Lindy Hop Contest: Meet the Judges
On Saturday, July 14, this year's Midsummer Night Swing season ends on a high note as the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra pays a classic big-band tribute to jazz legend Illinois Jacquet, and, once again, some of the best dancers in the region compete in the Ambassador Prize Lindy Hop Dance Contest, an homage to Lindy hop icon Frankie Manning.
Here, contest judges Margaret Batiuchok, Mercedes Ellington, Lana Turner, Charlie Meade, and Judy Pritchett share their Lindy hop histories, and a few tips for how to shine on the dance floor. Think you've got what it takes? Enter the contest sign up online or in person at the entry gate anytime before 8:00 pm on July 14.
Q. When did you first learn to Lindy hop?
Charlie Meade: The 1940s!
Judy Pritchett: 1985.
Mercedes Ellington: I first learned to Lindy hop at the few birthday parties in my neighborhood that my grandmother would allow me to attend. It was mostly girls dancing with girls, so no "formal" hold positions were used.
Lana Turner: The beginnings start with my father, who loved jazz, and who, with my mother, would frequent popular Harlem social nightspots and ballrooms like the Savoy, Alhambra, and the Renny. The music was ever present in our household and along with it was the Lindy. When I was a little girl of 5 or 6 or 7, my father would have me stand on his shoes as he taught the basics of "swing." This was a time when people routinely danced at home. I came to understand the joy of musicians and dancers taking cues from the other to create and improvise on the heightened excitement of the moment.
Margaret Batiuchok: I had learned swing dancing as a child, and from going out dancing in the 1980s. John Lucchese, a fabulous smooth dancer from the 1940s, showed me the 8-count. Soon after that I met my partner George Lloyd at City Limits, a dance club in Manhattan. George was a "Savoy Ballroom 400 Club" dancer, and in 1983 we were the first interracial couple to enter and win the Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden. It was the last year they had Lindy Hop as a category. Both John and George are no longer alive, but I try to carry on their style.
Q. What do you love most about the Lindy hop, and Swing dancing in general?
Lana Turner: I love the language of freedom and movement. At once social and personal, there is a public-private conversation between partners. It is the language in motion of what is suggested and the response in turn. Like the music, improvisation on the dance floor can take on the unexpected and fall right into the pocket. Love.
Charlie Meade: Two people dancing together and enjoying the same rhythm.
Margaret Batiuchok: How everyone can develop their own style of dancing. It's creative. I love to see new dancers come in and do it their way. What worries me is when I see people copying everyone else and trying to all do it the same way, even though there are basic steps that must be maintained in order to call it Lindy hop.
Judy Pritchett: It's an energetic and happy dance.
Mercedes Ellington: The music and the use of live big bands, and the interplay between the dancers and the musicians, along with the rhythmic moves they inspire.
Q. What's the most important thing (or top three things) you like to see in Lindy hop?
Judy Pritchett: A good swingout, musicality, and a connection between partners.
Mercedes Ellington: I look for ease of interplay between partners; improvisational timing and unexpected combinations of established vocabulary.
Charlie Meade: Style, rhythm, and being on time.
Margaret Batiuchok: Fun, total involvement in the music and movement—which, even if raw, gives a natural style and grace—and partnering.
Lana Turner: I look for people having fun! In this way it does not matter to me if people have danced many years or are just beginning. I love and look for smiles, laughter, creative phrasing, and beauty in movement.
Q. Any tips or advice for people who are new to Swing?
Mercedes Ellington: Anyone new to the art form should research the historical background of both the music and the dance. "Jazz" is America's folk music. Swing, Jive, Lindy—America's folk dance.
Lana Turner: Listen to the music. What would you do with phrasing? Find out the story behind favorite songs. Who wrote the tunes? Read Swingin' at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer, by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen; and Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, by Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman. Go hear live music. Dance as often as you can and don't forget to have fun. Smile and laugh out loud!
Margaret Batiuchok: Have fun! And dance with everyone on the floor. Be inspired by others, and be courteous and nice. Know your body's limitations and who's around you so you don't crash into others while having fun. It's a social dance, and a great way make friends.
Judy Pritchett: Listen to lots of original swing music, and listen really well to the music you're dancing to.
Charlie Meade: Have fun!
Eileen Willis is Editorial Director at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.