Tag Archives: swing dancing

The International Appeal of a Hyper-Local Dance

A gentleman in his eighties hands off his walker, embracing his partner as they shuffle to a jaunty tune. Couples of all ages emanate from the inter-generational pair, filling the hall with waves of subtle movement. It’s 11:00 p.m., midway through the 6-piece band’s second set. At least five more hours of dancing await those with the stamina to carry on.

Men sport straw hats and knickerbockers while ladies with elaborate hairstyles keep rhythm in reproduction vintage shoes. Russian, French, and whiffs of hand sanitizer float by on an endorphin-powered breeze. A speakeasy appears in a waiting room and people snap bootlegger selfies before a mugshot backdrop. Parents take turns tending to children so each enjoys the dance floor. The drummer swigs from a green bottle as the MC introduces the next song. Hand-carved art deco borders frame the stage. Invocations of the storied past consist entirely of names: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Django Reinhardt, Benny Goodman. Nostalgia has been reborn.

Welcome to California Balboa Classic.

Modern Revival

California Balboa Classic (Cal Bal), a weekend of workshops, social dances, and contests drawing dancers from around the world, puts the typical conference to shame. Because attendees must engage their bodies to absorb the knowledge presented, exhaustion is physically exhilarating rather than mentally draining. Not only does Cal Bal know how to keep their attendees awake, its instructors are in such high demand that there is often a waiting list to register.

Founded in 2013 by Laura Keat, Cal Bal took up the mantle laid down by Balboa Rendezvous, an event that for ten years gathered new generations of dancers “where it all began”–the Balboa Pavilion in Newport Beach. Though Cal Bal has moved the festivities inland, dancers continue to flock to Southern California in mid-January for the chance to be close to balboa’s historic roots.

How does a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract a modern international following that rivals that of the Rose Parade?

Balboa is a social dance that originated on the Balboa Peninsula in the 1920’s and 30’s as teenagers interpreted popular jazz and swing music in crowded dance halls. In its “pure” form, balboa can be danced to extremely fast music in as small a space as two people holding each other close can occupy.

Over the years, balboa evolved to incorporate more exuberant movements from various styles of swing dancing. Modern balboa dancers delight in combining vintage and innovative stylings. Jodi Daynard, a dancer visiting from Boston, said balboa appeals to her for many reasons, but that “the creativity is the part I kind of live for.”

Global Appeal

Now in its fifth year, Cal Bal has become the premier event among dancers who want to enhance their knowledge of this vintage social dance. Hosted at the Pasadena Masonic Temple and nearby hotels, the event attracts people from almost as many countries as the Rose Parade does just a few weeks before. “This is bal heaven!” declared one dancer from the Bay Area.

Our neighbors to the north aren’t the only ones who travel to the City of Roses specifically for Cal Bal. People from Seattle, Denver, New York, Honolulu–not to mention Australia, Korea, Japan, and Germany–all gather in Pasadena to share their affinity for the vintage Southern California pastime. For one couple from the Netherlands, Cal Bal served as the capstone of their week-long trip to Los Angeles, a tour that included The Huntington Library and The Getty Center. 

How did a partner dance originating on Balboa Island in the 1920’s attract such an international following? The key could be the authenticity that the locale provides.

Stephan Wuthe, a Berlin DJ and jazz historian, was attending Cal Bal for the second time. “It’s the real thing here,” he said. Most modern balboa dancers can trace their knowledge to Cal Bal instructor Sylvia Sykes, who learned from the original dancers in the 80’s and 90’s and introduced the dance worldwide. Stephan noted that European instructors teach similar material to that featured at Cal Bal, but it’s important for him to attend an event in “the area where the dance was created.”

Lifelong Learning, International Community

Cal Bal’s world-class instructors are also a major draw. For three days, attendees spend hours mastering new techniques. “You can’t fake bal,” said Cal Bal instructor Augie Freeman. “You have to have a base knowledge to dance with somebody.” Often, friends enroll in different workshop levels so they can share what they learn afterwards.

Instructors and participants alike are diligent students, constantly seeking ways to elevate their dancing. This commitment to excellence is rivaled only by a commitment to fun. By Sunday morning, class sizes are noticeably smaller; many people stay out dancing and socializing until 4:00 a.m.

One of the notable things about balboa’s modern resurgence is the cross-cultural community that has arisen around it. “You can dance with anybody,” said Stephan. “For those three minutes, we are a beautiful couple.”

2017 California Balboa Classic takes place January 6-8 in Pasadena, CA


Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Nostalgia

An Open Letter to Young Women at Their First Swing Dance

*Trigger Warning: This post discusses sexual harassment and assault.*

[Edited 12/11/15–see addendum at the end]


On behalf of the swing community, let me first say that we’re so glad you’re here! I hope you have such a good time that you come back every single week. You make our dance community richer.

You’re going to learn a few basic steps, enough to get you out on the floor and moving to the music. Your teachers will get started in a few minutes, but first I wanted to talk about what to expect in this social situation, and remind you of your rights as a person.

Your instructors will probably encourage you to accept (enthusiastically, even) every offer to dance, especially if the offer comes from one of your fellow classmates. If you feel this enthusiasm, by all means, accept! Dance! Have fun! Make mistakes! Laugh at them! Try not to step on anyone! Apologize if you do! Just be your awesome self!

But–and this is very important–I want to make sure you also feel good about declining offers. Especially if you feel uncomfortable.
Too often girls and women are expected to smile and be demure, to put up and shut up, all while feeling as though they’d rather be anywhere else. Let’s not repeat this pattern that makes it easier for people–mostly men–to take advantage of us.


Tonight I’m encouraging you to assert your right to be in this space as a full person, a person with bodily autonomy.


It took me a decade to get to this place of asserting my right to a safe space, and I still slide back into harmful, enabling habits from time to time. I’ll sometimes eschew the directness I know is needed if men are going to learn that their advances are not always welcome. I’m trying, with this letter, to save you a decade of self-doubt and personal violations.


Too often, we teach new female dancers to be coy in their refusals, to say we’re “taking a break,” or “going to get a drink of water” in the name of politeness. But this places the burden, as usual, on women to coddle the fragile male ego. Enough. We’re only making things uncomfortable and unsafe for ourselves and the next generation of female dancers.


You’re probably going to be approached by a few older men tonight. They will ask you to dance. Most of them will be great people. But one or more of them might make you uncomfortable. I’m here to remind you to trust your discomfort and act accordingly. You do not “owe” anyone a dance. You have the right to say “no” firmly for any reason. Asserting yourself isn’t rude, it’s your right as a person. Don’t let the social expectation of female politeness bully you into saying “yes” to a situation that you think will make you uncomfortable.


It’s not about the intent of the person who is making you feel uncomfortable. Don’t even go there. That’s what predators want–room to get in your head and create space for thoughts like, “he probably doesn’t mean anything by it…” Nope. Trust your gut. Listen to yourself. Assert your boundaries, and brush off any douche-bag who tries to guilt-trip you about having or setting them.


You are under no obligation to make someone else feel welcome at the expense of your personal safety. You have as much right to this space as anyone else; as much right to your body as any other individual has to theirs. You are not obligated to feel flattered that someone is asking you to dance. You are never obligated to say “yes.”


The men who make you feel uncomfortable are counting on your also feeling too intimidated to stand up for yourself. They are counting on your ignorance of their MO. How could you possibly know that these men consistently target the newest, youngest, most inexperienced dancers in the room? (Welcome to the dance-floor power dynamics.)


These men will position themselves as benevolent, more experienced dancers who are doing you a favor. They expect you to be flattered, or at least taken back enough that the politeness you’ve been socialized to respond with kicks in over any inner hesitations.


These warnings and suggestions should not be taken as an indictment of older men as a category. You can (and should, when you want to) dance with people of all ages and experience levels–there’s fun to be had all around! This is not about advocating for snobbery. This is about remaining in tune with your comfort level, and respecting your very real feelings of discomfort. Predators are counting on you to dismiss your feelings in favor of abiding by social expectation. They look for girls who are young and shy and unsure of dance floor etiquette. They look for girls and women who have internalized the gendered social role of submissive politeness.


It’s time to call bullshit on that dynamic. All it does it take power away from us and hand it to another person.


For too long we’ve let lecherous older men prey on the young women who come here to have a good time, intimidating them into close contact and taking advantage of their naiveté. They hold women too close, they make suggestive conversation, they touch women inappropriately. This often drives women away, which weakens the dance scene and indirectly perpetuates this predatory behavior.


Don’t get me wrong; consensual inter-generational dancing is awesome! Making friends with people of all ages and ability-levels is part of the magic that is this community. All I’m encouraging you to be aware of are your personal boundaries, and to reject the burden of the cultural expectation that says women must make men feel welcome at all times. You have friends here. We’ll back you up. Women stay silent about this type of harassment for many reasons, one of which is fear that speaking up will backfire. The knowledge that our credibility may immediately be called into question, or that we’ll be accused of being “too sensitive.”


Well, that’s not this community.


Earlier this year, a woman came forward to share her experience of being sexually assaulted by an older dancer. Other female dancers soon confirmed his predatory behavior by sharing their own experiences. The most common response to their stories? “I believe you.” Prominent dancers in the community spoke out in support of these brave women, and serious discussions took place both online and at dance venues around the country. We all had to process what this meant for the community, and are committed to creating safer spaces for dancers, spaces that don’t create opportunities for predators.


So please remember that you get to say “no” at any time, not just to the initial ask for a dance. If you say yes initially and get out on the dance floor and start feeling uncomfortable with your partner, you can and should walk away from the situation.


You have as much right to be here as anyone, and that means feeling safe and in control of your body.


So let’s practice saying these perfectly acceptable phrases:


“No thank you.”
“You’re making me uncomfortable.”
“This dance is over.”


The more we assert ourselves in this clear, direct way, the more normal it will become.


Let’s make the dance floor a safer space for everyone. We deserve it.

Addendum: Several swing dancers have rightly pointed out that predatory behavior is not found solely among older men. The older-man/younger-woman dynamic is the most visible example of predatory behavior, and that is why I focused on it. But this power dynamic is by no means the only context within which abuse can occur. Unfortunately, people of all ages have been known to violate others’ boundaries.

There are many other things that must be done to make social dancing a safer space, chief among them educating men about appropriate behavior early and often. The point of this particular letter was to empower dancers who identify as female to trust themselves and refuse to engage with people who make them uncomfortable. I’m hoping that more dancers will feel comfortable paying attention to, respecting, and maintaining their comfort level. This includes enlisting the support of fellow dancers and venue organizers when their boundaries are not respected — whoever the offender might be. The burden is on all of us to make this an easier thing to do.

Cross-posted to Medium.


Filed under Contemporary, Gender Trouble, Power

Becoming Complicit: How I Got Sucked into the Disney Racket

About a year ago, I wrote about the reflexive, layered marketing endemic to theme parks. Well last night, I tentatively entered into the “magical” world of the master of all self-promotion: Disney. It was quite the moral struggle, and I’m fairly certain I sold out by going, as will soon be revealed. Consider this post a penance; a form of reparation, inadequate as it may be. Words are cheap, but at least critique offers some substance, however meager.

As I walked with the endless flow of consumers people toward the sounds of the big band, I tried to console myself by saying that I was only entering the periphery of this evil empire, and it was for a swing dance (my rebel base, if you will), and it was free. But alas, I was still complicit in the well oiled money-making machine. As one of my dance partners remarked, we were the entertainment at Downtown Disney that evening. We had played right into the promoters’ nefarious plan: Disney had us working for free to keep the non-dancing crowds there longer. We captured their attention for a few minutes or more with our performance of a bygone era’s social scene, complete with pseudo-costumes. In delaying their journey from one end of the shopping area to another, we helped to break them down so they’d empty their pocket-books at some food stand, overpriced theme restaurant, or over-blown souvenir shop.

The novelty of our dancing to the 1940s music was buttering them up, providing a free service to both the watchers and to Disney by making these consumers think they could afford to spend more at the retail and dining outlets because they’d just experienced a free show. Not that these folks wouldn’t have spent money without us: visitors of Disney come prepared to do so. It’s part of the deal: you know you’re going to drop a couple hundred, especially if you’re there with the kids. But the genius of Disney is that once you’ve done that and you’re inside their cocoon of nonstop entertainment, you feel like you’re getting it all for free.*

Aside from the incessant marketing and consumerism (and the odd sensation of being entertainment in/for a place I object to on principle) the other thing that struck me about the whole experience was the way people dress at the Disney resort. Even on the edges, in this themed outdoor mall, people wore the trappings of the brand. It’s part of the experience of visiting this carefully constructed space: wearing mouse ears on a hat or made out of inflatables, sweatshirts with the Disney name or Mickey’s face on them…the many souvenir outlets make the possibilities of being a walking advertisement endless.

This is all done proudly and arguably to excess. Hats and glasses and clothes and balloons, all can be anchored on one individual! Who dresses like this is “real life”?!! But here, being over-the-top is sanctioned, encouraged. The more branded swag the better! It shows that you are a loyal consumer, a real lover of Disney and its many lands and cartoon inhabitants. And it is understood that this is the way one should be. The little girls wear princess hats and the little boys wear Woody cowboy hats or Indiana Jones fedoras and the grown-ups wear anything and everything with the Disney name on it. And you just know that most of it was purchased here, in the ill-defined confines of this sprawling resort. The hat-wearers may only be here for the day, but the people with the branded clothing are in it for a multi-day Vacation: they are the ones staying in the themed hotels, making a destination out of this glorified retail establishment.

I have no real conclusion. Just a sense of amazement, mild disgust, and guilt at having participated. Because in spite of understanding the mechanics of what was going on and objecting to what dancing there meant, it was still enjoyable. I may not have given them any of my money, but I did (in a sense) give them my labor in return for the pleasure of live music and the space to engage in the best form of exercise ever invented. I didn’t stay away. And that’s why Disney always comes out on top. Damn it.


*This idea is not mine, but Dan O’Brien’s.

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Filed under Commodification, Contemporary, Nostalgia