The Business of Lindy Hop (written for Frankie 100)

So this one is a little different. It’s got none of the copious profanities and funny meme images that a lot of you have come to know and love, but at least you can share it with your grandmother without her coming face to face with an image of a desk covered in dildos.

For those who follow at home, you will also notice a few differences in the text itself – the views expressed here are mine solely and not the Frankie Foundation’s, etc…

Some time ago, I had the privilege to be asked to write an article for the Frankie 100 Commemorative Book (that you can buy here, I highly recommend it). It is with great pleasure that I participated in this once in a lifetime opportunity – especially since I can add “PUBLISHED AUTHOR, BOOYAH!” to my bragging rights. But mostly, it was an honor to contribute, in a very small way, to an homage to, in my opinion, the greatest Lindy Hopper who ever stepped foot on the dance floor, and, first of all, a patient, humble and generous human being.

The Business Of Lindy Hop

by Zack Richard (Canada), with contributions from Simon Selmon (England), Scott Cupit (Australia), Sing Lim (Singapore), Didier Jean-François, (Canada), Natalie Gomes (USA) and Silvia Palazzollo (Italy)

To talk about the business of Lindy Hop is a daunting task because, at its core, this beautiful dance is all about emotion. Monetizing emotion is something that doesn’t sit quite right with a lot of people – how many times has a business-oriented Lindy Hopper heard variations of the sentence “you’re doing it for the money – you’re not a real Lindy Hopper!”

As an umpteenth generation Lindy Hopper, I didn’t get to spend as much time with Frankie Manning as I wished – and on the few occasions where I was given the opportunity to do so, my often crippling shyness was no match for neither his charisma or the sea of people always surrounding him. What I always interpreted as sheer cowardice was also, now that I think back on it, a pass off the board – to employ a very Canadian analogy – to the greatness of the man. Like many of us, the hours I spent watching Frankie Manning on screen vastly outnumber the times I’ve seen him live – but whether I was watching his steps in slow motion, stretching the technology of VCR to its limits, or taking one of his classes, what always struck me was his total embodiment of the Lindy Hop spirit. His pervasive influence is so vast that I, like most of us, simply refer to him as “Frankie”, whether we actually met him or not, and we do it with a true, profound and sincere love in our hearts.

To me it’s rather ironic that many of today’s dancers would decry the practice of instilling business into Lindy Hop while at the same time championing Frankie’s legacy – himself a seasoned pro dancer who travelled around the world to dance and got paid for it, both in the forties and in more recent years. While not dismissing those who share this dichotomic opinion, we have to ask ourselves if that doesn’t say more about their own biased view of the world instead of the actual reality.

It’s a popular view in the collective imagination that businesses are inherently evil – whether you’re watching Spiderman, Supersize Me or Avatar, the discourse is mostly that if businesses could kidnap orphaned children, harvest their organs and sell them for a profit, they would do so without a moment of hesitation and laugh on their way to the bank while sharing the disturbing videos on YouTube.

Additionally, Lindy Hop is the dance of freedom par excellence. Born out of jazz – one of the first truly American art forms – Lindy Hop is the story of a people overcoming incredibly stacked odds to create something beautiful and lasting. In the world of dancing, Lindy Hop is more Mahatma Gandhi than John D. Rockefeller. By its nature, it’s quintessentially opposed to the way a lot of people think about “business”.

In this context, how could we talk about the “Business of Lindy Hop” with a straight face?

A Means To A Higher End

Sticking “business” and “Lindy Hop” in the same sentence is a hot-button issue for many dance afficionados, but to really reconcile the idea of Lindy Hop as an art form with the concept of business, we have to keep in mind that, for the vast majority of business people in the world of Lindy Hop, it’s truly not about the money: the business is a tool to wield with great care and responsibility.

It’s a means to a higher end.

That end, of course, is to insure the survival of this beautiful art form, to make the world discover and fall in love with the rhythm, the joy, the ecstasy of Lindy Hop.

If you take a second to talk openly with any Lindy Hop business owner, any professional dance teacher, there is one thread that will, under a million facets, come back: their pure love of the dance, their desire to share it, and their borderline lunatic disregard of anything else. As Simon Selmon, founder of the London Swing Dance Society, puts it:

“Very early on when I started dancing for a living people offered me advice telling me there is more money in modern jive or in franchising the Lindy, etc, etc…Don’t get me wrong I want to make as much money as the next person – who doesn’t – but I couldn’t sell short what I believed in. I like many teachers around the world didn’t go into dancing for the money but because we found something we loved, that ignited a spark in our lives and wanted to share that with others.”

More from Scott Cupit, owner and founder of Swing Patrol in Australia:

“I had a well paid job. I worked in banking with a great group of people and the bank had just paid for my degree. I was on an executive trainee programme and all was well. Can you imagine the day I phoned my father telling him I was leaving all this to teach swing dancing? I remember that phone call to this day…It was sort of awkward!”

This is not the profile of people looking forward to rolling in their studio parking lot with their second Mercedes, hiring flower girls to spread endangered tulips’ petals on their path to class.

Despite his early reserves, Frankie soon embraced that notion of sharing fully and generously. Lindy Hop is infectious in nature – jazz is ingrained in our collective brain, and Lindy Hop is an almost natural response to it. A vast number of people literally turn their lives upside down when they discover Lindy Hop – moving to different cities, travelling abroad, switching jobs to accommodate their dance schedule – , and embrace the happiness it brings them. Isn’t an equally natural response also to want to share it with others (sometimes to the point of being, pardon my French, friggin’ annoying to non-dancing friends) ?

Of course it is, imaginary interlocutor. Of course it is.

A business is just one of the many tools that enable us to do just that: sharing this extraordinary passion.

The Business Model

Frankie was no stranger to dabbling in business: after serving his country in the most kick-ass way possible as a soldier on the Pacific front during World War II, he kept his dance troupe, the Congaroos, going for many years before getting a steady job in the postal service.

A business is, of course, not the only way to keep Lindy Hop an alive dance form: one could go for a non-profit collective, for example (although we’re tempted to round that up with businesses, since most work largely as businesses funded partly or entirely by government grants), or give classes for free in a Methodist church basement. Many small-town scenes are run entirely by volunteers, and no one is questioning their passion and love for the dance.

So what is so interesting about a Lindy Hop business model? First of all, having someone do it as an actual job ensures continuity: we’ve all witnessed entire scenes whither and die because volunteers started losing interest or simply ran out of time to devote to it. One or several persons making it their top priority in life actually enhances the quality of the dance and the activities surrounding it, especially in our highly connected world where people can easily make themselves aware of what Lindy Hop truly looks like. As with anything else, a well-run business will keep top specialists interested who would, otherwise, soon move on to other ventures. This is true of local schools and national events alike: if we didn’t have top quality events around the world, we couldn’t have so many dedicated teachers, so much exchange and inspiration – one of the very pillars of the spirit of Lindy Hop.

If we take it one step further, a properly built business ensures perennity. Dance school owners with half a brain will not put all their money on one horse, so to speak, but instead make sure that the business survives as an entity of its own regardless of the people in it. One could whine endlessly about teachers who have, to put it politely, a shaking grasp of Lindy Hop technique, but if the true spirit of the dance lives on, if the ever-so-celebrated mission statement of the business is to celebrate and share said spirit, it really is a win-win. Not every dancer at the Savoy was Frankie Manning. And no teacher alive, dead, or still to be born will ever come close to Frankie Manning. But we have to be as indulgent with them as Frankie was, in countless ways, with us. We don’t have to love their dancing, but we can love their spirit. We can still try. We can still push on and carry on his legacy, each in our own small way.

Sustainability and Competition

A popular mistake people make when analyzing the business of Lindy Hop – because that’s, I’m sure, a national pastime in many countries – is blaming a lack of sustainability on an overpopulation of teachers (or events). While in a sense that’s true, it’s a crucial fallacy to equate dancing with, for example, selling toilet paper. Of course, five stores specialized in toilet paper in one small town will soon destroy each other – the product is physical and finite (anyone who, to their sheer terror, prematurely got at the end of a roll in an airplane bathroom after a particularly vicious battle with an end of terminal burrito knows what we’re talking about).

The first and foremost nuance when we speak about Lindy Hop in terms of economics lies in the community. The business is quite literally a consequence of the community – it’s a social dance after all. The quality of the community, of the teachers, of the people in it, is a crucial aspect of a good product. As Didier Jean-François, owner of the Swinging Air Force in Montreal, says:

It’s a simple virtuous cycle based in competition and human behavior… Word of mouth is the best publicity, students who learn dance tend to show up at dances and join a local or even international community and as they do they spread the word about teachers they like and successful dancers get asked “where did you learn”. Similarly the most successful teachers get paid and stay motivated to stay in the dance. They have the economic freedom to do so.”

As stated in the spiritually-driven but still actual documentary Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner, “build it and they will come”… A solid and honest business will foster a solid community, with the joy of Lindy Hop and the spirit that Frankie held dear at its core.

Dishonest and divisive competition is more a result of bad people than of the existence of businesses themselves. Once the Dark Side gets a hold of teachers or organizers, things can get ugly, but they get ugly regardless of their status as business persons or volunteers. We’ve all heard terrible stories about scene wars, but they had little to do with the nature of businesses and a lot to do with miscommunication, disagreements and tempers.

In other words, if you get into an argument with a chemist, you won’t assume that the chemistry is at fault here, but, correctly, that the chemist is a prick.

Will some schools fail because of competition? Yes. Will some events be cancelled? Sure. Will some teachers slowly fade out of the scene and go back to the 9-to-5? Guaranteed. But the main cause of it will be, let’s be brutally honest, plain dumb luck.

Sure, some businesses that survive do have incredibly savvy and sexy people running it. People who made all the right decisions, and are basically dance tycoons… But more often than not – and I say this as a person who’s ran swing dance businesses for more than a decade – it’s all about luck first. Then it’s all the rest: talent, hard work, personality, vision, all the buzzwords you will hear those businesspersons blurt out when asked why they’ve become successful. Sometimes, they just forget how lucky they were – socially, financially, or circumstantially. But of all the things they’ll ramble about, they’ll rarely mention how competition was scarce and that was a key to their success. You may actually hear things like “there was absolutely no Lindy Hop here when I began so it was hard to start up”.

Competition can, to the contrary, be the kindle that will light the fire of innovation, of pushing the boundaries forward – is there no greater example of that in the Lindy world than Frankie and Frieda’s invention of the first air step, which they prepared for the very purpose of entering a battle against Frankie’s idol Shorty George? Would we have all those spectacular steps and ideas if the spirit of one-upmanship was not, at the very least, a small part of what constitutes the Lindy Hop, this typical American child, always hungry for its own betterment?

As Natalie Gomes from New Orleans puts it:

“[Frankie] was an innovator and always pushed the envelope. When everyone was dancing straight, he started dancing low. He made up the first aerial. He set a trend.

I aspired to all that. One of his best compliment to my partner and I was “you guys took it to a whole other level” referring to our performances.”

As Frankie did, let competition in all its forms inspire us and inflate the sails of our ships.

The Business as a Communal Entity

If you’re looking to start out as business owners, here’s an invaluable perspective to always keep in mind: businesses, under different guises, can be the most solid cornerstones of local scenes.

Because they usually have both the means and the incentive, they’re usually the most efficient at recruiting new dancers – the blood of any scene.

Because they want those people to keep dancing, they will also hold quality local events and dances.

Because they want their clients to stay happy and content, they will go to great lengths to listen to them and try to balance between what they need as dancers and what they want as customers, an aspect with which a volunteer teacher could easily become disgruntled – “this is the way I teach, and I do it for nothing, so just don’t dance if you don’t want to do it my way”.

Because they want their customers to keep coming back, they will offer not only a nice and respectful environment, but also strive to learn, innovate, and bring in as many positive influences as they can. An intelligent business knows that the source of the product matters little, as long as the client keeps coming back to their store to buy it – that’s why you’re not forced to buy the crappy off-brand peanut butter at your local grocery store.

Many think that businesses, by nature, can’t possibly work together towards creating a truly great scene – and many fragmented scenes all over the world seem to confirm this idea. But this train of thought is a simple causal fallacy, an easy go-to mind-trap: just because there are fusses and disses in a dance scene, and businesses are present in the scene, doesn’t mean that businesses are the inherent cause of the feuds. As a matter of fact, a two-second look at most broken scenes will quickly pinpoint the cause of most disputes: people and egos.

When you run a business, your ego has to take a step to the side – it’s not the most important thing in life anymore. Your business is what puts food on the table. It’s an incredibly challenging task to constantly come back to what’s best for your business, hence, what’s best for the dancers, hence, what’s best for the community as a whole. Do you want to spend time and effort on constantly fighting to keep students under a protective shell? Would you rather have 50 students of your own, or share a pool of 500 students with other schools? Do you want to keep your students longer because they don’t feel like they have to hide if they go to a competitor’s dance night? These are all important questions to ask when it comes to truly using the power of business towards community building.

There are plenty of dance scenes with multiple businesses that work very well together, attending each other’s dances, partnering up with each other for events and special occasions, even sharing teachers from time to time. One needs to look no further than Montreal for a great example of how businesses can work in harmony towards building a great community. All it takes sometimes is a little bit more “I don’t like you, you don’t like me, but let’s do this” attitude, as taught in the timeless motion picture classic Lethal Weapon.

Does it take time and effort? Absolutely. Is it a total pain from time to time? You bet.

But in the collaborative spirit of Lindy Hop, it’s really the only thing that truly makes sense.

Business models… and model businesses

While researching this article (i.e. eating Lay’s chips and swapping emails with people), the more I exchanged with Lindy Hop business owners from around the world, the more I realized a crucial truth: had it not been for Frankie and the way he touched people from all ways of life, the Lindy Hop business probably would not have been as profoundly infused with the spirit of the dance as it is today. Despite his undeniable talent, what made our Ambassador of Lindy Hop so genuinely and instantaneously embraceable was his profound humanity – a role model in the purest form of the word, he was never shy or embarrassed by his gift. Unpretentious as Frankie was, he still was incredibly generous of it, despite the fact that he probably never planned he would spend his later years teaching a decades-old dance. He admirably went with the flow and became our most immediately recognizable icon.

He became Frankie.

He infused us with the passion of dancing that is at the source of so many Lindy Hop businesses around the globe. As Sing Yuen Lim from Jitterbugs Swingapore puts it:

“The business motto is “To Inspire our students to be the best they can be through sharing our love for dance.”  Just as Frankie inspired me to be humble, to be inclusive, to be creative, i hope that the studio can teach positive values to all the students. […] I trained as a lawyer and i worked as a copywriter. But when i decided to open a swing business it was because it was something I loved!  Lindy hop changed and saved my life.  I had not understood before what it was to do something I loved, as opposed to something I was told to do.  Lindy Hop brought me so much joy, friends and travel – I want to share it with as many people as possible.”

Among the many factors that would metamorphose a dilettante into an entrepreneur, the silver thread is always a strong, almost unstoppable desire to create – and share. Much like certain unfortunate internet memes, the passion of business, once it’s taken hold, never goes away. And, as Lindy Hop can become a beautiful piece of art in the right hands, so can a Lindy Hop business.

The initial spark is certainly similar, and that’s why we can say that, as Frankie was a model for all of us, good Lindy Hop businesses are a model not only for other businesses, competitors and teachers, but for students as well.

Most good business owners strive to make their business inspiring, because they first were inspired – they know how that feels, and they know that’s gold. I don’t believe a business is inherently good or evil – it all depends on who is behind it, and how they can promote the values and benefits of Lindy Hop in a healthy way. We are lucky in the sense that we’re not selling atomic rifles powered by the tears of kittens here. Dancing is an easy commodity to keep on the good side: it’s got social, physical and psychological benefits that far outweigh most hobbies on the market. It’s a visceral need going back thousands of years in the past when some dude or dudette with an unkempt beard started beating two bones together. It can give you the spark necessary to turn your life around.

More often than not, we can directly trace that spark back to Frankie Manning. It was certainly the case for Silvia Palazzolo from Italy, one of the most prolific event organizers in Europe:

“I didn’t organize swing events before meeting Frankie. When I first had him in Italy, I was totally ignorant and had no clue about what was going on. I didn’t know anything about Lindy Hop, I was pretty ignorant about the music and when he spoke I hardly understood the names of the people he mentioned and that now are so important in my life. But at the end of the lecture he gave, for which I was the translator in public, he talked to me and he said to me that I had to keep doing that. “this? this what?” “Bringing joy in people’s lives, organizing events”. From that moment on, he kind of took me under his wing and tried to patiently explain me what I needed to know. I did many mistakes at which sometimes he laughed too, but he was totally responsible of me starting to organize swing events on a larger scale. Before meeting him, I had no idea I could have those skills.”

Yes, we must be wary of the “ballroom studio model” that hires undertrained and underpaid staff who painfully review fifteen years old instructional videos and then regurgitate washed-out, dumbed down material to the students. To that we say: whatever their level, keep your teachers and yourself well informed and inspired to strive for betterment. Turn to Frankie and his constant need to create and top himself.

Yes, we will always hear about – or take an enthusiastic part in – various feuds in the dance scene, whether local or international. Take the time to understand the different stances; be forgiving with others but also with yourself; be as patient as Frankie was with us, and remember that however differently we do our swingout, we all share the same family tree.

And finally, whether your own Lindy Hop business works or not, remember that Frankie spent the better part of 50 years working in a post office – more years working the same, non-dancing job than most of you have walked the Earth. Nothing you do for a living is beneath or above who you are as a person, and you are not more of a failure for it – or more of a success, for that matter. Remember Frankie’s humility, and remember his pride. Regardless of your means of employment, really, you can always look back at what he stood for and ask yourself: what would Frankie do?

I can’t guarantee you, and he wouldn’t himself, that it would always be the exact right thing, but I can tell you it’s always going to be a darn fine starting point.

Zack Richard has been a full-time dancer, business owner and international teacher for the better part of twelve years. He’s currently heading the Swing ConneXion Studios in Montreal, Canada.


About Zack

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5 responses to “The Business of Lindy Hop (written for Frankie 100)

  • thelogicallead

    I’m sorry, but this whole text feel like you are justifying yourself, I can even feel like there is some sense of culpability. I also see a harsh judgment of ballroom, unjustified and with no real basis in fact.

    I know for a fact that the vast majority of teacher have a day job, only rare few like yourself can enjoy teaching full time.

    In most scene, teachers are recruited from th very good students of a school. There is no real manual, no real curriculum, only people with charisma eager to share their love of Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa…

    Montreal seem to be very special, you’re talking about a pool of 500 dancer, share between the Montreal schools. Join event, even teacher shared teacher.

    Does all those collaborative event create a force for stagnation, and basically stop any progress, any sense of innovation, since there is some kind of a truce. Since there is no need to improve and to make your school better to survive ?

  • Dom

    Absolutely inspiring zack! especially because we became professionals recently – thanks a lot from austria 😉 Dom & Nora

  • Lexi Keeton

    What a refreshing view of a rarely discussed aspect of the swing community. A totally fun and fair read! Thanks for taking the time to eat lays chips, email friends for thoughts and to put them together here for us to read 🙂

  • CKinIL

    Thanks for the very well thought-out post. As a student of Lindy Hop, it’s good to hear some of the perspectives of those who make it possible for me to go dance somewhere.

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