THE RITE OF SWING
Byline: Robert Haskell
NEW YORK — Just minutes before a party in his honor at the Supper Club, Degen Pener gave himself a once-over and decided his look didn’t quite say “swing.” He made a quick detour to Darrow, the vintage clothing shop on 19th Street, to throw on a Forties suit.
But Darrow Cannizzaro, the owner of the shop where New York’s serious swingers make regular pilgrimages, knew at once that all Pener needed was a jaunty tie, a pocket square and an adjustment to the tilt of his fedora: slightly forward, a bit to the left — shades of Frank Sinatra.
Pener has just published “The Swing Book” (Back Bay Books), a guide to swing dancing and a reference for everything swing. Nowadays, there are four places to go swing dancing on any given night in New York — from the original Cotton Club on 125th Street down to Windows on the World in the World Trade Center, where ladies in rayon dresses, their hair held up in snoods and perfect beauty marks painted on their cheeks, get spun around the parquet 100 stories above the city.
“It’s so different from the dancing my generation grew up with,” explains Pener, who is 33. “In swing, people actually touch each other! I was sick of not having any structure on the dance floor.”
The author stumbled upon swing by accident. Entertainment Weekly, where he was a staff writer for almost two years, had asked him to write a story about swing — and suddenly Pener was shining his shoes and shaking to the lindy hop.
“That article really changed my life,” Pener says. “It was like ‘Pretty Woman’ for me — I did it for the money at first, but ended up falling in love!”
Falling in love with swing means swallowing a heavy dose of nostalgia; as a movement, it’s unabashedly retro. Despite the new crop of swing bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Bill Elliott Orchestra, the reference point is the music of the Thirties and Forties: think Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.
“You go onto the dance floor these days, and people are so up, up, up with the music, and swing is about dancing on the downbeat, with your knees collapsed,” he explains. “The guys at the old Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, in the Thirties, were low to the ground — they were practically horizontal.”
If, to the MTV generation, these steps suggest electric boogaloo more than swing, Pener isn’t surprised.
“My theory is that the next wave will be the inclusion of hip-hop elements in swing music,” he says. “Busta Rimes would never have existed without Cab Calloway — and I really did see a boy in Washington throwing break-dancing moves into swing.”
Although it’s not clear yet whether the whole style of swing will go mainstream, Cannizzaro sees some early signs.
“Our swing girls,” she says, “are starting to wear their circle skirts to the office, and likewise for the men, with their pin-up girl cufflinks and two-tone shoes.”
Pener is a bit more restrained when it comes to taking swing off the dance floor, but “The Swing Book” won’t be his last word on the subject.
“I’d like to write another book about one of the bands,” he says. “Once you swing, you never go back!”