Me and my Lindy Focus "Wife" Jodie
This is my third year in a row going to the Lindy Focus swing music and dance festival in Asheville, North Carolina. (Blog posts from 2014 and 2015.) It's always an incredible, inspiring experience, and a great way to close out the year.
Here are some of my personal highlights from Lindy Focus 2016.
Lindy Focus is known for a lot of things, but notably for it's live music. Jonathan Stout, a bandleader from LA, puts together a super-group of amazing jazz musicians from around the country into one cohesive and powerful swing orchestra. There's really nowhere else in the planet you can go to experience in person swing jazz played for dancers in this manner.
This year, the focus was on an incredibly successful fundraiser campaign to create transcriptions of music by the Savoy Ballroom's bandleader Chick Webb. In just 24 hours they raised enough money to pay for transcriptions of about 20-some songs that had have never been available as charts before. Having actual sheet music of Chick Webb's arrangements is incredibly important because its in the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s and 40s that Lindy Hop was born.
As one of the backers of the campaign, I had the honor of being at the sound check the afternoon before the Chick Webb concert. We got awesome merchandise, snacks and drinks, and front row seats of the band rehearsing various numbers together. It was an intimate and raw view into how a swing orchestra actually operates.
My only regret is that I didn't jump on the chance to pay for the transcription of one of the songs, which was only $450. Imagine knowing that your contribution making possible a classic swing song being played by bands around the world!
Then that evening, the band hit us with the full force of the Chick Webb sound. It was just incredible to experience in person. Those not fortunate enough to be there could still experience a bit of it through a live stream that the organizers put up on YouTube.
The other four nights of live music were also incredible, focused on the music of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and a grab-bag of Jonathan's favorite swing songs. A highlight for me was when Jonathan had the band play different sections of "Blue Skies," from the piano to the reeds, horns, rhythm sections and vocals before hitting us with the full force of the orchestra playing that song. We all went to school that night and it was incredible.
On the final night of Lindy Focus, several hundred people did what was billed as "the world's largest California Routine." Don't know if that was true, but it sure looked cool.
Late Night Dances
After the main night, I went to the late night dances, which were just as amazing and fun as the main dances. The late nights featured both live and DJed music, as well as performances and competitions.
Lindy Focus is serious about late night. "Breakfast Club" is a term for when you dance all night into the morning when the hotel's breakfast service begins at 6:30am. I made it to three "Breakfast Clubs," I'm proud to say.
Here's a fun Breakfast Club "Mannequin Challenge" from one of the nights that I participated in!
Another highlight of the late nights for me was dancing with my friend Latasha, one of the most skilled multi-genre dancers that I know. We had a super fun waacking / lindy hop fusion dance at the late night. From the first waacking move, people around us starting cheering and clapping, until we had a small audience for our impromptu performance. Bringing together two of my favorite dance forms with a skilled practitioner of both was a dance highlight of my entire year.
This year I took two wonderful workshops at Lindy Focus. The first was an introduction to tap with Hilary-Marie, an accomplished tap instructor and performer based in New York.
Tap is something that I have always wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I have grainy memories of watching hoofers on the Lawrence Welk show on television and trying to imitate their steps. Several years ago, I had a series of tap classes in New York that were so discouraging and difficult for me that I never pursued tap any further.
Hilary changed all that. Hilary is an incredibly patient and versatile dance instructor, gently introducing us to different tap steps and vocabulary, teaching us very simple choreography, and answering questions along the way. It was exactly what I needed, rekindling the excitement and joy I had as a young person stomping away like a "real hoofer." Now I am seriously thinking about taking up tap again, if I can find a local instructor that I vibe with.
Here's Hilary dancing with other hoofers at Lindy Focus in a swell performance.
The second class was equally inspiring, this time with internationally recognized solo jazz artist Ksenia Parkhatskaya. Ksenia taught a super fun and challenging 1920s Charleston workshop, a dance style I have attempted to do in my own unstructured way for awhile.
Ksenia broke down for us the essence of the 20s Charleston aesthetic and style, contrasting it with later Charleston styles and even house dancing. She instructed us in some basic 20s Charleston steps – basic Charleston, falling off the log, a Charleston slide, cow tails, and others. And then she put them all together into fun choreographies that helped connect the movement to the music it's meant to be danced to , ragtime jazz.
Here's the piece that took the world by storm of Ksenia performing on "So You Think You Can Dance" Ukraine.
We learned literally just the first couple eights of this piece and it took us an hour. So hard, so cool!
The last time I was this inspired by a solo jazz class was the first one I took with Frida and Zacharias more than a decade ago.
I had several foodie adventures in Asheville, which has a great local food scene. The OWL is a local bakery that features delicious french and american pastries, including a nearly perfect almond croissant, a fine cardamon bun, and other delicacies. I enjoyed sitting in the bakery and nerding out on food with a couple from Charlotte who drove all the way to Asheville to visit the bakery.
Other food favorites:
- Vortex is famous for their eclectic and delicious donuts. The espresso flavor is a favorite of mine.
- Sunnypoint Cafe is the most popular brunch spot in the city, for good reason. I had some fine huevos rancheros there, sitting at the counter watching the restaurant chefs do their thing. Their biscuits and maple bacon are legendary.
- Tupelo Honey Cafe is a quinticentially North Carolinian spot in downtown Asheville. They serve incredible shrimp and grits, and a mean pork chop.
- Green Sage Cafe had all the hippie breakfast deliciousness that I need: eggs, kale, root veggies and brown rice.
LINDY FOCUS 2017 and Beyond
On the final night of Lindy Focus, organizer Michael Gamble thanks all of us for our support of the Chick Webb campaign. Later in January, information on how bands could get access to the Chick Webb charts will be announced on their website HeritageSounds.com.
He also announced their plans for next year — bringing another important swing bandleader "back from the dead" by transcribing their music for the next generation of swing bands. He reported that they were considering three band leaders to focus on : Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson or Jimmy Lunceford. Early in the year, they will announce a process for selecting which one of these bandleaders would be the focus of the next transcription project. Super exciting!
A fun postscript for me was meeting up with some lindy hoppers in the Charlotte airport waiting for our respective flights, including my buddy Voon. We were sitting together in the main food court which was pretty busy. I pulled out my little bluetooth speaker and DJed a couple of dances in the eating area — a tiny lindy hop flashmob if you will. It was super fun and we even got some applause from people eating their meals and watching the "Show." It seemed like an appropriate transition back to the "real world." Good times.