The seven rug-cutters of the London-based Jiving Lindy Hoppers worked themselves and their unbuttoned audience into a fine lather at the Smithsonian's Baird Auditorium Monday night, despite the confinement of the hall's vest-pocket stage.
The program sampled popular swing dance forms of the big band era and their antecedents, ranging from the cakewalk and the Charleston to the black bottom, several tap numbers and, of course, the Lindy hop, also known as jitterbugging. The Lindy was the acme of those couple dances of the swing era involving partnering and contact. An invention of black Americans and clearly mirroring aspects of African dance, it was appropriated by whites and fanned into a popular craze of the '30s and '40s.
The Lindy fell into eclipse with the advent of rock-and-roll (though its moves profoundly influenced all that followed in vernacular dance). You can see it today in archival film clips from Harlem clubs of the period, in vintage Hollywood musicals and as practiced still by fans who cling to its memory and strive to perpetuate the tradition within such frameworks as the Washington Swing Dance Committee (which helped sponsor Monday's Baird performance and a sequel at Glen Echo Park's Spanish Ballroom Tuesday night).
It's unusual, however, to see the Lindy and other swing dances performed theatrically, with just enough choreographic shaping to make it viable as public spectacle. It's even more unusual that the dancers should be British. The Jiving Lindy Hoppers were founded in 1984 by Terry Monaghan (who was the Baird emcee) and artistic director Warren Heyes. They began by imitating movie routines, but then journeyed to Harlem to study with masters at the source -- such noteworthy veterans as Pepsi Bethel, Frank Manning and Mama Lou Parks, who taught the group several of the numbers on the Baird program. The Hoppers present as many as 200 performances a year at home and on tour, and have danced with the Count Basie Orchestra and the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, among others.
The great thing about the Jiving Lindy Hoppers is that though each one is clearly a disciplined, highly trained professional, their collective performances manage to retain the wholly spontaneous, improvisatory, uninhibited spirit of swing dance in its heyday. Though what they do is indisputably artistic, they don't project themselves as "artists," but as guys and gals in a delirium of dance fever.
Each of the numbers on the Baird program had its special charm and savor. One, a debonair, casual and languid tap duet derived from a Honi Coles-Cholly Atkins standard, danced as a tribute to the pair, was as illuminating in its shortcomings as in its attainments; it showed at a glance, in comparison with its historic model, how extraordinarily difficult it can be to simulate the ease and physical economy that were the Coles-Atkins trademark.
The evening's pie`ces de re'sistance were unquestionably the several Lindy show stoppers at the program's end, complete with spectacular "aerial" steps in which the partners fling each other high and low with gleeful acrobatic daring. The troupe's ebullient antics were a reminder of just how potent an image of youthful gusto and rebellion the Lindy encapsulated. The dance discharges its energies in wild, syncopated bursts that teeter on the verge of anarchy, held in check only by the most minimal constraints.
It illustrates, too, a principle that scholars have seen as a crucial aesthetic ingredient in much of African dance -- a unity forged among a multitude of disjunct and often contending elements. You see this in the Lindy at every level: in the tension between group coherence and individual freedom; between partners, in a ricochet from flying apart to coming together; and within the body itself, as a contest between the body as a whole and its independently assertive parts.
As the couples zoom around the floor, you see them as dynamic systems in maximum disequilibrium, held in precarious balance by intermittent links of hands and arms. Everything seems to be in contradiction with itself. Torsos and knees bend toward the floor, but legs pull upward in forceful angular kicks. Hips bop up, backward and to the right as arms thrust to the left. A sudden toss of one partner around the other's waist and then over a shoulder, and the whole dance threatens to explode. And all of this is done with strong accents off the main musical beat, throwing a rhythmic monkey wrench into the mix and adding to the general sense of danger courted and laughed at.
In addition to Heyes, the dancers were Carolene Hinds, Teresa Jackson, Temujin Gill, David Barrett, Judith Osborne and Donna Oldfield. The musicians of Brooks Tegler's Hot Jazz Band were Tegler, John Previta, Larry Eanet, Clyde Hunter and Jack Stuckey.