Grunting, straining and sweating like a couple of pro wrestlers, a young couple on the dance floor valiantly struggles to master a difficult back-flip maneuver. But the tricky move eventually reaches an impasse when the woman is stranded upside down on her partner's hunched-over form, leaving the pair looking like a piano mover hauling a human Steinway. Unable to move either forward or backward, the pair is eventually rescued by a couple of other dancers who separate them as if they were two dogs in heat.
"You were supposed to flip me over your back," the young woman yells over the big-band swing music blaring in the background, narrowly avoiding the Doc Marten-ed foot that whizzes by her mouth.
"And you were supposed to jump when I bent over," counters her partner, adroitly stepping over a body skidding across the crowded floor.
The bickering duo is soon upstaged by another unchoreographed crisis. During a particularly wild spin, another student accidentally rips a seam out of her Nifty Fifties frock. Unconcerned by the shredded material hanging from her bodice, however, she scarcely misses a beat.
Surveying the terpsichorean mayhem from the sidelines--by now the 20-odd grappling couples have turned the small studio into a reasonable facsimile of a marathon Twister game--a Juliette Lewis look-alike pops her gum.
"God, I love to swing!" she says, no doubt echoing the sentiments of everyone in the room. "I wish we could jitterbug every night!"
Stick your head into the Academy of Ballroom Dance during Sunday-evening jitterbug classes and it's not immediately clear whether students are simply polishing up their steps or mopping up the floor with one another. And as the evening wears on and the exuberant action becomes so frenzied that one hyperactive aficionado actually shorts out his belt-loop pager with his perspiration, that distinction becomes even less apparent.
Of course, the rough 'n' tumble, down 'n' dirty aspects of the dance--along with tap, considered one of this country's two indigenous folk dances--have always accounted for a large part of jitterbug's appeal. And that's probably as good a reason as any why erstwhile devotees of such scenes du jour as poetry slams, body piercings, raves and moshing are now poring over old dance videos to learn moves like the pretzel, the noodle, the launch and the yo-yo.
An acrobatic offshoot of a black street dance called the Lindy Hop, jitterbug was the lambada of its day. From its inception in 1927 to its heyday during World War II, the energetic dance was a manic rage that turned those who dared to perform it into people possessed, a dance-floor subculture who acted, critics charged, as if it'd been "inoculated with a riveting gun."
Like an insect whose larvae have lain dormant for years, the jitterbug is suddenly back again, infecting yet another generation with its souped-up strain of frenetic footwork. And while enthusiasts are indulging in wishful thinking when they claim that the dance is once again "sweeping the nation," the jitterbug revival is definitely creating a buzz in the nation's hipper metropolises.
San Francisco, the cradle of the jive revival, currently hosts swing shows on an almost nightly basis at various venues. When the Bay Area-based Vise Grip and the Ambassadors of Swing played that city's Bimbo's 365 Club earlier this summer, the event drew a crowd of nearly 900, virtually all of them dressed in vintage threads. New York, Los Angeles, Denver and Salt Lake City are home to similar, if smaller, scenes.
In recent months, Valley jitterholics--almost all of them regulars at the Academy of Ballroom Dance's Sunday-night classes--have been cutting rugs at the Atomic Cafe and Rockin' Horse Saloon whenever local rockabilly combos like Trio Grande, Rocket 88s and Flathead are on the bill.
Last Monday at the Rhythm Room, hepcats and kittens turned out in droves for a sold-out performance by the Royal Crown Revue, the swing revival faves seen in a nightclub sequence in The Mask. Great White Hope, a Los Angeles-based group, recently signed with Warner Bros., making it the first swing renaissance act to land a major recording contract.
Some view jitterbug's new popularity as a backlash against the dreary nihilism of the grunge movement. "People are tired of all that negativity," says Michael Moss, publisher of San Francisco's Swing Time magazine. "They want to go out and have fun again. Swing is a great excuse to get dressed up and be glamorous again."
Others chalk up the jitterbug jones to the same sort of retro wanderlust that has Gen Xers tossing back martinis at Chez Nous, cruising thrift stores for Martin Denny records and watching Tony Bennett on MTV.
"These are things that have always been around, but they just keep getting rediscovered," explains Jim Cherry, a Phoenix artist and sometime promoter who sponsored a jitterbug lounge dance at the Copper Queen earlier this summer. "In art, they call that 'reappropriating.' Combinations are forming out of old atoms into new molecules."
No one is likely to confuse the Academy of Ballroom Dance studio with a WW II USO canteen--in the Forties, Rosie the Riveter did not have tattoos snaking up out of her bobby socks.
Still, "there's definitely some kind of a time-machine thing happening here." So says 32-year-old instructor Paul Maranto as his studio fills with twentysomethings aping bygone icons ranging from James Dean and Bettie Page to Lucy and Ricky Ricardo.
Watching his students sign waivers absolving his studio for any "physical, mental or emotional" injuries, Maranto offers up another reason for the appeal of the rambunctious dance.
"It can be dangerous," warns Maranto. "And for some of these people, I think that's half the thrill."
Elgin MacMillan, a jitter-maniac who boasts that he's been out dancing every night for nearly two months, agrees that the pastime can be "terribly violent." In fact, he still sports an angry scar where he took his partner's elbow in his eye on a crowded dance floor a few weeks ago.
It was not MacMillan's first ocular mishap on the dance floor. Several weeks earlier, the surface of his eye was scratched when a woman he was dancing with lost her grip during an airborne maneuver and frantically grabbed onto his face instead, using her partner's eye sockets as bowling-ball holes.
"Everything turned out okay," explains partner Ruth Wilson, a jitterbug casualty in her own right. (She split her nose open in a separate incident.) "But I did wind up with a lot of Elgin's eyeball juice under my fingernails."
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For the time being, however, everybody's having too much fun caroming around the dance floor to spend much time licking his or her wounds. And nobody, it seems, is worrying too much about what happens on that inevitable day when all this high-flying enthusiasm comes crashing to earth.
Conceding that the sudden trendiness of jitterbugging will ultimately plateau, Paul Maranto insists that hard-core fans will keep the dance alive forever.
"The jitterbug has never really gone away," he says, pointing out that less acrobatic forms of the dance have been a staple of dance studios and contests for nearly 50 years.
"The jitterbug is not a fad dance. We're not talking about hip-hop or the lambada here.