By Mary Rickard
Times-Picayune Contributing writer
It was Sunday afternoon on Frenchmen Street and 30 people had gathered at d.b.a. for a Lindy Hop class. Chance Bushman -- a lithe young man wearing a straw hat and sneakers, his shirttail hanging out -- was teaching the Texas Tommy, a fast-paced spinning turn created in the early 1900s in San Francisco.
Bushman and his teaching partner, Giselle Anguizola -- earrings dangling from her ears and wearing a tiny cotton dress -- demonstrated the finer points of the step. The Saints game blared on TV, but everyone focused on learning the tricky turn.
"Triple, triple, push!" Bushman said as he directed the dancers to push and pull against one another.
Some dancers were clumsy beginners. Others, such as Rick Jay, had danced socially their entire lives, but were new to Lindy Hop. A retired English teacher from Philadelphia, Jay saw Bushman teaching the Shim Sham, a line dance from the 1920s, at the National World War II Museum.
"I loved it," Jay said. "It was like a giant Macarena line, but much more involved."
Over the past five years, New Orleans has become a mecca for swing dancers because it is one of few places where traditional jazz music is performed live every night of the week. Last month, 2,000 dancers traveled from all over the world to participate in the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown.
Bushman, who moved to the city in 2007 from the West Coast, knows at least 20 dancers who have followed suit, attracted by the local music.
He said there are probably about 200 regular Lindy Hop dancers in New Orleans, most of them trained by either NOLA Jitterbugs, his group, or Dance Quarter, led by Nathalie Gomes.
'What I'd been craving'
Anguizola saw Lindy Hop performed for the first time at Disneyland when she was 15 and immediately bought a pass so she could dance to big-band music every Saturday night.
She moved to New Orleans in January to dance full-time.
Ron and Gail Laborde are some of Bushman's regular students.
"We'd been dancing for many, many, many years, but we saw Chance dancing at the FrenchQuarter Festival and thought, 'Wow!'" Roy LaBorde said of the style. "It's a challenge, no question about it. But it is fun."
Since the retired couple discovered the fast eight-count Lindy Hop, they've quit other social dancing.
Patrick Lewis, 39, noticed Bushman during French Quarter Festival, too. "I want to learn how to do that," he told himself. Now he takes lessons three nights a week, dances nightly and has lost 30 pounds.
"I used to sit at home and mope because I was divorced, but dancing has gotten me out and around people," Lewis said.
Elsie Semmes, 20, studied ballet for 15 years and was accepted into the Colorado Ballet before switching to Lindy Hop.
"This is what I'd been craving," she said. "It looks like such an easy, loose, flailing sort of dance, but there's a lot of technique behind it."
That technique has developed during several generations.
An emerging style
Named for Charles Lindbergh, the pilot who in 1927 flew solo across the Atlantic ocean, Lindy Hop is said to have been born at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York.
It evolved from African-American dances and dances former slaves performed that satirized European partner dancing. Eventually the style incorporated jigs Irish immigrants brought to the United States. The dancing soon found a home in Vaudeville.
In Lindy, like in most forms of dance, dancers respond to the music and exercise great individuality in interpreting the moves, Bushman said.
A new twist
When Bushman first arrived in New Orleans, he danced to traditional jazz in the open air on Royal and Frenchmen streets.
"The dancers are really fun to have. The musicians love them," said Robert Snow, who plays upright bass with six bands, including the Loose Marbles, Palmetto Bug Stompers and the Cottonmouth Kings.
The relationship between dancer and musician is reciprocal, he said. The dancers get something to move to and "we feed off the energy."
Snow's Palmetto Bug Stompers counterparts started arriving at d.b.a. for their 6 p.m. gig after class while Anguizola demonstrated technique for the women to be better dance partners.
"Followers, you lean forward, kind of like on the Titanic," she said with a sly smile.
While the lesson wound down, Snow mused about the reason for the renewed interest in Lindy Hop dancing in the city.
"In New Orleans, we probably have the most musicians per capita of any city," said Snow, whose father, uncle and cousin are also professional musicians. "The kids were looking for something different. They turned to this old music done with a new twist," he said.
"Frenchmen Street is going to be like Louis Armstrong," Snow said of any possible renewed interest about the Lindy Hop on a national level. "They'll say 'New Orleans is where it all started.'"
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Mary Rickard is a contributor to The Times-Picayune.