s it, right? You don’t know it’s there until you trip right over it.
I met Simon Selmon, of Swing Dance UK, in that great big beautiful ballroom and he was looking for a new dance partner. I was at a point in my life where I could just pick up and move, so I moved to London two months later, and we started our professional trade: I taught him Tap, and he taught me Lindy.
I remember the first week I was there I was performing at a gig with him! Of course, then it was just choreography. The road to learning how to social dance was much longer. But what an experience that was over in London; Simon and I performed and taught all over the place. As a matter of fact, we were the featured dance act in a Glenn Miller show for a 51-city European tour. That was amazing! We did eight numbers in the show, Tap, Lindy, a Fred & Ginger number… it was something. I remember just running on and off that stage for two hours (and a costume change for every number!)
How did you get into teaching and running your own club?
Rusty: In 1998, I moved back to Los Angeles, after that two-year stint in London. I knew that I wanted to continue teaching, performing, and running a club, and so I set out to find a dance partner. I went out dancing everywhere.
One night I was at the Derby, dancing, dancing, dancing, and this guy was having a big party right at the edge of that tiny floor. He called me over to his table, and introduced himself, “I’m Brian Gillis, magician, and I love the way you dance. Do you teach?” I told him I did, and he said he was going to call me for lessons.
Well, a couple months later, I got a call from him saying that his friends were opening a restaurant in Hermosa Beach and they wanted to jump aboard the swing train and have a Wednesday night dance, and they were looking for a teacher; would I be interested. Would I! Well, by this time, I had a dance partner – the wonderful Peter Flahiff. We met at the Derby, and we shared the same dream… to do this swing dancing thing full-time.
The place, which many of your readers will remember, was Pointe 705. Peter and I ran that dance for almost two years there. The funny thing was that not a lot of people could really swing dance who came there. We did that same beginner lesson week after week, and then we would DJ and watch them dance. I’ll never forget the night when Peter and I were up in that DJ booth looking down at the dancers, and we groaned, “They can’t dance! We HAVE to teach them or we won’t be able to stand doing this much longer.” It was pretty funny!
Anyway, right around this time, a local church invited us to do a short beginner swing dance series, and so it was perfect. The place was Episcopal by the Sea. We were having a blast, finally able to get people REALLY dancing. Then, you know what happened? They kicked us out for Lent. We had to shut down those classes. So we thought, we better get our own place. And we did, we rented the Neptunian Women’s Club in Manhattan Beach, and we called our school, Lindy by the Sea (riffing of the church’s name).
Meanwhile, we also realized that it would better to move to a hall for our dances. So in 2001, we moved to the current location, The Elks Lodge in Playa Del Rey. It worked out perfectly. Originally, we called our dance “Rusty & Peter’s Rhythm Club” (we got that “Rhythm Club” idea form Fats Waller).
Tell us about some of the “original” swing dancers that you learned from or just hang out with, like Jean Veloz.
Rusty: Oh! Was I a lucky one! Because I got started in the ‘90s, I got to meet AND dance with loads of the original swing dancers. Frankie! Norma! What can I say? Wow… getting to hang out with them, hear their stories. Frankie’s great laugh. And dancing with him!
Then when I moved back to L.A., I developed my friendship with Jean Veloz, which has been so life-enriching. What I learned from all of them was that they had a shared quality – a zest for life, and a positive outlook; they didn’t bring in negativity to their lives. That was my same attitude, and to see it in these elders was the best. Do I even have to mention the style! Their dancing style, and getting to just hang around that and soak it all in.
It’s not easy to make a living from Swing dancing. What were the challenges? How’d you do it for 20 years? What’s your secret?
Rusty: Oh, my! What a question. I guess the answer is that I like people and I like dancing. And I also want to do something positive in this world, and I really believe that I am doing that through swing dancing. I also like doing my thing… working for myself. But, you sure have got it right when you say, “It’s not easy to make a living from Swing dancing.” For me, the hardest part is that the work is relentless.
Because I run a weekly dance, and weekly classes, I can never let down and relax. I do the advertising, the artwork, the bookkeeping, the communication, the website, the, well, you name it. Thank goodness I seem to have the creative gene and the organizational gene. And the stick-to-it-ness gene. One of things that I have done to keep it going for 20 years is a combination of dance work: the club, the classes, private lessons, private events, instructional videos, etc. Just one thing wouldn’t make it.
What’s your advice to a beginner who wants to learn how to Swing dance quickly?
Rusty: Don’t stress. Enjoy the journey. Take lessons to get your foundation and, at the same time, go out dancing as much as possible. Don’t worry. Just get those dances under your feet.
Have you ever had a well-known celebrity in your class?
Rusty: The two most famous celebrities who have danced across our threshold are Bill Nye (The Science Guy) and Paula Poundstone (the comedian). I love that I get the funny people!
Bill took my group classes for over a year, and that was fantastic, because he added his own element of fun (which is, if you know his humor, terrific). Then Paula Poundstone came by and did some group lessons, and then shifted over to privates with me. I’ve been teaching her for over three years now, a couple times a week, both Tap and Lindy. With her performance touring schedule, she just can’t get out to the dances, and we have loads of fun in our private classes. She’s doing great! And it’s nice because it’s gotten me Tap Dancing again on a regular basis.
Over the years, you have done a lot of fundraisers. Can you tell us why?
Rusty: I was raised to always be part of making the world a better place. So for me, getting the opportunity to try to help, and create a place where people can also help, is deeply meaningful to me. I’ve always been of the mind that people are good and they want to help… I just create the opportunity, the place.
Here’s a list of these that I’m most proud of: 2002 Operation Dance, 2003, Fire Relief Fundraiser; 2005 Tsunami Relief; 2005 New Orleans Hurricane Relief; 2005 Fayard Nicholas Emergency Fund; 2007 Pops Emergency Fund; 2008-Present Good Sheperd Shelter for Battered Women & Children; 2010 Hop for Haiti; 2012 USO Fundraiser; 2014-present, Buddy’s Blankets Funraiser for Operation Blankets of Love.
What are some of your best memories from the last 20 years of Swing dancing?
Rusty: I wouldn’t even know where to begin on this one. When I think about it, I just think about a sea of smiling faces. Everyone dancing together. Happy. But let’s see. Here’s a few:
- This year, watching our school team, Rusty’s Rhythm Rascals perform at Camp Hollywood (after months and months of hard work).
- Dancing in that Glenn Miller show over in Europe and every show at the finale doing a handstand on Simon’s shoulders to the ending notes of “In The Mood”.
- Performing at the Hollywood Bowl, twice.
- Getting to be Rosie The Riveter in the Opening Ceremonies of the Rose Parade (especially because “We Can Do It” has always been my motto).
- The three special events I produced: “A Decade of Dance,” “A Night At The Hollywood Canteen,” including the one I co-produced with Hilary Alexander, “A Tribute To The Groovie Movie” – that was incredible – We got the three surviving Groovie Movie dancers together and honored them with a huge event at the Ebell of Los Angeles – Jean Veloz, Irene Thomas, and Chuck Saggau. It was the last time they were ever together.
- Driving up to Ojai with Jean to visit Irene and hearing all their stories.
- Teaching/performing in 25 countries (it’s that old saying, “You never know where your dancing shoes will take you.”).
- Watching some of my students “spark” and get together, get married, have kids.
- Watching students make friends; Watching students get through rough times…
It’s really like that scene in the movie, “Mr Chips” where the students are walking past him in a continual parade of all the different years… I see that same parade of faces of all my students, dancers, friends. It’s beautiful.
Tell us about your terrible neck injury in 2000.
Rusty: That is a looooong story, but to keep it short, it was a horrendous accident and a trying recovery. But I was determined, that if I was going to live, I was going to dance again, and that was that. I still have a lot of pain from it (in addition to breaking my neck in 5 places, I also hit my spinal cord at C2 which caused a lot of nerve damage – chronic pain and weakness in my arms and hands), but it doesn’t stop me. It’s a pain (literally and figuratively), but what are you going to do? Right? Nobody gets that free pass. I’m still here, so, as the famous Tap Dance movie star, Gene Nelson told me, “Onward and upward and don’t look back.”
How did it change your outlook on life in the long term?
Rusty: I don’t think my outlook changed, as I was always an upbeat person with a strong will, but I have to say, I was curious how I would deal with my recovery (would I be a whiny type, or a get on with it type)… and I was glad that I turned out to be the latter. I always say the lesson I learned was to graciously accept help. Prior to the accident, I was so fiercely independent, I would never ask for help. Now I need it and ask for it and accept it. So that was a good thing to learn.
How has the Swing scene changed over the years?
Rusty: There is so much that feels the same to me, the fun people, dancing, the music. The big difference is the internet. The internet affords people the opportunity of learning at an accelerated rate from all the clips on Youtube. I’m gonna sound like an old geezer now, but, “In my day….” There were only 4-5 videos around: Groovie Movie, Hellzapoppin, A Day At The Races, and Swing Fever. That was kind of it. If you were really lucky, add to that Don’t Knock The Rock. We would sit and watch those clips over and over.
I just typed in “Lindy Hop” in to the search window of YouTube and got 732,000 results! 732,000? Try 4 clips! AND, there are so many more festivals, camps, competitions. There’s just more access.
But I wouldn’t trade my beginning time for the world. I just loved it. It was learning, person to person. It may have been slower, but it was something special.
Oh, and another kind of funny thing; back in the 1990s, when you wanted to go out dancing, you started calling your friends on your land line, “Do you know where everybody is going tonight?” That was always the questions, “Do you know where everybody is going tonight?”! After a few calls, you kind of figured it out, and off you went. Now, it’s the miracle of Facebook. Honestly, I think Facebook has been wonderful for swing dancing for a myriad of reasons. Mostly, it connect us… we can make groups, and more groups of swing dancing friends. I love it when I see my students form groups on Facebook, it makes me feel like I did my job right. How about these two: Swing Posse, and Student’s of Rusty? Makes me so happy.
What do you see for the future of Swing dancing?
Rusty: I’m so excited to see Lindy Hop in a super strong place right now. We’ve got Susan Glatzer’s beautiful documentary, Alive and Kicking, to tell the world about us. All of the movers and shakers in SoCal have been at it for a couple decades now, and we all get along great, and that’s healthy for our scene. We are all professionals, and we take what we do seriously and with great heart.
And the dance community seems strong all over the world. It’s that old saying, “I wish everyone would swing dance then we wouldn’t have wars and hatred.” I also love the caliber of live music available to us here in Los Angeles. I love that so many young people are playing great music. I had a big band recently at Rusty’s, and there was just one guy in it over 30! We’re just so lucky. Yep. We’re so lucky!
What do you see for the future of Rusty’s Rhythm Club?
Rusty: The future? Just keep going. Keep it alive… and kicking.
Besides Rusty’s Rhythm Club, where else do you like to go Swing dancing?
Rusty: I remember when I asked Fayard Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers) who was his favorite Tap Dancer, he used to say, “Whoever I’m watchin’ right at the moment.” I second that, and paraphrase it to: Wherever I’m dancing at the moment.
Tell us about your 20th anniversary event.
Rusty: I’m so excited about my big party. My dream is that all the dancers who ever took classes from me or danced at my dance over the years from 1998 to the present will come the party so we can celebrate together!
I was looking for some place really special to hold the party, and I found it right in my of own town, El Segundo, The Automobile Driving Museum. This place is great! Full of beautiful classic cars, and they let you walk all around them. That’s just one room. Then there’s the ballroom -I’m bringing in a 2,200 square foot dance floor (the one used at the California Balboa Classic), and The Ladd McIntosh Swing Orchestra.
I asked Ladd if he could do three sets of some of my favorite music; I call it the ABC’s of Swing: Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie. I’ve got DJ Robert Vangor, and Master of Ceremonies Maxwell DeMille. AND, wait there’s more! There is also a vintage soda fountain there. Plus, there will be docents to answer questions about the cars. I’ve suggested that people dress up in the decade of their choice from the 1920s-1960s. Can you tell that I’m excited??
Any final thoughts?
Rusty: I really hope people make it all the way to the end of this interview, because I want to thank the ocean full of volunteers who have stood right by my side over these past 20 years. I could never do this without them. And my co-teachers, Ron, Gio, Ted, they are the best, greatest guys with whom to work. And to the community of dancers who support my classes and club and help keep this thing alive!
It’s amazing, isn’t it? I remember when I was in Australia in 2002 having lunch with Swing Patrol’s founder, Scott Cupit. I asked him how long he thought this swing dance revival would last. His answer sort of sent a jolt through me…“As long as WE want it to.” I understood the duty that went with that phrase, yes, as long as WE want it to (and are willing to put in all the work, love, time…)
So I thank everyone who has wanted to keep it a live. You can be proud, for, as I tell all of my students, this swing dance revival has now lasted longer than the original swing era. Dance on!
I know so many people who would not have gotten into Swing dancing without Rusty Frank. And what would those of us on the West Side do without Rusty’s?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview, and can make it to the 20th Anniversary Event at the Automobile Driving Museum on Sunday, October 1st. It should be a blast! – Brian