I was teaching at a dance conference recently and had the good pleasure of sitting with a fellow tap dance instructor. We had never really had the opportunity to get to know each other before, so this was special. The conversation went deep quick, which I appreciated. We talked about our respective journeys in dance and in life. We shared how we had navigated the most recent shifts in our lives. We shared some of the joys and challenges we had faced in our journeys. The conversation was rich.
One topic that came up was Swing.
Swing is the term used for a particular kind of music, an entire class of social dances, an era, a vibe, and the groove or feel that undergirds jazz music (or at least is expected to). There is much debate over the word and how to define it, but most everyone agrees that it is an undeniable, and exceptionally important concept. When hanging out with the jazz cats you might hear someone exclaim, “Man, that band’s really swingin’!” That’s a good thing. Someone else might say, “The band is okay, but the drummer can’t swing.” That, not so good. As a tap dancer, I spent years learning how to dance without ever confronting the issue of swing. Once my ears were open to it, and I began to search for, experiment with, and experience it, my world changed for the better.
In our conversation my new friend recounted his search for a solid definition of the term. Having friends in both the tap dance and music worlds, he had asked anyone he could this question: “Can you tell me what swing is?” The next thing my friend shared is what struck me. No one could give him a straight answer. Everyone tried. But my friend wasn’t given anything that he could hang his hat on. I think my face told on my response to hearing this. It was hard to hear that professional tap dancers and musicians couldn’t even point my friend in the right direction.
No be sure, Swing is not a simple idea and comes fraught with years of artistic debate, and cultural nuance. Folks like Wynton Marsalis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Brian Blade, Roy Haynes, Robert Glasper, Savion Glover, or Dianne Walker (among many others) would have serious things to say about this. That’s not to mention any of the players who are no longer with us. My experiences with Gregory Hines, Harold Cromer, Jimmy Slyde, Savion Glover, Dianne Walker, Clark Terry, and a host of lesser known musicians and dancers, compels me to share. In the words that follow, my hope is to share a way of thinking about Swing that allows for further pursuit, study, and enjoyment – not define it. Here we go.
Swing is music.
Swing is a rhythm, and rhythms are meant to move people. Swing can be notated and has a unique musical quality. The kind of tension and release that happens in Swing is something special. While the idea of notating Swing is valuable, it can also be a rabbit hole. Have you ever seen two musicians try to articulate the difference between a triplet 8th note and a swung 8th note? It is the stuff of a Shakespearean comedy. That rabbit hole can be fruitful, but entrance into the music of Swing may be easier through other doors like listening. There was a time when the rhythm of Swing permeated the zeitgeist of the United States (even the world). You could not escape the music. It is no more the case. Approaching Swing today may require an intentional immersion in the music that established the rhythm in the first place. Immersion allows for an experience of the music that encompasses our senses. We are moved by the music. The way we walk, talk, play, dance, even think, can be changed by such an immersion. So we go, listen, feel, and take on the music. Thank goodness for the current players, live venues, and recordings.
Swing is a technique.
If you are a musician, tap dancer, or social dancer, you have probably encountered conversations about technique. These conversations include how drummers hold their sticks and interact with their instrument, tap dancers address the floor, and social dancers carry their bodies. Hold the sticks with too much tension and you can choke the drums. Prevent your feet from rebounding off the floor and the sounds won’t ring out. Keep your body too stiff, and the buoyancy of Swing will never be experienced. These techniques are the stuff of oral tradition. They are the specifics of craft work that have been formed through experience. Each bit of knowledge has high value and passed down as heirlooms to those who would keep and use them well. Swing can’t really happen without this knowledge. In this way Swing is exceptionally specific. It can be found or lost in the littlest of things. Our eyes and ears and bodies may have to opened to it by teachers. So, we find the people who have lived it, hold on to what they share, and care for the knowledge.
Swing is an interactive experience.
The interaction between the listeners, the musicians and their instruments, and the dancers, all happens together. Each interaction affects the others. Each player has their role, and everything feels connected. All of it is rooted in rhythm, and comes up through the entirety of the music, ultimately being expressed through movement. Tap dancers close the loop in a way, as their movement contributes again to the music. One of the wonders of Swing is that any choice, by anyone in the experience, can alter the experience for everyone. The way a musician plays can shift the quality of the music (more energy, stronger drive, etc.). The response of the audience can re-energize the band. The addition of dancing, especially in environments in which sitting and listening is the norm, can completely change the dynamic of the experience. This interactive experience is one of the beauties of any live expression, however, the rhythm of Swing (see Swing is musical above), and the idea of improvisation as a core value, give this interaction its own quality. To learn this, we must experience it. So, we go to the clubs, the sessions, and the concerts. We show up, interact, and learn through the interaction.
Swing is resonant.
The experience of Swing can activate something deep within us. It can speak to a part of ourselves that we may have ignored or forgotten and awaken it. The fullness of life can be expressed through Swing. When it happens, people move. When it doesn’t happen, the music falls flat and doesn’t connect. Resonance can happen on a few levels. It can happen because of personal experience, cultural experiences (tied to a specific people in a specific time and place), or the deeper universal human experiences. In my own experience Swing can be a vehicle to all three, connecting people with shared experience at each level, depending on how it is used. Regardless, when Swing is happening, it will resonate. So, we look and aim for the resonance.
I had a vocal coach who said, “If I were to write a book about singing it would probably have one sentence: open your mouth.” Anyone who as attempted singing with any seriousness will know it isn’t that simple. After serious pursuit however, such a simple conception may be just what we find to help navigate the complexities. An entire book can be written about Swing. Many more words and conversations have addressed the idea. In the end, Swing is an expression of life that grew out of a particular people and time and place. It has formalized over the years in kinds of music and dance. Even within the constraints of those forms there will be as many conceptions of Swing as there have been lives lived. Regardless, it is good to remember that there is so much more to Swing than what we see on the surface. For the musicians it’s when you play the note, and how. For the dancers, it’s what movement you make, and the quality and connection of the movement. For the listener, it’s what you see and hear, and what happens to you when you hear it.
So, we go, search, experience, play, watch, listen, experiment, and encounter just what Swing is.