Madrid’s traditional dance, the chotis, is a near-static affair: partners stand tall, their toes almost touching, looking straight ahead, revolving slowly, round and round, on the same spot. And now it is facing a challenge from a livelier rival: the lindy hop, the swing-based dance that emerged in Harlem in the 1920s and eventually evolved into the jitterbug and the jive.
For the last decade or so, an evangelistic band of lindy hoppers has been spreading the word throughout the country and attracting a growing following. In Madrid, those in the know head to the Ya’sta club, which hosts a swing night every Thursday.
The crowd is a mix of all ages, sizes and shapes; some are clearly experts, many are struggling to keep up.
“Years ago, we used to go to a rock ‘n’ roll club, and we started doing the lindy hop. At first they didn’t like it, but after a while, more and more couples started getting into it, and eventually it took off: it made the place a lot livelier,” says Silvia Merino, who along with partner Juanjo Pacheco, is the driving force behind the Madrid swing scene.
Six years ago they decided to set up the Blanco y Negro Studio to teach the lindy hop and its many variants. Since then, more and more dance schools have either opened their doors, or joined in the craze, while numerous swing bands have also sprung up. Each year, they all come together for the Madrid Swing Festival, which celebrated its fifth edition in March.
“Dancing to swing is easy, and it’s very creative, because much of it is improvised,” says Jesús Carreras, who heads the MAD for Swing association, an umbrella organization for the capital’s swing dancers. Anybody interested in getting into the Madrid swing scene can find out more at its two-day Madrid Lindy Exchange, which starts on June 13.
“Some people might say that we’re looking backwards here, but it is important to remember that this isn’t a nostalgia trip. We really love dancing, and this music now has a life of its own, beyond the times it was created,” says Carreras. What’s more, it’s a return to dancing with a partner, touching somebody, holding somebody: “We all like to be led or to lead, not like the music you get in clubs where everybody is dancing on their own,” he says.
Swing was born in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression in the United States, a time with parallels to the world of today. The 1929 stock market crash brought the curtain down on the Roaring Twenties and the Charleston, and the new musical form soon came to represent the optimism of Roosevelt’s New Deal. “It was an escape from those tough times; young people were looking for a way to keep on going,” says Carreras. The popularity of swing spread with the growth of the big bands led by black musicians such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, and then joined by white artists such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. Dancers such as Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Dean Collins and Maxie Dorf were an inspiration to the pre-World War II generation.
Juanjo Pacheco claims that the term lindy derives from aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to ‘hop’ solo across the Atlantic in 1927: “A party was organized when he returned to celebrate the feat. It took place in the Savoy Club in New York: Lindy, hop.”
The lindy hop may be the best-known swing dance, but it’s just one of many, along with the balboa, blues, jitterbug, and jive.
Carreras says swing dancing is easy to pick up. “It’s a bit like the piano: there are keys that you can pick out a melody on, but combining all the elements at speed takes practice.”
Madrid’s swing scene now has its own coterie of bands: Mad 4 dixie, Jingle django (who can usually be spotted at the city’s Rastro flea market on Sundays), Gangster Swing and Los salvajes del swing.
“When we first approached the bands they didn’t quite get what we were doing, but now they have learned to adapt their music to our dancing,” says Pacheco. The styles range from strict traditionalists and neoswingsters, who use electric guitars and blend the music with other forms, to electroswing, which uses electronic instruments and programming.
It’s a return to dancing with a partner, touching somebody, holding somebody
Needless to say, for some, there is the added appeal of dressing up in 1930s and 1940s clothes: two-tone shoes, baggy trousers, pencil skirts, and hats. And of course, as Carreras points out, it’s a good way to meet people. “It’s not about dating, but everybody dances with everybody else, and it’s easy to get carried away.”
The latest addition to Madrid’s swing scene is Los lunes al swing, a two-hour dance session at the Centro Gallego, on Carretas street, just behind the Puerta del Sol. Javier Benedicto sees lindy hopping as social activism: “The powers that be want us working, they want to grind us down, but this is a way of feeling good about yourself, about being happy, trying something new. It’s becoming harder to have fun without spending money, but we can take our dancing anywhere.”
And they do: to parks, to the street of neighborhoods such as Lavapiés, and to their own parties, sometimes with live music, and other times mashing up everything from Glenn Miller to Pharrell Williams: “We are living in the present, we can adapt any kind of music and dance to it,” says Benedicto.
His motto is attitude, lindy, and soco. “Soco is our drink: Southern Comfort, the liquor created in New Orleans in search of something stronger than bourbon and smoother than whisky,” says Benedicto. But remember to consume in moderation: swing can be addictive.