Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sharks and Jets on Swing Night at Famous Dave’s

No, there were no star crossed lovers or gang rumbles on the dance floor last night at Famous Dave’s in the Uptown area of Minneapolis. But there was a clash of cultures. West Side Story features the irreconcilable differences between two Ethnic cultures. Last night I observed the much less violent and even somewhat humorous intersection of two dance cultures – salsa and swing.

A little background is in order. The Uptown Famous Dave’s restaurant at Hennepin and Lake in southwest Minneapolis doubles as a live music hot spot. Although mostly a blues club, on Monday and Tuesday nights they offer music and dancing in arguably the two most popular dance genres for young people today: Monday night is swing night; Tuesday is salsa night.

My wife and I love to dance. Although we dabble in a variety of dance styles in the general social/ballroom repertoire, we are primarily swing dancers. Now, we won’t pretend to be able to keep up with the 20 something’s who tear up the floor on a typical Monday swing night, but for 50 something’s we hold our own. What I’m trying to say is that in terms of dance culture, we are clearly Jets…er…swingers.

This was painfully clear one of the nights we tagged along with our daughters to a Tuesday salsa night at Famous Dave’s. Although I can do the steps and execute the figures involved in salsa dancing, I am no salsa dancer. I don’t get it; I don’t feel it; I don’t live it. One of my daughters succinctly summed up my effort at the end of the night: “Dad, it’s just too ‘swingy’”.

Well, last night I saw the other side of the mirror. I don’t know if the guy just got his calendar wrong and thought it was Tuesday, or if he truly just loves to dance so much he is willing to step out of his Sharks' territory and cross over to Jet turf, but he clearly was in culture shock. To paraphrase my darling daughter, his dancing was just too “salsa-y”. Don’t get me wrong, he was a really good dancer. I could see he had all the steps down and all the right moves, but there was something noticeably “off” about his dancing. It just was not swing.

“What”, you may ask, “could possibly be so different that you can tell someone is steeped in one style while dancing the other?” Well let me tell you.

Salsa and swing styles[1] are polar opposites. They are the ying and yang, the north and south pole, the Sharks and Jets of up tempo social dancing. One might think it is just because the musical basis is different – African/Latin American for salsa vs. jazz/blues/rag time for swing. But it goes far beyond that. At the core, the difference is in the physics of the dances themselves.

Salsa is smooth where swing is bouncy. In salsa the woman is continually drawn in where in swing she is constantly being cast out. Salsa is a face to face rendezvous; swing is two ships passing in the night. Salsa is a paper clip; swing is a rubber band. Salsa is a chili pepper roasting; swing is popcorn popping. Salsa is controlled; swing is frenetic. Salsa is all hips and arms; swing is all elbows and feet. Salsa can make you blush. Swing can make you bruise. Salsa is intimate where swing is anything but. Salsa is sexy! Swing is sassy!

So, why do I even care? Two reasons. First, I would like to become a better salsa dancer. Although embarrassing my kids is one of the few pure pleasures I have in life (and just compensation for the teen years), I prefer to do it without embarrassing myself at the same time. I think salsa proficiency is within my grasp.

Of course, the mirror has two faces. We are travelling to CA next month to visit our daughters and our older daughter would like us to teach her Latino boyfriend how to swing dance. He is a very good salsa dancer, and I’m sure he will have no problem with the steps. It is more a physics problem. After last night’s Shark-Jet encounter, I think I know where to start.

[1] For the dance virgins out there - salsa and swing are not just specific dances, they are families of dance. Salsa encompasses salsa, cumbia, bachata, merengue, and others. Swing includes east coast swing, lindy hop, jive, charleston, and others. Here I am referring far more to the families than the individual named dances, as most accomplished dancers in either style shift seamlessly (almost magically) between different dances in the family even within the same song.