Last night I was sitting around with the girlfriend pulling up videos on YouTube and trying to explain the difference between swing, jump blues and rockabilly. I went looking for a band I knew from San Francisco and stumbled across a blast from my past: Two recently uploaded clips about an independent movie called “Swing” I worked on over a decade ago.
It was my 15 minutes of Hollywood fame, minus the fame.
Although I worked on the movie in 2002, the clips were only uploaded to YouTube in the past year or so. One has been seen only 36 times, which is probably just slightly less than the audience for the actual film.
Watching my girlfriend’s eyes explode at the 4:13 point in the clip above — where I recline nonchalantly next to the director as he yells, “Very good!” — was priceless. She looked at me and said, “Who are you, again?”
Well, while I’m no Dick Press, who acted in Off Broadway shows while serving as the president of J. Press, I have had a couple of showbiz moments. I was a dance extra in the Robin Williams movie “Bicentennial Man.” There was supposed to be a swing-dance scene, but at the last minute the music was changed and we were given a slow dance. In one shot I think you can see 2/3 of my head for 1/3 of a second.
I’d gotten obsessed with dancing swing, just like I am now with swinging a golf club, around 1996 in the early days of the so-called swing revival, when bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (who played the Super Bowl, marking the apex of the trend) and the Brian Setzer Orchestra — not to mention smaller bands comprised of a combination of former high school band geeks and punk rockers who started making sloppy music together — briefly came into the national spotlight. Does anyone remember the “khakis swing” commercial by The Gap?
I ended up moonlighting as a dance host and instructor, developing a dance team at my old high school and giving lessons seven days a week in a studio space. I even ran a weekly swing night at a club, booking bands and playing DJ in addition to teaching classes.
Eventually I moved to Los Angeles and started doing a style of swing dancing called Hollywood Style (which is kind of like to Savoy Style Lindy Hop what West Coast Jazz is to Hard Bop), that still throws girls around but in a smoother way than that frenetic style from New York. When a friend got a gig choreographing a tiny indy film that was shooting back up in San Francisco, I was brought aboard with the title assistant choreographer and it was the experience of a lifetime. Though the LA Weekly ultimately said the dancing looked like it was blocked by a high school drama club, I got to spend six weeks in rehearsal with Jacqueline Bissett and Barry Bostwick (the originally Danny in “Grease” on Broadway). In fact, when it came time for shooting, at the last minute I had to dance an improvised solo with Bissett, as Bostwick was delayed on the set of “Skulls 3.”
Here I am wearing an ill-fitting, anachronistic costume, my own plain-front tapered trousers with a boxy double-breasted ’40s suit coat, as there was nothing left in the wardrobe department.
In the 30-minute clip below you can see me doing a clubfooted rehearsal at 16:51. Fred Astaire I ain’t.
I did get an IMDB credit out of it, though, and thought I could parlay it into a little side gig specializing in managing dance extras in period movies. They usually look off to me, as if they just stepped out of an Arthur Murray dance studio when it’s really supposed to be 1880s Vienna. I talked to a few agencies, but they said that in general those kinds of scenes with background dancers are a local hire (meaning they’re handled on location wherever the movie is filming), and it would be difficult to get me work for such a tiny cinematic detail. (Of course, now that this comes up, I just remembered that Richard Press’ son is a talent agent in Hollywood. Hmm…. )
Right before I moved to New York I spent some time in my home town, and popped in on a dance one night to hear my favorite shuffle-boogie band Stompy Jones, who were up in the North Bay from their home base in San Francisco. A girl I’d taught to dance some 12 years before took me aside, and thanked me with tears in her eyes for giving her the gift of dance so long ago. Yeah I know it sounds corny, but I’ll never forget that.
I’m curious how many of you have learned swing or ballroom dancing. It’s just about the greatest skill you can make the effort to learn. There’s something inherently life-affirming about moving your body to music, and it’s guaranteed to cure the blues, even if when you’re dancing to them.
These days I entertain people on the Internet, but spreading the joy of dance was pretty damn fulfilling and a whole lot of fun. Until I started picking up women at J. Press, like the current girlfriend (or should I say main “squeeze”?) every woman I’ve been involved with I met dancing. That at least should give you guys pause to consider. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD