For this post to make sense, readers need to know that in my other life I am a vintage swing dancer, performer, and teacher.
A huge amount of our noteworthy swing-era dance footage comes from movies, from Day at the Races to Hellzapoppin’, to the many Southern California jitterbug clips where dancers like Dean and Jewel and Hal and Betty danced in packed scenes. Having watched so many great dancers on film and wondered how that experience shaped their dancing, I’ve had it on my bucket list for a long time to dance in a film. A few months after I moved to New York City, a few of the professional dancers in the city got chosen to dance in a new film set in the swing era, and one of them asked me to be one of the Lindy Hop leaders. These are my notes from that day of filming.
Due to my confidentiality contract, I cannot mention the name or plot of the film, nor the specific names of the actors/actresses involved at this time.
Being 6’2″, I am used to never finding vintage that fits. Before I arrived on set I corresponded with the costuming department, and I offered that I had my own vintage suits that *do* fit in case they wanted to see those, but the responding email I got didn’t mention my request, and seemed to not mention it coldly. Knowing both my share of costuming designers and vintage fashion nuts, I wanted to respect that the costume department knew what they were doing and that fit wasn’t going to be a problem.
When I got to my fitting on the day of filming, they pulled out a pristine 1940’s shirt that fit me perfectly. And 1940’s shoes so thick that you could think of a lot worse things to chuck at someone in self-defense. The shoes somehow felt like they were made for my feet (unlike the vintage heels the followers were going to spend the day dancing in). The suit coat, however, was too short, as usual. It would have to do. I never did see myself in the outfit, because they didn’t have mirrors around.
It was the first instance of what would prove to be a trend that day: In movies, everything serves the movie, not you. No one, not even the star of the picture, gets a pass.
On the day of the shoot, I woke up at 6:20 a.m. to be in “holding.” I show up to find a room filled with perhaps seventy people, and before I say anything to anyone, a hair stylist looks at me and asks me to turn around to see my hair. “Clean up the back,” she says to herself, and sits me down. Twenty or so stylists are cutting, curling, and oiling around the clock in quarters so tight one keeps bumping my leg while my stylist tells me to be still, lest she slip with her unguarded clippers.
My stylist adds mousse, then glue, then hairspray to my hair. I check in, get sent to makeup, where they don’t put any on, but she pulls out a small electric shaver that gives me the closest shave I’ve ever had. I then go to wardrobe and put on my clothing, and then there’s waiting.
I had no idea what other Lindy Hoppers were going to be in the film, so I’m excited when I see Nathan Bugh sitting in a chair, waiting. He nods hello and behind him I see Gaby Cook in a chair getting her hair done. Next to her is Lainey Silver.
Someone wants to take a picture of the three “principal” male dancers—someone somewhere looks at it, apparently, and two of us, me and another guy, are sent to the set, which is a dance club built on one of the floors of an 1890’s Ukrainian cultural center. If the building is beautiful, I can’t tell. It’s almost completely covered head to foot in cardboard and plastic to keep the walls and carpet from the damage caused by moving in and out hundreds of pieces of heavy metal equipment and thick power cords. They take us to the second floor, which has become an upscale 1940’s club.
I stand next to the other dancer guy when the choreographer comes up and introduces himself, and then he asks the other dancer guy to “hang out in the stairwell.” Without realizing it, we had just gone through a casting, by just standing there in person. Suddenly a very short man comes up and introduces himself, then offhandedly mentions he’s the director and writer of the film (and, I recognized, an actor in his own right). Then a very tall man comes up and introduces himself, then offhandedly it is mentioned that he’s the lead actor of the film (I also recognized him but had had no idea he was that tall—he’s my height, perhaps slightly taller). They ask me my name, and then all say, “Hi, Bobby.”
The reason why I had been brought to the set early was because they wanted me to steal the lead actor’s dance partner from him.
The lead actor looks at me, deadpan, and says, “F&$%k you, Bobby.”
The actor is playing a character who knows how to swing dance a bit. So, he had a routine of basic swing dancing, and after one move where he leans his partner onto his hip, his next move is to send the partner towards me, where I cut in and take his partner away from him, leaving him looking dejected and annoyed. The only problem was, in the rehearsals he wasn’t consistent in which direction he’d send the follower (understandable, since he’d only been dancing for a month. Being move-dyslexic myself, I still occasionally have this problem.). But, it meant I had to both dance solo jazz without looking like I was paying attention and then bolt for whatever direction he sent his partner.
We rehearsed it a few times, but not many, because there was a lot of the scene to go over. To his credit the lead actor came over and practiced the routine every time there was the slightest lull in his other duties. He was taking the dance scene very seriously.
As exciting as some of the tiny moments are, most of the day is spent waiting.
After this short rehearsal, I went to another building and waited, and filled out paperwork, and waited. Sixty or seventy extras sat watching their phones, standing in long lines to pick up their costumes, or waiting for their hair or makeup. We then all went back to the set, but half of us went onto the third floor, where we waited for another hour or so while they did filming for the scene where the main character and friend are chatting at a bar. At some point during the waiting, a SAG representative comes by and makes sure we’re being treated well.
Extras take selfies in their costumes and occasionally make comments about how low budget the film must be, and how things were very different on Boardwalk Empire, because the food truck and catering on this set was apparently not up to HBO quality.
Finally they call the dancers downstairs, where we meet on the dance floor of the set. The room is shrouded in a cloud of smoke caused first by smoke machines and then by the dozens of extras smoking herbal cigarettes throughout the day’s shoot. The first scene we will be shooting is the scene after I have stolen the lead actor’s partner away, so I’m dancing with her. I’ve never met the woman he is dancing with before. She works with the film’s choreographer, and is a badass of dance in her own right—the off-Broadway show she choreographed apparently just received an Astaire award for its dancing. But she doesn’t know Lindy Hop.
If I had any pretensions about how I was going to get my dancing voice onto film, it all went out the window the moment I stepped onto set. It was immediately apparent to me that my job was to make it work. If I tried Lindy, I might look okay but my partner will look bad. And not only does that make me ultimately look bad, it’s also not very fair to her. So we do East Coast Swing with a few random Lindy moves that are easy to lead/follow and show off the excitement the director and choreographer want. Behind us, other background dancers are trying to steal our moves because they don’t know what they’re doing.
At one point, Nathan, who is next to us with Gaby, says, “Well, it’s not like Lindy is authentic for this club, anyway. We should be doing something more like Foxtrot.” Which is exactly what I decide to tell people if they ever give me shit about doing East Coast Swing in a 1940’s film.
In American film, it’s more important that the film feel historically accurate than that it be historically accurate. Things like old cars and vintage dresses are concrete things—the cars and clothing in the film are either from the era or not. But to most people, swing dancing is an abstract idea, not a concrete one—swing dancing is simply partnership dancing with twirling and kicking, and occasionally with acrobatics. As long as it does that, it does its storytelling job. As much as I would love for the production to put a great deal of care in the accuracy of the dancing (as much as it did its costuming and cars), I understand it’s not the ultimate name of the game. It is a cost they might not have the resources to afford. The choreographer at least worked to hire a group of us who specialized in the older forms.
Another factor dancers in film shoots have to understand is background dancing—the point is to dance energetic swing but not to ask for too much attention with it. You still may have to be exciting, but calm, so it can be a delicate balance.
At one point the choreographer comes up to tell one of the couples to give more energy. Then we do another take, then he comes up and says, “Okay, that was fantastic. Now 3/4 of that.” This was a particularly satisfying moment for me, because when we watch a lot of old footage, dancers can sometimes look very different than they do in other movies, and we generally understood that directors would often say “be bigger, crazier, wilder!” And so, for a dance film geek, it was like a zoo-keeper seeing an exotic animal in the wild for the first time. That totally DOES happen!
For this first scene, we’re in the background, and we dance and dance and dance while the actors do a scene at one of the club’s tables. They only play the first few seconds of the music, so we all start dancing and try our best to keep the basic rhythm—but you can imagine that’s not going to happen. After each take they yell cut and what follows is another three-plus minutes of them setting up things and changing things. We do six or seven of these takes, then they come by with little foam stickies for our shoes, which make us quieter (so they can record dialogue). Then they move the cameras in closer, and we do another few takes without shoes.
(During one take, I get excited and do a high kick move. My partner whispers, “don’t kick!” but I don’t hear her quite right and she’s smiling and laughing cause she’s acting and I think she was really excited about the kick so I kick again and then she says, “You’re not wearing shoes!”)
If you think it’s hard for swing dancers to dance like normal and not make a sound, imagine how hard it was for the jazz band on stage. The drummer had to look like he was playing drums without actually hitting a cymbal. We’d be dancing and halfway through a take there’d be a sudden SPLASH because he had misjudged slightly. (But I don’t feel bad for him; he wasn’t using traditional grip.) The trumpeter, however, was going all-out. He fake-played that trumpet so well I heard his solo.
The scenes are a couple minutes long of dancing to a 240 BPM song, and after five or six of them, you start to realize you’re in a wool suit in small, old room with lots of electronic equipment and fifty other people. It’s alright, because someone will eventually come by and clean your face. Stand still for any amount of time on set, and someone comes and lint rolls you. Another person will soon be by with a tool belt of combs and hairsprays to check up on your hair.
In between every take the director comes out and says something like “that was really good!” or “that was fantastic!” and has a brief chat with the actors, mostly about body positioning, while the other twenty or more crew members begin tampering with their equipment and running around putting tape on things. All around extras sit and do a bad job of being quiet. Then it’s on to the next take. My dance partner whispers to me that, in her experience, they usually only do five or six takes of any scene. Which makes sense to me, cause, damn. With so many people on the clock, I can see how extra takes get really expensive, fast. And I had some idea of what they were hoping to get through that day, which seemed like a lot at the pace we were going at.
After a couple hours of this, we do the scene where I steal the lead actor’s dance partner. He nails the drop-off every time, and it’s me who, on the final take, loses track of his choreography and barely makes it in time. The choreographer said it was a great take, but I couldn’t help but feel I’m going to look a little late to the party. I’m not too worried about it; from my time in front of video cameras, I do know that often times what looks good on camera is very different than what it feels like in person.
However, I can’t tell how the dancing is going to look. During some of the takes the dancing felt great, some of the takes, not so much, especially the early ones, where I was just dancing with the partner for the first time. They will choose the one where the most important things went right in the shot, like the lead acting, the lighting, the mood, the placement and timing of all the extras moving around the room—our dancing is probably low on the list.
Around 3 p.m., we break for lunch. It’s beginning to drizzle outside, and the costumers hand out hair and hat shields for all the women and tell us not to stand outside. We go back to our original holding room and have a fantastic lunch. It’s tradition to let the crew go first when everyone eats. Before we are allowed to pick up a plate we put on plastic aprons.
When we’re done with lunch, we go back upstairs on set, and wait. This is because they have to take down all the lighting umbrellas and camera mounts and put it all back up in the other direction — to get the shots from the other side of the scene. You see, in films when actors are talking across a table, the viewer sees each person’s face as they talk. You don’t realize that the film makers often have to reset all the lighting equipment and cameras for each side of that conversation. And resetting a camera is actually a several-person job. There are people moving the giant cameras, people with measuring tape, and people putting markings on the floor based on the measuring tape.
We go back downstairs and film more. After a lot of the shots, several people walk around and check to make sure everything is the same as it was in the last shot. I was amazed at how much time was taken up in making sure everything was in the right place. Most films have a handful of continuity errors that fanatics catch over multiple viewings—but they work incredibly hard to only have that handful. This becomes exponentially more difficult when you realize that most films have to be shot wildly out of sequence. So the script supervisor has to check how things looked three hours ago, and occasionally even three weeks ago. They take a lot of pictures.
During one of the day’s scenes, they catch an extra who didn’t like the shoes the costumer gave him and decided to put on his normal street shoes. They aren’t an eyesore, but they are pretty modern-looking. The crew doesn’t let their annoyance keep them one moment from trying to fix the problem as soon as possible. While someone goes to get his costume shoes, another person looks over his costume in more detail and sees that he also is wearing a gold bracelet he wasn’t supposed to be wearing. The actor has the gall to look annoyed and offended when they briefly chew him out and make him take it off.
Half the extras don’t notice, however, because they are secretly trying to look at the phones they snuck down onto the set. I cringe at the thought of one of them forgetting to turn their ringer off, and a take being ruined. It’s not a small thing—even in this low-budget film, so many people are working so hard to make sure everything is right for every single take.
Even the actors don’t get a lot of freedom of expression on the set—that’s what the previous months of rehearsals were for, and the day’s rehearsal before the crew even showed up. I got the impression that their job, now, when the camera is rolling, is to do that scene as consistently as possible, as many times as possible. The director might give slight notes, like “more enthusiasm on the final line,” but that’s about it.
Something also striking was that every word on that set was positive. For instance, the choreographer always said, “That was fantastic! This time, let’s….” The director constantly told the actors how amazing what they had done was. Though it was refreshing, and I assume kept the actors going confidently forward, I don’t know how many times you’d hear it before you’d begin to doubt its sincerity.
We finally finish up the scene and are allowed to either return to the waiting room or go outside to the craft table. I go outside, where I stand near one of the extras, who was a high-school friend of the director. Another extra asks him about what the director was like in high school. “He was always, always working on creative projects,” he said. “He was super-nice, fun, and worked hard. We knew he was going places.”
After a few more hours of waiting, we extras are completely unaware of what we are supposed to do next. At some point we are told to go and get our costume change. I had only tried on one costume, so this was a surprise to me, but we walk back to costuming, now in twilight, where they hand me a new tie. Thus, a new night has begun for our lead characters. All the female dancers get brand new outfits, which take quite a while to put on. We are told to quickly return to the shoot, half of us without our partners.
It was an opportunity to learn yet another thing in the movie-making business; you can lose opportunities if you’re not quick. They had already started work on the next dance scene by the time we got back, and Lainey Silver and I just barely made it back in time to be included in the scene.
The good news is, they wanted us to be the couple dancing right next to the lead actor’s conversation, and since I was with Lainey, this meant I could dance some Lindy Hop on film. The bad news was that we only had a two-foot-wide space to dance in because of the camera, and it was on carpet. And Lainey was in some really uncomfortable vintage heels. Now then, the lead character was sitting at a table, and we were standing, which meant the only thing the camera was going to see of our dancing was butt-high.
And I think most of you who have done Lindy Hop knows what this means. Lainey swiveled her hips so hard that on a couple occasions she bumped his chair.
We finished up and were finally told we could go at 11 p.m. If we had thought it was a long day for us, the director called out the rest of the schedule of the night; the lead actor would have to rehearse the next day’s scenes, among a few other things, before going back to his hotel room to sleep. Our one 16-hour day was over; I had the feeling he was only in the middle of his many 18-hour-plus days.
The crew, as well. They did their jobs into the night relaxed, and focused—I got the idea that it was just another day for them. Maybe some days were short, and a few were long; or maybe a lot of them were long. But one thing was obvious: They were natural there, in that strange place where people completely and utterly construct a fantasy world. You don’t do a job like that unless you love what you do. They were in on the secret; movie “magic” is just another name for a bunch of geeks and engineers working together, in their element.