JazzJive's weekend in The Cotswolds.
They came by road. They came by rail. They came by air. They came by to be part of Woodside IV - The Swing That Ate Gloucester. It was Big. It was Clever. And it will leave an indelible mark long after the laundry is done.
This was the fourth year that The Rock Dance Company had promoted Jumpin' At The Woodside. From a one day event in 1995, it has grown to cover most of the May Bank Holiday, no doubt soon to be known as Woodside Weekend. This year it was a sell-out, with 200 dancers from France, London, Cheltenham and all points in between converged on Gloucester to enjoy the best swing dance weekend in the country this year.
So what's The Big Idea? Simple really. Cook up the best bands in the country, add the top international teachers, stir in a touch of organisation and a few surprises, then bring to the boil for two days and three nights. Easy when you know how.
The teaching staff would grace any swing dance event in the world. Lennart and "W" from Sweden's Rhythm Hotshots, Rob Van Haaren and Diane Thomas from San Francisco, Ron Leslie and Claire Colbert from London, Angela Andrew, Julie Oram and tap dancer Donna Berlin. Local support came from Graeme Puckett and Ann, Peskett, Jimmy and Lisa, Kim and Nicky and James and Bridget themselves. Away from the main drag of swing dance, Ben Badu taught African dance and drums, while Andy Clay got the world to juggle. Naturally the whole scene was under the watchful eye of The Man Himself, The Frankmeister, The Mannotollah, Frankie Manning.
Friday was a day for registration and finding your accommodation. Then trying to find different accommodation. At 7pm the Guildhall Arts Centre bar was awash with teachers tucking into vegetarian chili con carne as they waited for the weekend's schedule to arrive. No real surprises in the plans, apart from Julie Oram being billed as Beginners Step Nurse & Spin Doctor. Here was one class worth attending just to see the kind of outfit she might wear. Ron Leslie converted his Hip Hop Jazzsteps into a double class of back Charleston variations, but apart from that, what you saw was what you got.
The evening's entertainment was straight out of the top drawer, with Aisha Khan and Blue Harlem turning in a dynamic performance. The jump-jive numbers were complemented by a slow and steamy Fever and a really swinging Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. The main hall was packed, and everything jumped, not least the floor, which was either extremely well-sprung or likely to fall through to the room below at any moment. Event organiser James Hamilton stopped proceedings to welcome us all to the weekend and to introduce the teachers. With so many people within walking distance of their bed for the night, the swing was swung until the last notes evaporated into early morning air.
With up to six classes happening in four venues at any one time, there was plenty of choice. During the weekend you could treat yourself to Charleston, Shag, Balboa, Tap, Lindy Hop, JazzJive, The Jitterbugs Stroll, Shim Sham, Air Steps (Big ones and Baby ones), Appalachian Clog, as well as the aforementioned African Dance, Drums and Juggling. Some classes proved especially popular, usually the ones which had the words "Rob" or "Frankie" somewhere in the title. Corners of rooms filled as classes were committed to memory or videotape. Lindy Hoppers, some confused, some giggling, practised Donna Berlin's tap Shim Sham before their big performance in their own kitchens. Every hour the local council sent round cleaners to scrape up victims of unsuccessful aerials from the streets. All this and a sweet shop opposite Northgate Hall that sold White Magnums at extremely reasonable prices.
Northgate Hall. Home to the afternoon Balboa class from Rob and Diane. It was big, but not big enough. So to the bemusement of the locals, an impromptu al fresco Balboa class hit the streets of Gloucester. The experience of the Sloping Pavement Balboa Sideways Shuffle will stay with many long after the steps have been forgotten.
Saturday afternoon at five was the time for "Frankie Live" in the cinema of the Arts Centre. As entertaining as ever, he told stories of how he joined Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, invented the first aerial, and his challenge with 'Shorty' George Snowden at The Savoy Ballroom. In response to a question, he talked about his dance partners and swung on to many other topics as the mood took him. Really, the only question to be asked at sessions like this is "What's the time, Frankie?" He will then reply "The time is 1938 and I remember when..." and he'll be up and running with another set of amusing and educational tales.
Dancing is a great way to keep fit. Another way is to wander around Gloucester on a Saturday night trying to find somewhere to have a decent meal after eight o'clock. Phrases which told us that this was not to be our night included "There's a 40 minute wait", "We're closed" and the ever-reliable "Our kitchen's just caught fire". Eventually we settled for a pizza restaurant which used to promise the meal of a lifetime. Fortunately, the service has speeded up considerably since then.
On to the Guildhall for The Woodchoppers Masked Ball, one of the swingingest nights of DJ music in living memory. The turntables were under the influence of Ronnie Slide, giving out swing, rhythm 'n' blues, boogie-woogie and even a short salsa selection. The fun never stopped, with the cabaret section of the evening starting with James And The Lumberjacks giving their all on a version of "YMCA". One can only imagine what depths were plumbed in order for these guys to get into character. Or perhaps it's best not. Lennart and "W" charlestoned, Rob and Diane balboa-ed and shagged, Ron and Claire jazzed and swung, and Frankie...frankied. The evening ended with a jam of Robertson's proportions.
Ah, Sunday in Cotswolds country. What possible reason could there be to get out of bed before nine in the morning? Well, if your name is Rob Van Haaren, having to teach a Balboa class at that time would be a good one. But as quite a few of the dancers had back trouble (couldn't get it off the bed either), people were generally in a better-late-than-Morris-dancing kind of mood. The day continued in an atmosphere of mellow enthusiasm. Perhaps anticipating this, the late afternoon arrangements were rock climbing followed by The Mad Hatters Tea Party.
The pre-concert entertainment in the Cinema featured Lennart showing some film clips. All the classics were there: "After Seben", "Black And Tan Fantasy", "Stormy Weather", "Lady Be Good", "Cabin In The Sky", "A Day At The Races" as well as one from James featuring the PG Tips chimpanzees. Frankie turned up just as "Hellzapoppin'" was being shown. Afterwards he explained that the dance sequence took hundreds of takes over three days. Each day started at 6am, and the Congeroos had to be on set until midnight. It took them two hours to get home and then they had to be back at the studio at 6am the next morning. From this starting point he wandered off into a delightful tale of how he enabled Clark Gable to win a bet with Spencer Tracey on whether one of the Congaroos would be crazy enough to leap across a fifteen foot gap between two sets of scaffolding. Guess which Congaroo made the jump?
As is so often the case when dance clips are shown, the evening tends to overrun slightly. In this case it was from the planned one hour to nearly two hours, but no-one was complaining. Eventually the message got through that Vile Bodies were on stage in ten minutes, and so people made their way into the main hall for final evening's entertainment. Many of the dancers had made an effort to dress up for the last night, and there were some fine frocks and sharp suits on display. Quite a few had travelled to the Guildhall just for the evening, and were returning the same night.
Announced by James Hamilton as "The best swing orchestra in the country", Stacey Kent and company were very much on form, and Colin Good said how much they enjoyed playing for the dancers. Vocal highlights included Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea and Stompin' At The Savoy, while the orchestra delivered a lively One O'Clock Jump. They have now added Lester Young's Broadway to the repertoire from the Quintet, and very fine it sounded too. Needless to say Stompin' resulted in the inevitable Frankie-orchestrated mass Shim Sham, but fortunately the floor held out during the onslaught of four hundred (more or less) syncopated feet.
For information on how to sign up for Jumpin' At The Woodside, 2000, call 01452 770063 or visit JazzJive.
© 1998 Andrew Winton. Under no circumstances to be rewritten or reproduced anywhere else!
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