Nick Williams

Dancer – Instructor – Choreographer

John Mills passed away this last Friday at 3am.  He and his wife Ann Mills have been great mentors and inspirations for the newer generations of dancers.  He was a friend that will be greatly missed.

Although we know him as a lindy and swing dancer, he was best known for being a hoofer in his younger years.  I fondly remember David Rehm and I interviewing John and Ann at their house.  John was 90 years old at this point.  At one point John he became very exciting telling us about his hoofing years.  He was telling us how he used to do wings and accomplish more sounds than other dancers.  He put on some shoes and decided to demonstrate even though it had been years since attempting them.  Sure enough, this 90 year old dancer was doing amazing wings right before our eyes.  Thankfully, we did capture it on video.

Unfortunately, I don’t have that video readily available, but here is a short tribute video of John dancing with Ann and Rusty Frank.

I have been asked many times what direction I see Balboa/Bal-Swing heading. Balboa is still a young dance scene. It’s survival is not assured at this point. The next 5-10 years is going to be very telling whether or not it will sustain it’s current momentum, or slowly fade away. Although I can only speculate (many different factors can shift a dance scene), there are trends and observations than can be made to try and predict the outcome. To do that, we must first look back at the development of the scene to see what path we are currently traveling.

Balboa is a dance that has survived since the early part of the 20th century despite being threatened with extinction in the last 20 years. Sylvia Sykes and Jonathan Bixby had been fighting that battle since the mid 1980’s to keep Balboa alive, but it wasn’t until the late 1990’s that Balboa started to pick up steam. This is when the new generation of Lindy dancers got a hold of the home movies from Bobby McGees (a restaurant/bar that was a bi-monthly DJ’d dance venue for the original dancers since the early 80’s) and old films such as Maharaja, Start Cheering among others. There were several Balboa and Swing dancers from the 1930’s/40’s still around to encourage the new dancers, but seeing as they were not teachers of dance, old videos were the best source to learn. Balboa was an exciting and new dance to explore, but, unfortunately, nobody really understood the mechanics, feel, and fundamentals that made up Balboa & Bal-Swing. The dancers used their knowledge of Lindy Hop to fill in the missing information.

Little by little, a few of the dancers explored these mysteries to much greater detail and tried to educate the now budding (worldwide) Balboa scene as to what these dances were all about. There was much emphasis on the original dancers, how they executed the movements, and what the fundamentals of the dance were. This was a much needed and necessary step to not only keep the dances alive and to separate them from Lindy Hop, but also to do justice to the original dances/dancers themselves. The transition was difficult and slow, but quite affective. It finally gave Balboa/Bal-Swing the identity it needed.

For several of the leading new generation Balboa dancers, their objective was to first understand and be able to execute the original dance moves, stylings and techniques. The next step was to then create new moves and stylings with the understanding of the fundamentals that were established 75 years ago. Without progression and creation, Balboa did not have a chance of surviving. This is the phase that the scene has been in for the last 5 years. It’s an exciting time. Often times a new move or movement will become popular and be “the new thing”. Eventually these moves either work into the regular vocabulary of the dance scene, or eventually die out. There is a danger though. Sometimes the creative process can change a dance. It can change it to the extent where the original dance ceases to exist and in it’s place is a new dance with the same name. Sometimes this new version takes on a new name (like West Coast Swing did from it’s Lindy Hop origins). Other times the original version is lost forever.

Creation is a difficult task. To create something that enhances the dance and falls within the principles and fundamentals that comprise the dance is harder than it sounds. I’m a fan of adding new ideas and dimensions to a dance, but I always ask myself whether this fits into the realm of Balboa and Bal-Swing. Today, I see much more emphasis on the “new moves” than on the dances themselves and the origins of the dance. Many of the Balboa dancers today started within the last 5-7 years and missed out on the phase of understanding the origins. I believe we must try and strike a balance between the two. Side note: Creating new moves and stylings is much easier in Bal-Swing than it is in Balboa. Because of this, I have seen a lack of pure Balboa in our current scene.

As for the current trend, I see the lines blurring between Swing and Bal-Swing. When I say “Swing” I merely mean the all encompassing umbrella term that all the swing dances fall under. “Bal-Swing” is a more specific and defined dance (think Maxie Dorf, Willie Desatoff, Ann Mills and Natalie Esparza). I enjoy blurring those lines when I social dance. It makes it fun and interesting. The difference is…I can clearly define what part of it I consider Bal-Swing, and what part of it I consider Swing. Many dancers in the balboa scene today cannot make those distinctions.

In my opinion, Balboa is still on a healthy path. Every scene must go through transitions.  Many of the same evolutions the Lindy Hop scene had, the Balboa scene will have as well. At some point there will be a debate on whether we have strayed too far from the dance. At some point there will be a trend to go back to the origins of the dance. I hope that there are new up and coming dancers who can also be leading influences in the community. Currently there are just a few dancers whose ideas and material become popular, while others just take their ideas and make their own variations off of those. At the moment there is a lack of flow in much of the Balboa and Bal-Swing, leaving the dances very choppy. If that’s lost, then much of what makes these dances so intimate and dynamic will be gone.

Will Balboa and Bal-Swing continue to exist in the future? Will it be recognizable from it’s origins from 75 years ago? Every dancer has that responsibility. Yes, there are leading personalities in the community that have a lot of influence as to the direction the dances will take and what information will be presented to the students, but they are not solely responsible. If you’ve read this much of the article, I assume you have a passion or at least an interest in the dance. The resources are out there and available. Now you must choose what road to take.

Here is the video of Laura Keat and I performing our Lindy Hop showcase routine at the 2010 US Open Swing Dance Championships. We took 1st place:

Nick Williams
Nick Williams & Sylvia Sykes DVDs

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Copyright © 2009 Nick Williams.