Energetic hoofers got that 'Swing!'

Broadway cast talks about its high-octane act

When Ryan Francois picks up Jenny Thomas and throws her into the air - almost as if she's being hurtled out of a cannon - and then gracefully catches her, the two swing dancers in the hit Broadway musical "Swing!" rarely miss a beat.

After all, Ryan and Jenny, who are also husband and wife, have been swing dancing together since 1994. They won the American Swing Dance Championships three years later in 1997.

"She doesn't have to catch me, thankfully!" Mr. Francois laughs heartily in a Monitor interview along with other "Swing!" cast members.

But dancing in a large show has special challenges of its own for both the best competition-level swing dancers as well as veteran Broadway hoofers.

For one thing, "I don't think either the Broadway dancers or the swing dancers realize the level of energy that it takes to do eight shows a week," says Robert Royston, another dancer in "Swing!," who began his career as a championship country-and-western swing dancer.

Francois has the added responsibility of being the associate choreographer of "Swing!," which involves training dancers, who, although they might be chorus-line veterans, are sometimes surprised by swing dancing's sustained demand for high-octane energy.

"What we do with the basic Lindy Hop is turn it into an explosive dance form. I think of it as a 200-meter sprint which is extended out to an 800-meter race," Francois explains. "So you have an explosion of energy that has to sustain itself for a longer period of time than a lot of regular Broadway chorus dancing."

Like the long-running Broadway hit "Smokey Joe's Cafe," which recently closed, "Swing!," which opened last December at the St. James Theatre, has no story line linking the show's largely 1940s song-and-dance numbers.

But unlike "Smokey Joe's Cafe," which had little dancing, "Swing!" is two shows in one.

There are the vintage nostalgia standards, such as "I'll Be Seeing You" and "Cry Me a River," which were sung many years ago by such famous groups as the Andrews Sisters and are now executed by a jazz/pop chorus. These and other songs are juxtaposed and largely overshadowed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett's choreography, which capitalizes on the current growing popularity of 1940s-style dancing. They feature tireless athletic swing and jitterbug dancing.

The good news for the Broadway chorus and swing dancers alike is that after the show opened, the rehearsals were and still are minimal.

"At the moment, now that the show is running, we don't rehearse much at all," says Ms. Thomas, an attractive brunette with a crystal-clear British accent, who was born in Plymouth, England. "We might have two rehearsals a week - for the understudies."

Simply put, a lot of the swing dancing that's done in "Swing!" is really a matter of accelerating one- and two- and three- and four-step Lindy Hop dancing, which is danced together with a partner at great speeds.

The producers of "Swing!" actually came to see Thomas and Francois at the 1997 US Open Swing Dance Championships at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

When they won that competition, the producers went up to the couple afterward and said they were going to put on a Broadway production called 'Swing!" and they wanted them to be involved.

"We sort of said to ourselves, 'Yeah, right!' " Jenny said. "But they did; they called us back, and here we are on Broadway!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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