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Treme, Lindy Hop, New Orleans and the Mythology of Rebirth

This is part review, part lindy blog and part personal reflection. But mainly its me talking about stuff I don’t know nearly enough about, so feel free to tell me I’m full of shit.

I’ve just finished watching the first season of Treme on DVD (it’s finally out here*). It’s by the same producers and some of the same directors and actors as The Wire (which I haven’t seen the but plan on doing now). The writers do a masterful job of weaving of weaving together reality and fiction. A lot of musicians feature in the series playing themselves not just their instruments (like Kermit Ruffins – the HBO website has a fairly complete list of songs and musicians featured). A number of characters are also loosely based on local personalities. It’s a character driven show, which is strange as I normally don’t go for character pieces, but the HBO format allows for deeper examination of these characters than in your standard series and the fantastic acting makes them thoroughly believable.

Whilst the story is good I wanted to watch it for the character not played by any actor – the music. It’s what drew me to New Orleans last year and what is tugging at me to go back (the series was screening when I went last year – but I didn’t see any episodes). Treme didn’t disappoint. The show is filled with music, including plenty of full songs, and it draws from the incredible musical diversity that exists in New Orleans.  I was particularly amazed that pretty much all the music was recorded live on set. Yet even for a show that features so much music it’s just the tip of the iceberg of what’s there.

One of the more poignant moments of the earlier episode is when Albert Lambreaux the leader of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe appears out of the night wearing his suit, evoking imagery of the phoenix.

One of the more reductionist interpretations of Treme is that it is a story about rebirth of a shattered city after Hurricane Katrina. The writers disagree, but the recovery of the city in the months after (the first episode opens with the simple text “New Orleans: 3 months after”) is a significant plot line in the series. I would tend to agree with the writers, but I think that many viewers would see the story through this sort of lens. More about this later.

I’ve also been reading Jerry Almonte’s ‘Artistry in Rhythm‘ series, a series of short articles about the ongoing development of a ‘culture’ in the contemporary Lindy Hop scene. It’s a great piece of recent history written by someone who had first hand experience and knows many of the key players involved. The Artistry in Rhythm series finishes around 2007, the year I started dancing – in Canada  before moving back to Australia at the beginning of 2008. As a recent starter I largely missed the groove trend and the style wars but I’ve definitely seen the influence of some of the more recent trends Jerry talks about. Things have sure changed in the short time since I’ve started dancing – and youtube, Yehoodi and more recently the various Lindy blogs have allowed a window on the changes in other parts of the lindyverse and also allowed some of the bigger influences to cross the Pacific.

One of the more obvious changes in the scene recently has been the influence of  New Orleans. A lot of Lindy hoppers have moved there over the last several years including many high-level and influential dancers in the scene. ULHS (which Jerry noted was already a trend setter) moved to New Orleans in 2009 (the organiser, Amy Johnson, move there herself in 2007).

There’s also been a claimed influx of street musicians in the last 6 years (though I question how much truth there is in this – street music has a long history in New Orleans). This is notable as some of the most popular bands in the Lindy Hop scene that are out of or associated with New Orleans are the street bands such as Tuba Skinny, the Loose Marbles, the Smokin’ Time Jazz Club and Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns.

The quality of the music in New Orleans is high, as is the interaction between the musicians and the dancers. The music is high energy (which fits with the trend that Jerry mentions in his blog towards more fast music) and fun and you can find somewhere to dance to it every night of the week. The dance spaces aren’t ideal (some would make Unity Hall in Sydney look like a palace – crowded, small concrete floors, and smoking still permitted in many bars) but for many the music makes up for it.

But does this explain the attraction? There’s other cities with great music, New York, Seattle, Southern California and more. Is the impact of a couple of influential dancers moving to a city enough to snowball like this? Or is there something else?

I want to propose what might be a controversial hypothesis: lindy hoppers are attracted to ‘rebirth mythology’.

The history of contemporary Lindy Hop is often told as one of rebirth (i.e. ‘The Revival’) – that the dance ‘died out’ after World War 2 until it was ‘rediscovered’ by a group of dancers in the US, the UK and Sweden and that it is ‘alive and well’ today. This ignores the fact that there were still many (though few in number) individuals who kept doing, performing and teaching Lindy Hop (such as Mama Lou Parks and many of the LA dancers). I think many people find the idea of recreating an old dance that ‘almost died out’ attractive – to restore Lindy Hop to its former glory.

Is this something peculiar to Lindy hoppers, or are we just like everyone else? The story of rebirth is a feature of many religions and cultures, ancient and contemporary, think the phoenix, Jesus, reincarnation in eastern religions etc. (though there are some criticisms, some scholars say that it attempts to view everything through a Christian lens).

Of the huge group of YURPs (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals) that moved to New Orleans following the storm many were attracted by a desire to help rebuild. They seem to be succeeding but it’s also changing the city. This group is young, childless, single, well educated, white and liberal compared to the general population. Sounds a lot like your average group of Lindy hoppers to me.

People often talk about recovery, rebuilding and getting back to normal after a major shock change like a disaster. But there isn’t any return to before, people have to find a ‘new normal’ after such a change. New Orleans will never be the same not least because of the demographic change brought by the people seeking to reconstruct it.

As is the same with Lindy Hop. The community today is different people in a different time with different lives and a half century of new music, dance and culture to influence us. The dance we do today is not and will never be that done by a group of young people in the ballrooms of Harlem in the 1930s. It will never be recreated, revived or reborn – but as a new normal, what we’ve got seems mighty fine to me.

* Season 2 is starting on Showtime at the end of July. That and the ice hockey almost make it worthwhile to get pay TV. But there is the episode and audio commentaries to keep me busy until it comes out on DVD next year.

Posted in jazz, lindy, New Orleans

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