The director of the new swing dance documentary Alive and Kicking knows her subject from the inside out. Susan Glatzer is a swing dancer herself and “part of the dance world,” which she vividly depicts in the film as an exceptionally joyous, generous, and connected community. And so she did not want to make the film about just her own story. Continue reading…
“A lot of my filmmaker friends said, ‘Oh, you can make it a personal documentary,’ and I thought, ‘No, I don’t want it to be about me, I want it to be about this swing culture and the community. But I did appear in the film, a little Hitchcock-y. I said, ‘rather than a cameo or a walk-on, I’ll do a dance on.’”
She promises that some footage showing her dancing that did not make it into the film will show up in the future, perhaps as DVD extras.
Life on the Dance Floor
Glatzer considered some dance-related titles for the film, but was inspired to use something more all encompassing by a scene near the end of the movie with a dancer named Evita. “When Evita talks about happiness and the thrill that you can get on the dance floor and realizing that happiness lives inside all of us and how the dance reminds us of that, and then she says in the last lines of the film ‘and that’s being alive. That’s being alive.’ I thought ‘Oh, being alive. That really is a good title. Rather than making it specifically about a swing thing, it’s really so much more than just the dance. It’s not a how-to or comprehensive history. I really just wanted people to experience what it’s like. We’ll let them know as much as they as they might need to know, just the smallest amount and then the rest I just want them to experience the feeling.”
A Community with Passion
As we often see in documentaries, the more unlikely some group is to attract fame, money, power, or large numbers of people, the more passionate and close-knit the community of those who pursue it.
“It’s this sense of community that you only get in these subcultures. And it’s not like all showing up for a comic convention, all being fans together. With swing dancing they’re interacting with each other. And they’re not only interacting with each other; they are improvising that dance.”
“Each dance is so special because it’s how each partner is interpreting the music and reacting to their partner. So as Andrea Gordon says in the film, it’s almost like you dance with someone you have never met before and by the end you feel like you can finish each other’s sentences because you’re connecting on a very, very basic human level of touch and movement and music and improvisation and trust. There is that incredible connection that goes well beyond ‘we have a shared passion.’”
“You’ll never have the same dance and you’re always looking for that next high with somebody else. You go on to the next person, the next partner but that’s when you get the sense of community. And you can go to a town where you do not know anyone and have an instant community of people who will welcome you.”
More Fun Than Competition
There are some competitions in the film, but the Lindy Hop swing dancing it focuses on is refreshingly not about who is the best or whether the newcomer will topple the champ. While some dancing competitions have very strict rules, ballroom dancing for example, one reason these dancers love what they do is that there are no rules and they just try to have fun and make each other laugh.
“It’s not about having a beautiful line; it’s being a badass, and it’s being silly and goofy. The whole point of this is: take the time, have fun, be silly, be goofy, be as crazy as you can be. The competitions are really intense and people do amazing stuff but at the end they all just want to dance with each other and cheer each other on. Everybody just wants to see something great and have fun and then we all have a good time and dance with each other.”
The Great Swing Revival
One fascinating element of the movie is the revival of swing dancing so many decades after it was eclipsed, first by rock and later by club/EDM. Glatzer believes that relates to the forces that inspired swing in the first place during the 1930’s and 40’s. “This music came out of the Depression. So its whole purpose was to elevate oneself beyond one’s needs or circumstances. You can go out and dance and in the midst of that, have this space where you can laugh and play and get through those times.”
She points to the invention of VCRs and the broad availability for the first time of old movies featuring swing dancing that was a revelation to the Gen X and Y and Millennial generation. “People really respond to the joy of it. I think they also really respond to the coming together of people again in this very human connection.” She contrasts the physicality and connection to the world of social media. “You have to put [the devices] aside, you know? You have to go and visibly be in the same space where other people are and touch other people and be touched in appropriate ways. We’re lacking that in our society. It transcends the divisive politics of online interactions. All of these labels that we place upon each other, the dance cuts through all of that. All of that stuff that’s supposed to keep us apart. People on both sides of the aisle have been coming up to me and saying, ‘I feel like there is hope for this country. I feel like there’s a way to heal and to come together.’”