Weekly Bulletin
December 13, 1999
Vol. 89, No. 12
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Page one news and features
Two miles underground ... studying subsurface microbes
Social dance and social life
In the news

Director's Alert profiles Shapiro

Nassau Notes

Grants available


Social dance and social life

Freshman seminar examines 20th-century American culture

By Nancy Beth Jackson

They take to the floor all elbows and knees, bodies tense, faces frozen in scholarly concentration. The 15 freshmen have just spent the last 90 minutes stretching their minds; now they're challenged to stretch their bodies. Minds were easier.


Freshmen Chris Wahl (l), Erin Sullivan, Megan Aghazadian, John McMath and Daeil Cha work on the Lindy (Photo by Ron Carter)


Back step. Touch step. Triple step.

Knees start loosening up. Hips start swinging. Left hands trace circles in the air. And the rubber soles start stomping in the dance studio in Wilson College.

This is a freshman seminar called Shall We Dance? Social Dance and Social Life in 20th-Century America, in which students exercise a critical eye in evaluating what dance says about society. In this particular class, they're examining the Lindy Hop, a dance craze that transcended race in mid- 20-century America.

For Aleta Hayes, lecturer in the Council of Humanities and Theater and Dance, leading her first freshman seminar is a dream come true. She's teaching the course she always wanted to take when she was a Stanford undergraduate: a course combining theory and practice.

"The way we're looking at the material," she explains, "is a way of thinking about movement--how people move, stand, hang out. I like to mine that information for its scholarship potential as well as for my own choreography. It's sociology. It's anthropology. It's cultural theory--how people access pleasure in culture. It's intellectual stimulation, but it's also fun."

Talking from this century

Shall We Dance? was the second most requested among the freshman seminars offered this semester, according to Hank Dobin, associate dean of the college. Only President Shapiro's seminar on Contemporary and Historical Issues in Bioethics topped it. Dobin administers the Freshman Seminar program, which is offering 65 courses in 1990-2000.

Guest speaker Jean-Claude Baker (c) with Aleta Hayes (r) and students Molly Spieczny (l), Erin Sullivan and Alex Lin (Photo by Denise Applewhite)



With Hayes as guide, the students have examined gesture and body attitudes, sexual mores, gender relationships, fashion and etiquette of the 20th-century--and the musical styles and personalities that accompanied them.

One afternoon they heard Josephine Baker's adopted son Jean-Claude Baker, author of a well-received Baker biography, telling tales about Paris and the Folies Bergères not found in most textbooks. "I'm not talking to you from the mummies," he pointed out, in a thick French accent. "I'm talking from this century."

Bryan Oh '03, who is considering financial engineering as a major, was enthralled by Baker's stories. "And just think," he said, "I would never have been motivated to go to such a lecture outside this seminar."

Significance of the Lindy

The next week the students have another guest speaker: Mickey Davidson, an energetic New York dancer who is currently artist in residence at Wesleyan University. The class begins in the seminar room, where two students put on some toe-tapping music for background and begin a scholarly report on the origins and social significance of the Lindy, also known as swing, boogie-woogie or the jitterbug. You can almost hear the footnotes in their voices.

Then Davidson takes up the scholarly appraisal, weaving in stories of Harlem in the 1920s, Count Basie, and how swing had its roots not only in the Charleston but in the Cake Walk slaves performed for their masters. She shows rollicking film clips of swing at its height, including acrobatic dance scenes from the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin'. And the class adjourns to the dance studio two doors down the corridor so students can "feel" the Lindy through their knees, their hips, their hands.

Davidson has studied with "the elders of swing," including Frankie Manning, who introduced some of the first "aerials" or "air steps" in the 1930s. Though he isn't one for breaking things down into Arthur Murray diagrams, Davidson is able to help the freshmen master the basics.

It isn't just a dance routine she's imparting, as she tells a young man to watch where he flings his partner. "This is the only time, baby, you can tell a woman what to do, and she has to do it. Take advantage of it," she advises him with a smile.

But she tempers this advice by emphasizing that swing is not about gender roles but about teamwork.

Surrender to the beat

About half the students admit to some earlier instruction in social dancing, but that's not so obvious when the Lindy class begins. When applying to join the class, "Some told me outright that they were klutzes," Hayes laughs.

To be considered for the seminar, students had to write essays explaining why they wanted to study the topic. Sara Lin, a musician from Honolulu, chose the seminar over one giving an expert view from inside the Microsoft case, because "I didn't know much about dance--or about social history."

John McMath, premed from Oakland, enrolled because he loves to dance, but he never imagined there was such a lot to learn off the floor. "I've learned so much!" he says. "And the way my chem grades are looking, maybe I should change my major."

Whatever their motivation or talent, the students soon give themselves up to the pull of the music. Davidson works the room like a politician, making sure everyone--even those with two left feet--surrenders to the beat without stepping all over each other.

"You have to smile when you're doing swing," she says. And they do.