July 2, 2004

If you live on the Westside of L.A. and are a lindy hopper, chances are you’ve taken classes from Rusty Frank. Rusty began her career as a tap dancer, and turned her career toward the lindy hop in the mid 1990’s. She runs boths Lindy by the Sea and the Rhythm Club, two great venues for learning and dancing the lindy hop. This interview with Rusty will attempt to reveal her thoughts about how the Los Angeles swing scene has evolved over the last several years.
L.A. Swing Info: What made choose to run your business in LA as opposed to the many other metropolitan areas around the U.S.? Tell me about the early days of Lindy By The Sea and The Rhythm Club?

Rusty: It was January 1998, I had just returned from two years performing and teaching in Europe. I moved back into my apartment in North Hollywood and began looking for an area to “set up shop” that would not overstep other established swing dance businesses. One day in May, I got a phone call from a magician friend of mine, Brian Gillis. He explained that a friend of his was opening up a nightclub in Hermosa Beach and they were looking to jump on the swing craze. They were planning on having a Wednesday swing dance night and wanted a teacher for a beginner class on those nights. I had just started dancing with Peter Flahiff, and I suggested that the two of us come in. The club was called Pointe 705. And what a hit that was! We hosted the evening for four years. So, just through serendipity, I had found a location without stepping on any toes. It was quite nice. At the beginning, the level of dancing at 705 was what many have playfully called “Jump, Jive, and Flail” or “Yank and crank” dancing. Everyone was having a great time, but, in that we were dedicated Lindy Hoppers, we used to look out over the dance floor and say, “If we’re going to keep on doing this and enjoy what we do, we’ve got to raise the level of dancing! Otherwise we’re gonna go nuts!” It didn’t take any pushing on our part. As is the case universally, once people saw Lindy Hopping, they definitely wanted to learn it! People kept approaching us about starting classes. In August, a nearby church offered us their social hall to conduct classes.

The church was called St Cross By The Sea Episcopal Church. So we called our classes
Lindy By The Sea. Our first class had about twelve people in it, and it was a hit. From one class, we grew to two, then three, and then eventually up to five a week. Lent rolled around, and the church closed us down for the duration. We realized we needed to find a year-round location. So we found some local women’s clubs to rent, one in Manhattan Beach and then later in El Segundo.

In 2002, we decided to venture out on our own for the weekly swing dance. 705, like any sane night spot, relied on drink and food sales and wasn’t overly thrilled with the consumption habits of the swing dancers (water, water, water). But, we had a great four year run there. We decided to go the route of other ventures – halls. We found a local Elks Lodge in Playa Del Rey that had a wonderfully spacious 2,800 sq foot dance floor and comfortable and inviting lounge area. We moved our Wednesday night over their in April. In looking for a name of the club, we recalled one of Fats Waller’s bands – The Rhythm Club, and found our name. In December of 2002, Peter changed careers. So in January of 2003, I brought in two really fabulous dancers, Ron Campbell and Giovanni Quintero, as my teacher partners for the Lindy By The Sea School, and they’ve been terrific. Rusty & Peter’s Rhythm Club became Rusty’s Rhythm Club and has continued to enjoy a happy run since.

One thing that pleases me tremendously is the support for live music at The Rhythm Club. This was a big decision on my part. I wanted to support the fantastically talented musicians in our midst and present live music for our dancers. In November 2003, I initiated a new format: DJ music with Hilary Alexander on the first Wednesday of each month, and then live music for the 3-4 Wednesdays following in each month. I wasn’t sure whether or not people would be able to “afford” the night, and thought that if it didn’t work, I could just change back. But it did work. People supported the concept by showing up with regularity. Each Wednesday I get between 80-120 people.

I consider myself a small world, here in the South Bay. But, it’s solid and ongoing. Seven years going on eight now. Not bad when you think that it’s just through swing dancing. I’m quite happy.

I think what pleases me most is what this dance does for people. First, it gets everyone out and together. Second, it brings together people of all backgrounds and ages. The energy is so upbeat and positive. The “happy” music combined with social dancing, seems to just enrich all of our lives. I’m also really lucky in that I have a great support team. Since running the business on my own, there are key people each week who volunteer their services to keep the Rhythm Club and Lindy By The Sea running smoothly. DJs Nathan Eick and Robert “The Professor” Vangor, and various all-around angels Glenn Parkinson and Jessica Densmore. And then students who just help break down after classes and the club, so I don’t have to do it by myself. They just step forward and start putting things away. Really lovely people. Without them, I really couldn’t do what I do.

L.A. Swing Info: From your point of view, how has the lindy hop evolved from the height of its popularity in the mid 90s until now?

Rusty: As a scene, it went from a super fad to a much smaller scene. I know many of us miss the number of people and the fantastic excitement of those days (I think I always secretly dream that it will come back). It’s just much more quiet now… smaller. However, the energy and love for the dance is still there. And we must always remember that it’s still much, much bigger than it was before 1995! (And we’re talking about from 1950-1995!). So I’m very grateful that it is here at all. I remember loving swing dancing and having absolutely no place to go. That was my entire young life! It wasn’t until 1996 that I could go to a club and dance with people my own age! That was amazing.

As a dance, I can’t believe how far along it’s come. First we had Savoy Style, then Hollywood Style, now we have the best of the blending of both worlds. I am constantly impressed and excited by the level of dancing out there. How it keeps getting higher and higher. Through all it’s transitions and transformations, it seems that the critical elements of jazz improvisation and fun are still intact.

L.A. Swing Info: What would you like to see change about the LA Swing Scene?

Rusty: That’s actually a tough question. I guess I’d like people to really know and appreciate how lucky they are to have such a relatively big scene with all levels of dancers, as well as the fabulously talented musicians we have. When I teach out of town, people are always green with envy of L.A. Most other people only have the opportunity to dance once a month, and they may have to drive two hours to get there. So, perhaps, just how lucky we are. I think we have a great scene here. It’s diverse. We have loads of opportunities in workshops, instructors, clubs, camps, and bands. And I think our scene is very friendly and giving – that’s especially been my experience with the dancers I’ve met and come to know in the South Bay.

L.A. Swing Info: What advice would you give to a beginning dancer who is struggling and frustrated?

Rusty: “Enjoy the process… you’ll always be in it.” By this I mean to enjoy the learning process each step of the way. As a Lindy Hopper, you never stop learning and improving; it’s either going to be in the classroom or on the dance floor. Just relax, have a smile on your face, and enjoy the process. Don’t get tense and grumpy about being a beginner. Remember that we were all there! We stood in your shoes. We are empathetic with you and want to help you get better. We are not judging you – on the contrary, we understand you more than you know!! We made it. You can, too. And you will.

Also, I would suggest a healthy combination of classes to learn your basics skills and dance vocabulary (moves) and going out social dancing. Don’t just stay in the classroom… that’s like trying to become a pilot but only doing ground school, never getting up in an airplane to fly. The more you go out social dancing, the faster you’ll get better. Get out there and dance, and just have fun! Each time you go out dancing, try to dance with at least five dancers who are more advanced than you are… just put on “your armor of steel” and ask them to dance. Nothing will bring you up faster than dancing with a good dancer, whether you’re a leader or a follower.

L.A. Swing Info: What do you think is the most important thing to attract new people to the Lindy Hop?

Rusty: Let them see it! Lindy Hop is the best sales commodity we have! Just think of what made you want to get into it… seeing that dance duo dancing the Lindy Hop to some great tune! Each dancer who loves this dance and wants to see it survive can help by letting everyone they know in on the big secret – LINDY HOP IS ALIVE AND KICKING! The average person doesn’t even realize that there has been this tremendous resurgence. I’m constantly astounded by this, by how many people I meet who have always wanted to swing dance and have no clue that it is right in their own backyard.

L.A. Swing Info: How do you think your background in Tap has influenced your Lindy Hop dancing and instruction?

Rusty: On my dancing...Tap dancing was a great asset to me when I first came to Lindy Hop. I could pick up the footwork real fast. The rhythms were no problem for me. If I got lost for a second, I could easily improvise through it until I could pick up my partner again. However, there was one major stumbling block for me, and that was the partner dancing aspect of Lindy. I was used to having a direct connection with the music with tap dancing. There was the music and here was I. But with this Lindy dance, I had to wait for my partner to make a choice. The music, my partner, me. It was such a struggle waiting that extra bit. And I often didn’t agree with his musical choices! It’s worked out fine, though. And may I here mention my deep respect and admiration for our male leaders out there. You men are truly awesome dancers!

On my teaching...Having taught tap dancing for many years, I was used to having to break down immensely intricate rhythms and musical concepts. I think this gave me a great advantage coming in as a Lindy Hop teacher. I already knew that it required scores of different ways describing the same concept to reach each student. I had had loads of experience with this from my years of teaching tap. Any teacher knows that just having that time under your belt is an asset.

What is your favorite song?

Every one! The one I’m dancing to at the moment! Well, here’s one name:
Something’s New In Africa

What are your favorite swing bands?
Benny Goodman
Slim and Slam
Cats & The Fiddle

What kind of shoes do you wear dancing:
Keds Classic and the Swivel.

What Lindy Hoppers, past or present, do you admire the most?
Past, I love Jean Veloz for her feminine and adorable style, and Irene Thomas for her sense of zany. Present, I love Louise Thwaite, Sing Lim, and Virginie.