On a sultry Thursday night in July 2016, I sat on the front steps of the Pasadena Masonic Temple in Pasadena, chatting with Ryan, a cute newspaper editor, and Michael, a handsome software manager. We were attempting to cool off from the sauna-like interior of the auditorium, where 300 souls were jitterbugging to the music of Count Basie.
We were at LindyGroove, which may be the largest weekly swing-dance event in the country. As swing dancers who casually know each other do, we were talking about swing dancing; how we’d gotten into it and what it meant to us.
“Swing dancing has saved my life,” I said. Realizing how ridiculous that sounded, I backtracked: “I’m being overly dramatic.” But Ryan and Michael reassured me that my first declaration made sense. Lindy hopping had helped them survive this crazy world, too.
For those in need of life preservers, the Los Angeles-Orange County area — Pasadena in particular — has plenty of swing-dance resources. Most participants may not realize it, but many experts consider LA the Mecca of the large and growing worldwide swing-dance scene. Since Pasadena has the largest single-city, multi-venue swing scene of the LA-OC area, the City of Roses might very well be thought of as Ground Zero of a worldwide swing explosion.
“The heritage of the LA scene, including Pasadena, is very important,” said Sing Lim, a top female swing dancer who lives in Singapore.
Pasadena’s swing-dance riches include the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association (PBDA). This Saturday, the legendary dance school and dance venue will celebrate its 35th anniversary. Tami Stevens and Erin Stevens Key, the sisters who founded the school, are among the 15 people most responsible for launching the worldwide swing revival of the 1990s, said Cynthia Millman, co-author of a biography of Frankie Manning, the most famous swing dancer of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
PBDA will also celebrate World Lindy Hop Day and Manning’s birthday (Manning died in 2008 at age 94) on Saturday. There will be a day of dance workshops and guest instructors, topped off with a dance featuring the Phat Cat Swinger band.
“LA has never stopped dancing swing since it started in the ’30s and ’40s,” said Lim, “and the amount of information that can still be found is so rich.”
Locally, Clifton’s Cafeteria, a historic hipster restaurant and nightclub in downtown LA, has presented live swing bands on the weekends since it reopened in October 2015.
The iconic Wiltern Theater hosted four swing-dance concerts in 2017, drawing an average of 550 dancers a night. Local dance studios have been packed with would-be jitterbuggers. It’s an amazing time and place to be a swing dancer.
The First Time
Swing is a fast, athletic activity performed to swing music, a type of up-tempo jazz with a danceable beat, which was usually played by big bands during the Swing Era. Popular bands of the period included the Count Basie Orchestra, the Artie Shaw Orchestra and Benny Goodman & His Orchestra. Swing music and the majority of swing dances developed in African-American communities beginning in the 1920s.
I have swing danced from 1998 to 2000 and from 2013 to now. It’s fun and athletic. It’s a way to enjoy jazz music and learn history — while losing weight. I’ve enjoyed being part of a community and wearing retro styles. It’s been a great way to make friends and frankly, to meet men.
I first swing danced in 1986, as a junior at Harvard. I attended the North House dorm formal in a sheath dress covered in glittering red paillettes. The dress elevated me from Cute Asian Girl to Belle of the Ball for the night. After songs by Tommy Tutone and the Clash died down, the deejay put on perhaps the most well-known swing song, “In the Mood,” by the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Since no one really knew how to swing dance, the dance floor cleared.
Sexy nerd Alex Zabusky, a senior, asked me to dance. I nervously said yes, and he escorted me to the center of the dance floor. Everyone else stayed on the sidelines and just watched us. I’ve never felt more like Cinderella as I did when Alex guided me in a few basic swing moves.
Looking back, I realize that every time I get out on the dance floor I am trying to recreate the feeling that I had dancing with Alex. It isn’t about sex or love, although elements of sex and romance are involved. It is the feeling of elegance, grace and physical connection.
My next experience swing dancing came in spring 1998, at the height of the ’90s swing revival. My friend Charlie thought it would be something “different” to do on a Saturday night, so we went to a dance at PBDA. I fell in love with swing again. I signed up for dancing classes at PBDA the next week. I took classes and attended dances for the next two years. I also went dancing at the Derby restaurant, another important swing hub, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was featured in the 1996 movie “Swingers.”
The Stevens sisters founded PBDA in 1983, when Stevens was 25 and Stevens Key was 22. PBDA taught swing dancing from the start. In those days, most people danced solo (e.g. disco dancing), but the Stevens sisters sensed that change was “afoot.”
“In the early ’80s, people were tired of solo dancing,” Stevens said. “They wanted to get back to partner dancing.”
The Stevens sisters helped establish the Swing Revival in the Los Angeles metro area and internationally, with their pioneering work from the early ’80s to the mid ’90s. During that time, they taught swing dancing to several thousand people, including future swing instructors. In those days, few dance schools in the LA area were teaching swing.
Additionally, Stevens Key was researching swing dancing in New York City and networking with others — from New York City, Sweden and England — who were also piecing together a nearly defunct dance. In 1986, Stevens Key rediscovered Frankie Manning by looking him up in a New York phone book. Stevens Key and her then-dance partner Steven Mitchell persuaded Manning to come out of retirement, which he did, going on to teach a whole new generation of swing dancers.
The Swing Revival died down in 2001, which is about the time that I coincidentally left swing.
In 2003, stress from a documentary film I was trying to finish triggered a nervous breakdown. The meltdown released a Pandora’s Box of deep-festering emotional disorders, which had heretofore been contained with a shoestring and chewing gum: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder II, sex and love addiction, cluttering addiction and debting addiction.
I thought about killing myself. I was a stressed-for-success Korean-American woman. Once I had failed — and failed big — I felt that my life held no meaning.
Once I mustered the courage to live, I needed new, healthy behaviors to hold myself together. The things that saved my life at this time were deep therapy, 12-step programs, Zen Buddhism, caring friends and swing dancing.
PBDA’s dances gave me a place to go on Saturday nights, where I could see friends and forget about my problems for a few hours.
Things are a lot better now. I still hope to meet a special someone through swing dancing. More than 1,000 couples have met significant others at PBDA over the years, according to Stevens.
The sisters are national treasures, like Martha Graham and Twyla(cq) Tharp(cq). Another national treasure is my current swing-dance teacher, Steve Sayer of North Hollywood. He is among the top 20 swing dancers in the world, according to fellow international competitor Jeremy Otth of Costa Mesa.
I’ve danced with Sayer three times, and it’s like dancing with Gene Kelly. Not only is Sayer technically brilliant, but he exudes a physicality and sexiness that makes dancing with him a rare pleasure. Another advantage of living in the Mecca of swing dancing is the plethora of world-class swing bands that are based in the LA area. In fact, Jonathan Stout — the band leader of Jonathan Stout and the Campus Five — lives in Pasadena. The Campus Five is the best classic-swing band in the world, according to Michael Gamble, organizer of Lindy Focus, an international swing festival in Asheville, North Carolina.
Better Than LA
In addition to PBDA, the other pillar of the Pasadena swing scene is the swing event LindyGroove, which is held at the Pasadena Masonic Temple every Thursday night. Lance Powell established LindyGroove in 2001
Pasadena residents Ben Yau and his wife, Sheri Kang Yau, teach swing dancing at LindyGroove right before the dance starts. The Yaus also hold a swing event of their own, Third Saturday Swing, on the third Saturday night of the month at the Pasadena American Legion Post.
One reason why Pasadena became the center of swing dancing in the L.A. metro area is PBDA, which laid the foundation, Kang Yau said. Other reasons are that income levels here support it, Caltech students feed into it, and the traffic conditions are better here than in downtown LA.
“Pasadena has arts and culture,” Kang Yau said. “We’re not so much into night-clubbing here.”
Pasadena Ballroom Dance Assn. (PBDA) celebrates its 35th anniversary, World Lindy Hop Day and “Ambassador of Lindy Hop” Frankie Manning on Saturday, May 26. A day of classes from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. $20 per class. To register for classes, just show up. Dance featuring the Phat Cat Swinger band, 8-11:30 p.m., with swing lesson at 7:30 p.m. Special dance performances and vendors (vintage clothes, swing-themed jewelry and Bleyer brand shoes). $20 for the dance includes the lesson, refreshments and door prizes. Full-day Passport: $80 (includes all classes plus the nighttime dance). 73 N. Hill Ave., Pasadena (behind the Hill Avenue Grace Lutheran Church). For more information, call (626) 799-5689 or go to pasadenaballroomdance.com and go to the Special Events page.
Tamara Pinco took the photograph of national swing-dance champions Chanzie Roettig and Steve Sayer that appeared on page 9 of the May 24 print edition of our newspaper.