Join the Conversation

The world of swing dance is an interesting place right now. I feel more connected to it than ever, which makes me frankly very, very excited for Lindy Focus XVI. There are basically three “conversations” that are swirling around in my head, and, dear reader, I want to bring you in to them. First and foremost is the centrality of music to what we do. Second is the need for ambitious, almost audacious undertakings. And third is the critical importance of not compromising our human values. I feel like if we can get these things right, we will have really accomplished something.

1) SWING MUSIC AND ME

More than any prior year, I’ve spent the last 12 months on the road, going from event to event, usually with my band the Rhythm Serenaders, but occasionally to DJ, or to teach music classes. My connection to this scene has always been the music, so this shouldn’t surprise me, but nonetheless this is not where I could have pictured myself 10 years ago. Nearly every waking minute of my “work life” is consumed with bringing people into that joyous state that swing music transmits. My band is closer than ever to sounding the way I imagine, and yet it still takes the backseat to what we accomplish at Lindy Focus. Every bit of insight I gain on the bandstand feeds back into Lindy Focus. Every experience interacting with an organizer, musician, DJ, competitor, or brand new attendee — it all feeds back into my understanding of what the event MAY be capable of doing. 

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: in so many ways, we’re just getting started. We have seen the power of devoting an entire evening to dancing to one bandleader. We have been awed by the community’s support in bringing back music that simply couldn’t be performed, and we have felt how RIGHT it is to be hearing it again. Maybe this stuff can’t solve all the world’s problems. But lemme tell you, it CAN make the world feel like it ain’t all bad. 

A swing orchestra is an incredible achievement of humanity. The musical instruments evolved over hundreds of years under the engineering scrutiny of generations of visionary builders and dreamers — more often than not, tedious and thankless work. The theoretical complexity that makes swing so rich pulls from so many traditions and lineages, it’s nearly worthless to try and map it all out. And the emotional range and immersive experience of hearing it touches on every aspect of the human experience. Again, swing may seem like an abstract pursuit in a world beset by real problems — but it is also a celebration of everything we’ve done right as a civilization. All the little nuances and creative indulgences that we, as a species, invested in, all payoff when we hear the height of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic expression squeezed, pushed, blown and beat out of intricately carved wood, etched metal, measured strings, and cleverly resonant boxes. We take all these improbable bits and make it mean something!

2) AMBITION / REVIVING A LEGEND

This year we’re zooming in on this one fellow, Jimmie Lunceford, and his contribution to the art form. Did you know he was a school teacher, that his first band was made up of his students? He wasn’t a partier. He was an early-to-bed, early-to-rise guy who treated people professionally and took his work seriously. This of course didn’t stop him from creating music that was lighthearted, easy, soulful, uncynical, and explosive. His careful planning led to a fine-tuned machine, none other than the “Harlem Express”, a vehicle for unapologetic and undeniable Swing that is soon to win you over, even if you were on #teamHines or #teamHenderson. 

We, as a community, have the ability to single out a historical artist, and using sheer force of will, bring something of that person back to life. To say I’m honored to participate is a dreadful understatement. I’m humbled, blown-away, and frankly, at times, mortified that it’s at least partially up to me to help see this through. But I am comforted in that (a) it’s the community, not me, that miraculously pulled the funds together, and (b) it’s the transcribers and performers, not me, who are ultimately responsible for manifesting this incredible dream. And how lucky we ALL are that we are connected to people of such artistry and discipline!

3) THE PEOPLE SHAPING OUR SHARED FUTURE

And as much as the music is the driving force behind almost everything I do, there’s another way in which this event, more and more, has come to mean something to me, and that’s all the people that, given the chance, can help transform this community into the best possible version of itself. We used to try and be “hands off” with the event staff, choosing those people to hire whom the community had already, explicitly or implicitly, elevated as leaders. Jaya and I have both come to feel that those days are gone. And honestly, much of this could’ve changed, or begun to change long ago, but we weren’t ready to see it.

What am I going on about? It’s about leadership. We’ve come to realize that everyone we hire is going to be viewed as a person of power, whether we/they like it or not. Therefore hiring is now seen as an opportunity to express our values. 

Teachers can’t just be terrific dancers. They have to love the classroom, AND they have to embrace their influence over the dance world and want to use it for good. A good teacher is someone who cares just as much about the people who choose to sit out for some reason, those who aren’t “getting it”, and those who didn’t show up for class at all. They try and see the big picture of the scene, their place in it, and how they can leverage their position to bring about positive change. The classroom should be a nurturing place, where a student can explore their budding art, receive positive reinforcement (and tough love), and not feel like they are also required to navigate high-school-esque social nonsense. Status (or perceived status), though inevitable in most creative fields, is something to be considered warily, wisely, and with active mitigation by the organizational bodies, and should never be the driving force behind decision making. SO, if you want a snapshot of our values, we proudly invite you to check out the teaching lineup. (*)

(* Note that there are some wonderful human beings that are not on our teaching staff, of course; we claim no monopoly on awesomeness, we just strongly stand by these humans and their many contributions.)

Same goes for other, non-teaching staff. Good people make good decisions. Passionate, intelligent people who care for one another make the safest spaces. We try, in other words, to surround ourselves with people that share our vision of making this a more welcoming and honest community, as well as people who challenge us on those same areas. Simply put, we all like the “idea” that the swing world is one big happy family, but that’s a lie if we’re not willing to, each and every one of us, put in a lot more hard and uncomfortable work - work we’ve shied away from in the past. The status quo of laissez-faire policies is as out-of-place regarding event logistics as it is on the creative side of things. 

BOTTOM LINE - ARE YOU IN?

If you agree that this amazing music, and all these incredible dances that sprang from it, are WORTHY of celebration, and are the rituals that RIGHTLY belong to a great family, then you may just be one of us. I’m sure some folks think we’re riding on a MIGHTY high horse right now - but know that we got here by deciding that laying low wasn’t the right answer anymore. We want the music and dancing to continue to improve in big and inspiring ways, and we want the social scene to grow up into something just as beautiful. That is what Lindy Focus is about, and what we want — more than passive participation — is for you to explore these values WITH us, and actively pitch in to help us all get where we need to go. See you in December for the next chapter!

Michael Gamblemeta, music, teachers