Occupying Lindy Hop: The Gap Ad to Twenty-four Robbers and Forward

I didn’t love Frida & Skye’s “24 Robbers” routine when I first saw it. I liked it well enough, but to be honest I was a bit shocked to find out that it won at The Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown in 2007. Although no one was more surprised than Skye & Frida.

We were not the only ones. There were some loud dissenting opinions in the aftermath of that event. People were saying that it looked too easy, it was too slow, there were no new kewl moves. How could this be first place at an event billed with the name “Ultimate?” The same event that spawned the legendary 2006 Liberation final just a year before. A look at the other couples in that division shows lots of speed and lots of air. In 2007, there was even a special performance recreating The Congaroos clip which is much faster than Hellzapoppin.

With a little perspective, it seems that the appeal of 24 Robbers is because it was none of those things, and that all the criticisms laid against it are what makes it such a strong performance.

There’s not a lot to analyze here. Other than swingouts, some hand to hand and side by side Charleston, much of this routine is Frida and Skye walking around. In fact, there are only about three instances where they employ traditional solo jazz steps.

Setting aside the question of how this won a competition, there is still the question of how this performance got so popular afterwards. Oddly enough, I think the answer can be understood by looking at The Gap’s Khakis Swing Ad.

I had to revisit this clip while preparing a video presentation for the Mobtown Ballroom Anniversary a few weekends ago. The biggest challenge was figuring out a way to explain how this is a landmark performance whose influence on our community is probably greater than every other Lindy Hop performance combined. In launching Mobtown’s precursor venue through Charm City Swing in the mid 2000’s, I remember co-promoter Dorry Segev polling Lindy Hoppers about their negative preconceptions of the dance before they got into it. Keeping those things in mind, he made sure that the marketing reassured prospective dancers that they didn’t need to dress up in vintage costumes or come with a partner or any other excuse that could keep people from the Lindy Hop. His strategy was to strip away all barriers in order to make it as accessible to as many people as possible.

In retrospect, the Khakis Swing ad and then later, 24 Robbers, ended up conveying the same message: The dance is not a historical curiosity. It’s being done by regular people, all the time, which means that you can do it too. Right now.

The big question is why this Gap Ad? There were/are a million Gap ads, yet this one touched a cultural nerve. It’s important to note that this ad came along in the middle of a perfect media storm that increased the visibility of swing dancing to a level of popularity that it had not enjoyed since the end of the last world war. It started with the dance’s appearance in the movies “Malcolm X” and “Swing Kids” and continued through “The Mask,” and “Swingers.” It also coincided with the rise of the neo-swing bands led by Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and The Cherry Poppin Daddies. A resurgent Brien Setzer also covered the song used in the ad, “Jump, Jive & Wail.”. Before that, the only way to see the dance was through old black and white film clips.

The Gap capitalized on this growing wave and pushed it over the top with a very interesting technological twist. One of the main things that make this ad stand out from the rest of the Gap series is the unique use of camera work to freeze the action at certain points to rotate around the dancers in mid aerial. The only other instance of this being done at the time was in the blockbuster hit, “The Matrix.”

The young dancers, the modern clothing, and the pumping new music brought this vintage dance to the present, and technology propelled into the future. This was an important step in connecting it to modern audiences.

Almost 10 years later, Skye and Frida tapped into the same creative zeitgeist with “20 Four Robbers.”

I should back up and note that this is where the origin of this blog intersects with the dance it documents. It’ll make sense in a minute.

The basis of this blog is a personal project I wrote in 2007 called “Artistry in Rhythm.” (The short version: Lindy Hop in the past 15 years) A lot of my “research” originally involved talking with Skye mostly because he was involved in many of the things discussed therein. Skye had also just finished up his masters thesis in American Studies that Spring where he wrote about the way people perceived movement in an assortment of historical contexts. That summer we went round and round about how ideas were communicated within the dance scene, and debated the merits and downsides of competitions. I had a lot more pessimistic attitude towards competitions than he did at the time. Ultimately, we agreed that for better or worse, competitions were our main venue of presenting ideas. Skye has had a lot more faith in the democratic nature of our community. “It is an art-form for the people and by the people.” I’ve come to agree only because technology through the form of social media facilitates this sort of free marketplace of ideas by disseminating moves and movements by way of “Likes,” “Shares,” and “Favorites.”

Moving on, Artistry In Rhythm and 24 Robbers finished gestating around the same time. About a month before ULHS 2007, Frida came to visit DC with the rest of the Silver Shadows so they could prepare their team routine. At the time, Skye confessed that he didn’t think they were going to win or even place with Twenty4 Robbers simply because they knew that ULHS favored Bigger & Faster.

Skye and Frida have a bit of a reputation for conjuring routines at the last minute. As a result, it seems that their choreography usually follows a “less is more” philosophy. However, Twenty-Four Robbers was a product of months of preparation. Despite that, it’s actually less complicated than their more recent outings.

I don’t think that it’s accurate to say that Skye and Frida did not care what people thought of their routine. If they didn’t care at all, they wouldn’t have competed in the first place. They just had different priorities.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t know anyone that thinks about the way people view Skye and his dancing more than he does. Armed with this knowledge as well as the view that the dance was heading towards what looked like an inaccessible standard of speed and athleticism, Skye and Frida crafted a Lindy Hop performance for the 99%.

Combined with their casual dress, it almost seems like they could bust out this routine on their way to a bar or the corner café, and not look anachronistic in the early 21st century. They demonstrate an identifiable way for modern audiences to move to vintage swing music that doesn’t make people think that they should have started dance training in the 1930’s. The main appeal of this performance is that it looks like anyone can do it at any time.

The funny thing is that every once in awhile someone will tell me that they’re going to work on their dancing by recreating this routine because it looks so simple, but the devil is in the performance details. Their tack sharp execution is what puts Skye & Frida first among their peers in the upper echelon of Lindy Hop dancers. That’s the dirty trick that Frida and Skye pull with this performance: It’s not what they do, but the way that they do it. However, by the time people figure that out, they’re usually too immersed to give up. I like to think if it as an appropriate allegory to the every man (and woman) appeal of the dance.

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7 Comments

  1. Mr. Music Hall said,

    November 21, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Jerry,

    I think you are bang-on in your final interpretation of the acceptance of F&S’s “Twenty-four Robbers” choreography. How easily we seem to be continuously forgetting in Lindy Hop that, in the final analysis, it is not “what” is done, but rather “how” it is done, which should define excellence. I’m so happy the ULHC judges ruled in favor of “how” and not “what”. I have been hanging around in swing dance of all types for so long, I have been fortunate to have seen this same phenomenon occur before. Speed is thrilling, but speed kills. At fast tempos, not only is “how” much more difficult to do, it is also much more difficult to discern. And, at faster the tempos, aerials become disruptive to the rhythmic flow of a routine.

    I have long been ambivalent about competition in Lindy Hop, believing that while competition does raise the standard for the dance, when the standard becomes too difficult, average dancers tend to give up trying to elevate their dance to the standard. It is suicide for a social dance to accidently kill off its base, as it both eliminates some of Its future stars, it also drives away social dance attendance.

    Not to belabor the point, but, as example, I think Kevin and Jo’s recent routines now seem to be continuously cut from “Twenty-four Robbers” cloth.

    Allen Hall

    • Emily Fleck said,

      November 21, 2012 at 1:46 pm

      “I have long been ambivalent about competition in Lindy Hop, believing that while competition does raise the standard for the dance, when the standard becomes too difficult, average dancers tend to give up trying to elevate their dance to the standard. It is suicide for a social dance to accidently kill off its base, as it both eliminates some of Its future stars, it also drives away social dance attendance.”

      What you said, Mr. Hall. My feelings exactly. Thanks for commenting, and thanks for the post, Jerry!

      • Jon said,

        November 21, 2012 at 6:42 pm

        WCS demonstrates that you can have a competition-oriented culture that utterly dominates the scene, while still growing rapidly. What you do get though, is a sharp fractionation of the dance community and dance events into those who take comps very seriously / have some realistic chance at succeeding at them, and those who don’t.

  2. Jamie said,

    November 21, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Taint what you do, it’s the way that you do it! (that’s the way the Dipsy Doodle works). Thanks for your post, I quite enjoyed it.

  3. O said,

    November 21, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Jimmy Slyde once said on tap dance but I think it also relates to Lindy and what you are trying to say” the dance itself is not simple, its technical, But you want to get across that it looks so easy, everyone can feel as though they can do it.”

  4. Cheryl Crow said,

    December 1, 2012 at 2:07 pm

    I love your analysis here! I remember seeing the 24 Robbers video for the first time just as I was in my “total immersion” phase of learning lindy hop (dancing 5-6 nights a week in Seattle, getting to whatever Exchanges/workshop weekends I could). However, I have to admit that I was at a stage where I was much more impressed by the crazy fast and obvious routines than this one. I remember liking the happy vibe of their dancing, but i think it’s effortlessness made me miss or overlook just how impressively musical this routine is. I remember feeling the same way about Todd and Naomi’s dancing, at the time. Watching the same videos through time has allowed me to rack how my appreciation of different elements of dancing has evolved (and, I hope, improved!). Just another way that dance videos can be useful throughout the process.

    When I am trying to “hook” new dancers in to the dance, I often am conflicted over whether to show them videos that I know would have hooked *me* at the beginning (more obivous, fast ones, like the 2006 fast finals), or ones that really capture the true essence of the dance, like Twenty-Four Robbers (but which might not be as obviously impressive to the untrained eye). Usually I end up showing a multitude, just to cover my bases 🙂 At any rate, thanks for the thought-provoking post, as always!

  5. January 7, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    […] according to Jerry Almonte, the Twenty Four Robbers routine had a big effect on the direction of Lindy Hop.  And sadly, I was at the event but at a waterpark when it happened. Oh well, live and […]


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