By Cheryl Ossola
“I love this dance!” That’s what one of my Balboa partners says nearly every week after class. If you’ve never heard of this dance, you’re not alone; within the larger swing-dance community, Balboa dancers are a relatively small subset. But if you ask us, of all the dances that fall into the category of swing, Balboa is king.
Many people equate swing dance with Savoy-style Lindy hop, with it crouched stance, sock-hop dress style, and flat shoes (great for landing those aerials but not as elegant as high heels). That’s what Lacey Schwimmer did on So You Think You Can Dance a few seasons ago. But there’s another world of swing out there, one that’s smooth, elegant, and infinitely variable, jazz dancing that swings as hard as Louis Prima or Chick Webb. Sure, you can jitterbug to rock ’n’ roll, but to dance Bal (as we call it), you need musicians who really know how to swing.
I’ve heard old-timers say that Balboa doesn’t look like much, but wherever my friends and I go dancing, people come up and say, “What are you doing? That is so cool!” One reason why Balboa stands out is its elegance—no crouching and stomping here, and we women wear heels and, often, vintage dresses—and the other is its speed. When a very fast song comes on, most swing dancers leave the floor—but that’s when we Bal dancers hit our stride. Songs played at 180 to 280 beats per minute (or even 292—think of the fastest version you’ve heard of Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”) are what we love, though we can adapt to slower tempos.
The Balboa was born on Balboa Island, off the coast of San Diego, CA, in the mid-1920s, becoming popular in the 1930s. It was born of necessity: Dance floors were too mobbed for the space-devouring moves of the Lindy. During the swing revival of the 1990s, dancers who wanted to learn the Balboa sought out the old-timers who had originated it, including Maxie Dorf, Willie Desatoff, Ann Mills, Hal Takier, and Dean Raftery, many of whom danced in movie musicals in the 1930s and ’40s. Through the swing revivalists’ efforts the Balboa, which had been mostly limited to Southern California, started spreading and changing.
In its original form (now called “pure Balboa”) the partners danced in closed position at all times. Its very close, torso-to-torso position allows the lead to be given and received with the whole body. In some of my early classes, we practiced without using our arms, learning to communicate via directional movements that originate in the lead’s center. In Balboa, weight shifts are everything.
Pure Bal’s showiness is all in the feet—fast footwork, with a rhythmic pulse (often subtle) that keeps the partners together musically. In some old footage, it’s smooth enough that if you saw a couple from the waist up you’d think they were skating, or maybe not moving at all.
(Other swing dances, by comparison, are far more linear.) Once you separate, you’re doing Bal-swing, which the inventive Maxie Dorf was doing as early as the 1940s.
The next generation of Bal dancers built on that foundation, including one fabulous champion couple, Steve Garrett and Heidi Salerno, who call their unique style “Jitter-Bal.” But descriptions aren’t enough—go to YouTube and search for “Balboa by Steve and Heidi” or “Joel and Alison at All Balboa Weekend 2005” for a great taste.
If you like speed, swing, and inventiveness, Balboa is for you. I’ve learned so much from great teachers such as Steve and Heidi, Alison and Joel Plys, Zach Richard and Maryse Lebeau, Sylvia Sykes, Jonathan Bixby, Marty Klempner, Brenda Collins, and Jeff Kroll. There are teachers and workshops all over the world, so jump into action! Or go to Bal’s birthplace and attend the Balboa Rendezvous in San Diego (www.2plyswing.com). Why am I telling you this? It’s simple: I love this dance!