Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Swing of Things

By Chris Herrington

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  It's 8 o'clock on a Saturday night and many Memphians are downtown at The Orpheum paying an average of $26 a piece to bear witness to "Sophisticated Ellington," a musical tribute performed by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to the king of swing, Duke Ellington. Meanwhile, in the basement of Covenant Community Church at 704 N. Highland, another crowd has paid a $4 cover for a more interactive experience with the music and culture of the swing era.

This church basement is normally known as Club 704B, an alcohol-free nightclub which features Christian rock bands every Friday. For tonight, and, if things go smoothly, for the first Saturday of each month, it has been transformed into Cafe Bizmarck, an attempt to replicate the music and dance culture of the WWII era for a generation whose parents didn't even experience it.

Cafe Bizmarck is the brainchild of Chris and Jennifer Steinmetz, a couple in their early 20s who saw the movie Swing Kids (the one where teenagers fight facism through dance) and were captivated by a culture that seemed more stylish and interesting than their own. Unfortunately, they had a hard time finding an outlet for their new interest. "My wife and I searched for a place in Memphis that offered that kind of music and dancing and there was nothing, so we decided to start our own," says Steinmetz.

The club officially opens at 8 p.m., but dance lessons are given from 7 to 8 p.m., and on this Saturday, about half a dozen couples show up early for the tutoring. For the lessons, a private dance teacher teaches the newcomers the basic three-step move used in the jitterbug, a basis from which to freestyle. The dancers are understandibly tentative and clumsy -- the fumbling baby steps of a generation who never learned to dance together. The women are almost uniformly in bare feet or stockings; the ability to dance in heels seems to have gone the way of the rotary phone.

Those who came for the lessons seem very young, college-aged at most, and respond well to the advertised request to show up in period dress. One young woman is decked out in a purple knee-length flapper-style fringe dress and pearls, while her partner looks the part with a simple suit with a bowtie, bowler hat, and cane. Another couple across from them is more emblematic of the generational/cultural collision that the evening represents. They are more modern-looking, their attempts at formal dress and social dancing clashing with their scruffy looks and sandals. There is only one older couple, who seem like prom-night chaperones in the context of the event.

There is no live band for this opening night, though Steinmetz is looking into booking one for the future, or maybe forming a band specifically for Cafe Bizmarck. Instead, a sound system fills the room with classic recordings from the likes of the aforementioned Ellington, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. The atmosphere is county-club cool with candles at each table, VIP seating on a stage overlooking the dance floor, and a bar serving nonalcoholic drinks with exotic names like Mugzy's Move (orange and cranberry juice) and the Sugar Daddy (ginger ale, cherry, and pineapple juice).

After the lessons end and the real party begins, everyone seems a bit hesitant to dance. But with some prodding from the Steinmetzes, who take to the floor first in a successful attempt to draw the wallflowers out, the floor begins to fill with people attempting to get their groove on swing style.

Despite the relative success of Cafe Bizmarck's opening night, the question of whether or not this style of music and dance has any currency in today's youth culture remains an open one. After all, the kind of cooperative social dancing that this venture seeks to promote is not only foreign to today's youth, but to most of their parents as well. It essentially died as common practice with the baby-boom generation. New forms of popular music, like rock-and-roll, brought about new forms of dancing, and the sexual revolution made the courtship aspect of social dance less of a utilitarian concern. For many today the most vivid visual image of people actually dancing together comes from old movies: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in films like Top Hat and Swing Time or Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed doing the charleston during a high school dance in It's a Wonderful Life. With the continuing emergence of electronica and deejays, the music and dance aspects of youth culture today seem to be moving even further away from the kind of rules and structure central to that of the '30s and '40s.

But maybe all of that is just more reason for Cafe Bizmarck to succeed. Maybe kids today feel a void that swing-era dance and culture can fill. Chris Steinmetz thinks so. "We grew up with the club atmosphere. I think with our generation that's gotten a little old, and though this [swing music and dance] has been done before, it's been awhile, and the classiness of it is something that I think they're attracted to," Steinmetz says. "Also, with this style of dancing, you get to involve your partner and those around you instead of just fooling around."

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