Alive and Kicking
ALIVE AND KICKING, documentary, not rated, Jean Cocteau Cinema, 2.5 chiles
The Lindy Hop, a fast-paced, acrobatic couples dance, was born during the Depression era in America and grew up along with the popularity of swing bands during the 1930s and ’40s. Both the music and dance faded away after World War II, but were revived in a big way with the help of a couple of 1990s movies and a dancing Gap commercial advertising stretch jeans.
The documentary Alive and Kicking is no exposé. It offers only good news — that swing dancing is not going away any time soon. The Lindy Hop may no longer be cutting edge, but it’s still cool — and youth-dominated, with all its gymnastics and cardiovascular demands. “Swing dance is pure joy set to music,” says one of the bystanders at a dance. “There are 200 people in this room and there’s not a single cellphone out.”
The film, directed by Susan Glatzer, offers a brief history of the dance form, which moved from the streets into the dance halls of Harlem and then around the country. Newsreel-style clips from the early days offer all-black dance teams demonstrating aerials, splits, whip turns, jiving, and the constant rhythm that made the Lindy Hop a popular pastime decades ago. The Lindy Hop was said to be the embodiment of Louis Armstrong’s sound and Count Basie’s beat. Some of the swing old-timers interviewed in the film include Norma Miller, the Queen of Swing, who was featured in the 1941 movie
Hellzapoppin’, and Frankie Manning, who started dancing in the ’30s at the Savoy Ballroom, the first integrated ballroom in Harlem, and danced into his nineties.
When not showing dazzling scenes of Lindy Hoppers hopping, Alive and Kicking follows a group of enthusiastic (and mostly white) professional swing dancers who travel around the world giving workshops and entering competitions. Unlike many young actors who dream of fame and fortune, these performers have more modest aspirations. Members of one up-and-coming dance team are shown at their day jobs, doing construction work and scooping ice cream. Later, ecstatic after winning their first major competition, the talk is about getting teaching gigs, which is apparently where the money is.
Swing dancing means community, connection, and healing for many of the amateur participants interviewed in the film. The egalitarian approach to partnering, the sense of play found in the dance, and even the opportunity to touch another human are mentioned as important facets of the dance. “There is an incredible intimacy that you have among strangers. You have a three-minute romance and then move on, and that’s OK,” says a devotee.
Two Swedish women, Emelie and Rebecka, became so close during the time they were developing a nonsexual dance partnership that they adopted each other as sisters. An ex-Marine named Augie tells how he returned to the U.S. after his first tour in Iraq feeling alienated and suicidal. It was dancing that helped him conquer PTSD — swing was the physical and emotional outlet that allowed him to reconnect with people and find a reason to go on. In New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina, swing dancers from around the country converged on the city to help preserve jazz music and to attempt to rejuvenate a devastated city. Dancing in the streets was back.
As a documentary, Alive and Kicking has the feel of a story without any tension. There are only so many glowing testimonials an 88-minute film needs to have. Still, if there is joy inherent in the dancing, there is also joy in beholding it. “There are people out there who need this dance,” says the Queen of Swing. There are places in Santa Fe to find it.
The joint is jumping: Dancers from