Monthly Archives: May 2011

alhambra ballroom, harlem, usa.

The Alhambra Ballroom was another mainstay swinging dance hall during the 1930s and ’40s.  Frankie Manning, who you’ll remember  from my previous post as the Godfather of Lindyhop, started dancing at the Alhambra as a teenager, before he felt he was good enough for the Savoy. (Millman, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindyhop, 2007)

On Wednesday May 11th, my husband and I attended a Battle of the Bands event at the Alhambra as part of Harlem Jazz Shrines, a week-long event honoring the theaters and jazz history of Harlem. In the tradition of the  famous Chick Webb vs. Count Basie Battle of the Bands at the Savoy in 1938,  this event featured dueling big bands as well as swing dance contests.  The battling bands were George Gee and His Orchestra (same group we had seen at Swing 46 a week prior,  but this time George was off the injured list and snapping out rhythms)  and the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra. They played from 7pm until a little after 11pm to a packed dancefloor and an enthusiastic crowd of dancers and jazz fans.

There were also dance contests: a Jack-and-Jill for individual entrants and a couples contest.  As most of these things go, it was a popularity contest for the flashiest moves, but it was fun to watch and inspiring.  (Although, it was the weirdest Jack-and-Jill I’ve ever seen– there were three more Jacks than Jills, so all but two girls had to dance twice.)  One of the guest judges was, guess who, the great Dawn Hampton who got up during social dancing and solo blues danced by the judges table.

The Alhambra is located on 126th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd (7th Avenue).  We walked some long avenue blocks up 125th Street from the Harlem Metro North train station.  Harlem is definitely still Harlem.  It has its own flavor, a unique blend of cultures and heritage. I saw more than one mural including portraits of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama (and in one case, all four!).

The Alhambra Ballroom is the real deal.  High arched windows, gilded orchestra boxes overlooking the stage and dancefloor. The orchestra boxes provided the best view of the dance competitions.  There were tables draped in white table cloths and food for those who paid, but unlike Swing 46, dining was not the focus of the evening.  From the lobby downstairs, before taking the elevator to the fourth floor, you could tell you were in the right place as a pair of dancers, clad in white, posed for photos.  I knew right off they would be competing later.

Modernity takes its toll.  While repainted and inviting, the room was not as grandiose as in the picture above.  The ballroom is now carpeted for weddings and conventions.  They had to import a square patch of smooth oak dancefloor, which was barely large enough to contain the pulsing mass of dancers who took the stage before and after the dance competitions. The social dancers overran the floor to the extent that some people were charlestoning on the low-pile carpet.

What I loved about the Alhambra was seeing people of all ages, all ethnicities, all styles.  There were some talented seniors–immaculately dressed with amazing hats–who had probably been there along with Frankie Manning and Norma Miller in 1938 when Ella Fitzgerald “competed” against Billie Holiday.  Dancing on a crowded floor takes some skill, and my ankles were bruised by the end of the night, but I didn’t care.  I had some great dances with people I’d never seen before and enjoyed the dance competitions and the music.  It was odd to dance to songs by George Gee’s band that I’d heard just the week before at Swing 46  in an entirely different environment.  Some of the more intimate lounge songs didn’t work as well in a huge, brightly lit ballroom; however, the bands both made up for that with rousing, continuous music.  In a way, with bands like Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway playing a regular repertoire every night, the dancers in the Big Band era would have been hearing the same songs over and over as well.

The best thing about this Harlem Jazz Shrines event was that, unlike Swing 46, it felt completely genuine and real.  Although the retro and nostalgia element was undeniably there, this was a living, breathing event.  Active jazz aficionados of all ages came for the music.  Active dancers came for the competition, the social dancing, and the music.  It wasn’t a celebration of a bygone era but a celebration of an American legacy that continues to be alive, somewhere, in Harlem, USA.

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empowered patience

Fittingly, I’m reading a book on patient empowerment while I patiently await the delivery of a three-month supply of medication. This book was recommended by a former college classmate who graduated a few years ahead of me. I looked up to her in many ways: she is the only person I have ever allowed to straighten my hair, for example. (I trusted her because her hair was curly and “big” exactly like mine).  She has dealt with medical challenges/tragedies in her family and personal life that I could relate to.  Now she’s married to her college sweetheart, has two adorable kids, and blogs on Contentedly Crunchy about motherhood, politics, and being green.  “Crunchy” recently wrote an insightful review of the book The Empowered Patient,  and I checked it out of the library based on her recommendation.

My review of “The Empowered Patient”

As someone with a chronic illness, I’ve already learned many of the lessons in Elizabeth Cohen’s book on my own (don’t leave the doctor’s office with unanswered questions, prepare yourself for battle with insurance companies, ask for generic drugs instead of expensive brand-names), but it was nice to have some of the techniques I’ve had to learn since my diagnosis with Crohn’s Disease in 2002 validated by a health expert (albeit one from CNN News).

The biggest lesson I took  from the book:  be a “bad” patient.  That means it’s ok to switch doctors if you feel yours doesn’t listen to you, isn’t taking your symptoms seriously, or isn’t exploring alternative options you’ve heard about from legitimate sources.  While I don’t always care for Cohen’s insider self-help tone and occasional doctor bashing, I think much of her advice is solid.  It’s not quackery.  As a librarian, I found Cohen’s chapter on using the Internet for health research particularly validating.  She does a good job of telling readers how to “Go Beyond Google” and recommends excellent sites like PubMed, Medline Plus, and American Association for Cancer Research.  Cohen touches upon the dangers of seeking too much medical advice online, which she cleverly dubs “cyberchondria.”  I have been guilty of cyberchondria myself.  It’s important not to freak yourself out by reading the horror stories of other patients or convincing yourself you have a rare disease you learned about on WebMD based on common symptoms.  Despite this warning, it’s in my job description believe that knowledge is power.  I have been in situations where doctors have dismissed information from “the Internet” because they think I’m trying to do their job for them.  And maybe I am… but it’s also my job as a librarian, and as a patient, to be informed about my own body.

Losing battles

There are some battles, though, that even the most empowered patients can’t win.  I often wonder how people without college degrees manage to navigate our woefully obtuse health care system at all.  Cohen optimistically chooses not to linger on this aspect of our system in her book. (She also makes the assumption that “fighting” an illness and “saving a life” is always the best course of action. Philosophically, I’m not sure that’s true in every case.)  Anyway, losing battles tend to be the battles with pharmaceutical companies.

Why am I at home at 3:30pm instead of working at the library?  Because I’m waiting for FedEx to deliver a three-month’s supply of the insanely expensive, please-refrigerate medication that keeps my Crohn’s Disease in check.

This drug has worked for me since 2008 with little to no side effects (knock on wood).  My relationship with this medication has seen me through three cities, three gastroenterologists,  four insurance companies, and three prescription drug formularies.  I’ve paid $15 a month, $45 a month, and now $6.67 a month for this drug– which costs anywhere from $1,000-$1,600 a month without insurance.  Imagine paying that much money for the privilege of giving yourself an injection every 2 weeks!  The cost of this medication is the single biggest reason why I shelled out $667 per month in COBRA premiums to avoid becoming uninsured while I was changing jobs.  $667 is a lot of money, but it’s less than $1,600.

But the meds work.  On this drug (which shall remain nameless. I don’t want my blog turning up on a cyberchondriac’s Google search), I can live a normal, uninterrupted, pain-free, healthy life.  I can be a productive member of society who works 40 hours a week and pays taxes like everybody else.  I can pay for my insurance, via my employer, thanks to this drug, which is the reason I need insurance in the first place (vicious cycle, ain’t it?).

This drug is the single biggest reason why I support Universal Health Care in this country. Why should any drug cost $1,600 a month? Why should different people pay different prices for the same medicine?  And why should I, as a person with a genetic chronic disease, have to pay more to remain healthy than somebody with luckier genes or with a more “popular” illness like asthma and diabetes?

Jumping off my soapbox and back onto the sofa… I am waiting for my shipment of the wünder medication.  I’ve had to take the afternoon off work so I can be home to sign for the package and put it in the refrigerator right away.  Why don’t I just go to the pharmacy?  Well, my insurance here in NY requires me to go through a specialty pharmacy to get this drug, not because it’s dangerous or rare but because it’s expensive.  The specialty pharmacy forces me to get my medication by mail order (my prior insurance in WI let me pick it up every month at Walgreens).  Yes, I save money by doing a three-month prescription, but do I save time?  Not remotely. With Walgreens, all I had to do was refill my Rx with their automated phone system and pick it up on my way home from work.  With the specialty pharmacy, I have to schedule a drop off and make calls to 1-800 numbers several times to ensure it’s delivered correctly.

This is complicated by the fact that I work 40 hours a week, during regular business hours, which are also the delivery hours.  So basically I have to take a sick day just to wait for my medicine– a sick day I should be saving in case I have a Crohn’s flare-up and really need it!  (The vicious cycle returns! I take a sick day to avoid getting sick.)  Another complicating factor: UPS and FedEx are notorious for not delivering packages to my apartment.  Now, the external door to my building does not have a buzzer.  This is a problem I’ve addressed with the landlord, but management doesn’t want to fix it.  The postman has a key and is able to come in to drop off our mail every day  in our mailboxes, yet UPS and FedEx don’t have access. Still, is this my problem?  Is it my fault that my building has no doorbell?  I guess I should’ve rejected a perfectly nice apartment because–clairvoyantly– I should’ve predicted my new insurance (which didn’t kick in until 40 days after I started my job) would force me to get home delivery of my medication.

My husband was home this morning, so he waited to sign for the package.  I had explicitly told the specialty pharmacy to have the delivery person call our landline because we don’t have a doorbell.  A few hours later, I got a call from the specialty pharmacy saying that “no one was home” at 10 am when FedEx attempted the delivery.  This was an untruth.

What is an empowered patient to do?

  • Politely but relentlessly state demands and displeasure to the Specialty Pharmacy.  Check. √
  • Reschedule delivery and provide, once again, my landline and cellphone (which they already had) and instructions on how to call, knock, and generally do their job.  Check. √
  • Leave work early to ensure my meds end up in my refrigerator and not in some packaging warehouse. Check. √
  • Demand my insurance company let me get it at Walgreens like I used to?   I tried.  It’s a “Policy.” They won’t.  I’ve worked for AIG and I know that the pedantry of insurance companies is the Eighth Deadly Sin.
  • Convince insurance companies and FedEx that some people–even “sick” people– have lives and not all of us can be at home on a weekday.  Who has the time or energy to fight that battle?

Back on my soapbox

In the end, I just want to live as normally as possible.  That means a life where taking medication is part of my routine but isn’t my entire identity.  This means a life where I don’t have to think about doctors and medication 24/7.  Waiting at home when I should be at work is not a welcome “day off” or “mental health day.”  It just reminds me all the more that I have a chronic illness.  Every time I have to stop everything to call an insurance company or make sure my medication is delivered on time, it’s like the world is saying: “You are sick. You have an incurable disease. Don’t forget now: you’re not normal.”

And in the USA, where insurance is a privilege not a right, I can’t help but take it personally when people speak derisively of “Obama Care” and snarkily refer to Planned Parenthood, Medicaid, and Social Security as “entitlement programs,” as if good health is something Robin Hood has been stealing from the rich.   I’m not saying someone else should be responsible for paying for all my co-pays or waiting for FedEx to deliver my medication.  I’m just asking: why should all the responsibility fall on the patient–who is sick through no fault of her own– to pay such a high price for her health?  If we had a more fair, nonprofit health care system and doctors who were less overworked, a book like “The Empowered Patient” might not even be necessary.

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My favorite graffiti on the bathroom wall in the library got painted over, so I’m posting it here. Cyber Graffiti:

you don’t love someone with the hope

that they will love you back,

you love someone with the hope

that they will know they are loved.


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“when i die, if i go to heaven, i want it to be just like the savoy.”

Savoy Ballroom Marquee

Savoy Ballroom Marquee

What happened to the Savoy?

Located between 140th and 141st Street on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom, mecca of the Lindy Hop, closed its doors in 1958 and was torn down to make room for a housing complex (New York Times, 2006)Frankie Manning, the godfather of the Lindy Hop, said of the ballroom:

“When I die, if I go to Heaven, I want it to be just like the Savoy.”

–Frankie Manning (2007) from Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, p. 74

The spirit of the Savoy is alive in many cities, big and small, across America and the world. Swing dancer subcultures are thriving from Canada to Australia, from Sweden to Singapore.  The Savoy Spirit was alive in Hales Gym at Oberlin College, where I first learned to dance. It was alive at a beautiful dance hall in Barcelona where I took classes with Steven Mitchell and Freida Segerdahl and danced with people from Russia, Ireland, Spain, France, and Germany. It was alive in Québec at the first Québec Swing Rendez-Vous, with bilingual dancers swinging out in the Citadel Officer’s Club on a snowy day during the Winter Carnaval.  It was alive at the Sunday Tea Parties at Studio Hop in Toulouse, France. The Christmas lights strung around the room made a Sunday afternoon in a dance studio seem like a Saturday night at a swing club in Harlem. The mirrors made the room look endless, and you felt that even when the music stopped, your reflection would go on dancing.  The tea, biscuits, and “gateaux” made the Tea Parties friendly and informal, just old friends getting together to jam.

The Savoy Spirit is simply this:  people who love swing dancing and jazz music getting together to jam, mingle, maybe drink, share moves, and social dance just for the sake of dancing, at a regular venue.  While the glamor of the Savoy Ballroom is long gone, there are plenty of places across the world where dancers go regularly–every week or sometimes every night–to lindy.

The one place Savoy lindy hopping is not alive, sadly, seems to be New York City.  There is Frim Fram, of course.  Frim Fram is New York’s version of Studio Hop (Toulouse) or Dance Fabulous (Madison) or countless other dance schools trying to create a night club atmosphere for weekly or monthly dances. The studio-turned-ballroom succeeds or fails to varying degrees. Sadly, many U.S. cities long ago lost a dancing culture. In towns where night clubs are about hip hop not lindy hop, serious swing dancers make do with dance schools converted into dance parties.  Fortunately, dancers in many cities are able to take advantage of old swing-era theaters, university ballrooms, and dance halls like Bohemian Hall (Cleveland) or  The Grand Ballroom (Chicago) on special occasions.  Most swinging cities also hold weekly swing nights in bars or lounges.  So it’s odd to me that Frim Fram, a dance studio, is the only place to dance in New York if you’re serious about Lindy, according people serious about Lindy.

In New York City, city of night clubs, city of jazz, city that never sleeps, there is not a single regular commercial venue to be haven and heaven to the swing dancers.  There used to be lounges, ballrooms, and theaters every other block, especially in Harlem. There was the Savoy of course, but also the Cotton Club (where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway played to a white audience), the Renaissance, and the Alhambra Ballroom (Archives of Early Lindy Hop, 2004). There were top bands playing every day of the week. Frankie Manning, George “Shorty” Snowden, Norma Miller, and Frieda Washington would be out dancing every night.  The Savoy was their home. They practiced there. They stole moves from others there. They listened to Count Basie, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald. Frankie improvised to Chick Webb, and Frankie danced with Ella Fitzgerald. (Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, 2007)

Today, in New York City, you can find jazz music every night. You can find blues, bebop, and swing. But you can’t go out and reliably dance to it.  Two nights ago, my husband and I went to Swing 46 on (surprise, surprise) W. 46th Street.  It was a Friday, so we figured it would be busy. I didn’t know what to expect, but I definitely expected more dancers to be there.  And by dancers, I mean lindyhoppers. I don’t mean people who do ballroom and happen to know foxtrot or jive. I don’t mean people, like the vivacious girl with bright red lipstick in the strapless Marilyn Monroe dress, who came to celebrate her birthday by doing something different and “authentically New York.”  I mean real dancers.

You can tell a serious dancer by their shoes. First of all, dancers enter a club with a special bag for their shoes. They never wear street shoes on the floor.  Nowadays, men who are into swing dancing typically wear white Aris Allen swing shoes. Black-and-white spectators are still floating around, but they were more popular in the early 2000s. If the Aris Allens are scuffed a little and have lost a little of their shine, that’s preferable, but even if they are out-of-the-box new, you know a dancer is wearing them. (This isn’t a hard and fast rule.  A good friend of mine–an excellent dancer and instructor–often dances in Birkenstocks).

For women, any heels are suspicious. If the high-heels are flexible and low enough to be actual ballroom shoes, then that’s a sign of a dancer, but not a lindyhopper per se. These could also be the feet of a salsa or ballroom aficionado out to practice some East Coast swing.  Spectator pumps are a good indication of a female swing dancer, but women’s swing shoes come in many varieties: Mary-Janes, Keds, dance sneakers, peep-toe wedges, retro bowling shoes, flats with ankle straps, character shoes.  If you get a peek at the soles, make sure they are chrome suede.  I have a pair of black Aris Allen canvas Mary-Janes. They’re not much to look at, but with six years of wear on my chrome leather soles, a newer, flashier pair just won’t dance the same. Women’s swing shoes are almost never the fashion high-heels you can buy at DSW or Payless. If they’re shiny, platform, ill-fitting, rubber-soled, boots, open-toed, or more than an two inches high, they are not swing shoes and the feet in them do not belong to a lindyhopper.

Looking around at Swing 46, on Restaurant Row (West 46th Street), I saw a lot of the wrong kind of shoes.  There were a lot of men in suits that were too big for them and women in low-cut tight dresses made of non-stretchy, non-breathable fabric. Before I saw the evidence on the dance floor, I knew these people were not there to dance.  They were there to think they were at a swing dance.  Each couple stuck with their partner, all night.  It was tourists, a smattering of ballroom enthusiasts, and excited young people wishing they were in another era but not wishing strongly enough to actually learn the steps.  The experienced dancers had chosen not to come.

Not only was the communal lindy hop practice of mingling and trading partners lacking, there was also nowhere to sit.  If you weren’t paying for the expensive dinner-and-swing-band experience, you couldn’t sit next to the dance floor or the band.  If you were just a dancer (having paid just a $15 cover charge) you had to sit by the bar in another room.  We were asked by at least three staff members to move at various points in the evening:  “This table is just for people eating dinner, you can sit at the bar.”  “These seats are for the band.  You can scoot down.”

In the final instance, a waiter picked up the cocktail table in front of us and moved it over, so the musicians could have their 10:00 meal during a band break.  At first we sat on a long, white leather bench across from the bar where the bartender was violently wrestling with a martini shaker.  The light was suitably low.  The night club atmosphere was oozing out of the place with neo-swing Harry Connick Jr. schmaltz.  It would have been a very nice club– except you couldn’t see the band or the dancers from the bar.  The management had remedied this problem by installing a closed circuit TV showing you who was dancing and what you were missing.  Watching lindy on TV from another room is not in the Spirit of the Savoy.

At the Savoy, the dance floor was the thing.  It was smooth.  It was huge.  It was bordered by booths and tables.  You could sit or you could dance.  Those were the two options.  And if you were sitting, anyone could come over and ask you to dance.  Dancers were not separated from diners or relegated to a back room if they needed to take a seat.  While there were jam circles and performances by groups like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, dancing was not a spectator sport.  At the Savoy, “you had to be able to dance” (Bill London, New York Times, 2006).

Eventually, after the dinner hour had elapsed, we snagged a small table by the dance floor and ordered something to drink. The band at Swing 46, a regular Tuesday and Friday group there, was quite good.  It was George Gee and His Orchestra, who I first saw at PittStop in 2004 in Pittsburgh, PA and who is widely known in the swing world. Unfortunately, George Gee, the “only Chinese-American swing band leader” wasn’t there (George Gee Bio, 2011).  He’d hurt a finger and was on the mend.  Although I was sad to miss George Gee’s animated conducting, his band did fine without him.  The lead singer John Dokes had what my husband called “a classic American Look.” In a camel-colored suit with camel-colored Vans slip-ons (an increasingly popular alternative to white Aris Allens), John Dokes crooned into a silver microphone. His voice was smooth and classy.  He could have been any jazz singer in the 1930s or 1940s singing “Muddy Water” and “Route 66”– until he threw in a fresh jazz interpretation of “Walk On By.”

We had a great seat to appreciate the music now, and we would be damned if we would let this opportunity–or our $15 a pop cover charge– go to waste. We found our seat just in time to see singer John Dokes dance with Dawn Hampton, an 83-year-old performer and lifelong dancer.  She moved her hips with the smallest articulations.  She was sassy and coy.  Every shoulder roll or swizzle of her hips was perfectly in time with the music.  Even though she was tiny and a little hunched over, she could move better than anyone in the room, with the possible exception of her partner Mr. Dokes.  The crowd went wild.

When John and Dawn took their seats again, the modest dance floor absorbed its largest crowd of the night.  People were inspired.  My husband and I danced in front of the band to “Muddy Water,” and he almost swung me into the saxophonist.  But after the enthusiasm sparked by Dawn Hampton has fizzled, the dance floor washed out again.  Nobody crossed the room to ask a stranger to dance.  This was not a haven for swing dancers. This was not the paradise Frankie Manning remembered. The guy with the white Aris Allens took off his shoes a little after 11:00 in the universal lindy signal of a night that is over. My heart sank a little.  I couldn’t ask him now, and there was nobody left to dance with who was wearing the right shoes.

By the end of the night, I’d had a pleasant evening with my husband.  I’m sure the other patrons of Swing 46 enjoyed themselves too. I know some of the guests at lipstick girl’s birthday party will probably go home thinking “We should do that again.” Maybe they’ll take some more classes and eventually find their way to Frim Fram on Thursday nights.  But right now, I don’t have time to wait for them.  My husband and I had a fun date at Swing 46, but we had not gone lindyhopping. We had not channeled the spirit of the Savoy, save for a few inspired songs and of course, seeing the inspirational Dawn Hampton.

We’ll go back to Frim Fram Thursdays and try to make more connections in the New York City lindy community.  But I’m still looking for a modern day Savoy.  I’d like to think that when I find it, whatever city it’s in, that’s when I’ll know I’m home.

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french word of the day: arnacoeur

A student came to the library today looking for the film “L’Arnacoeur.”  You’ll notice that on IMDB the English title is “Heartbreaker.”  Considering the premise (“Alex and his sister run a business designed to break up relationships. They are hired by a rich man to break up the wedding of his daughter. The only problem is that they only have one week to do so.”)  Heartbreaker is not a bad translation of the title.  Or is it?

When the student showed me the title of this movie, scribbled on her hand, it sounded weird to me.  To understand why, you need to know that there’s this French part of my brain that activates abruptly at the slightest hint of a francophone syllable.

“Really?  I thought it was spelled with a  Q?”  thought the French half of my brain.

Actually, I always thought it was harnaqueur for some reason, adding an H in my mind as in Harlot or Hawker (but of course the H would be silent, I reasoned, in French). I’d only ever heard this word pronounced by my husband when he was angry with someone for ripping him off.  I’d never seen it written down.  After the student left, I went to my favorite online French-English dictionary, wordreference. As I suspected, arnacoeur is not a word– or as my professors in France were fond of saying, “Ce n’est pas du francais.”  (This is not French.)

L’arnacoeur is a pun.  It’s a combination of “arnaqueur” (meaning scam artist, swindler) and “coeur” (meaning heart).  Alex and his sister are not accidental  heart breakers, they’re heart swindlers.  A whole nuther level of bad karma.

Of course Heartswindlers doesn’t have the same ring.  It doesn’t sound like another English word.  Arnacoeur and arnaqueur are homophones in French.  Eh alors, traduire c’est trahir.  To translate is to betray.word image

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