Hollywood Style: Before The Golf Swing, The Other Kind Of Swing

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…. )

with barry

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

14 Comments on "Hollywood Style: Before The Golf Swing, The Other Kind Of Swing"

  1. This is going to cause a feeding frenzy. “4fhepcat” might have to up the dosage.

  2. Christian, I know Dick Press and believe me you’re no Dick Press. Dealbreaker–your first name.

  3. No humor at the expense of Christianity! Someone could find it offensive.

  4. My great grandmother taught ballroom and etiquette in Philadelphia during the Depression to pad the family finances, my grandfather waltzed with Grace Kelly at her debutante, and I took cotillion as a youth, so I’m sold. Main Line/Proper Philadelphian families seem historically to highly value ballroom, tidewater/Southern families as well, not sure about the Boston Brahmins, someone care to comment?

  5. Mmmmmm, Jacqueline Bissett. We are not worthy!

  6. Before I found my calling in radio…I was an actor. Mostly summer stock & dinner theatre.
    Had a knack for comdey and some musicals, being a decent enough singer. But when I was called upon to dance….Jesus! I could sweat buckets at the sight of a side step. I distinctly remember one of my last auditions in Naples, Florida. I had to dance with a half dozen other guys. It was then I realized what a fish out of water I was. At my next and last audition, I was made to sing “I Am 16 Going On 17,” when I was 26. I’d had it. My wife dreads going to weddings and the like with me as I sit at the table and drink while she looks for someone to dance with. My point being, I envy a guy like you who’s comfortable enough in his own skin to to be able to move with the grace of a dancer. Enjoyed the vids very much! Encore!

  7. Christian | March 6, 2013 at 4:39 pm |

    Encore? I don’t dance too often these days, but I was thinking of an encore to my Christmas piano video. My new year’s resolution was to work on my jazz piano chops, so I may post another piano video rather than wait until next Christmas, when in addition the repertoire is rather limited.

  8. Mr. Wyllys | March 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm |

    Interestingly enough,I once had a rockabilly musician tell me that if you want to find yourself a good upright bass player…get a guy that’s played bass in a swing band…

  9. Great post- personal and true-
    i started swingin up at Cazadero family camp, by the russian river, and man do i love it…
    if you ever pass thru frisco, Cat’s bar on Mission has a real great vibe… and I do the dancers den in berkeley at the great old julia morgan designed berkeley city club (but no bar and the light’s too bright)
    ever swing anymore or do the irons have you in their grip?

  10. Christian, everyone who worked on “Swing” the film should be proud of the modern fairytale depicted therein. I really enjoyed this movie (after finding last summer on demand) and bemoan the fact that many of the bands of the neo-swing era dropped out of the mainstream. However, I’m glad to keep seeing BBVD and Brian Setzer consistently put out great music year after year. They introduced me to Cab Calloway, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman (etc) and then eventually to a greater appreciation of jazz. And you’re completely right – even if you are not dancing, it’s hard to be in a bad mood if you put on some good swing music (or throw on Swing the movie). And, in the true spirit of the site, would it hurt anyone if trends put us back in a place where people got “dolled up” to go dancing?

  11. Andrew Yamato | March 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm |

    I remember those years with an affectionate cringe, as I was the drummer and co-founder of the 13 pc Detroit-based Imperial Swing Orchestra, playing an intensely schizoid mix of 30s swing, 40s jump, and 50s Sinatra. Good times, although it’s too bad the scene got so cartoonish so quickly. Nothing kills cool faster then zoot suits.

  12. @Andrew, haha, you had to go bring up Zoot Suits, didn’t you? 😉
    I wore a zoot suit to my senior prom. In my defense, the song “zoot suit riot” hadn’t come out, and I wore a zoot suit because I was fascinated about the actual zoot suit riots in LA.
    Thinking of that prom definitely fills me with an affectionate cringe. :)

  13. Yes, I’m a dancer, too. I started in grad school, with international folk dance. I was very popular at Oktoberfests, not least because I could waltz and polka circles around nearly everyone else on the dance floor. However, the Oktoberfest season is short, so I sought other ways to dance socially.

    I just missed the swing revival, so I branched out into ballroom. Later, I found that salsa was the social dance of the young people where I lived, so I started that, too.

    I met my wife dancing, and we, and our children, dance.

    What more testimonial could you want?

  14. Just learned Jonathan Winters died. It was very cool being on set with him. He took pretty mediocre material and made the best of it, earning the biggest laughs in the couple of screenings I attended.

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