eWa Burak and saving the Lindy Hop
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” Duke Ellington famously sang. Those words hit the airwaves in 1931, four years after the Lindy Hop, a swing dance revolution that began in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem and was named after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight in 1927, was born.
The Lindy Hop continued to be fantastically popular through the World War II era, and then faded almost from sight as ballroom dances grew in popularity. Then, in the 1980s, the dance that never really went to sleep in New York City underwent a revival throughout Europe. In a basement in her native Stockholm, eWa Burak and the group she danced with, The Rhythm Hot Shots, were part of that resurgence. Now a resident of Orlean and an internationally-known swing dancer, eWa continues to teach and dance both locally and internationally.
Born during both the Depression and segregation, the Lindy Hop, according to eWa, is “a happy dance,” which evolved from the need for happiness in those difficult times. She said, “It’s simply impossible to feel blue as you move to a good swingin’ song… swinging out with a partner is such a great way to connect and have fun beyond words.” Usually performed to music from a live band, the energetic dance has African-American roots and rhythms, combining elements of both swing and jazz. There are some acrobatic and athletic moves such as the ‘air step’ (modernly known as the ‘aerial’). It is important to note that while there are technically steps and counts to the dance, the Lindy Hop, as eWa pointed out, is a dance you feel, a way to connect with the music and your partner and see where it takes you. What makes the Lindy Hop truly special is that its Harlem roots and heavy reliance on improvisation quickly spread as a social dance, eventually reaching Hollywood and even appearing in movies such as the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’.
In 1986, eWa joined The Rhythm Hot Shots, a professional working dance performance company in Sweden that had recently discovered the Lindy Hop and was working with jazz legend Al Minns to learn the dance. eWa’s background as a competitive gymnast served her well in this energetic dance with its acrobatic elements. The group practiced in the basement of a bank and performed locally, eventually growing in popularity and travelling to perform and teach internationally.
Then, in 1987, Frankie Manning came to Sweden to work with The Rhythm Hot Shots and helped to change dance history. A Lindy Hop legend, Frankie was part of a group called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, well-known in the 1930s and ’40s for inspiring and developing the dance. They had started at the Savoy Ballroom and went on to perform on screen and in theatres. Among other things, Frankie was responsible for adding the air step and acrobatic movements to the dance. He had long retired from dancing and was working as a U.S. Postal Worker when he noticed that there was a resurgence of interest in the dance occurring not only in Sweden, but also in London and Los Angeles, and he was excited by it.
Looking back to those early years of the Lindy Hop revival with The Rhythm Hot Shots, eWa said, Frankie must have been amused by their attempts to learn the dance. She imagines him thinking, “How in the world can these pale Swedish cats find inspiration for the Lindy Hop trying to learn from old dance clips in a Stockholm basement far away from the big bands of Harlem?” He stepped in, and, eWa continued, “Frankie gave us everything that we never could have possibly learned by just watching the movies clips.” Dancing with Frankie helped the group understand the African-American culture and spirit of the dance. He taught them that at its heart, the Lindy Hop was about connecting to the music in a way they couldn’t glean from just watching old movies and learning the technical dance steps.
Photos by Christian Karlsson
In 1989, eWa and The Rhythm Hot Shots formed The Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, the biggest swing dance festival in the world, where they taught, and continue to teach today, swing dances, including Lindy Hop, of course. Frankie was invited to the camp as a special guest, teacher, and the most important link to the past. He kept coming back between the years of 1989-2007. During this time, eWa had the privilege of partnering with him. She recalled, “I remember him saying, ‘Bow to the Queen,’ and rocking back on his left foot to give me space. And boy, did I feel like a queen as I did my swivels! Frankie always reminded us to fully enjoy those short three minutes we share in the dance.” He gave her the nickname “W” by which she is still known to many in the dance world. Frankie continued dancing until he passed away at the age of 95.
“Frankie genuinely shared his passion for the dance with us and the world. He was more than just a great dancer, he was a beautiful human being and connected with people.” said eWa. “And I can’t help but wonder what would have happened with the revival if Frankie was not willing to step back in to the scene so full heartedly in the way he did in the 1980s. I love how Frankie still is part of what’s going on. I pack his framed picture when I travel, maybe silly, but he still inspires me, and I believe all Lindy dancers out there should know about him and the history of the dance.”
While she’s danced with several partners over the years, eWa continues to dance and perform with her longtime partner, historian Lennart Westerlund, an original member of The Rhythm Hot Shots. They meet about six times a year to teach and perform together. He resides in Sweden and she here in Orlean with her husband and two children.
Thanks to enthusiasts like eWa, the Lindy Hop continues to grow in popularity, and there are even competitions for it now, which eWa is invited to judge. When asked how she can judge a dance that is based on connection and feeling, she simply said, “I judge from the heart.”
As an instructor, eWa focuses on imparting the wisdom she learned from Frankie Manning – to bring her students to the music and not be stuck with patterns. “It’s a freeform dance with basic steps; it’s more about connecting to the music and your partner,” she said. “I feel passionate about passing the Lindy Hop on to our youngsters. As we get older, it seems like it is getting harder to muster the courage it takes to try new things. If you have a chance, step in and learn when you are young, and the dance will be yours to enjoy for the rest of your life.” eWa offers advice to anyone who is interested in learning the Lindy Hop, or any dance: “You have no idea where it will take you. Dive in, try something new, say yes and take a chance.”
Today, eWa continues to teach Lindy Hop both internationally and locally. Especially passionate about passing on the dance to our youth, she has a program she takes to local schools, and recently taught the Charleston at Wakefield Country Day School and The Highland School for their Roaring ’20s/Great Gatsby parties. She also enjoys working with homeschool groups and offers private instruction. In addition to her youth programs, eWa is in the process of developing a public speaking historical talk about the dance and will be presenting at the Bealeton Library in September. She has worked in collaboration with local yoga instructor Pietra Mercier and local swing band The Silver Tones who play locally and travel around DC. She is excited to share that now classes are available through Gotta Swing, a Northern Virginia based dance club that has a space in Warrenton. If you are interested in swing dancing, you are more than welcome to contact eWa through her website, ewaburak.com, or through her Facebook page at facebook.com/wburak