Ozzie Henry

Ozzie Henry

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    Friday, July 07, 2006

It don’t mean a thing,
if it ain’t got that swing
By Wendi Dowst Contributing writer

A stateside recruit during World War II, Ozzie Henry has seen every major big band perform except for Artie Shaw’s. Now, having also lived through the 90s swing revival, he and his wife Barbara travel across New England to dance.

“We go out for music about once a week,” Barbara Henry said. “The other nights we dance in the kitchen.”

The Henrys, who met at a Coast Guard dance during Ozzie Henry’s service, have lived in New Hampshire for the last 20 years. The first words Ozzie Henry ever said to Barbara Henry were, “Would you like to dance?” He asked that question countless times while they witnessed the revival of the popular jazz music and dance born with their generation — swing. Swing has served as the background music for major events and social changes from the great wars to the rise and demise of the northeast industrial movement.

At just about every swing dance from the Upper Valley to Boston, one can observe younger couples standing on the edge of the dance floor watching the Henrys twist, hoping to be like them when they “grow up.” The Henrys hold each other close, stepping quickly to the music of Dom V and the Swing Out Big Band or Beantwn Big Band. With their knees bent slightly and faces beaming, they easily communicate their smooth turns and kicks, shimming nearly to the ground.

The 1930s dance began in the northeast with bands like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Chick Webb. In the 1990s, contra dance camps helped to revive the northeast swing scene when they began offering swing workshops during their off season. Historically tied to New England, the dance still plays a role in the region’s culture and social activities.

Now outside of the 90s revival, contemporary and local culture such as the TV program “Dancing with the Stars” and weeklong event Swing Out New Hampshire promote swing dance. Swing attracts dancers from across the country to New England, who rave about the dance’s social and health benefits.

John Tomeny first met the Henrys at one of Dom V’s dances and sees the Henrys regularly at his monthly Upper Valley dances.

Tomeny founded the Upper Valley Swing Dance Network in 1999 because he and other dancers grew tired of driving to Boston every weekend to find a swing dance. In the beginning, the Upper Valley dances’ popularity quickly grew to 100 to 150 dancers and Tomeny now estimates there are 250 dancers in the Upper Valley Swing Dance community.

Nestled between the major dance scenes of Boston and Burlington, the Upper Valley scene still stands on its own — hundreds of people came to the workshops and dance when swing champion Sylvia Sykes taught the Upper Valley Swing Dance Network’s annual weekend workshop event in February.

“We had a weekend of swing dance workshops with the largest attendance at a weekend event that we’ve had in three years,” Tomeny said. “Just that bit of interest suggests that it is a healthy, growing community.”

Sylvia Sykes, a swing dance instructor and choreographer who first appeared in the 1960s dancing on “American Bandstand,” has performed with many of the same renowned big bands Ozzie Henry used to watch.

“I had a little dance troop in Santa Barbara, California,” Sykes said. “When bands would come through town sometimes they would hire us. I got to dance with Count Basie, Less Brown Orchestra, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw’s orchestra.”

Artie Shaw’s Orchestra was the one band Ozzie Henry missed seeing perform live. Having seen Benny Goodman multiple times, Henry said Goodman was his favorite band to watch.

“At a lot of those Benny Goodman concerts the kids would get up and dance in the aisles — that wasn’t a made up story,” Henry said. “The band would be playing a piece and the trumpet section would come in like a gang of chariots with the walls being broken down by their horns.”

Sykes calls swing dance our “national folk dance” and, as such, says it reflects our culture and changes with the times.

“So you have an indigenous music, which is jazz. Swing dancing is what we did to jazz,” Sykes said. “What I find really interesting about swing dancing is that it is able to morph and accept and react to current culture — music, politics, economics — while still keeping a touchstone to its roots or soul.”

Like evolving cultures, there are many names for swing dancing — Lindy Hop, Balboa, East Coast, West Coast, Jitterbug, Jive, Hollywood Style, Smooth Style or Charleston. Sykes said the names of styles and dance moves are usually defined more by where they were learned than the dance itself.

“Between the Lindy Hop and Jitter Bug and that stuff, the biggest difference is the spelling,” Sykes said. “There are triple steps, eight and six counts and you do it with a partner and it’s not the cha cha. It swings.”

Sykes proclaims that swing dancing is for everyone. She has taught children as young as 6, people who are deaf, blind, and with prosthetic legs.

“We’re all in there together, we’re all going to dance together,” she said. “Once you walk into that room it levels the playing field for a lot of people.”

She also said learning to swing dance emphasizes team work and communication.

"You need to communicate and get along with somebody for three minutes. You don’t have to like them, but for three minutes you are going to have a conversation, although it may not be verbal,” Sykes said.

But overall, the most important guideline for swing dancing is having fun.

“Doing it correctly or with a lot of creativity is important, but not as important as having fun,” Sykes said. “I’d much rather watch two people in a bar who are out of rhythm than watch two people who are trying hard to do it correctly and not really having that much fun.”

After more than 60 years of dancing together, the Henrys have certainly discovered that fun. Ozzie Henry said what makes swing fun is the social aspect.

“People are going to ask you to dance even if you haven’t been introduced to them,” he said. “And you want to dance so you should accept. I’ve never seen anyone refuse and when I’m asked I get a big kick out of it.”

Some claim swing has remained popular because of its cultural connections, its expression of joy, its universal ability to communicate, its use as exercise, or its engaging music. Ozzie Henry said swing will remain popular as long as fellows want a good excuse to hold pretty ladies.

“I just hope folks realize why big bands became so popular,” Ozzie Henry said. “The big bands just filled a need. When swing became real popular it only lasted a few short years. But the affects and influence of that have lasted 50 to 60 years.”

    Swinging schedule

Fourth Saturday
Richard W. Black Community and Senior Center, Hanover
(603) 863-6519

Saturday monthly dance
Keene N.H.

Fourth Saturday
Northampton, Mass.
UNH Hepcats Swing Club
Aug. 12 and 13 — Boston’s Wicked Lindy Weekend

Tuesday practice session
Vermont Swings, Burlington, Vt.

Friday night weekly dance
Swing City, Boston
June 26-July 2
Beantown Swing Camp, Boston
Aug. 30-Sept. 4
Swing Out New Hampshire, Lake Winnipesauke
UV Swing Dance Network
8 p.m. — Aug. 5
Plainfield Dance Party
Midsummer fund-raiser for Plainfield Library.
UVSDN hosts parties.

For more information, call (802) 643-5341 or e-mail spin@uvswingdance.com.

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