Susan Glatzer had made the pilgrimage to the Catalina Swing Dance Festival herself many times as a participant, but when she was faced with expressing the grandeur of the ballroom at the Catalina Casino in her documentary debut “Alive and Kicking,” she thought going in through the backdoor was best.
“There’s something about walking in, because when you go to Catalina, you’re walking up these huge ramps and then when you finally get to that level where you finally see the floor, it’s like an orchestra is playing in your head,” Glatzer says. “The clouds part and the heavens open up and angels are singing – that’s the feeling you get and I couldn’t get necessarily that coming up the ramp, but I wanted it to come from a place of everyday life.”
Glatzer eventually decided to trail a waitress carrying a tray into the ballroom from the kitchen from just above, an elegant solution that conveys the grace that can be found in a world where all too often it seems like so many of us are going through the motions while doing its part to set the scene for a wild Lindy hop competition. It is hardly the only shrewd move in “Alive and Kicking,” which criss-crosses the globe to profile a number of swing dancers from a pair of Swedish sisters, The DecaVitas, who completely reinterpret how partners relate to each other on a dance floor based on their training as therapists, to the nonagenarian “Queen of Swing” Norma Miller, who was privy to the start of the form in Harlem dance halls and helped popularize swing as a dancer in such films as 1941’s “Hellzapoppin.’” In between, the film captures the electricity in the air as partners throw each other around like rag dolls, always managing to land firmly on their feet.
As “Alive and Kicking” illustrates in its equally vibrant recounting of swing dancing history, the ties to Hollywood have been there since people started doing the jitterbug at juke joints, with high-flying humans serving as some of the earliest versions of special effects and later reenergizing the dance once the VCR was introduced and home viewers could pause and rewind their copy of “Swing Fever” to learn how to do the moves. So it is only natural that despite being her first film behind the camera, Glatzer’s own background is a mix of dance and movies, having come up in the film business as an acquisitions exec during the glory years of October Films and later moving on to Paramount while switching into her dance shoes on nights and weekends. On the eve of the film’s release following its premiere last year at SXSW, the filmmaker spoke about unexpectedly finding her way to the director’s chair, embracing the power of the individual stories she found on the swing dance circuit instead of becoming another competition-based documentary, and how the film organically began to tap into larger societal issues.
It’s not like I was a studio executive, but what I really want to do is direct. [laughs] I never wanted to make a movie, but I felt like somebody should make this movie. I’m swing dancer and I’ve been dancing for 19 years, so all those years that I was like traveling the world going to film festivals, I would find the local dance communities and it was really hard because this was before Google [when] you could just find anything. You’d really have to research and I just had the most incredible experiences. And of course, dancing at home as well, so I knew the community, I knew this dance, and my two passions came together in this film.
There’s a friend of mine, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker, who I thought would do such a great job with this and I took her to some swing events and she thought, “Wow, this is incredible. I would love to do this, but I’m busy right now, so I’m not able to get to it until later.” And I realized that I needed to start shooting something to raise money because when I talked to people about swing dancing, they’d say, “Oh yeah, yeah, I have a cousin who square dances.” And I would say, “That’s great, but that’s not what this is.” My friend’s schedule kept getting pushed back more, so I kept shooting and I like to say I got a little pregnant with it.
As they say in the film, swing dancing is all improvised, so that would seem to fit. Did being a dancer yourself give you an instinct about how to film this in an exciting way?
It is all improvised and that’s what makes it so special because you will never have the same dance twice. That’s why you’re always wanting to find another partner and the next song because different people interpret the music differently. It really is a conversation between the music, your partner and yourself and your imagination and that’s such a high when that all comes together. Some dances are just fun and nice and thank you, but sometimes it’s just like floating on a cloud. But that’s the great thing about working with swing dancers is improvisation. You never know what you’re going to get and I probably shot about 50 percent of the film myself. To [capture] improvisational dance, you have to literally be on your toes – that is what your body is physically doing, so you go with the flow and with whatever is unexpected.
We went to a lot of places, but a lot of the [international] stuff we got through crowdsourcing and through the wonderful, wonderful community of swing dancers from all around the world. So I was not in Kuala Lumpur. [laughs] But we got footage from places like that and in some places like Sweden, we would have second units there. We did travel quite a bit because if you’re following these people who are the main characters in the film, you have to travel. That’s what they do. They’re traveling all the time to either teach or dance with other dancers around the world.
Was it easy to find a structure for? It’s not built around a competition, which I loved.
Thank you so much! [laughs] That was the hardest part of making this film. Shooting it had challenges, but [finding] the structure probably added a year to making this film. While competitions can be fierce and [people] throw down, as soon as it’s over, everybody’s friends and dancing with each other, and it’s such an easy structure and audiences are so used to it, but it wasn’t true to what this dance is and it was very important to me, being a member of this community, to really try to make it true to the spirit. To make it about all our characters end up at the big competition together at the end would’ve just been very false to me and I didn’t want to do that, so we needed to find something much bigger for it to be about.
Was this as socially conscious as it ended up being from the start? There are these larger themes of how this promotes social interaction in a world where there’s more isolation because of the internet and also of cultural appropriation in terms of swing dancing originating with African-Americans, but finding popularity with white Americans.
I didn’t set out to make the film [at all], but at a certain point, I realized I was directing it and also at a certain point, I realized I was glad I was directing it because there were certain observations I had had about what was going on in our society that I wanted to bring out in the film. This whole idea of the divisiveness of neighbor to neighbor, I never would’ve anticipated it would’ve exploded to the state that we’re in now with this previous election, but I was noticing this was happening. Because I was making this movie, there were people that I was friends with on Facebook and [on] Facebook, it shows you this is how I feel about politics, about religion, about X, Y and Z. And when you look at that on paper, you think I don’t want to friend you. [laughs]
But then you meet these people [in person] and you dance with them and you have this incredible connection. You realize we might disagree about some things, but I think you’re a terrific person and [this is what happens when] we have more coming together – and that is what this dance does. You can’t do this remotely like you’re going to play some video game on the other side of the world. You have to physically go and be with other people and put your phone down, turn off your computer and engage on a human level. I think this is even more necessary now than when I was making the film.
As far as race, it’s interesting because I would show this film as we were cutting it to friends of mine who work in the film business, who weren’t dancers, and I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “Are you sure you want to put the race stuff in there? And my feeling was you have to put the race stuff in there – how do you not address that? This dance came from the ballrooms of Harlem. It’s as Dawn Hampton says in the film of how there were a bunch of swing dancers at an event and black kids were coming over and saying “Hey, what’s that? That looks so great.” And she says to them, “This is your dance. So how do you not talk about that? You have to. [For the] young kids that are out there, this is their heritage.
You have a lot of history wrapped up in one person – Frankie Manning, a legendary figure who helped birth the Lindy hop in Harlem. How did he become such a central character?
Frankie Manning, believe it or not, was not alive for any of the filming and I got very, very lucky in that other filmmakers had footage of him. I knew Frankie and had danced with him, but I didn’t know him that well – certainly, not as if I had been dancing when I lived in New York. I wish I had. But his personality and his wish for people to dance and get along with each other and treat each other with kindness is something that I think the dance community that knew him before he passed is very cognizant of passing along to newcomers. And we realized what we really wanted to do was get people to know Frankie the way some of the dancers did before he passed, get to know him as a person and feel his influence on this dance so that when he does pass, you feel like you lost somebody, a friend or somebody who clearly is missed.
Sometimes I can’t believe that this thing is done. [laughs] Because it takes so long to make a documentary, it is really nice to experience it with new audiences. I really love watching it with people who aren’t dancers – obviously to have the dancers appreciate it is everything, but at the end of every screening, without fail, I always have people ask me, “How did they learn how to do this? They want to learn how to do this.” And that makes me really happy because my feeling is if this makes you want to dance, then I’m thrilled. And maybe dancing isn’t your thing, but I do want people to think about [if] they have a sense of joy in their life? And if not, what can they do to get that because I feel we are leading very passionless lives and lives of quiet desperation [these days]. We go to work, we come home, we get online, but that’s not really living. That’s not having joy. And we need joy now. We need happiness. Whether you know anything about dance, it’s really a film about finding happiness and I can guarantee that you will smile the whole time.
“Alive and Kicking” opens on April 7th in Los Angeles at the Ahrya Fine Arts Theater, Washington DC at the West End Cinema, Santa Fe at the Jean Cocteau Cinema and in Vancouver, Washington at the Kiggins. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It is also now available on VOD.