Alive and Kicking

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Alive and Kicking  (2017)    Magnolia/Documentary    RT: 88 minutes    No MPAA rating (mature themes, brief nudity, suggestive description of a type of dancing)    Director: Susan Glatzer    Screenplay: Susan Glatzer and Heidi Zimmerman    Music: Steven Argila    Cinematography: John MacDonald    Release date: April 14, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Evita Arce, Stephen Sayer, Chandrae Roettig, Emelie DecaVita, Rebecka DecaVita.

 

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DISCLAIMER: No special effects were used in Alive and Kicking. The dancers perform all their own moves and stunts; everything you see happening on-screen is the real deal. They are trained professionals; please don’t try any of it on your own.

 However, if you’re a swing dancing enthusiast, like the people in Susan Glatzer’s kinetic documentary Alive and Kicking, you probably know what you’re doing so have at it. I’m strictly an observer who finds this form of dance fascinating. It’s wild, energetic and largely improvised. It has a loyal following of folks who either teach it or participate in competitions around the world. To think, it all began in Harlem during the Great Depression. In a time when so many people were down and out, spirits were lifted albeit briefly by a night of swing dancing at a nightclub. Its popularity waned after WWII because people were more focused on starting families and putting the events of the past decade and a half behind them. It enjoyed a revival in the mid-90s after the trifecta of the movies Swing Kids (1993) and Swingers (1996) and one of a series of Gap commercials featuring impossibly beautiful young people dancing. It’s still a thing today.

 alive-and-kikingFor me, the most interesting aspect of Alive and Kicking is the historical stuff. For example, we learn about the Savoy, the only nightclub in 1930s Harlem that allowed blacks and whites to dance together. Most of the movie, however, focuses on the present. We meet a few people, like adoptive sisters Emelie and Rebecka DecaVita who gave up careers as psychotherapists to become full-time swing dancers, a profession that doesn’t pay much but is more therapeutic than any amount of hours on a couch. We meet an Iraqi War vet who tells us how swing dancing helped him with his PTSD (he was suicidal). We also hear from a couple of old swing vets, Frankie Manning and Norma Miller (who both appeared in 1941’s Hellzapoppin’), both in their 90s and as spry as ever. Manning died in 2009, this is the last filmed footage of him; Glatzer seamlessly works it into Alive and Kicking.

 The dancing in Alive and Kicking (and there’s plenty of it) is very impressive. It’s a craze that’s gone global since its 90s revival. It’s very big in South Korea. We learn that its devotees are like a large family. When somebody suffers a broken neck as a result of a dance rehearsal injury, they all come together in support of this person. Glatzer also looks at the bigger picture; that is, how in the social media age when everybody has become so disconnected, swing dancing allows people to connect in an immediate and intimate way. Somebody compares each three-minute dance to a relationship that begins and ends with the song.

 For the most part, Alive and Kicking is an interesting film. It takes you inside a subculture that’s larger than you think. It shows how happy and content the people are on and off the dance floor. It’s the dancing that gives it its energy. There are different kinds of swing dancing; Alive and Kicking focuses mainly on the Lindy Hop in which couples throw each other around at high speeds. What’s amazing about it is that the dancers make it up as they go along. They know the moves but in contests they don’t know what song will be played until the music starts. Then, it’s anything goes. Watching it is even tiring. I would have liked more historical-type stuff, more old footage, but that’s just me. Glatzer, a former studio exec at Paramount making her first movie, is a swing dance enthusiast herself making Alive and Kicking a true labor of love. Believe me, it shows. 

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