Along the Highway

Swinging is Their Life
By Jon DeCarmine

Mike dances with Kris, who learned how about the same time as Julie Anne, whose partner now is Chris. He's the instructor. Anton learned with Mandy, who makes the clothes, and Krista organizes everything.

Friendship can be such an elaborate dance.

Just ask the Ghetto Productions kids, usually found panting and hysterical after a set of swing dancing, wherever, whenever.

By some mix of serendipity and genius, this group of about 20 Jacksonville dancers, age 16 to 32, is beginning to rake in cash doing what its members would pay to do anyway - swing-dancing almost every night, at clubs from Savannah, Ga., to Gainesville.

Think they're excited about it? You have three guesses and none of them count.

The recent upsurge in the popularity of swing is nothing unfamiliar. It's been written about, talked about, filmed and interpreted. But that's all meaningless. You have to witness a club full of passionate dancers - sober, well-dressed, courteous and of all ages - to get a real taste.

When Anton VanBuskirk, suited up for a 1930s prom, says swinging is his life, a listener might nod vacantly. But when the 19-year-old, full-time pizza delivery boy is on the floor with eyes closed and a girl in the air, words are superfluous.

It's like that with everybody in the 10-month-old Ghetto Productions. This eclectic stew of students, clerks, food delivery folk, etc., met while swing-dancing throughout Florida. They became fast friends from being at the same clubs at the same time for the same reason.

In February, some clubs began paying them to dance and teach. It's easy to see why: In vintage threads, tossing their partners skyward, the Ghetto dancers give an authentic swing-era vibe to any modern club. These dancers are mind-blowingly good.

So is it a business, or what?

"More like a group of friends," answered 21-year-old University of North Florida student Mike Masino.

Business cards have been printed. The group has traveled as far north as Savannah to teach. They've performed as a community service in places like Jacksonville's St. Catherine's Laboure Manor. They've taught lessons in Jacksonville YMCAs, and eight were hired by the photo company Superstock this spring for a photo shoot.

"When people hire us to dance, it's a business," said Mandy Rowe, an original member.

The name Ghetto Productions has some history behind it. Fancy flips and spins are part of a style called "ghetto," as opposed to the stricter, less exuberant ballroom steps one learns in formal lessons. The name popped up at a contest in January. Adam Schulz and Heather Isaac, a Ghetto Productions couple, were tearing up the dance floor. Their friends began chanting, "ghetto." The couple won $200 and the name, Ghetto Productions, stuck.

Krista Strand, an associate director at the YMCA by day, is the engine behind this accelerating machine, as well as general organizer: Who can do what on what days.

First a dancer and "mother hen," Strand hatched into manager status after Ghetto Productions was paid to teach and dance at the City Market club in Savannah in February.

After work, the owner of a Kentucky club who wanted to know if the troupe was out for hire approached her. Strand got the ball rolling. What was initially a cluster of acquaintances with a similar passion changed into a very loose, informal dance company. Strand wrote down everybody's names and telephone numbers. She also got in touch with area swing disc jockeys such as Catharsis and bands such as Dead Man's Hand. When Strand hears about potential gigs, she lets them know, and vice versa.

Catharsis, 28-year-old Scott Petersen, met Strand and Buck gradually at the Ritz in Jacksonville Beach. He's the house DJ on swing Wednesdays. The burgeoning friendship turned professional when Strand asked him to spin at Savannah for a Valentine's Day tour de force.

Petersen is drawn to the drug-free, wholesome swing environment, much like the dancers. He described them as "a traveling dance group." Ghetto Productions is a group of friends that organized one of their passions into marketable merchandise, he declared.

"They've been instrumental to supporting the swing scene," Petersen said. "If there's a swing night in Jacksonville, they're there."

The Ghetto Productions presence is felt and appreciated by club owners as well as swing musicians.

Johnny Balbastro, co-owner of the Moto-Java on Hendricks Avenue near downtown Jacksonville, tends the bar while the dancers "get people enthusiastic." They're the ones who come in decked up in costumes. Ghetto members look the part as well as being good dancers.

"They really help out with the club," Balbastro said. "They care about the club. They're good people."

Ghetto Productions dancers pass up alcohol while they're dancing, which is part of the multi-generational appeal of the swing scene. These dancers disdain alcohol for the effect it has on their coordination, a rather integral part of dancing. The trust that's developed for dazzling flips can easily be broken by a couple of drinks.

"We can't dance if we're drinking," said Julie Anne Hoffert, her bright green eyes flashing up from a can of Coca-Cola. They prefer "lots of caffeine."

With the absence of alcohol, much of the violence associated with late nights in clubs disappears. The dancers pride themselves on proper manners and extravagant dress. The men walk the ladies to the dance floor with arms linked, and a kiss on the hand follows a good performance.

Several of the Ghetto Productions women said they no longer accept the testosterone and tension of regular clubs. At places like the Moto, a girl can dance with a stranger and not fear sexual insinuation.

"I'm not comfortable going into normal clubs any more," Rowe said.

Her statement was greeted with a chorus of "me too's" and "that's rights."

Clumped outside of Moto-Java on Saturday night, about 10 Ghetto Productions early birds waited for their friends to arrive. The atmosphere was festive. Shoe-talk was pervasive.

Most of the dancers have been swing-dancing for at least six months or a year, more than enough time to accumulate suits and footwear from a past generation. The talk is quick and a throwback to the days of the Lindy Hop and big bands. The shoes are two-tone and subject to scrutiny.

Rowe pranced in from the parking lot flaunting her latest creation, a cream dress with peach flowers. Rowe, who hopes to pursue a career in fashion design, has sold six dresses via Ghetto Productions, made on commission. The $100 price covers expensive materials.

After enjoying the congratulations and the that's-so-cute's, she bent over and flipped up her skirts. Underneath, satin-like pink bloomers glittered in the neon. Designed for the inevitable flare of the hem, they are much like the bottom half of a bikini: made to be seen.

When a friend asks her about the creation of the dress, Rowe smiles modestly and dismisses the subject with, "Only a few hours, thanks to the pattern I had." But later, she admits that in this case, "only a few hours" was actually a few days. She had worked on the dress anywhere from six to 10 hours a day, Monday to Thursday, to have it ready for this weekend. The pattern she had just happened to be one she had drawn in no less than nine hours, after six attempts that sometimes ended up in crumpled wads of paper streaked with tears. She concedes that not all the dresses she makes get this attention, but tonight, every stitch exudes pride.

The tight friendships in Ghetto Productions were clear as day in the pre-dance socializing. New arrivals were jumped on in a frenzy of hugs and compliments. Small factions would break off and practice moves, then return with great hilarity. Buddies fretted over recently belly-up swing clubs, set up dates to dance out of town, talked shoes and talked music.

"All of our favorite bands are dead," Rowe giggled.

Chris Buck, a University of Florida graduate who wants to make swing instruction his life, is one of Ghetto Productions' founding fathers. Tall and lanky, he teaches swing Wednesday nights at the Ritz.

He wrapped up the Ghetto Productions' motivation.

"It's like very gently harnessing what we do naturally, which is hang out and swing," he said.

At which point an out-of-breath friend exploded through the club doors, hair disheveled.

"Will someone come in here and dance with me?" he begged.

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