There are many ways to bring in the New Year, and hundreds of people will celebrate this weekend in Pasadena by cutting a rug at the fifth annual California Balboa Classic (CBC). The three-day event will offer nearly round-the-clock dancing at the Pasadena Masonic Temple as well as at the Pasadena Hilton Hotel, with numerous dance workshops and competitions leading up to evening extravaganzas.
Even for those who aren’t dance-floor dynamos, the CBC should prove to be a marvelous time, as the event climaxes with a series of competitions in which amateurs will strut their stuff in California Balboa, Bal-Swing and LA Swing dance categories. At a time when the musical “La La Land” is packing movie theaters nationwide, it’s a great way to experience song and dance live and up close.
“We have about 12 instructors this year, with some coming from Boston, a bunch from all over California, plus Knoxville, Seattle and New York City,” says Andrew Hou, one of the CBC organizers. “There are little pockets all throughout the US where this dance is really popular. The whole weekend is focused on Balboa specifically, with 12 hours of classes and main dances that go from 8 p.m. to midnight, then late-night dances at the Hilton until 5 a.m. where you’ll still see 100 people on the floor at the end.
“People live on coffee all weekend, and a lot of people are really tired going to the office Monday and Tuesday,” Hou continues. “We’ll have people who’ve never swing danced in their life, all the way to top level Cal Bal invitational classes.”
According to Wikipeida, the Balboa is a swing dance that originated in Southern California during the 1920s and enjoyed huge popularity during the 1930s and 1940s, before experiencing a revival during the 1990s. In fact, the Balboa — which took its name from the dance hall where it originated, near Santa Barbara — helped drive the swing-dance revival of that decade, with many young dancers able to learn directly from older hoofers who had been around during its initial heyday.
“It’s done with a unique upright chest to chest style with your partner, so that you dance much closer than other forms of swing like the Lindy Hop, but with the same music,” says Hou. “Dance halls were so packed when it started that you had to dance chest to chest to avoid taking too much space.”
Of course, it takes great music to get people moving, and the CBC has that covered with three distinctive bands and a deejay. The Grand Slam Sextet is an ensemble which debuted at the California Balboa Classic in 2014, inspired by the sound and spirit of the Benny Goodman Sextet, along with Benny’s trios and quartets. The band features a rare combination of clarinet and vibraphone, backed by the Campus Five rhythm section.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Stout and His Rhythm Busters, featuring Miss Hilary Alexander, is one of the newest bands making waves on the SoCal swing scene. They focus on emulating the big bands of the early 1930s, just prior to the swing era, and the 11-piece band presents the style known as “Hot Jazz” in as danceable a way as possible.
Les Boulevardiers is a swing band that pays homage to legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who created an entirely new style of jazz music after losing two fingers in a fire. The band took its name from leader Jonathan Stout’s favorite cocktail, the Boulevardier, which in turn took its name from a term meaning “man-about-town, or bon vivant,” and features violin, two guitars, bass and drums, all teaming together to create a “European bounce” feel known as “Le Pompe.”
Finally, the event’s main deejay for between-band performances and the late-night dances, which run from midnight to 5 a.m. all three nights at the Pasadena Hilton, is Kyle Smith, a Los Angeles native now based in Denver. As the head DJ for All Balboa Weekend and Eastern Balboa Championships, Kyle has been instrumental in guiding the balboa music landscape, and one of his greatest talents is his ability to hand select competition music that both inspires and energizes the competitors and audience alike.
The CBC will feature a dozen instructors, but the prime mover behind the event is Pasadena-based dance expert Laura Keat. Keat began her swing dance career in Denver when she joined the award-winning Lindy Hop dance team, 23 Skidoo! and immediately developed a passion for the art of swing dancing.
She soon began winning national titles and gaining recognition as a championship lindy hop follow with an independent style and point of view that keeps her partners on their toes. As an instructor, Keat attempts to bring a fresh perspective towards developing each student’s technical foundation and individual style.
“Laura is one of the premier swing dancing instructors in the world, and has taught all around the world from Korea to Europe and the US,” Hou explains. “Southern California has been home for her for a long time now.” n
The 5th Annual California Balboa Classic takes place from Friday through Sunday at the Pasadena Masonic Temple, 200 S. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are available at the door for the 8 p.m. Friday dance for $30, and for the 8 p.m. Sunday dance for $20. Visit calbalclassic.com.