‘Super Bowl of swing dance’ draws hundreds of professionals and amateurs to Burbank

Betty and Mel Peters drove to Burbank from the Houston, Texas, area this past weekend to be with family — not for a holiday turkey feast, but to cheer them on as they shook their tail feathers.

The couple arrived at the Los Angeles Marriott Burbank Airport after the final four-hour leg of their trip on Thanksgiving Day in time to watch Betty Peters’ son, Ben Hooten, and his girlfriend, Montana Lee, take to the dance floor in the U.S. Open Swing Dance Championships Pro-Am division, in which professional dancers are partnered with amateurs.

In addition to the Pro-Ams, there were more than 20 divisions and categories of competition over the extended weekend, including “Jack and Jill” divisions with randomly matched partners, a team competition with eight or more dancers in formation and a “Showcase” competition, featuring routines developed in secret with flips, lifts and spins that make the crowds go wild.

“This is like the Super Bowl of swing dance,” Betty Peters said of the championships, which ran from Wednesday through Sunday and featured roughly 500 competitors.

“A lot of people will work a year to get to this point,” she said.

In its 33rd year — it’s fifth in Burbank — the event drew dancers from throughout the United States, as well as Canada, Australia and Russia. They came for a shot at a title that could make their career, according to Phil Dorroll, event director and president of the championship’s board of directors.

“You get a U.S. Open title, you can make a living,” Dorroll said. “People want to hire you [as instructors and performers].”

There were workshops, some of which were led by past champions of the open, including Jordan Frisbee and Tatiana Mollman, who were 10-time champions and have traveled 4 million miles teaching West Coast Swing dance, according to the championship’s program.

The primary variant of the dance performed at the open, West Coast Swing, is a style that was based on R&B rhythms and now includes pop and contemporary, Dorroll said. The “father of swing” is the Lindy hop, he said, which began in the 1920s. It’s since branched out into a variety of genres.

“Dance evolves,” Dorroll said. “Right now, I believe West Coast Swing is still continuing a growth pattern internationally.”

There were legends of the style on hand. Annie Hirsch, who has several swing titles and awards to her credit, said she began swing dancing when she was 19 years old with her brothers in Stockton, and they danced any chance they got.

She’s now 86. “But I feel 42,” she said.

There were also teens and pre-teens. “Our youth is well represented,” Dorroll said. “That means we’re alive.”

Amateur Laurel Glaub, 12, was one of the youngest competitors in the Pro-Am and one of 82 competitors trained at the Redlands-based Dance Center operated by Buddy Schwimmer.

Dubbed the “King of Swing” by some, Schwimmer’s studio has produced a number of open champions, including his son, Benji Schwimmer — winner of the second season of “So You Think You Can Dance” in 2006 — who claimed his 11th win in the “Showcase” division this past weekend, despite a torn meniscus.

Buddy Schwimmer’s daughter, Lacey, has won national dance championships and came in fourth in the third season of “So You Think You Can Dance.” She also danced for six seasons as one of the professionals on “Dancing with the Stars.”

The event is fun, Buddy Schwimmer said, “beating everyone else is for the heck of it.” A true champion, he said, is “not dancing against the others. They’re dancing against themselves.”

Many beginning dancers who have their eye on a championship title think it’s like a pyramid, where they rise to the top, he said.

However, it’s actually an hourglass. “The more you know, the more there is to know,” he said. “That’s the world of dance.”

But the open isn’t just about competition, Dorroll said. Attendees took part each night in social-dancing sessions that lasted until 5 a.m.

“It’s 24/7 dancing here,” Dorroll said. “We have to run them off the floor.”


Chad Garland,

Twitter: @chadgarland