Rusty Frank, Playa del Rey’s irrepressible swing dance queen, joins the Camp Hollywood Hall of Fame
By Bliss Bowen
Below the Hollywood sign, beyond freeway ramps, a healthy community Lindy Hops nightly across the Southland, challenging Los Angeles’ reputation as a tough town made lonely by its metropolitan sprawl. L.A.’s swing dance subculture is one of many that collectively humanize the city’s dynamic character.
Locally, the most prominent swing dance club is Rusty’s Rhythm Club in Playa del Rey. It was created in 1998 by Rusty Frank, an irrepressible dancer/entrepreneur who’ll be honored this weekend at Camp Hollywood at the LAX Marriott.
Now in its 18th year, Camp Hollywood is a four-day extravaganza of lessons, competitions, dances, live music, retro fashion and celebration — including an induction ceremony into the 5th Bi-Annual Camp Hollywood Hall of Fame. One of this year’s inductees is Frank, who was also inducted into the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame in 2008.
“It’s probably one of the biggest honors I could get in my field,” she explains. “Camp Hollywood is one of the biggest swing dance events in the world. It draws over a thousand people from many different countries.
“The California Swing Dance Hall of Fame [honors] are given out once a year by the original swing-dance generation old-timers, and that’s what meant a lot; that was a super big deal for me. Now I’m thrilled because we’ve been doing this business here on the Westside for 18 years, and it’s really nice to be acknowledged by my peers at Camp Hollywood, like the Academy Awards.”
A lively style of jazz that emerged in the mid-1930s, swing’s instantly identifiable sound — clarinets, guitars, saxophones, trombones and trumpets trading solos over double bass and an infectiously drummed, syncopated beat — solidified by the first half of the ’40s and soundtracked many a WWII canteen dance and Tinseltown flick. The original “Swing Era” was dominated by bandleaders like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw; future icons Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra all paid dues singing with swing ensembles. In the late 1990s, a swing revival briefly exploded and gave career legs to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Royal Crown Revue and ex-Stray Cat Brian Setzer.
Frank launched her Lindy by the Sea school during that ‘90s revival, shortly after returning home from two years in the United Kingdom, when she toured 51 cities and five countries dancing with Glenn Miller’s band (which was fronted by his brother). Her resume’s studded with theatrical experiences and lessons with dance legends; she has choreographed and produced revues, and wrote the authoritative 1990 book “TAP! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900-1955.” In conversation, she’s an articulate, enthusiastic font of swing knowledge. Producing dances and teaching Lindy Hop — “the original American swing dance” — was a logical extension of her life’s work. By her own account, she’s taught in 23 countries.
Hers is the biggest school and weekly event in L.A.; Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association’s Saturday nights at Grace Hall and Irvine’s Atomic Ballroom host equivalently sized swing dances. (Joe’s in Burbank, the Los Angeles Swing Dance Club at Golden Sails Hotel in Long Beach, the Lindy Loft in downtown LA and the Press Box in Westminster also regularly draw swing congregants.) At Lindy by the Sea in El Segundo, Frank offers lessons in Balboa, Charleston, Lindy Hop, Collegiate Shag and East Coast Swing — and etiquette. More specifically, how to humanly connect.
“Technology is pretty much becoming an addiction, and it’s hard to put down the phone and unplug from your computer,” she observes. “They’re saying sitting is the new smoking. The great thing about the Lindy Hop or any partner dance is you have to disconnect from technology.
“Andy Cowan, who was a writer for ‘Seinfeld,’ also loves to sing the standards so he came and performed for my club. He wrote me the next day: ‘I loved being in your alternate universe, where handheld devices are other people’s hands.’ [Laughs] Isn’t that fantastic?
“I tell people, put the phone away and do not open it up during class or a dance. This is the one place I go in my life where there is not a cellphone in sight. There is nobody sitting with that screen two inches from their face. Everybody is interacting, laughing, having a good time. It brings together people of all different backgrounds, ages, races, economics.”
“Rusty’s a very good social promoter,” says Suzanne O’Keeffe, a longtime scene supporter who also organizes the roots-oriented Honky Tonk Hacienda nights at El Cid in Hollywood. “She promotes the community a lot, and she’s very good at getting people going and understanding how you conduct yourself on the dance floor and the whole context of it, the social mores. That makes people feel less awkward and more comfortable entering the swing scene and having fun.”
The Elks Lodge in Playa del Rey hosts Rusty’s Rhythm Club dances, which happen every Wednesday (except the first week of the month, when they move to Friday) with live swing from acts like Carl Sonny Leyland, Dave Stuckey and Lil’ Mo & the Dynaflos. Frank estimates Wednesday dances attract 60 to 100 people, while Friday dances generally draw 150 to 250.
“In Los Angeles alone, there are swing dances seven nights a week, and you usually have two to three choices of where to go each night,” she says. “It’s a niche market, but it’s a specific world.”
That world is smartly dressed, friendly and inclusive; Frank insists “it feels exactly the same” at events in other countries. Camp Hollywood’s website features a Code of Conduct with safety and etiquette guidelines, and a detailed anti-harassment policy. Cowan nailed it: it’s an alternate universe, light-years removed from Facebook likes and Tinder swiping.
So is it just socializing bonding the community? What makes it so inclusive? Swing is foreign to contemporary pop culture; is its allure the romantic music and fashion, or some dream of living by a different code?
“I think it comes back to what’s happening in the world right now,” Frank says. “It’s very dissonant, a lot of things we hear and see. You go back to these styles where women were so glamorous and men were so dashing. You’ve got this great music, with not a negative thought in it; it’s all about love or food. It’s happy, uplifting. This kind of music becomes very popular in hard times. Think about the 1930s during the Depression and WWII. We need this. Because of the 24/7 news cycle, you can be torn apart in a million pieces and be so depressed. When you gather with a room full of people dancing and music, there’s still life, there’s still hope. It’s very, very restorative. … Nobody wants any of the sexism and racism to come back. But certainly the beautiful style and the fun music and manners and kindness.”
It’s hard to miss Frank’s sense of mission. Her goal, she says, is community building.
“I am Jewish, and one of the big teachings in Judaism is ‘repairing the world’: ‘It’s not your duty to finish the task, but neither art thou free to desist from it.’ So I’m trying to make the world a better place through this. I know it can sound very hokey, but I’ll tell ya, it’s not. Scores of people have told me, ‘This saved my life. I was in massive depression and I was able to get off medicine and I have this group of friends now.’”
In 2000, a freak accident severely tested Frank’s belief in the power of music and dance. While practicing an aerial move with her then-dance partner, she plummeted to the ground from a height of eight feet. O’Keeffe says the incident sent “a real shock wave” through the community.
“I broke my spinal cord and was completely paralyzed,” Frank recalls. “It was and continues to be a very long journey back.”
But along the way she happily discovered she had “a lot of gumption” — and community support. By the third month of her recovery, she was teaching again, albeit with a “halo” screwed into her head for six-and-a-half months. She still contends with neurological damage, chronic pain and knee, shoulder and wrist issues. But “you don’t feel it when you’re dancing,” she says.
Her experience helps inspire students.
“I’m dancing up a storm but I’m pretty much grounded,” she says. “No more flips or aerials. That’s OK. Let the new kids do it.”
O’Keeffe says she’s witnessing “a whole new crew” of young people who particularly like early 1920s and ’30s jazz: “It’s faster music, they’re doing a lot more shag. They’re very welcoming people, even more so than the first go-round [in the ’90s]. The community has really expanded, and that’s really great to see.”
“This swing resurgence has now lasted longer than the original swing era,” Frank points out. “And it shows no signs of slowing down.”
Camp Hollywood XVIII happens Friday, Sept. 4, through Monday, Sept. 7, at the LAX Marriott, 5855 W. Century Blvd., Westchester. Tickets are $100 to $275. Night pass tickets ($25 to $35) are also available for dances with the Lucky Stars (Friday), Jonathan Stout and His Rhythm Busters (Saturday), Big Butter Jazz Band (Saturday), Jonathan Stout Orchestra (Saturday), Grand Slam Sextet (Saturday), and Falty and the Defects (Sunday). Call (323) 276-3841 or find the full schedule and details at camphollywood.net.
Rusty’s Rhythm Club’s hosts Swingin’ Rat Pack Nite with the Dean Mora Swingtet from 8:30 p.m. to midnight on Friday, Sept. 11, at Westchester Elks Lodge #2050, 8025 W. Manchester Ave., Playa del Rey. $15. Visit rustyfrank.com for more information.