Artistry In Rhythm Pt. 2: Battle Royale

This is part of a paper I wrote entitled “Artistry In Rhythm: Dialogue Through Dance in the Lindy Hop community.”  Previous and future posts can be found by searching my blog for the category “Artistry In Rhythm”

The first serious public discussion about the dance itself is also probably the community’s most infamous.  That would be the debate triggered by Ryan Francois’s opposition to the 1999 World Lindy Hop Championships.

It was the first world championship held in America, held at the height of the dance’s revival, and its possible significance escaped no one.  The controversy was over the fact that the championship was operating under the umbrella of the World Rock & Roll Confederation and the perception that they would impose strict regulations upon the contest that would negatively impact the dance and its community. [1]

The debate went on to cover a number of topics from the influence of contest formats on the dance, the artistic integrity of contests, race issues in the community, and even the personal integrity of various promoters and instructors.

Long time observers of online discussion boards will note that most of the commonly expressed arguments about these issues over the years first appeared in this debate in the form of replies from such influential dancers such as Ryan Francois, Marcus Koch,  Paul Overton, Steven Mitchell, and Nathalie Gomes to mention a few.

I think the reason for the impassioned responses by those participants was that they understood how influential contests could be on a dance community.  Paul Overton astutely observed, “Competitors watch the couples who win and strive to make their dancing the same as the winner’s. West Coast swing is a great example of this. Competitive trends in West Coast Swing are almost as traceable as fashion trends in society.”

Hollywood Stylin’ & Profilin’

That observation was not without precedent in the Lindy community at that time.  The spread of Hollywood Style Lindy Hop across the country after 1998 when Erik Robsion and Sylvia Skylar won the first place in the Showcase division at the American Lindy Hop Championships is a good illustration of that point.  Although already well known in Southern California, Erik & Sylvia’s first place win elevated their profile in the national Lindy Hop scene.  In my opinion, part of that success of can probably attributed to the fact that the Hollywood “style” confirmed some people’s mental image of the Swing/World War II Era particularly in aesthetic terms of glamour and fashion.

Prior to 1998 most of the dancing around the country was inspired by original dancers coming out of Harlem.  Despite being able to talk to original dancers, the new generation of dancers still had to reverse engineer the finer points of the dance because many of those ideas were lost with age and vague memories.  It looked about as well as suburban middle class people could look like when they were trying to emulate what elderly urban black dancers were trying to describe how they danced 50-60 years previous.[2] Even though they still danced socially since the Swing Era, Frankie Manning and many of the Harlem dancers had not actively taught dancing for a long period of time.

Here’s a sample from the 1995 American Swing Dance Championships which was a major dance competition held in New York.

However, that was not the case in Southern California where many of the old dancers from the swing era, including Dean Collins until he died, continuously danced and taught.  The dance even spawned the West Coast Swing community although that scene eventually grew and evolved beyond the community of these old timers.  However if you look at US Open competition tapes from the 80’s and early 90’s you can see their influence on the older dancers competing in the Masters divisions at those events.

The point is that there was a near continuous social and instructional swing community from the swing era until today in Southern California.  In the early nineties, Erik and Sylvia were part of a small group of people that sought those swing era dancers along with the old movie clips they danced in to learn directly from them[3].  Erik and Sylvia translated what they learned into their dancing and dubbed it “Hollywood Style.”

Hollywood Style was as much a look in terms of vintage fashion as it was a dance style (which was often mistakenly conflated with technique[4].) In addition to being good dancers Erik and Sylvia were also just simply good looking and fashionable role models.  Naomi Uyama, who started dancing in 1998, once told me of Sylvia, “Every guy wanted to dance with her, and every girl wanted to be her.”  Erik was no slouch either, but I think part of Sylvia’s appeal was that she offered something glamorous to aspire to be in terms of dancing and looks.

It is hard to imagine today with so many women still trying to master Sylvia’s swivels, but Sylvia’s style from Southern California was very distinctive from anyone else in the country in 1998. She and Erik generated an incredible amount of buzz that translated into demand for them as instructors and triggered curiosity about their inspirations from the film and screen of the 1940’s and 1950’s which in turn affected the look of dancing in a few communities.[5]

Ironically, the WLHC in 1999 was destined to become a footnote[6] because no one outside of the people who attended ever saw the competition.  Even though  it was filmed by professional videographers, no footage has ever been released.

However, it was a routine from the week before, at the American Lindy Hop Championships that would trigger many of the concerns mentioned in the viewpoints expressed in the WLHC debate.  Although Hollywood Style continued to spread after 1999, especially with the establishment of Camp Hollywood by Hilary Alexander the previous year, some of Erik and Sylvia’s momentum was slowed by being upset by Steve Bailey and Carla Heiney in the American Showcase division at ALHC which also functioned as the qualifier for the WLHC in 1999.   But even this development was secondary to the performance by a group of teenagers from Ithaca, NY.


[1] The debate took place over personal e-mails, e-mail lists, and discussion boards.  Relevant messages have been archived in a number of places including http://www.swinginhepcats.com/debate.html last accessed July, 2007.

[2] Mike Faltesek once related an amusing story online where he once asked Frankie Manning how he did his swingout when he was younger.  Manning asked him how long he had been dancing, which at that point had only been a few years for Mikey.  Frankie then asked him if he remembered how he did his swingout when he first started.  Faltesek couldn’t remember, to which Frankie followed up by saying that he should consider how hard it is to remember doing something like that over 50 years ago.

[3] It should be noted that Sylvia Sykes and Jonathan Bixby had already begun the process of learning from these old timers almost a decade previous and was already teaching around the country and representing in various West Coast Swing competitions.

[4] A poster on Yehoodi, “Poke Alex” amusingly summed up the so called “style wars,” “Yeah, if I remember correctly nobody “won.” I think for the most part people realized that not only was the battle stupid, it was really about nothing.  Erik & Sylvia originally coined the “Hollywood” term as a buzzwordish way to identify the style that they taught and pay homage to the fact that they borrowed a lot more from Dean Collins and his gang than from Frankie Manning and his.  Then a bunch of idiots (read: Lindy Hoppers) decided that “Hollywood” equaled “Dean Collins”, and therefore “Savoy” equaled “Frankie Manning”. Furthermore they inexplicably decided that not only were the styles completely 180-degrees different from each other, each with its own technique and feel, not just in the movement but in the lead and follow. The real kicker was when everybody decided one was inherently better than the other.   How it all got to that point is a mystery along the lines of Stonehenge or crop circles.” “Style War: Which Won?” discussion thread on Yehoodi.com posted by “Poke Alex” on 5/30/06 http://www.yehoodi.com/phpBB2/viewtopic.php?p=762284&highlight=#762284 last accessed July, 2007

[5] They made a huge impression on the Washington, DC Lindy Hop community which soon after earned a reputation as a “Hollywood style” scene.  Long time West Coast Swing dancer, Donna Roessel and Lindy veteran, Jane Ford each told me separately that Hollywood style was the “best thing that happened to DC,” because with it came a better understanding of partnering connection, particularly the use of counterbalance, leverage, and tension.

[6] A fact that did not escape Ryan himself after a conversation with the person he attacked.  In his public apology he wrote “Had I not wrote this letter nor made it so controversial, the World Championships will have come and gone with no one being the wiser as to what it was about.”

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7 Comments

  1. itmovesmatt said,

    July 20, 2009 at 8:57 am

    This is priceless:
    “It looked about as well as suburban middle class people could look like when they were trying to emulate what elderly urban black dancers were trying to describe how they danced 50-60 years previous.”

  2. October 14, 2010 at 12:03 am

    […] and Sylvia Skylar’s “Washerwoman” routine.  At that point, we were all becoming aware of the “Hollywood vs Savoy” issue and it was really cool to see such a prime example of it.  They were just so smooth and […]

  3. April 21, 2011 at 1:19 am

    […] won’t rehash the details here, but Jerry Almonte has a nice article in his Artistry in Rhythm series, in his blog Wandering and Pondering that touches the issue. […]

  4. May 12, 2011 at 12:38 am

    […] how things went down. If you look at the comments in that post, it takes about 50 comments before a voice from the past, Paul Overton, chimes in with some perspective. He’s later backed up by a nice response from […]

  5. June 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    […] and structured rigidity.  This is the domino effect on community values that the debaters in the WLHC controversy feared would take root in Lindy Hop.  Paul Overton’s prophecy of contests’ influence on dance […]

  6. October 15, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    I am new to Lindy and have been reading and watching whatever I can. So, my perspective is from a total beginner. I am on the older side but still have that hyper energy. lol … I have raced a nostalgia fuel dragster and am a guitarist who has rocked from standards to psychobilly. The Lindy fits in great with the rock and drag lifestyle I have lived and wished I took it seriously a decade ago.

    There is so much terrific swingin’ going on but have to admit that the Erik and Slyvia 1998’er affects me the most. I can see why this style has caused such a stir. I can’t put my finger on it but retro is definably full of warmth, grace, and romance.

    It is tough to not get this video and the segments in Bucks Privates and Swing Fever out of my mind.

    Great article and thanks for providing the education.

  7. September 30, 2012 at 1:22 am

    […] Robert White goes into a bit of detail about in this article and that Jerry Almonte touches in Part 2 of his Artistry in Rhythm series as well, Rusty Frank a noteable dance historian and preservationist in swing dance and tap, Maxwell […]


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