On Dance: a conversation with Adam Brozowski

By Larisa Hohenboken

This week I met up with our visiting instructor, Adam Brozowski. Adam is an incredibly accomplished and knowledgeable dancer who teaches vintage jazz dance all over the world. As an enthusiastic newcomer to the world of lindy hop, I had lots of questions for him.

We began by discussing the subject of his classes this month, the Hollywood or LA style of swing dance. This style owes its existence primarily to one dancer, Dean Collins. Here’s Adam on that history:

AB: Dean Collin’s real name was Saul Roddosky. He was from New Jersey. He didn’t learn to dance at the Savoy ballroom, but he did dance there. He then moved to California, and although Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers got there before Dean did, Dean was the person who stuck around and taught people. What he taught went into general knowledge, into the zeitgeist, so he had a large influence.

LH: I recently read an article claiming that the Harlem and Hollywood styles aren’t as different as they might seem. For example, LA style is often described with less of a pulse, but there are counterexamples of historical dancers at the Savoy with very smooth styles. What’s up with that?

AB: I lived in Harlem for about six years and got a chance to talk to a lot of people whose parents or grandparents danced at the Savoy, or who did themselves dance at the Savoy. I heard this story from people over and over: there were two kinds of lindy hoppers, “Smooths” and “Hoppers.” That was the old way of describing it.

I think there are two basic ways of moving in this dance, and people’s bodies naturally lean toward one or the other. I learned to dance in what they called in the 90’s the Savoy style, or “neo-savoy,” which was more bouncy and didn’t move as much. Then, when I learned LA style (which at the time people called Hollywood style, or Dean Collins style), it just matched my body. I felt more comfortable that way. So that had a large influence on the way that I move.

As you learn to dance, where you learn and who you learn from is obviously going to have an influence on what you do. But if you keep dancing, you’ll learn what types of movement feel really natural to you, what types of songs you really like to dance to.

But definitely still learn all the other stuff, because if you’re only going to do one thing, do one thing because it’s your choice—not because it’s the only thing you can do.

On learning to dance before the internet

To give you an idea of what it was like in the Ice Age, when I first started dancing, I started learning from Frankie Manning before I ever saw the clip Hellzapoppin’.

The way I first saw Hellzapoppin,’ there was an out-of-print video store in Seattle called Scarecrow Video. My parents had to put a deposit on their credit card to check out the VHS tape, and I watched the entire movie to get to that famous scene. I didn’t have the type of VHS player that could play slow, but a friend of mine did, so I had to go to his house with this tape with like, a two hundred dollar deposit on it—

And hopefully not burn a hole through that one spot where you keep rewinding—

Exactly! So I feel like, for our generation of dancers, there was a different value placed on those clips. If you had clips, it was like you had Legendary Pokemon or something. People would barter for information that way.

There were stories of guys in LA who went into the MGM vaults with camcorders hidden in their jackets to film the screen while watching these rare videos, because they hadn’t been released. So it was a very different time.

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On the history of swing

LH: When I was trying to look up more about swing online, I would either find long articles that assume a high level of background knowledge, or a five-sentence WikiHow page. There was very little in between. I found it surprisingly hard to get to a clear understanding of the history, at least by Googling.

AB: That’s an interesting comment, because my personal knowledge comes from a couple of sources: Firsthand conversation with legendary dancers like Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, or the original dancers from California. Getting to know these people and hearing their stories. Some of them have written books, and there are several documentaries now as well.

So, over the years, I and a lot of other dancers have done this crackpot job of figuring this stuff out. But I guess you’re right, there isn’t one place where all of the information exists. And that’s unfortunate, because there’s very often a disconnect to the history of swing in America. I’m getting into some political waters here, but basically: what black culture creates is often absorbed as inspiration, but those black roots are often forgotten or not given proper credit.

Take the term ‘east coast swing.’ There was this guy, Arthur Murray, who owned franchised dance studios starting in the 1930s. He taught the popular dances of the day to people, mostly white dancers, and made a lot of money.

Lindy hop is one of the only dances where the basic is not a basic. The swing out is one of the hardest things you’ll learn. You have polyrhythms and rotation and line, you have one-sided connection and syncopation… Arthur Murray thought that was too complicated to offer as a basic step. So he taught the six-count basic and sold that as its own thing. There begets the origin of east-coast swing or jitterbug.

For me, though, I don’t use the term east coast swing. I call it a six count basic. That’s because I want to connect all the steps with the origin, which is the African American dancers in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom. Those are the people who created the whole thing, and who deserve the credit.

On the awesomeness of swing itself

There’s something magical about lindy hop. When you see a contest and everyone swings out together, it’s amazing.

I sometimes take it for granted, but we have such an overwhelming sense of community in this dance. It’s not just a community: it’s a family. Once you’re a lindy hopper, you can travel anywhere in the world and find other lindy hoppers. They’re usually willing to host you, and they’ll take you out dancing, and they want to dance with you….

Yeah, it just seems like everyone’s really psyched. Maybe that’s a rosy view, because I’m still so new to it all, but… it just makes people really happy.

It does! Frankie Manning always talked about how the essential energy of lindy hop is joy. It’s a joyful dance, a happy dance. So I totally agree. And more people need that. People need a sense of community, of family, of togetherness.

I have a tattoo on the back of my leg of artwork from the Savoy ballroom. I had to think: what piece of information am I ninety-nine percent confident I will never regret putting on my body? Well, I’ve been lindy hopping for 21 years of my life. The majority of my life, I’ve been a swing dancer.

Even if I couldn’t dance, at this point, I’m a permanent member of this community.

Learn from Adam

Many, many thanks to Adam Brozowski for passing on his knowledge both in class and in this interview!

If you haven’t had a chance to learn from him yet, there will be another Level 2 Hollywood style class on Monday. He’ll also be doing mini private lessons during the social dance. See you then!