The Swing Set

Sweatin' to the Oldies: Back-country tunes and slick city getups collide on the dance floor at Lee's Liquor Lounge.

IF YOU'RE AT Trailer Trash's Wednesday night gig at Lee's Liquor Lounge, and you're not a swing dancer, you've got two options. One: Drink. Two: Learn to swing dance. The dancers have taken over; the dance floor can't contain them. They spin out onto the sides, push back the tables and chairs, and still manage to bump into them. People run into each other, crunching toes and smashing metatarsi. But Lee's is only the most visible part of a bigger picture.

During the past four years the Minneapolis swing scene has grown from a loose network of lonely geeks into a legitimate subculture, with its own sub-subgroups, dance camps, clubs, newsletters, fashions, and choreographic styles. But the word "scene" is misleading; it connotes a sort of L.A.-style posturing we're lucky enough to see here only in small doses. Excepting the vibe surrounding Vic Volare's shows at the Front, Minnesota swing bears no resemblance to the movie Swingers and has nothing to do with slurping martinis or porkpie hats and pin curls. In fact, the largest swing contingent in town is comprised of boomers, who do most of their dancing in classes, or clubs with ruefully un-cool names like the Minnesota West Coast Swing Club, Cindy's Swingers, the Land o' Loons Lindy Hoppers, and the Twin Cities Rebels.

The very un-sceniness of the scene is part of its seduction. A person falls into it effortlessly, gradually, and whatever initially attracted her--a cute boy, perhaps, or novelty appeal--wears off as its deeper charms are revealed. Let me draw a composite caricature of a swing nut: You bring special dancing shoes to the bar. You pay for lessons. You meet at other people's houses to practice your trankey doo and shim-sham-shimmy. You always know what the next gig is, whether it's Trailer Trash (Western swing), the Vibrochamps (rockabilly), Jack Knife and the Sharps (also rockabilly), Vic Volare (crooner swing), the Senders (jump blues), or the Cafe Accordion Orchestra (Francophile jazz).

You see the same people orbiting a constellation of venues: Lee's, the Front, the Wabasha Caves, Mario's Keller Bar, Mayslack's, the Rendezvous Ballroom. And if you're lucky, some lindy-hoppin' freak shows you the 1941 swing-cult movie Hellzapoppin', whose Savoy-era dancer sequences showcase steps that make your average Lee's neophyte look like a Lawrence Welk reject.

The swing crowd also has its gurus--its "dueling kung-fu masters," as one friend calls them. Cindy Geiger and Lance Benishek have both been obsessed with swing for a good 20 years. Geiger teaches swing dancing all over town, and publishes Strutters Quarterly, a 'zine filled with listings, gossip, CD reviews, and historical articles. Benishek, also a teacher, pursues a passion for reconstructing lost dances. His Roseville pad is packed with old photographs, records, and sheet music, and he's endearingly snobbish about historical accuracy: Lance characterizes the dancing at Lee's as "disco swing." But authenticity is elusive. "A lot of [these old dances] are totally dead and you can only make your best guess," he admits. "I've done a lot of interviews with people who originated dances or made them popular." Benishek's greatest accomplishment may be his rediscovery and reconstruction of the double shag, the most popular American dance prior to the explosion of the lindy hop. Now, if you want to learn it, you have to go to him.

The rest of the scene isn't nearly as thorough in its quest to resurrect the past. The Vibrochamps wear rockabilly pompadours, but last week I saw them do a version of Cole Porter's "I Love Paris," with a B section borrowed from Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." For the dancers who follow Vic Volare, Trailer Trash, and the Vibrochamps, the initial in-joke appeal bound up in such haphazard historical revisionism has long since worn off. What was kitsch a few years back is now standard operating procedure. Nobody's laughing anymore, but at the same time, nobody's taking themselves too seriously. And some of this reinventive quality can be a little liberating. It's an unwritten rule of the Lee's scene that you don't ask people what they do for a living. I knew two dancers for more than a month before learning that one's a doctor, another a crusading ecologist who saves endangered plants.

The only shared enticement among swingers is that, at last, the generation born after bop has a chance to dance to jazz. It all clicked into place one night last fall at the Dakota, when singer Nichola Miller premiered her new band. A few of us low-rent types paid the high cover and sipped our drinks slowly. We'd been turned on to Miller's flawless phrasing and sexy voice during her regular stint at Lee's. So when she asked us to dance, we pushed back the tables on the tiny floor and followed her lead. Goddamn, it felt good. I don't know if anyone had ever danced at the Dakota before; the place certainly isn't designed for it. But the music was. "Desafinado," "One-Note Samba," even "All Blues" are not songs to sit on your butt and drink to. As we danced, the older couples just sat back and smiled. I can only imagine what memories they saw played out before them, and I'll never forget how thankful they looked.

Vic Volare and the Volare Lounge Orchestra play a CD release party Friday for their new record,Feel the Love. $5. 8:30 p.m. Lee's Liquor Lounge, 101 Glenwood Ave. N., Mpls.; call 338-9491.

 
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