Wouldn’t it be great if you danced and the whole world danced right along with you, too?
Director and co-writer Susan Glatzer, who partnered with Heidi Zimmerman on the shape and scope of the narrative, works a particular kind of magic, offering up one hell of a call and then daring audiences to not respond. The film explores the roots of Swing Dancing, going all the way back to Harlem, where the Savoy Ballroom was the first dance club that allowed whites and blacks to not only share the same space, but also begin to intermingle as partners. Some may have seen Swing, linked to improvisation much like Jazz (which it was set to), as a safe means of interacting. With its wildly energetic approach, there seemed to be little concern for the intermingling to cross over into legally banned intimacy.
Yet, as seen and heard in anecdotes from a new generation of dancers from all over the globe, Swing Dance might have been one of the most charged forms of dance. Despite lacking the formality of the ballroom showcases or the romance of the Tango, Swing revels in the rubber band snap that comes from throwing a partner out and then snapping them back into a fast and fevered embrace countless times. Constant contact in clenched hands, held firm by a pleading trust, makes momentary strangers feel like born lovers.
Alive and Kicking takes us inside the lives of an inner circle of adherents — some partnered couples (although none of those featured are romantically involved), some solo swingers who latch onto the next available dancer and hang on for dear life — and let’s them tell what we come to see as a universal story about their lifestyle. Also, the film takes the time to engage respected elders, like Frankie Manning, whose love of the form and the resulting culture sustained him during years when it seemed as if Swing had all but disappeared.
Each and every one of them heeds the same call to dance with all their might for as long as possible. Hours of instruction and practice lead to events and contests staged all over the globe where the spirit of competition achieves levels generally associated with the ideal of the Olympics. Glory doesn’t simply come from winning; instead it is about surrendering to the eternal love of the dance.
All of this sounds like some kind of utopian cult of personality, engendering a cynical reaction to the notion. But, trust me, that will fade away in the face of the athletic and rhythmic moves of the dancers, caught in their religious ecstasy on the verge of breaking free from the planet’s gravitational pull. Watching them hints at what it must feel like to speak in tongues or to have an out-of-body experience.
I spoke earlier of the idea that Alive and Kicking sets up a call and response, reminiscent of watching a Fast and Furious movie and then wanting to push the pedal to the metal for a quarter mile at a time on the way home. After the credits roll at the end and the lights come up, you will be overcome by the feverish need to head to the nearest dance floor with a kicking and swinging band so that you can Lindy Hop the night away.
Thanks to Cincinnati World Cinema, local audiences won’t have to go far. The 7 p.m. southwestern Ohio premiere of Alive and Kicking at Memorial Hall on Saturday will be followed by a dance demo and lesson by the Cincinnati Lindy Society, live music by the Ron Purdon Quintet and time for participants to put the impromptu lessons to practice during an opening dancing segment. Proceeds from this one-night only event — dubbed Cincinnati Swings — will benefit Cincinnati World Cinema and WMKV Radio.
ALIVE AND KICKING screens 7 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Hall. More info: cincyworldcinema.org.