This past weekend witnessed the Second Annual Big Band Swing Weekend at Acca Shrine Grand Ballroom in Richmond, Virginia.
Dance music performed by Glen Boswick and the Sound of Swing and Joe Enroughty and his Royal Virginians on June 14-15 was simply divine.
Boswick plays the 1940s style swing music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. While Enroughty plays swing style as well, his music and the Royal Virginian orchestra’s name are more closely patterned after Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, one of the top “sweet bands” performing in North America during the mid-twentieth century.
The sweet band genre might be defined as big band swing music, which is smooth enough for ballroom dancing.
Enroughty, 41, is a Richmond native. When asked about how he became interested in the Lombardo sound, given that Guy Lombardo died in 1977, before he was born, Enroughty explained: “I inherited old records from a relative which I used to play. I had never heard of Guy Lombardo and skipped over these recordings until one hot July afternoon and put on a Guy Lombardo Christmas record.”
You might say it was like Christmas for him, inspiring him to found the Royal Virginians to preserve and promote this style of ballroom dance music.
We attended the night the Royal Virginians played in the Moorish revival-style Acca Shrine, currently the largest ballroom in central Virginia. Before the orchestra began and between the first and second sets, choreographer Gwendolyn Glenn and ballroom dance instructor Michael Maul provided basic dance lessons in foxtrot and waltz. Maul came around throughout the evening and helped beginners and taught more complicated styles such as rhumba and merengue to more experienced dancers. During one of the teaching periods, this reviewer spoke with a young couple in their twenties, John Deemy and Alyx Mikelaites, who have of late, according to John, “taken up events to bring us out of our comfort zone:” activities such rugged marathon racing through mud, rock climbing and . . . ballroom dancing!
Once a popular social activity, ballroom dancing today has indeed become an area out of the comfort zone of many people. Deemy and Mikelaites were seen “enjoying the music, the company, and the opportunity to dance freely,” as Mikelaites put it.
By the end of the first set, these new ballroom dancers were dancing like pros. Similarly, by the time the evening ended, this reviewer was able to do a basic waltz and foxtrot, something he had never done before.
In terms of the music performed, dancers swung to swing staples such as Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing,” Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and, of course, Glenn Miller’s epochal “In the Mood.”
Three Guy Lombardo classics, complete with his signature sweet reed sound and muted trumpets, were heard in “Coquette,” “Snuggled on Your Shoulder,” and “Sweethearts on Parade,” the last once covered famously by jazz trumpeter and Lombardo admirer Louis Armstrong. Those who learned their steps during the dance lessons got excellent practice with the waltz “Alice Blue Gown” and the foxtrot “Moonlight in Vermont.” The music stretched into the late 1960s with Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” represented the 1970s with the disco-flavored “Copacabana,” and even dipped into the 80s with “Memory” from the musical “Cats.”
A few 1920s period pieces were heard, such as the bouncy “Lucky Day,” a tune which later became associated with radio programs sponsored by Lucky Strike cigarettes. While the Surgeon General warning and Shrine-ballroom policy precluded guests from smoking Luckies this evening, the era was nonetheless evoked by dancers in 1940s style costumes with suspenders, men in World War II type GI outfits and young ladies in vintage-style dresses, while sporting 1940s hairstyles.
In addition to dancing and dance lessons, the event included having the band and the audience takes part in a live radio show broadcast around the world as part of the “Original Big Band Showcase” program heard on the internet and on many FM stations in the U.S. and the U.K.
Veteran broadcaster Denny Farrell was Guy Lombardo’s last announcer and looks and sounds like he walked straight out of the swing era which is his great love, but he is actually a baby boomer who has also lent his talents as a voice artist to Grateful Dead recordings. As Mr. Farrell poetically explained, this evening of ballroom dancing “recreates the magic of life with a door to yesteryear, which opens to tomorrow.”
Enroughty and his Royal Virginians are on schedule to resume performances in our area in the fall. In the meantime, Glen Boswick and the Sound of Swing will be playing on July 7 and July 28 at Ocean View Beach Park in Norfolk, Virginia.
Closer to home, those wishing to step on the dance floor and go “outside their comfort zone” may do so at the historic Art Deco Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park; Glen Echo’s extensive list of Saturday swing dance events, including dance instruction.