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The Best Dancers You Have Never Heard Of – Part I

By Caitlin Wellman

Welcome to a regular series of blog posts I’ll be doing on Lindy Hoppers who were influential in our more recent history. As many of you know, the Lindy Hop scene changes very quickly and there are some fantastic dancers you may never have heard of that were big movers and shakers in their day.

I’d like to start with two people who are favourites of mine, both as dancers and people.

Jenn Salvadori and Justin Zillman – Orange County, California

Jenn and Justin began dancing in Southern California in the mid-90s and started dancing together in 1997. At that time the SoCal scene was alive and flourishing. It was a scene filled with live music, creativity, dancing almost every night and regular contests with cash prizes. Memories was the most popular and well known of the venues and was a regular place for Jenn and Justin to dance and later became the hub for the careers of them and others. The scene was so large and so alive with different styles that Jenn, for example, felt the idea of a dance camp or workshop seemed counter-intuitive. It is important to note this is all before the Gap commercial. Swing music and dance hadn’t hit the mainstream yet and despite that, this scene was alive and growing.

Jenn and Justin, with the support of their local community, made their first trek to the East Coast in October 1999 for the American Lindy Hop Championships after winning a regional contest that qualified them for the American Showcase division. They were some of the only dancers from Southern California and previous to that, their only teaching and competition experience had been local. This was the first time people from the Eastern US had ever seen them. It made for an interesting competition experience for everyone, as many of the judges and spectators didn’t know what they were looking at. Some were heavily biased towards “Savoy Style” and discriminated against the aesthetic of the “Smooth Style”. Jenn and Justin rejected these categorizations and wowed many people with their dynamic and musical style.

It was over the Christmas holidays that year that I got to know them as dancers and as people. Myself, along with some others of members of Minnie’s Moochers decided to go to Hop the Millennium in Ensenada, Mexico for the millennium change. My parents, a friend and I decided to go early and visit SoCal where Peter Loggins made sure we were well taken care of. We were introduced to Jenn and Justin and they took us dancing at Memories several times and introduced us to as many people as possible so we could get to know the scene. It was while we were there that our eyes were opened to new ways of dancing. After that trip, Jenn and I stayed in touch very closely and I got to watch their career take off. I even spent two months living with them and learning from them in the fall of 2000 and got to watch their careers advance first hand.

Over the next few years they were some of the main pioneers that helped bring scenes together as they traveled across the US teaching at and attending different events. By the time ALHC 2000 rolled around, it was a whole different ballgame. The so-called ”Style Wars” were in full swing but Justin and Jenn were some of the folks deconstructing that. They were diligent about teaching good connection and movement and maintaining creative space within the dance, regardless of what you called your style. Jenn reminisces “To be honest, at the time, I didn’t even realize we were doing anything particularly out of the norm.” Looking back, you can see the impact.

Jenn Salvadori and Justin Zillman at ALHC 2000 Classic Division:

The beauty of their “out of the norm” dancing and instruction was that they were entirely unconventional. In an era where everyone’s home was visibly identifiable in their dancing, this was a major feat. One of their marquis moments was when they presented a video that had Dean Collins & Jewel McGowan (Dancing in Buck Privates) and Frankie Manning & Ann Johnson (from Hellzapoppin’) slowed down to the same speed so everyone could watch their swing outs. This was a time when some people were obsessed with the way their favourite Lindy hero did a Swing Out. What surprised everyone upon further investigation – thanks to this video – is that the physics behind both couples’ swing outs (Dean and Jewel, Frankie and Ann) was virtually identical. Justin and Jenn knew this. After countless hours of picking these things apart they would regularly espouse this philosophy. Nobody took it to heart though, until they saw this video and could see it for themselves. I first saw his demonstration in Ithaca but it was played around country, and probably the world, and changed how many people thought about Lindy Hop.

You can see the video here:

After a few years of this, Jenn and Justin decided to pull back from traveling. During all this time traveling for teaching, competing and judging they had full time jobs and life on the road made that tough. Another thing that could be said was a factor in their leaving was the advent of easily accessible digital technology. Jenn noted “I really started to pull back when I noticed cameras were much more present and much more integrated into everything”. The nature of dancing was changing and it was easy to feel like you were on the spot constantly. This can be stressful and a struggle for many dancers of that generation, myself included. But as Jenn mentions as well, “it is both a blessing and a curse”, sometimes you can be glad something recorded, in retrospect and it might be a fond memory of the past.

When I asked Jenn if there was anything she wanted to tell dancers now, I loved her response. I think it is best to let her say it for herself –

“Justin and I have been pretty polarizing characters in our dance history. Honesty and integrity are very important to me…I’ll say this to the people I have had the privilege of seeing / dancing with; the things you’re all doing now, are leaps and bounds more technically sound than pretty much any of the generations that have preceded you (lets leave the old timers out of this). I would just love to see someone strip it all down and really dance their ass off…Also, not everyone should teach. There’s such a push to be a teacher now and that’s only lending to over-saturating the market and the dumbing down of so many important elements of this dance and nobody wants that. And finally, for the followers, claim your space! Own it! You are not something that’s just there to make the lead look prettier. Of course just by being there you do, but you have a voice too and I would love to see and hear it.”

In short, these are two dancers who, though have been out of the spotlight for some time, have knowledge that should be shared and listened to. Their cumulative experience adds up to several decades and their story is a special one. Their skill as dancers and understanding of music is highly respectable, even if they have never been heard of by a large portion of the dance population. I encourage you the check them out as much as one cane and please tune in here regularly as over the next while I will cover others like them – the best dancers you’ve never heard of.

Jenn Salvadori and Alex Dryer at ALHC Pro-Am Division 2002:

Justin Zillman and Giselle Anguizola at Camp Hollywood Showcase Division 2014:

Many thanks to Jenn Salvadori for providing details.

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