Boppin' Cats And Kittens

A CIGARETTE GIRL FILTERS THROUGH the natty crowd at Atlanta's Tongue & Groove lounge on a recent weeknight. Over at the bar, dolls decked out like the Andrews Sisters in long dresses and neck sashes grab the nearest guy to practice "the basic" dance step. On the parquet dance floor, dozens of twentysomethings--lawyers, speech therapists, college students--twirl and whirl to Louis Prima's "Jump Jive an' Wail," the giddy '50s big-band blast that's invading America's living rooms courtesy of that Gap TV spot. Lisa Feifer, a teacher who started this kind of dancing six months ago, leaves the action to catch her breath and gulp down some water. "Not to be a snob," says Feifer, 25, "but the regular club scene is really classless. The swing scene has style."

Welcome to postwar America, end-of-millennium style. The economy's cooking, and so is swing music and dancing--back after a 50-year absence. It's a retro antidote to the doom-and-gloom early '90s. Swank nightclubs from Austin to Boston are filled with guys dressed in zoot suits and their molls wearing saddle shoes. Swing instructors across the country are booked seven nights a week. Rediscovering "touch dancing" and the '40s hot jazz of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, nightclubbers are learning steps ranging from the simple jitterbug to the feverish footwork of the Lindy Hop. Portland, Ore.'s old-time Crystal Ballroom, with its suspended, 7,500-square-foot wooden dance floor, is reopened after 29 years and hoppin' again. In June thousands of campers journeyed to Swing Camp Catalina in California. In New York City, Lincoln Center's "Midsummer Night Swing" series has doubled its attendance in four years. New Yorkers of all ages danced under the stars. In the last two years, new sultans of swing like Royal Crown Revue and the Squirrel Nut Zippers (chart) have sold 2.3 million records, according to SoundScan. It's difficult to say how big the swing-sation is, but V. Vale, author of the just released "Swing! The New Retro Renaissance" (V/Search), estimates there are as many as a million dancin' cats and kittens.

The return to swing actually started nearly a decade ago on the West Coast. Former punkers began trading in their mohawks and eight balls for cuff links and highballs, and playing rooms like Bimbo's 365 Club in San Francisco and the Derby in Los Angeles. "What can be more punk than dressing like your dad in a zoot suit?" says Sam Young, co-owner of San Francisco's all-swing-all-the-time HiBall Lounge.

In 1995 actor John Favreau and his gang of fellow struggling actors started buzzing the Derby, where Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, a veteran eight-piece jump-blues band, was playing. A year later Favreau and the band hit with the film "Swingers." Overnight, bands switched chords from ska-punk to swing. "Modern rock" stations now sandwich the Cherry Poppin' Daddies between Oasis and Beck. Voodoo Daddy's self-titled record is about to turn gold. "We thought music was going back to its squarest roots," says lead singer Scotty Morris. "But we never thought it would sell like this."

Indeed, the trend has spread beyond hip teens and twentysomethings. Fogies in their 30s and 40s are following in their parents' dance steps, filling up clubs and taking lessons. Even Katie Couric is learning to swing on the "Today" show. As always, women are often the initiators. Every Tuesday, Minneapolis's Fine Line Music Cafe looks like a sock hop when local crooner Vic Volare holds forth with his big band. Crowds of 300 watch couples spilling off the dance floor. "The ladies gotta like it," Volare says, surveying a few pairs of women swinging. "Otherwise the guys won't come."

What's behind the swing kick? Its very wholesomeness, for one thing. Some of the clubs don't serve alcohol and try to offer a sophisticated, decidedly un-animal-house atmosphere. As Tarrin Lupo, 24, put it, "I was sick of beers spilling on me and cigarettes in my face." According to author Vale, teenagers are also finding rebellion in getting a physical release that doesn't involve drugs and chemicals. They talk about the "exhilaration" of swing the way kids a decade ago went on about the drug Ecstasy. Adds Matthew Ralston, the fashion photographer who directed the Gap spot, "Heroin chic's over, and the Gothic thing is starting to wane. Now it's cool to have fun and not feel corny about it." Frankie Manning, an innovator of the Lindy, vouches for that. "When you can take a girl by the hand and put your arms around her, these kids say, "Aw, this is great'," says the 84-year-old Manning, who teaches the Lindy in cities round the world and has never been busier.

How long will the swing reincarnation last? "It's a fad," says Peter Fineman, a 28-year-old Atlanta artist, who nonetheless sports '40s horn-rimmed glasses. "It's the twist again." Perhaps. But the first national Lindy Hop championships of the digital era are slated for October in New Jersey. If there's a second, at least the trend has outlasted the Macarena.

WHERE THE HEPCATS ARE

Minneapolis deejay-musician Dave Wolfe picks the hottest of the new swing combos.

Royal Crown Revue: The pioneers. Zoot-suited former punks who went slinky gangster-bop in 1989.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: Jump-blues and swing band in right place (L.A.'s Derby) at right time, catching the eye of "Swingers" writer Jon Favreau.

Cherry Poppin' Daddies: Ska band whose eclectric background and new swing vision is making "Zoot Suit Riot" an alt-radio hit.

The Brian Setzer Orchestra: Ex-Stray Cat mixes rockabilly and swing. Current hit is VH1-friendly "Jump Jive an' Wail."

Squirrel Nut Zippers: MTV fave that struck in 1996. Less straight swing than a brew of Dixieland and '20s styles.

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