When swing dancing was first being revived in the 1980s, the Internet was an infant in academia. Passionate lindy hop aficionados hunted for VHS tapes of old dance videos trying to steal moves, and local dances and lessons were listed in newspapers. Today, technology has vastly changed how we communicate, and the very nature of the swing dance community. Our new “Pillow Talk” feature seemed like the perfect vehicle to discuss it. Listen in on a little late night conversation.
Susanne: Hey babe.
Craig: Hi! So when did you start dancing?
S: I had a rough introduction in the late 1990s around the time of the infamous Gap ad, but I got a serious introduction in the early 2000s when I moved to Washington, D.C. What about you?
C: I started around the summer of ’99 after the Gap ad, too. My girlfriend at the time discovered Friday Night Swing up in Towson, Md. I don’t know if she heard about it on the Internet or from friends, but I know we used to go to their website to get info. Its still just as crappy as it was then, except back then, everybody’s web site was crappy.
S: Hahaha. So true. After I started taking lindy hop classes for a while, I identified all of the major promoters and bookmarked their websites. And then I learned about Jitterbuzz. Did you use that site any?
C: I used it a little bit, but honestly, I moved to Pittsburgh for grad school in fall of 2000. I would check Jitterbuzz when I was home for the holidays to find the best places to dance.
S: Right. It was a great event aggregator. But oh, the frames on that site. And the mysterious Asian symbols, which I never quite understood. At the time, it was and is a great service for the lindy community.
C: I had mixed feelings about the ranking system. Sometimes, it seemed sort of arbitrary. Top ten dances for the week based on. . .where the one guy who put it together wanted his friends to go.
S: I know you aren’t alone in that. It was one person’s opinion. Mostly I just used it to see what the options were. The one thing to watch out for was his strong anti-Boilermakers streak.
C: So when, I got to Pittsburgh, I connected with a group of kids there who ran Mezz Jelly. It had a calendar feature to aggregate dances (although there weren’t nearly as many dances to aggregate!), but the big development there was the advent of the forums.
S: Ah yes. Of course, the big one in DC was SwingoutDC. It had a calendar as well. I think I may have created a profile and posted once or twice, but it wasn’t something I spent a lot of time doing. Frankly, I was intimidated by the number of prolific posters and sometimes the threads turned nasty. Being the conflict avoidant person I am, I wanted to steer clear of that.
C: Yeah, Pittsburgh’s website had the occasional heated discussion, but it was pretty civil. Mostly, there was just a lot of good dialogue about music and dance technique. It really aided in the social networking of the small community there. Of course, I did get caught up a little in Yehoodi, the originator of the online swing forums. And I might have found myself in the middle of a flame war or two back in the days of my impetuous youth.
S: Yehoodi is the go-to source for NYC area lindy hop and since they did that overhaul, the site has become even more of a resource. I’ve read online discussion about their podcasts, but frankly haven’t taken the time to listen. I should do that.
C: One of the reasons NYC took on such a national profile was that they were one of the sources for the revival of swing, and one of the first to start hosting regional/national events. I think one of the first exchanges took place in NYC.
S: Is that so? I’m not the historian you are. I recall that the Wikipedia page on lindy exchanges has a pretty detailed history of how they got started. (If Wikipedia is to be trusted.)
C: I think that the technology of message boards was really crucial in developing national and regional dance scenes.
S: Yeah. So, the calendars and message boards were a piece of it and that answers the first question: What are the options? The second question is the eternal: Where is everyone else dancing?
C: Yeah, in Pittsburgh, we would use the bulletin board some for that, but this was also the time that instant messaging was getting popular. I had a big list of dance friends on AIM, and we would just ping each other about dances. I remember one Halloween, where I messaged a couple of friends in the afternoon, and ended up with a couple of guys piling in my car to drive two and a half hours over to Cleveland for a three hour dance, and then another two and a half hours home. Those were crazy days.
S: You were hardcore!
C: I was a student!
S: (And maybe a bit crazy.)
C: Well, you’ve calmed me down a little. But I’m still crazy.
S: Hopefully not too much. I love your craziness. While you were a student, I needed to figure out where my friends were going that evening while I was at work. My solution was to create a Yahoo group so there was one address to message everyone. It started out with four and ended up with 40 before we slowly abandoned it.
C: You mentioned that you checked the other day, and the group still exists. Someday, some heady academics are going to have a field day mining our abandoned web archives. The other thing was the introduction of video online. Before YouTube was launched and everyone had a digital camera, there were a few sites for lindy videos.
S: Ah, so true.
C: My personal favorites were Natch.net and Glitterlisa. The videos on Natch got pulled down due to copyright, but it had an amazing collection of vintage clips. Glitterlisa was mostly videos of social dancing from exchanges and some competition videos. (Note: Natch.net is now a personal website for DJNatch. Glitterlisa is now a site about dolls. Go figure.)
S: Yeah. The D.C. scene had Dr. Ron, a chiropractor and lindy hopper who would film jams and post them on his site. There was also a reminder to kindly download the videos rather than watching them live, because that ate up his bandwidth.
C: Oh I loved Dr. Ron! He had great clips of Natalie and Yuval and Kevin and Carla. I also loved that you could download clips from all of those sites. In fact, I still have a CD I burned with a bunch of videos I pulled from those sites before they went down. Video may have killed the radio star, but YouTube killed those video websites!
S: It did. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for Dr. Ron now.
C: I’ve often thought about how dancers would watch other dancers and steal moves each week in the 1930s. In a lot of ways, those videos served the same purpose for us. Individual dance scenes were often too small for that kind of exchange to happen, but the magical power of the Internet made it possible for dedicated dancers to become really amazing, even in remote locals.
S: Yes. Though watching video has it’s limitations, of course.
C: Clearly. Nowadays, YouTube is the place to go. The videos from ILHC are up before the weekend is even over. I know that the American Lindy Hop Championships (ALHC) used to ban their competition videos from being posted so that they could sell them on VHS/DVD. But I think that’s backfired on them. Everyone sees the videos from some of these comps, and thinks, “That’s the place I want to be next year!” I still think about going to the Showdown after seeing the 2007 Liberation finals clip.
S: I read an interesting blog post about the topic of videos and compeitions on Wandering and Pondering recently. But back to technology…
C: The real game changer was around 2007/2008 with the advent of Facebook (aka The MySpace killer).
S: Yes. We joined the summer of 2008, I believe. I had hesitated for a long time to join because of all the negative buzz. But then, it was amazing and terrifying and wonderful all at once. The realization that I was late to the Facebook shift prompted me to join Twitter, because I swore to myself I wouldn’t be on the back half of a social media curve again.
C: I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the “social media” thing. Dancing is so inherently social to begin with, so Facebook is such a natural fit.
S: It goes without saying, but Facebook has completely changed how the lindy community operates. First, the problem of not knowing someone’s name is ameliorated. And leads not knowing leads and follows not knowing follows is less of an issue. Secondly, the questions “What’s going on?” and “Who’s dancing where?” can be answered simultaneously.
C: I also think that the flame wars that you got in Forums are less of an issue because there’s more genuine friendship, a more organic network, and less anonymity (real names, not user names and avatars!). A good example is Bug’s Question of the Day. I’ve seen some controversial questions generate really thoughtful dialogue.
S: I’ve never even seen that. Have you been holding out on me?
C: I found out about it by Facebook stalking Clyde Wright. Speaking of which. . . .Facebook stalking. . . . yea or nay?
S: I’m going to go with necessary evil. Though I draw the line when girls with dance crushes on you post on your wall, “I’m so disappointed that you’re married!”
C: I guess they don’t realize that my wife is probably my Facebook friend. 😉 Anyhow, I don’t really mind the stalking. I often get caught up in dancing when I’m out, and Facebook can be a good way for me to learn more about a person. Then when I see them again, I can ask them about something I’ve learned about them, or about a shared interest.
S: Of course. It’s also a great tool for introducing lindy hop to friends of friends.
C: Yeah, I often wonder what non-dance friends think of all of our dance statuses.
S: I’ve heard from non-dancing friends and family that they like reading about of our dancing and like it sounds like so much fun.
C: I know that as promoters, Facebook has helped us in connecting people and creating a sense of community. There’s a fine line to walk between being the loud annoying shill, and sharing your passion. I hope we walk it well.
S: Yes, it is something we try very hard to be conscious of. And even when promoting, I work to keep an authentic voice and not become an automaton. Because no one wants that in their feed. Plus it’s boring to write.
C: That’s the sharing your passion thing. Facebook has become sort of the central ground of all of these things we’ve talked about. Calendar events, community discussions, videos and pictures. . .they all get channeled through Facebook. A lot of sites have died out and been replaced by Facebook.
S: Yep. And then there are dancers who aren’t on Facebook, so those other outlets are still necessary, though perhaps in a lesser degree.
C: Its certainly a challenge as a promoter to make sure your event gets communicated in all of these different outlets, but I think overall, I’m grateful for the ways that technology has facilitated communication. I am better friends with more people now than ever before, and I think the dance community as a whole is stronger as well.
S: Ah yes, the strength of weak ties. I think there’s a book about that. Which brings us around to what we knew all along: lindy hoppers are awesome people. (Note: Susanne was wrong; it was actually a scholarly article written in 1973.)