Broadway’s Big Swing Problem
This past week I had the pleasure of staying in New York City for a dance intensive. Though I spent a good seven to eight hours a day dancing, I made sure to cram in as many shows as I could manage (and afford). One of those shows was Bandstand. I’d been following Bandstand since it was at Paper Mill Playhouse and was excited to see what promised to be an original, fresh show hit Broadway. I didn’t love some things (the book felt forced and awkward) and loved others (like seeing the actors playing members of the band— all incredible musicians— playing together on stage), but the main thing that disappointed me was— wait for it— the swing dancing.
See, while I spend one half of my life as a musical theatre nerd, the other half is spent dancing, teaching, studying, and geeking out over lindy hop and balboa, the original swing dances. In the early 1990s, the swing craze took over the world, with movies like Swingers and Swing Kids, along with the 1998 Gap Khakis commercial, driving hordes of people to swing dance classes and dance halls across the globe. Now, twenty years later, while the craze has mostly died down in the public eye, the swing revival is still alive and well, with thousands of dancers from every corner of the planet gathering in cities around the world each night to dance the original dances of the 1930s and 40s to big band music. You’re a wizard, Harry.
As one of these swing dance fanatics (in fact, the dance intensive I was in town for was an invitational swing dance intensive), I should have been the ideal audience member for Bandstand. I walked in with high hopes. I wanted so badly to love it. Here was a musical about a swing band! But alas, as soon as the first attempt at “swing dancing” made its way on stage, I deflated. Frankly, I should not have been all that surprised. Broadway has a pretty bad track record with how swing dancing is represented on stage. From what I can tell, 1981’s Sophisticated Ladies (the Duke Ellington revue) was more about tap dancing and dream ballet, and while 1999’s Swing! the Musical presented authentic lindy hop on stage, the show didn’t even have any dialogue or a through plot. So any search for a full-fledged Broadway musical with authentic swing dance on stage will leave you coming up empty-handed.
What Bandstand put on stage was a mix of traditional musical theatre dance and tap dance (both done beautifully), along with a caricature of lindy hop. Granted, the average theatergoer with no swing dance knowledge would not be able to tell the difference between “real” lindy hop and what was on stage at the Bernard B. Jacobs. At intermission, I heard the couple next to me gushing about how amazing the dancing was (to my great frustration). But while authentic lindy hop is powerful, playful, and energetic, what was presented on stage was sultry and overly smooth. And frankly, the technique was bad. Mistakes were being made left and right that I correct within the first fifteen minutes of my free drop-in beginner classes. Don’t get me wrong; all the dancers on stage were incredibly capable and highly trained (albeit in a Broadway style); it’s not that they would not have been able to execute the movements correctly had they been given some proper lindy hop training. While attention was clearly paid to certain parts of the swing dancing, such as the lifts and aerials (as it should have been, given the safety concerns with improperly executed aerials), very little energy seemed to be put into teaching the dancers lindy hop mechanics and leading and following. The technique is different than Broadway jazz and different than ballroom, and the dancing should have reflected that.
My main issue comes down to the fact that this was a show about swing music, and that the dancing was put front and center. Surely, in a show about swing music and dancing, you can put some genuine swing dancing on stage. Apparently not. When doing a bit of research, I was shocked to find that director-choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler consulted with New York-based lindy hop instructors, and that assistant choreographer Mark Stuart was an “old school” lindy hop dancer and competitor from the days of the swing revival. It doesn’t show. With resources like that, there is no reason watered down lindy hop should be on stage.
So what’s the problem? Is genuine lindy hop not graceful enough to be on Broadway? Watch Naomi Uyama dance. Watch Jewel McGowan or Jean Veloz. Go. Look them up on Youtube right now. Tell me that they aren’t graceful. Technique and mechanics don’t need to be sacrificed for grace and polish. Can we not expect Broadway artists to learn new skills for their shows? Debbie Reynolds learned how to tap dance for Singin’ in the Rain. Julie Taymor studied Bunraku puppetry before staging The Lion King. Asking Broadway dancers to get a little deeper into their study of swing dancing for a swing show? That’s not a lofty request here. And if for some reason that’s not possible… What about hiring actual lindy hoppers? There are plenty, I assure you, especially in New York City. At the very least, let’s not reward bad lindy hop with a Tony nomination for Best Choreography.
Broadway, you can do better. If you want to have some “swing dancing” going on in the background of your token jazzy number, fine. I won’t expect you to prepare for months. But when you put a show on stage that is about swing music and dancing, some authenticity would be appreciated. And when you do put authentic lindy hop on stage? Some dialogue and a plot might be nice.
Gretchen is a musical theatre performer, director, and writer originally from the Los Angeles area. She is a proud graduate of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at Catholic University where she received her Bachelor of Music degree in Musical Theatre. As a performer, some favorite roles include Maria in West Side Story, Miranda in The Tempest, Artful Dodger in Oliver!, and Monteen in Parade. She was last seen as a soloist in West Side Story Concert Suite No. 2 at the Kennedy Center. As a teacher, Gretchen focuses on building a foundation of healthy, classical technique and blending it with contemporary styles (musical theatre/pop). She loves seeing her students get excited about singing and working on new material!