Come on, alligators, stomp those barkers

It's not enough to dance the dances

you need to talk the talk of swing.

Theater

March 11, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Before you head over to the Mechanic Theatre to catch the Broadway revue "Swing!" this week, you might want to know the difference between a knothole and a doghouse.

And if you think the first has to do with wood and the second with canines, you're definitely not in the swing of things. Both terms are part of the lingo of swing, a hip vocabulary popularized by the likes of Baltimore native Cab Calloway. (A "knothole," by the way, is a doughnut; a "doghouse" is a bass fiddle.)

Although some of this jive talk may be passe, other terms have become part of the common parlance. "It's found its way into some of the songs and some of the mainstream language," says Lynne Corbett-Taylor, director and choreographer of "Swing!" References to money as "bread" and "scratch" are prime examples.

Along with the resurgence of interest in swing music and dancing, Taylor-Corbett says, "The kids that really brought [swing] back and that really bought the cars and bought out the vintage shops also used that language."

Locally, one of the new generation of swing aficionados is John McCalla, a prize-winning dancer and teacher who holds classes every Monday at the Downtown Athletic Club and owns four zoot suits. "There are so many things that are fun about this sort of cult," he says. "It's not just the dancing, and it's not just the music -- it's talking the talk. It's fun to talk the talk."

But while the swing craze appears to be international -- the cast of the touring production includes dancers from South Africa and Venezuela -- the language has never been quite as universal. Taylor-Corbett relates an anecdote the late Louis Armstrong told broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. Armstrong, she says, "was in a Nordic country playing, and every time the waiter came by and said, 'Is everything OK?' he would say, 'Solid,' and the waiter would bring him a salad."

"Swing!" -- which ran more than a year on Broadway -- showcases examples of dance styles from Latin swing to the Lindy Hop or, as it is also called, the jitterbug. The score includes such classic swing tunes as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy"; "Stompin' at the Savoy" and, of course, Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got that Swing)."

For Taylor-Corbett, however, swing -- whose heyday was the 1930s and 1940s -- encompasses more than just dance, music, clothing, vocabulary or even a specific era. "We always like to say, it's not a time, it's a state of mind," she says.

Here then, compiled from a variety of sources, including the newly released "Swing It!" by Bill Milkowski, and the creators of "Swing!" is a brief glossary of jive:

Aerial: An air step in swing dance

Alligator: A swing dancer

Barkers: Shoes (also "kicks" or "stompers")

Belly warmer: A necktie

Canary: A female singer (also a "chirp")

Eighty-eights: A piano

Gabriel: A trumpet player

Gate: A man

Glad rags: Fancy dancing clothes

Hepcat: A cool member of the swing set

Hiposter: A stylish hepcat wannabe who can't dance (also "hiposeur")

Jitterbug: A swing fan (also another name for the Lindy Hop)

Lid: A hat (usually a fedora)

Mitt pounding: Applause

Pegs: Trousers

Rug cutter: A talented dancer

Skins: Drums (also "tubs")

Solid sender: A good dance leader (also "viper")

"Swing!" will be presented at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, 25-Hopkins Plaza, at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $21.50-$69. Call 410-752-1200.

To learn more about John McCalla's swing classes, go online to www.psychoboy.com.

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