Nothing defines the joie-de-vivre of New Orleans so much as traditional jazz music, and nothing gives life to jazz like swing dancing.
For the first time in French Quarter Fest history, the NOLA Jitterbugs will take the stage on Thursday, April 9, in Jackson Square.
The jitterbug is known as an exuberant ballroom dance made popular in the ’30s, having originated in the United States and spread like wildfire (courtesy of the U.S. armed forces) during World War II. With elements of freewheeling acrobatic swings and lifts modified to fit a modest ballroom setting, varieties of the jitterbug include dances called the lindy hop and the jive. The NOLA Jitterbugs do all of them, keeping the joie-de-vivre alive and well.
“At French Quarter Fest, I’m going to do an interactive music lesson on listening and rhythm, and on the basic history of American music, together with my dance partner, Lisa Pinney,” said Chance Bushman.
NOLA Jitterbugs started in 2008 with an event that Bushman hosted with fellow dancer Amy Johnson, called the Jazz Culture and Dance Gathering sponsored by Sweet Home New Orleans and the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. It consisted of a two-hour class where Bushman and Johnson taught locals how to swing dance.
From there, Bushman opened his first dance studio in the Healing Center on St. Claude, while also offering free classes at various locations, including d.b.a. and the Spotted Cat Music Club, both on Frenchmen Street.
“I believe in free, because what I’m giving people is not mine,” Bushman said. “I don’t sell it to them. It’s our history and our culture.”
This belief in free is what connected NOLA Jitterbugs to the French Quarter Festival, where the group will perform with Bushman’s band, the Speakeasy Trio Quartet. They will take everyone through the basic history of dance, in what Bushman calls “not a dance lesson—but a lesson about dancing.”
NOLA Jitterbugs explores both tradition and innovation.
“There are people that say that if you don’t do the balboa in a specific way, then you’re not doing the dance,” Bushman said. “That does not foster innovation. It only fosters repetition, which is valuable as a source of preservation, but also detrimental to the spirit of the thing that you’re trying to save.”
Bushman is also trying to keep these dances alive because human interaction and physical touch have been lost in today’s society.
“There has to be healthy, nonsexual physical interaction,” he said.
Having played sports his whole life, he compares swing dancing to baseball and basketball, both of which he still plays.
“Dancing filled the gap for me when I couldn’t play the other sports in college,” Bushman said.
Most recently, the whole NOLA Jitterbugs team was hired to perform in a movie called Elsa & Fred starring Shirley MacLaine and Christopher Plummer, now available on Netflix. The group has two full scenes in the movie.
Along with French Quarter Festival, the NOLA Jitterbugs also have another event coming up called Fleur de Lindy over the weekend of April 9-12. This grandiose dance affair will consist of four parties. Just a few of Fleur de Lindy’s locations include NOLA Spaces, Hotel Nazarene on Iberville, One Eyed Jack’s and the NOLA Jitterbugs’ studio, the Rhythmic Dance Center on St. Claude Avenue.
Of the many hats that Chance Bushman wears, as studio owner and teacher, choreographer and performer, he first and foremost calls himself a social dancer.
“There are only two social dances in human history—one-step and two-step,” he said.
While they are both specific dances with generic steps, Bushman said every dance is a one-step or two-step, or a mixture of both.
“The only thing that changes the way you dance is the music that you dance to,” he said. “The music gives you feel. It gives you style—swing dance is only swing because the music swings.”
Along with swing dancing, Bushman is proficient in other styles such as jazz, tap, lindy hop, the Charleston, balboa and blues.
“The main thing I teach people is how to listen,” he said. “They forget how to listen to the music.”