Posted on July 9, 2013
Nicola Rayner hears from Brian “Lucky” Skillen, blues dancer and director of a new documentary about the history of social dance in the US, which screens in Dublin later this month
“If anybody tries to do a history of social dance, looking at the timeline, it’s not clear at all, it’s not clear one bit, so I decided to focus on the places where we danced, because it’s definite that these different kinds of places existed.” Director Brian “Lucky” Skillen explains, over a cup of coffee during a sunny spring day in St James’s Park, the thought process behind the naming of his new documentary Where We Danced.
Subtitled The Story of American Social Dance, the film has as its focus the places where dances such as the Cake Walk, the blues or the foxtrot were first performed. “We start off with the slaves dancing in plantations, then we go to the juke joints, through dancehalls, then it goes international, through the wars, so it followed that progression. The next one, Where We Danced II, will start at the speakeasies.”
Lucky’s film, the first of a planned trilogy, is a labour of love: a warm, joyous look at the history of social dance in the States, from the 17th century through to the 1920s, featuring wonderful archival film and photographic footage. It’s the first film Lucky, a blues and swing dancer and teacher, has made.
He explains: “I funded this film myself, up until the very end when I found out I needed $25,000 to finish it… So I did a Kickstarter for it and the dance community really came together. I aimed for $20,000 and we got $27,000, which was good ’cause I guess, really, I needed $30,000. This film is made by dancers; it’s funded by dancers; it’s written by dancers.”
How did the project begin? “I saw Ken Burns’ Jazz about six or seven years ago and I thought somebody had to do something similar for dancing. Four years ago, I was approached by a producer to make a documentary on the history of blues dance, but we had a falling out and I thought, ‘I’m just going to do this on my own.’ I taught myself everything: how to set up shoots, how to do final cuts… all the licensing stuff – I learned so much.”
One of life’s Tiggers, New York-based Lucky finds joy even in copyright law. “It’s very interesting when you’re working with archival footage because first you have to find it, then you have to find the people who own the rights to it. It’s like being a detective: sometimes they change hands several times, so I was going to three or four different places. It was very interesting – and then you have to negotiate.”
Most of the research for Where We Danced was done at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts: “They have a dance division up there and they have a vast collection. Also there are three or four private collectors that I approached, so I got to see their vaults. It was like treasure hunting. And if I found something and it matched up and was in the public domain, that made it even better.”
The archival material is lively and fascinating. For the slaves, dance was one of the few means of expression, explains Lucky: “It was praying if you crossed your ankles. You couldn’t cross your ankles, so they would do shuffled foot patterns in the Ring Shout and the Cake Walk. It was their way of saying: ‘We may be your slaves, but we can do this better than you – and make fun of you.'”
From strutting slaves in Cake Walk competitions held by the owners of the plantations (so called because a cake was the prize) to a lengthy section about Irene and Vernon Castle, the footage shows how dances moved from black culture to white. Says Lucky of blues dancing: “The black dancers didn’t call it blues dancing – they called it grinding or maybe slow drag, but when it went to white culture, they identified it with the music, which was blues music.
“It’s also interesting to see how Europeans were more open to black culture than in America. That’s why you get people like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong moving to Europe,” he adds.
“When the dances become more white, they get smoothed out and more regulated. The Castles were fascinating,” he says. “Their band director was black and I read that they learned a lot of their dance steps from him… They were revolutionary.
“Fred and Ginger’s partnership was based on Irene and Vernon. To let you know how important they were: at the time, they were charging a $1,000 an hour for a lesson in the 1910s. They also had three establishments, the most prestigious clubs in New York City. These guys were huge.”
Lucky’s next film, Where We Danced II, will focus on dances from the mid-1920s to mid-1940s. “We’re going to pick up with the Roaring Twenties and the correlation between Prohibition and dancing. Really the way I’m approaching the film is: I want to tell the story of how dance has been used as a means of social change. It challenged sexuality; it challenged morality.”
I love the story, in Where We Danced, about Irene Castle starting the craze for bobbed hair. Lucky smiles: “When I found out, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s so cool.’ I also love the juke joint stuff too [pictured above]. It was the first time you had young people drinking together and touching each other. It was a total reaction against their parents’ generation.”
In the third part of his trilogy, Lucky will look at salsa and the Argentine tango. “These old milongueros in Buenos Aires are getting very old now… Because of what I do, I have access to dancers in all different disciplines and access to the ‘old-timers’… It’s really easy for me to get in there.”
Where We Danced is surprisingly moving for a historical documentary and feels personal, too, perhaps because it has been made by someone who loves dance so much himself, but also, I would suggest, because many of the talking heads are Lucky’s friends and colleagues. Most notable among them is Frankie Manning, the Savoy Ballroom dancer and choreographer, who passed away in 2009 and to whom the documentary is dedicated.
“Frankie was amazing,” says Lucky (pictured right). “He’d been my teacher for probably 12 years, something like that, and I was part of his last performance troupe in New York City. He was the guy who first invented aerials, where you flip the girl in the air. He choreographed a lot of the old movies.
“My favourite part of the film is the Words of Wisdom segment at the end. I used to get all teary whenever I saw Frankie’s last words. He was phenomenal. He was still dancing at 94, before he hurt his hip. It was funny: you know he said, ‘Dancing is life’? When he couldn’t dance any more, he died shortly after.”
Friends also helped in the making of the film. “Sean Lennon let me use his microphones and equipment, from his label Chimera Music, for recording – he was the voice of the Chicago policeman in the film – and all the transition music was composed by Sly Blue: Chris Norton and Marko Gazic. The main song is ‘Minor Swing’ by Django Reinhardt, which is very, very cool. The music is very important, but very expensive. One third of my budget went into ‘Minor Swing’.”
Lucky ends our interview with a typically upbeat mission statement: “My goal in life has been to share dance with as many people as possible. With teaching, my biggest classes have had around 400 people; performing I reach around five to ten thousand; but with this I could get to reach a million at a time. My aim is to get the series on TV, that would be amazing, and I’m also looking for investors for the next two episodes.
“I just want to inspire people.” He adds: “I can’t believe the kindness that went into making this film. My heart was overwhelmed.” You’re lucky, I tell him, to do the things you love in life. “Well,” he smiles. “That’s my name.”