Catalina Dreamin': Swing Dance Camp 1997

For a great weekend of Lindy Hop in the most delightful setting, Catalina Island takes some beating.

Catalina Swing Dance Camp was held on 5-8 June this year, and what an absolutely cracking event it was. We were a gang of four from England, cunningly called "Blighty's* Lindy Hoppers", on our first trip to the island. It may well not be our last.

The benchmark for this kind of extravaganza for me is "Can't Top The Lindy Hop" held by The New York Swing Dance Society in honor of Frank Manning's 80th birthday in 1994. Catalina came as close as I could have hoped, and in some ways surpassed it.

Santa Catalina Island is situated 22 miles west of Long Beach in Los Angeles. At around a mile across it is ideal for a migrant community to take over the 'capital', Avalon for a weekend. The coastline is dominated by one building: the Casino Ballroom, a fantastic circular structure that houses an enormous ballroom above, strangely enough, a casino. There are many photographs of the orchestras of Kay Kyser, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman that played there in the days when swing was king.

The Casino Ballroom was one of five venues for classes. On Saturday, an extra venue was added due to demand. The Camp was a 600-strong sell-out and had been so for many weeks. A church hall, villlage hall, high school gym and a hotel conference room were all home to large numbers of dancers hanging on every word and move of their teachers. And what a great team were assembled by the organisers, The Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association. The Rhythm Hot Shots, Steve Mitchell, Erin Stevens, Tami Stevens and Scott Price, David Dalmo, Sing Lim, Kenneth and Helena Norbelie and Martin and Lisa Parker. Oh yeah, there was also some old guy hanging around who's name escapes me. Saint Francis Of Lindy or something. Apparently he was in a film 55 years ago that started this whole thing off. Forget Michael Flatley, this is the REAL Lord Of The Dance!

Thursday was the day to get registered and discover that the warm-up exercise for the Casino venue was to walk up half a dozen steeply sloping ramps to the Ballroom. That evening had been billed as a DJ'd dance, but a band, The Swing Kings had been added. With its external balcony and two tiers of tabled seating, there was enough room to move around socially as well as dancingly. Erin Stevens made the introductions, with a special mention for Louise Thwaite from London who had been adopted by the PBDA during the hectic weeks leading up to the event. She was also now teaching the Shim Sham and The Madison. There were three display teams showing a high degree of skill in their routines, especially Hot Stompin' Rhythm from Orange County.

The class structure was five sessions per day, with up to six alternative classes in each time slot. Some classes were thoughtfully repeated during the weekend, possibly for those like me who immediately counted out anything that started before 10.30am except breakfast. There were three buses called the "Swing Trams" that circulated between the venues and could be hailed by any passing dancer wearing the requisite camp wristband. If you missed one, you could always try and hitch a lift with Erin as she passed by in her Daytona GTi golf buggy. Golf buggies were a common form of transport on Catalina. It was a new experience for me, being able to outrun most of the traffic.

There were seven class types: Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Charleston, Tango, Tap and Aerials. Four line dances were taught: Shim Sham, The Madison, The Jitterbug Stroll and The Big Apple. With all those choices it was difficult to do everything you wanted, but the limitations were usually physical rather than time. A personal highlight was Frankie's Choice, where Sing Lim partnered him in a delightful Lindy/Charleston routine. "At this point you gotta stick your butt out" explained Frankie. "This move is called The Butt!" The memory of around 300 people sticking it out, pulling it in and then pushing it from side to side will linger for a long time.

Steve Mitchell's classes were a triumph for me. In New York, I hadn't even understood the water breaks, but here it all seemed to fit into place. Again with Sing, he showed a nifty little jump into a hip-to-hip cakewalk. On Sunday, this time on his own, he mesmerised us with a Swing Movement class. This was in the form of a stroll which incorporated many well-known steps like fish-tails, boogie forward, fall off the log and charleston, but with emphasis on the correct way of doing each move. "Give it that Lindy flavour! Let the sun shine!" he exhorted us as we did an 'hallelujah'-style move. I think this was a metaphysical sun, as the real one was having no difficulty at all.

On Friday night The Rhythm Hotshots performed their show of tap, charleston, jungle and Lindy Hop. The Lindy Hop number was so popular that they were asked to repeat it the following night. Other displays included Sing and partner Andrew, who gave us a delightful "Half 'n' Half" routine with some suitable outfits. Kenneth and Helena also had a solo spot, as did Tami and husband Scott, with a fine tango display. Steve Mitchell took over one of the jam sessions and called in the other teachers to join him as he called the moves and then sent in couples for solos. He repeated this on the Sunday night Beach Party with dozens of dancers trying to watch and follow. It really was a sight to see, and hopefully will be captured on the video of the event being produced by Guy Caridi, available at the end of August from the PBDA (1-818-799-5689).

Friday's band was Red And The Red Hots, who were a good jump jive outfit. Saturday night featured the sensational Bill Elliott Swing Band, with vocalists Amy Weston and The Lucky Stars. Many people came from the local community and the mainland to swell the numbers to around 1,100 in the Ballroom that night - and there was still space to dance! It was an awesome display of sartorial elegance as those who possessed zoot suits or vintage dress strutted their stuff.

There was a buffet and music on Sunday night at the Descanso Beach Club for a highly informal closing ceremony. Louise lead The Madison and Steve and Sing led the Jitterbug Stroll, to the the song written by Steve especially for the dance. Mr. Mitchell, in his role as unofficial MC for the event, organised a thank-you jam for Erin, calling in all the other teachers. "Is David in the house?" he intoned, to get Mr. Dalmo into the circle. A rare sight indeed was the response to "Is Lennart in the house?" which actually succeeded in getting this founder member of The Rhythm Hot Shots to make an appearance in a jam session. Eddie grabbed the mike to ask "Is Steve in the house?" which must rank as one of the great rhetorical questions of all time.

And so it was over. Many left during the afternoon, and the teachers left on the 9.30pm Catalina Express, although some were to be found at 3am in Jerry's Deli in Pasadena. Blighty's Lindy Hoppers stayed 'til Monday afternoon, leaving enough time for a glass-bottom boat tour and getting those otherwise soon-to-be-forgotten moves onto video. The place, the event, the people, the teachers and the organisation were all superb. Congratulations to all concerned, especially the charming Jim and Monza Stevens. If the Bulls had sent The Worm here instead of Las Vegas after game two Chicago would have taken the series 4-zip. Book now for next year.

* 'Blighty' was a term used by troops in World War I to refer to England. I thought it was a terribly clever pun for 'Whitey', but spent most of the weekend explaining to bemused dancers why I had this on my t-shirt.

© 1997 Andrew Winton

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