I often like to ask local dancers and students for opinions or suggestions of things they would like to change to improve things for them. One suggestion I recently got has resonated with me and spurred discussion with other dancers I know ranging from former New School Swing instructors I am friends with to dancer friends I know in Montreal. What the dancers requested was creating resources for students who were at the intermediate or above level. This in turn brought the idea to my mind of,
“What resources a scene should be providing to intermediate or above students?”
I felt ill prepared to deal with this question because as I mentioned in a previous post, besides my occasional forays into Southern California most of my time was spent learning how to dance in an isolated town in Central Pennsylvania. In result ownership for my own dance education was something I was forced to take on much earlier than dancers in larger cities that had an infrastructure to support them.
One conversation I had about the topic was with my friend, Annabel Quisao who was at Penn State around the same time as myself. Here is a small snippet of our conversation,
Annabel – I definitely think that some classes geared toward intermediate dancers would give them a leg up and be one of these places for inspiration, but I don’t think that’s necessarily what keeps that level of dancer coming back or trying to improve. Once one gets to that level, there has to be some self discovery and ownership of one’s improvement.
Me – That last sentence about discovery and ownership of one’s improvement is my feeling about the whole situation as well. I wonder at times though if that was a by-product of us being stuck out in State College.
Annabel – The thing is that the scene still needs to find those moments of inspiration for the intermediate dancer so that they have the motivation they need. I do think that in State College, the inspiration came from the travelling and the desire to keep the whole scene going and to do that, we all needed to get better so that Penn State was a legitimate Lindy hop community. In some ways, I think teaching before you really are comfortable with the material is one of the fastest ways to have to take ownership.
A thing to note is Annabel brought up the idea that inspiration is what is important to dancers at that stage. I know many people including myself when they are asked the reason why they travel so far and invest some serious cash to make it out to ILHC is because is for the inspiration. I am inclined to agree with Annabel’s opinion because I think in order to become an advanced dancer part of that is finding ones’ own way to add artistic expression to their dancing. A good start is finding a source of inspiration, often imitation then innovation is a good route to go.
Unfortunately discovering original self-expression is a unique and difficult endeavor. While it is something that can be encouraged or coaxed out of a person, I personally believe it can’t be “taught” in classes. To add to the confusion it seems each person gets there via a different journey which is troublesome for people who like a formulaic approach to things.
Resources is a thing that comes to mind as someone who helps organize things for a scene. Perhaps it is because I have read World War Z too many times, but when I think about resources the term that comes to mind is “Return on Investment” a.k.a. ROI.
For example one of the reasons why I focus my time helping to train new and current DJs in my local scene is I believe they affect the most people due to they control the music at the dances. The music at the dances in turn determines (ideally) how people dance. From a ROI perspective with 1 hour spent with 5-10 people talking about DJing this is great because I can potentially affect several hundred people depending upon the number of gigs each DJ plays in the upcoming weeks.
When I think about offering services for intermediate or above students I have an ROI conundrum. On one hand there is a chance that some of these students can potentially become teachers or sources of inspiration dancers down the road. It’s similar to planning a fruit tree and have it bloom with many seeds for the future. On the other hand these same people are a very small segment of the dancing population in my local scene. If you take the set of all dancers in a scene the higher perceived level for a dancer such as “intermediate” or “advanced” the smaller the subset exists. One could make an argument that from a ROI perspective I should focus on my larger segment of the population a.k.a. “beginners”.
When a scene has limited resources it is a decision between choosing by allocating resources to beginners who often are the ones who pay the bills to more experienced dancers who can possibly become pillars of your scene in the future. No one is psychic and can predict the future exactly, I would say a start to figuring things out from a logistical perspective is determining what the organizations who are in charge of a scene values so their resource investments further the scene moving in that direction.
Root of The Problem
Like I said before, people are always looking for an easy to follow recipe to win more competitions, become a professional dancer, or what religion or political party, if any, to follow. And the answer that people don’t like to hear is that its all very complicated and depends on a lot of stuff, some of which you can control, and a lot of which you can’t. But they don’t have time for that kind of critique or self reflection especially for something like Lindy Hop.
– Yehoodi User JSAlmonte
To me a big part of becoming an advanced dancer is deciding what you as a person value in swing dancing and finding an effective way to communicate that, you must develop a personal taste for what is good dancing. A common pitfall I find many dancers stumble upon is they think the “recipe” to getting advanced is the imitation of better dancers (Skye clones ring a bell for anybody?) and often that results in them just looking like a caricature of the person they admire.
To discover what you like or value is a task that involves experimentation, taking risks, finding sources of inspiration, and going on adventures which are difficult to make time for if you have the approach of a cookie cutter mindset or if you want structured classes where instructors will tell you to do X, Y, and Z. I believe for a community to be successful in providing avenues for dancers to improve at the intermediate level and beyond is by creating environments where artistic experimentation is encouraged and if possible rewarded.
Many scenes currently provide solutions such as weekend events usually focused on bringing in international instructors to provide inspiration and instructor or organizing teams for performance opportunities. These are not bad choices, but there exists the potential to create opportunities to push our intermediate and above dancers.
For example the Seattle Lindy Exchange sponsors this amazing contest every year known as the Jazz Dance Film Fest Contest. There is some high caliber clips that have come out of this contest and in addition due to there is no entry fee, so an individual who maybe wouldn’t compete in a public performance setting are happy to do so for a film.
One thing I would like to see come back that was more frequent during the Neo-Swing era are monthly or even weekly competitions. This is something I feel Southern California still does to this day and oddly not many other scenes (to my knowledge) still do. The prizes can be as simple as free admittance to the dance next week and the contests can be run fairly casually. The whole idea is providing the opportunity for dancers in their local scene to throw down and express themselves in a riskier environment than social dancing.
Another thing I have viewed many scenes do online is starting an email listserv or Facebook group for carpools/travel information so dancers in a scene or in close by scenes can network to travel to events. Surprisingly many dancers even at the intermediate level are not aware of resources such as SwingPlanIt and groups like these can bring them the awareness of popular out of town events and ease the facilitation of travel.
I have provided some solutions but it’s only a small smattering of the potential things a scene can do to help their intermediate and above students out. As long as solutions provide opportunity to allow dancers to experiment, take risks, or be inspired I think it’s a step in the right direction. If you have stories of things your local scene does well to assist this particular group of dancers or ideas of how to help them out, it would be great to read what you have to write in the comment section.
A few weeks ago on Feburary 25th 2014, Jerry Almonte from Wondering and Pondering issued the following challenge,
I have a challenge to all DJs. Lindy Focus inspired me to hunt down music by all the great musicians that played at that event. This got me thinking that I can do a whole night of DJed music using bands that play for dancers today. I’ve done it a couple of times now, to a really positive response. People get really excited when they hear a good song by a band, and you tell them that they can hear that music live at a dance or event sometime in the near future. This is my challenge to DJs far and wide: Do a whole set or even a whole night of music just by musicians making a living playing jazz music today. Ellington and Basie are great, but they don’t have to make rent at the end of the month. The key our exciting dance scene is the interaction between dancers and musicians. Show a little love. And if you don’t have the music to pull something like that off, then use this as an opportunity to go find some. Hey Mister Jesse(the longest running and probably only swing dance music podcast out there) has a lot of great recommendations as well as sites like Swing DJ Resources. I’m also going to be posting some of my own in the near future. Swing Music! Let’s do this!
After reading this challenge and realizing that I had an upcoming DJ set in Boston at Monday Night Practice I decided to give it a shot. I interpreted Mr. Almonte’s rules as the following:
- All songs played must be by bands who have musicians making a living today.
- I have to last the entire set at Monday Night Practice (about 2 hours)
- Music has to be good a.k.a no playing novelty tunes just to play something that is modern.
I made a facebook event for the night and advertised that this special theme was occurring. I’m happy to say that I passed the challenge and in addition we had a much larger turnout than usual that night. I have posted my set list below but I encourage if you are a DJ looking to mix things up to give it a shot. The challenge served the Boston community well!
- Indigo Swing – Ruby Mae
- Hippocampus Jass Gang – Your Smile’s A Moonbeam On My Heart
- Blackstick – Si Tu Vois Ma Mére
- Caroline Fourmy – All of Me
- Joe Smith and the Spicy Pickles – A Smooth One
- Glenn Crytzer and His Syncopators – Mr. Rhythm
- Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys – Take a Number from One to Ten
- Hippocampus Jass Gang – The Mooche
- Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – King David (live)
- Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators – Fortunate Love
- Smoking Time Jazz Club – Percolatin Blues
- Smoking Time Jazz Club – Sugar
- George Gee And His Make Believe Orchestra – Stompin’ At The Savoy
- Gordon Webster – Sweet Potato Fries
- Hot Sugar Band – Jericho
- Norbert Susemihl, Erika Lewis, Shaye Cohn, Jason Marsalis, Kerry Lewis, Gregory Agid – Love Me Or Leave Me
- The Hot Club of Cowtown – Rosetta
- Jonathan Dole Quintet – The Fed Hop
- Blackstick – Blackstick
- Mora’s Modern Rhythmists – Smoke Rings
- Cassidy and the Orleans Kids – Shake That Thing
- Boilermaker Jazz Band – When Your Lover Has Gone
- The Solomon Douglas Swingtet – Bizet Has His Day
- Gordon Webster – Sweet Sue
- Mora’s Modern Rhythmists – Four or Five Times
- Jonathan Stout and His Campus – Swingin’ On Nothin’
- Boilermaker Jazz Band – Someone’s Rockin’ My Dreamboat
- Michael Gamble and the Rhythm Serenaders – Dickie’s Dream
- Rachael Price and The Tennessee Terraplanes – Just A Little Bit South of North Carolina
On How I Am Shocked I Have Time For This
Time is my most valuable resource as of late. Between trying to further myself as a programmer, teaching sometimes bi-weekly as a swing dance instructor locally, and spending time with people often I find myself having to choose my battles wisely. Unfortunately for you my readers, this blog has sadly lost that battle more times than I would have preferred.
One of my goals was to write more posts that challenge the opinions and beliefs that people have about swing dancing and the swing dance community. Perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, but often I would have ideas that felt like soapbox preaching versus having well founded opinions. Instead those ideas often ended up on my Tumblr account, where I am much less filtered.
Interesting Posts This Year
Frequently Asked Question: How To Improve Musicality : In this post I went over the frequently asked question in swing dance classes “How do I improve my musicality/be more musical?” There are some great youtube videos in this post that illustrate my point.
Aut Inveniam Viam Aut Faciam: I addressed the common problem I viewed in many swing dance scenes, which is a sizable portion of dancers are not proactive about their dance education. I related my own experience at learning dance at Penn State for this post.
A Few Thoughts on Recent Ambidancetrous Discussions: This past year there was a discussion on the idea of teaching classes ambidancetrous or with individuals learning both roles in the same lesson. I discussed why I thought this was appropriate for Blues, but not so much Lindy Hop.
One of my big regrets for this year is simply I did not blog enough. My goal going forward for this year is at minimum to blog once a month and to regularly update my facebook page. As usual if you have any topic or issue in particular you want me to write about or just want to send me good old-fashioned hate mail my email address is still firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise thanks for reading and I hope you stick around!
A frequently debated topic among instructors for their local weekly beginner series is the best way to go about it. You’ve probably heard some of these phrases mentioned,
Six count moves? Eight count moves Without triple steps? Four or six week series? Heavy technique or make it fun?
Instead of hashing out that old discussion I thought an interesting comparison would be to take a curriculum from an existing scene and compare it to one that existed in the early 2000’s. I have chosen Boston as my city to sample and taken the curriculum from GottaSwing in 2001 an organization which taught lessons in the past and put next to New School Swing‘s curriculum which offers lessons these days.
GottaSwing Curriculum (2001)
Description: An unusually thorough and entertaining Beginners course. You’ll learn over 20 moves, turns, spins and dips in just 6 weeks, plus expert technique tips. Throughout, we’ll strongly emphasize good (momentum-based) leading and following technique, because that’s the key to becoming a superb dance partner. After our Swing I course, you’ll know more Swing moves — AND you’ll have better dance technique — than after any other Swing I course on the East Coast.
- Prerequisite: Ability to count to 6.
- No partner or experience needed.
- We often have several Swing I classes running concurrently. If so, you are welcome to attend any or all of them for no extra charge (e.g., to make up a missed class, or for extra practice time).
- 6 weeks – 1.5 hours each week – 9 hours total. (Occasionally shorter or longer, depending on calendar constraints.)
Swing I – Summary List. The following is just a compact summary of variations taught in class, with ‘logical’ groupings. It is NOT the order in which we teach things! Instead, we teach in an order that makes for the fastest and easiest learning.
- Good (momentum-based) Leading & Following Technique
- Basic step – Single, Double, Triple
- Closed Position
- Open Position
- “Simple” change of places (low hands)
- Arch Turn
- Lady’s Inside Turns (aka ‘Loop’ Turns) (left side; right side)
- Sweetheart (2-hand version of Lady’s Inside Turn) (left side; right side) — also known as Cuddle or Wrap or Basket
- Lady’s Outside Turns (left side; right side)
- Parallels (2-hand version of Lady’s Outside Turn) (left side; right side)
- Man’s Outside Turns (left side; right side)
- High-hand version
- Break through the hands — 2 versions
- Fred Astaire-inspired version
- Man’s Inside Turns (left side; right side)
- Man’s Sweetheart (just for fun)
- Various Alternating-Person and Mix-and-match Turns Series
- Almost every conceivable combination
- She-Go/He-Go (5 different versions)
- Double Arm Slide (aka Dishrag or Drape) (3 different exits)
- Simple Dip [if we have time]
- As far as we know, no other 6-week (or even 10-week) Swing I class comes even remotely close to teaching you this much!
New School Swing Curriculum (2014)
New School Swing curriculum offers two different 4-week series that classes go for an hour each in 6-count move and 8-count moves and both are required to move up to the next level of classes. Included with beginner classes is something known as Lindy Dojo where instructors stick around to help beginner dancers. The cost for this is included with the beginner series.
Description 8 – Count:
Whether you are brand-new to swing dancing or would like to refine your Lindy Hop technique, this is the class for you. In these four sessions, we’ll focus on basic 8-count Lindy Hop moves for the brand-new dancers, but we’ll concentrate on good technique and connection so there is always something for more experienced swing dancers, too. This class is one step in our two-step beginner track. You must know all the material in the 6-Count and 8-Count Lindy Hop Basics and Fundamentals Classes before moving to advanced beginner classes. Either beginner class may be taken first. No partner required.
Description 6 – Count:
Whether you are brand-new to swing dancing or would like to refine your Lindy Hop technique, this is the class for you. In these four sessions, we’ll focus on basic 6-count Lindy Hop moves for the brand-new dancers, but we’ll concentrate on good technique and connection so there is always something for more experienced swing dancers, too. This class is one step in our two-step beginner track. You must know all the material in the 6-Count and 8-Count Lindy Hop Basics and Fundamentals Classes before moving to advanced beginner classes. Either beginner class may be taken first. No partner required.
6 – Count Curriculum:
- Open and Closed Frame (Position)
- Weight Shifts and Triple Steps
- 6 – Count Basic and Rotating Basic
- Tuck Turn
- 6 – Count Circle from Closed
- 6 – Count Circle from Open
- Send Out
- Return to Closed
- Right Side Pass
8 – Count Curriculum:
- Open and Closed Frame (Position)
- Weight Shifts and Triple Steps
- Side by Side 8 – Count Basic
- Follow in Front
- Leader in Front
- 8 – Count Circle from Closed
- 8 – Count Circle from Open
- Swingout from Closed
- Swingout from Open
- Side by Side Charleston Basic
Funky Move Names: Reading the older curriculum a thing that stood out to me at first was the unusual names of some moves. After some thought I realized though it’s just because probably some of these names or even the moves themselves may have faded out of the common vernacular. I am thankful though that some of those moves have become unpopular such as “The Drape” from the curriculum I linked or “The Pretzel” from their Swing II curriculum.
Time Commitment: New School Swing asks for 4 one hour classes, whereas GottaSwing asks for 6 hour and a half classes. A total of 4 hours expected for New School Swing and 9 hours expected for GottaSwing it is obvious they have slightly more than twice the time to cover material. However, there is an optional 45 extra minutes each week a beginner student can commit to on top of their courses at New School Swing due to Lindy Dojo, bringing the potential time spent by beginner students to 7 hours.
I would say the advantage GottaSwing had was due to the large time commitment teachers could cover a fairly comprehensive body of material. However the disadvantage from a marketing standpoint is that produces a larger barrier of entry. New School Swing’s approach shines in that area because there is an optional component for making more motivated students have a clear avenue to spend extra time to improve.
Emphasis: No partner or experience required is something they both mention from the beginning. The reason why this is important to note is because as an organizer trying to fill classes one of the fastest ways to doing that is removing as many barriers of entry as possible such as apprehensions such as “I don’t have a partner” or “I don’t have any dance experience”.
In terms of Gottaswing’s curriculum, it is kind of ambiguous because at the beginning there is an emphasis put on technique, yet the order in which the material is listed out and the disclaimer at the end they also seem to pride themselves on getting through a large number of moves. These two separate values are stated in different places which is a tad jarring. New School Swing also states it values teaching new moves and teaching good technique, however these are stated neatly in one sentence so a prospective or returning student is aware that these two things will happen in class.
Conclusion: Making a guess, I would assume GottaSwing’s curriculum catered toward dancers coming off the tail end of the 90’s neoswing craze who after watching Malcom X or the Gap Add thought of swing dancing as a series of flashy moves. Take a jam circle from US Open 1999 for example.
An interesting observation is they both share an element of some homogenization. GottaSwing in Boston seems to start individuals off with variations of the 6-count basic and goes into variations. Whereas, New School Swing utilizes the common method of teaching swingouts by starting students doing an 8 count pattern in side by side and continues to work towards the lindy circle, then finally the swingout. In the last two years many people including myself have made complaints about the homogenization of Lindy Hop, but it could be argued it’s an ongoing process that dated back to the late 90s.
Previously I erroneously wrote here an assumption that GottaSwing in Washington DC had a relationship with the organization by the same name that previously existed in Boston. That information was a false assumption and has been edited out of the post. My apologizes to Tom Koerner in the comments section of the post and my readers.
A few months ago I was attending Steven and Virginie in Rochester and they had a panel with Dawn Hampton and Norma Miller which I attended. During the talk Norma mentioned a man by the name of Ernie Smith and said something to the effect that without him we may have never seen the film Hellzapoppin. I can only imagine that the world of modern day swing dancing would look much different if that film were unknown to our community.
In matter of fact Terry Monaghan writes in his obituary on Yehoodi,
Over the years he made every effort to find the artists who appeared on them, and enabled them to see themselves for the first time, in most cases! Frankie recently remarked, “If it wasn’t for Ernie I wouldn’t have known who the hell I was.”
Ernie brought together influential members of community. Terry also writes,
When the new groups taking an interest in the Lindy emerged in the early 1980’s most of them found their way to Ernie’s place. The “Swedish Swing Society” did in 1984 and the “Jiving Lindy Hoppers” followed in 1985. Ernie put us in touch with each other and the newly organised group of former Al Minns students who became the “New York Swing Dance Society.” Moreover Ernie gave us the telephone numbers of surviving Lindy maestros like Norma Miller and Pepsi Bethel, and in fact it is difficult to know where we would have been without him.
The National Museum of American History out in Washington D.C. notes,
The ERNIE SMITH JAZZ FILM COLLECTION, 1894-1979 consists of 352 reels of 16mm motion picture film.
To put that in persecutive that is one of the largest film collections based on jazz dancing in existence. Due to what started out as a curiosity, over time and through hard work Ernie managed to network some of the most influential members of our community together, educate countless people about the history of the jazz dancing, and provided resources to dancers in the past and present that shaped our entire community.
The Importance of Historians in Our Community
The reason why I mention Ernie’s work is I believe we are at an important point in the development of our dances. Unfortunately we are slowly losing our original dancers and there will be a time in the near future where there will not be new dancers who can say they have learned the stops routine from an original Savoy Ballroom dancer or “finesse” from an original L.A. balboa dancer.
I believe it is important to support individuals and organizations who educate and preserve the history of our dances. It’s why I have been excited about a new group started by our friends from Cat’s Corner out in Montreal, the Jazz Rhythm Inspirations. They have been offering a wealth of information about jazz dancing in an easily digestible platform.
In addition Mike Thibault out in Rochester, with the help of Groove Juice Swing over the last two years, had some very good talks two years ago featuring Kevin Minns, the son of Al Minns. This year, they repeated their success through a talk with Norma Miller and Dawn Hampton at their event “Steven and Virginie” in Rochester.
Bobby White also has been doing a great job at his blog Swungover thanks to an interview with Norma Miller at Beantown out in Massachusetts, an informative article about the real “swing kids” of Germany. The article has great references, such as the Stephen Wuthe a Berlin-based DJ who has gathered extremely vast knowledge about Swing music, and Swing 101, which is the best primer I know to date for new dancers to learn about the history of our dance.
Last but certainly not least is my favorite blog Jassdancer. Every post on this blog is solid and contains occasionally humorous, but always informative history about “jass” dancing. My only complaint is I wish it would be updated more often.
While innovation and moving our dance forward is important, I believe the preservation and education of the history of our dances for the swing dance community is essential. This is why I challenge each reader to, at the minimum (if you have a spare moment), to support individuals who provide the services above.
If you are feeling more ambitious and you have the time then I challenge you to to do it yourself. Who knows, you might be the next Mura Dehn or Ernie Smith.
A frequent question I receive from students is, “How do I improve my musicality/be more musical?” There are a myriad of potential answers I can give from taking up a musical instrument, learning AABA structure and when a song uses four 8s versus six 8s, listening for breaks in songs, and the list could go on.
What to do?
However my #1 recommendation for anyone whether they are brand new day one newbie or a seasoned dancer is increasing your familiarity with the music. In particular I mean authentic swing dance music from the swing era or modern bands who play in that style. One result of being familiar with the type of music that is played live by bands or djed many dancers can do thing such as recognize famous riffs and play off them.
Example 1: (Compare the first video at 6:13 to the second video at 0:47)
To give you a further context riffs, melodies, and et cetera from jazz standards come up all the time in live music. If you are a dancer wants to or already regularly participates in competitions this is a concept for you to note.
Example 2:(Compare the first video at 1:16 to the second video at 2:13)
If you are scoffed at the last sentence and thought, “Well I never plan to compete… like ever.” This idea also comes up in social dancing at exchanges with live bands as well.
Example 3:(Compare the first video at 2:32 to the second video at 3:47)
I’m a firm believer that one surefire way to increase your ability to creatively express yourself within swing dancing is developing your familiarity with the music. When watching people dance a sign of a more advanced dancer over a novice one is the ability to discern what the music calls for and responding to it in an appropriate artistic manner. We have all encountered the “Tandem Charleston no matter what song is playing” lead, this is an example of where a lack of familiarity with the music causes a disconnect between dancing and the music.
I’m not the only person who holds a similar opinion as well, Glenn Crytzer writes in an interview on Dance Word Takeover,
Generally as people become more advanced that they get more into the music. I think the opposite is true as well, the more people get into the music the more advanced they can become as dancers. – Glenn Crytzer
How to go about this?
There are several ways to improve your familiarity with swing dance music which I have listed below.
- Listen to as much authentic swing dance music (preferably live) as you can: Active listening is the optimal situation where you are trying to pick out individual instruments and seeing how they affect the band, listening to the rhythm section, or listening what other songs or musicians may have influenced their musical choices.
- Talk shop with your local jazz musicians, bandleaders, hardcore jazz fans and DJs: The majority of these people as long as they are not busy doing their work are excited to talk to you about this subject matter. Often they will give you recommendations to versions of songs you may have not heard of before or various insights that you likely wouldn’t have stumbled across on your own.
- Learn how to play a musical instrument: This is listed at third because it is obviously probably the most time consuming and involved out all three suggestions. However having a music background does give you unique insights into jazz music.
Fifty-seven Years Of Magic
Dave a collector of vintage Disneyland photos wrote on his website about Carnation Plaza,
When the Bandstand was moved from Central Plaza over to Adventureland and Magnolia Park, the Carnation Plaza Gardens were constructed and opened on August 18, 1956. A plethora of talent has performed under the tent of this area, including Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Harry James, The Osmond Brothers, Lionel Hampton, Tex Benecke, Cab Calloway, and Stan Kenton.
For those of you not so lucky to be from California, in Disneyland there was this place known as Carnation Plaza, which has been referred to as “The Longest Running Swing Dance Venue”. A notable part of the Southern California swing dance scene for years, case in point you can see California swing dance legend Hal Takier dancing to the song Avalon there in 1987.
For a more comprehensive view, there is a small documentary on the topic of Carnation Plaza called “A Stage that Walt Built”.
However, here is my personal attempt to give you a glimpse of what Carnation Plaza was and still means to Southern California.
Beginning in 1957, Date Nights were a staple of Disneyland culture continuing almost until the 70s. Advertised in local newspapers they were claimed as a way to become a BMOD (Big Man On Dates). In 1967 for $6.50 in the United State one could get 10 rides and full admission to the park which included dancing.
In an article on Mouse Club House, the author Scott Wolf wrote,
Music has always been an important part of the Disneyland experience, with the traditional Disneyland Band performing there since opening day. And while that band remains an essential element of the overall ambience of the park today, on June 28, 1957 things really got swinging! For the first time Disneyland would extend its operating hours until 1am on Friday and Saturday nights for Date Nite, in an attempt to attract young couples as a dating hot spot. Couples could purchase Date Nite discounted tickets which permitted admission only after 5pm. Carnation Plaza Gardens became the chosen central Date Nite location and the local Elliott Brothers band were brought in as the Date Niters who had the ability to perform everything from the slow dances to rock ‘n’ roll to the “La Raspa,” which became a Date Nite tradition.
On Stage Magazine
To give a better picture of what Carnation Plaza was about, here is an article from On Stage magazine, which features an interview with Stan Freese who booked professional swing bands for several years at Disneyland.
The Stage that Walt Built
At Disneyland’s Carnation Plaza Gardens, performers can stand in the footsteps of giants.
Stan Freese calls the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage his “home away from home.” That’s not too much of a stretch.
Freese has been helping put on shows at the historic Disneyland venue since 1974. Today, he books the professional swing bands that fill the stage every Saturday night. The job never gets old, thanks in large part to Freese’s appreciation of the star-studded history of the stage, which opened in 1956.
“This is the longest-running big band stage in the world,” he says, rattling off a list of the stars who have graced the venue over the years. The roster includes Cab Calloway, Bob Crosby, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Lionel Hampton, Les Brown, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Harry James, Eartha Kitt, and Benny Goodman–whose orchestra was the first big-name group to perform on the stage, back in 1961.
Freese, now 66, enthusiastically hops around the large stage, recreating how things looked when big bands performed there seven nights a week. “Right here is where Louis Armstrong sang ‘Hello, Dolly!'” he says. Stepping to his left, he continues: “Over here is where Count Basie and Duke Ellington played the piano. Right on this stage, looking out at the castle.”
The “castle,” of course, is the famous Sleeping Beauty Castle–the ultimate symbol of Disneyland fun and fantasy–and located “just a stone’s throw” from Carnation Plaza Gardens, as Freese puts it. The stage itself is about 20 feet wide and can accommodate 35 to 40 musicians; larger groups spread out onto the terrazzo dance floor. They perform for audiences of up to 150 people under a canopy of gold and burgundy, which adds to the festive atmosphere.
The history and the surroundings only enrich the experience for the student bands, orchestras and choruses that perform on the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage. “They are walking on hallowed ground, playing in this hallowed venue,” says Freese. “They should all know when they come here how exciting this stage really is.”
Jim Hahn, director of instrumental music at Tuffree Middle School in Placentia, Calif., has been bringing bands to Disneyland for more than 20 years and understands the importance of sharing the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage legacy. “Every time we go,” says Hahn, “I explain the history of that stage to the kids.”
Hahn, a saxophone and clarinet player, performed on the stage himself in 1981 with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. It was the first visit ever to Disneyland for the Philadelphia native. “I was in awe, knowing all the bands that had played that stage,” he says. “It was mind-blowing.”
Every spring Hahn brings two jazz ensembles to play at Carnation Plaza Gardens; in the fall, he brings a marching band to perform in the Disneyland parade. It’s more than history and fond memories that keep him coming back. In Hahn’s opinion, everything about the experience is top-notch. “It’s nothing short of the Disney standard,” he declares.
Hahn has particular praise for the sound quality and the location of the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage in the bustling heart of Disneyland. “It’s a loud stage,” says Hahn. “It attracts a lot of people.”
The effect never wears off on Hahn. “As many times as I’ve taken the kids there, it’s still–as corny as it sounds—it’s still a thrill.”
Wendy Shepherd, choral director at Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash., says the experience of playing Disneyland can be “life-changing” for students. She has been bringing her Scintillation Show Choir to perform on the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage for 10 years. “As a child, to dream of the magic of Disneyland, and then as a young adult to achieve the goal of performing there and working with the Disney choreographers, is immeasurable,” Shepherd says. “I have students who are in their late 20s who Facebook me now, and to this day, recall their experiences, the joy, the achievement of their dream, the way it moved their lives positively.”
The thrill has never worn off for Stan Freese, either. Born and raised in Minneapolis, he made his first trip to Disneyland at age 12, when he marched in the parade with his school band. “It was just great,” he recalls. “I had no clue I was going to work there.” A tuba player, he performed as a soloist in the Soviet Union in 1969. That led to his Disney job interview and his role as leader of the original Disneyland Band, starting in 1971.
In Freese’s early days at Disneyland, the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage was still bringing in national talent for its night-time big-band series. There also was a period in the 1970s and ’80s when pop acts like the Osmonds, the 5th Dimension and the Pointer Sisters played there. These days, the evening shows are performed mostly by swing bands that Freese books from Los Angeles, Orange County and as far away as San Francisco.
Whether the performers are professionals or students, they enjoy first-class treatment. Buses come straight off the Santa Ana Freeway into the Disneyland back lot, where students and gear are unloaded. On the back lot, the students can avail themselves of the dressing and rehearsal facilities as they prepare for their big moment on the Carnation Plaza Gardens Stage.
“The whole thing is magic,” Freese concludes. “Now it’s just up to the kids to have fun and make great music to become part of that heritage.”
A little known fact about Walt Disney is that he was a fan of jazz. In fact in 1935, he produced an animated Disney short named Music Land, which attempted to bridge the gap between classical music and jazz.
As a matter of fact, Walt himself was a patron of Carnation Plaza as well.
Besides supporting Jazz in different ways such as recordings, Disney was friends with many of the musicians who played at his park including Louis Armstrong.
A Sweet Note
While it looks different these days due to recent changes, dancing in Disneyland is still a notable part of the culture of swing dancing in Southern California and of Disneyland itself. I would like to leave you with a quote from the parks founder, Walt Disney,
To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past …. and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America … with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world. – Walt Disney