Swingin' in the Dark: Gigs From Hell
(sequel to “Swinging for Cash”)
Copyright 1999 Bob Thomas. No reprinting without permission. Send email
Bob Thomas -- 43 Houston Ave, Milton, MA 02186 -- (617) 696-5463

People are always saying, “It must be so much fun to get paid for performing. You’re obviously having so much fun!” Well, it often is fun, much the same way as being good at any job is fun.

But frankly, when we sit around a table with other performers, the gigs everyone wants to talk about aren’t the gigs from heaven, but the gigs from hell. Here follows a few of our personal favorites. Please remember, that we’ve done several hundred gigs in the past few years alone and that these “Gigs From Hell”, thank goodness, were isolated--but very memorable-- experiences. Or else we’d be doing something else besides dancing by now.

How it Usually Starts
 But Agents, on the other hand... Who’s the Guy in White Pants, Governor?
 “What? MEN in the Kamikaze Jitterbugs?”  Suspended Animation on Runway 7
 Pulling the Wings from Clients The Big Apple Cubicle People
 The Music Never Stops To Be Continued...

How it Usually Starts

Usually we get a gig by answering the phone and talking to someone we’ve never met. And sometimes never meet. Perhaps the caller is a member of the general public who has heard of us from someone who knows someone who’s heard of us from someone they know. Or the caller is an agent who has received a mailing I sent out with glamourous photos of us dancing in the dark along with bombastic descriptions and narrowly edited quotes of our work that make Madonna look like a slacker who’d be eager to work with us.
This has to do with the psychology of entertainment agents. We’ll talk more about agents later, but suffice it to say here that many of them have this belief that the best performers are vain, egotistical liars who only perform wildly successful gigs. Presenting yourself this way takes getting used to, but over the years I’ve learned to fake it.

Back to the story. The not-agents-but-friends- of-someone- who-heard-from-someone- who-knows-someone- who-heard- that-we- were-good calls me and asks lots of questions about what we do. Usually they’ll check our site on the internet (www.bobethomas.com -- NB: all of it is true...). I’ll have a conversation with this not-agent and give them various scenarios of how we can work together on the event. And we do and it is a marvelous success much of the time.

But Agents, on the other hand...

But agents, on the other hand, are gloriously busy. They read the large print saying “Dancers... Boston Symphony... Best in the World... Television....God’s honest truth...” and then “file” whatever materials we’ve sent them.

Months or years later the agent is on the phone with a corporate client. The corporate executive says, “I think dancers would be good. You know girls and...” and the agent says, “Oh, yea, why, I, uh, I, uh, I’ve got these terrific dancers. The Kaz-ma-kaz Jitter-buggers, real famous, best in the world, New York Philharmonic, a television series, the whole ball of wax. They’d be great for your ‘Submariner Everest Sales Champions’ at the Hyatt.” Client: “What do they do? A dance show?” Agent: “Oh, yeah, half hour, maybe an hour. I’ll book ‘em for you, they’ll be great. I’ll call you back..”

So I get a phone call. “Bob, this is Beth Anne Marie at BAM Books It agency, and we were wondering about your availability for a dance show on July 7th at the Boston Hyatt. Yeah, we just thought maybe a little thirty or forty minute show with six dancers. How much? Oh. Well, how about a fifteen minute show with two dancers? That much, huh? But you’re good, right? Professionals and everything? Costumes, too? Really? Okay, hold that date, I’ll call you right back.”

Now it’s important to remember that the materials I’ve sent the agent make it clear that The Kamikaze Jitterbugs specialize in period dance from 1920-1960. But agents are busy people. No time to read boring press materials or watch tedious videos... [Note: these stories all took place before the Swing Craze hit Boston. Now we’re doing half as much on our gigs for twice the money, and everyone loves it. A year ago I’d say “swing” and people would look at me like I pimped out a bevy of strippers. Now I say “swing” and people say, “How expensive are you?” And I say, “Very.” And they give me a big bag of cash and we’re all very happy. At least usually. Pretty often. It’s happened once or twice. In the past ten years. Once. Anyway, I was happy. Pretty much. As happy as I get, anyway.]

But I digress. Again. So, the agent calls back the client. “Yes, right. All set. Part of the package. A fifteen minute dance show with two fabulous dancers. What? Oh, sure, right, Vegas quality. Huh? Yeah, girls, absolutely. Oh, yeah, why do you think they call it ‘swing’ dance?”

So I get a call from the agent. “All set. July 7th, fifteen minute show. Two dancers. Be at the Boston Hyatt at 6pm.” After that I might get a contract... or I might not. Most times we go out without a contract, just a verbal commitment over the phone. Even more surprising to me is that out of over 150 shows a year, people hire us 140 times a year sight unseen. My PR is scorchingly good.

“What? There Are MEN in The Kamikaze Jitterbugs?”

An agent, on the basis of a photo sheet I sent out featuring four two-inch photos and a paragraph of PR hyperbole, has contracted for seven dancers to do a twenty minute show. We’re talking decent money here, too. Music is provided by a six-piece band. The night of the gig it’s raining melons and squash from a sky that’s twisted into a dark whirlpool of death. As we drive down the highway I’m on the lookout for the Flying Dutchman ship to float across the bow of my ’86 Camry with 186,000 quality miles under its rudder. I’m pondering, do you wave to the skeletons or just pretend they’re not there? as Idy, my wife and dance partner tries to give me directions read by the flickering dome light.

Finally, after a half hour of meandering on flooded back roads through empty fields somewhere outside of Fall River, we pull up to a huge rusting aluminum (how is that possible!?) warehouse surrounded by a small island of macadem and a miles-wide expanse of rusted junk cars and dried brush and dead trees waving madly in the rain-besotted wind. In short, a wasteland.

We drag our clothes and shoe bags inside where the client (that is, the woman who hired the agent who hired us, none of whom we’d ever met before) sees us and quips, “You’re the dancers? Oh, I didn’t know there were going to be men in your group.” Bad vibes pulse through me like fumes from a ruptured gas line hit by an errant backhoe, but I take a deep breath and my vision quickly clears. A simple misunderstanding. Apparently the agent was too busy to tell the client that we were doing PARTNER dancing with women and MEN.

Rain on the sheet metal roof of the warehouse (maybe the rust was streaking downwards from the roof) sounds like a Salsa festival, and the thin aluminum walls are bowing in and out, creaking and wailing like the Dutchman was docked just outside. Here and there small puddles are forming on the concrete floor, as drops of water fall from the darkness-that-must-be-the-ceiling which is out of sight overhead. From the darkness descend thin wires and a half-dozen fluorescent strip lights, all swaying gently to the torrential Salsa rhythms. In the middle of this dim wash of darkness gleams a small stage, fuzzy pink in the glow of six theatrical par-cans on pipe stands. The stage is filled with band PA equipment, chairs and slow-moving musicians.

A small dance floor cowers meekly in the dimness before the stage. Ambient light during the event will be tiny table lamps. Twenty tiny table lamps. Twenty tiny battery-powered table lamps, each holding two C-cells. And a tiny pointy flashlight bulb. We were going to perform in the glow of twenty tiny points of light.

“Hey,” I said to a lighting tech, “Any chance of getting some light on the dance floor?”

“No one told us about any dancers or dance show. Ask Gary. He’s in charge of the lighting.”

Gary says, “Nope, no one said anything about dancers. We only have six instruments. Maybe I can tilt one of them so some light reflects from the band’s costumes out onto the dance floor below.” I’m not enthused. The band members are dressed in black.

We did our twenty-minute dance show. They liked it. Audiences love watching shadowy figures jump and leap about in near-darkness in front of a well-lit band. And, yes, it was really, really fun.

Pulling the Wings from the Clients: Four dancers and a DJ

Rhode Island Convention Center, Providence, RI. Two hundred Dunkin’ Donut franchise managers locked in a conference room from 9am until 5pm listening to endless sales lectures. Five o’clock, time for... a 1950’s Sock Hop in the Main Ballroom! No spouses, no friends, just 180 men and 20 women. On an August afternoon. I confess, I never even saw it coming.

The Donut managers had numbness in their bottoms and home-sweet-home on their minds. Our Sock Hop was to “relax and entertain” them before they were “allowed” to drive home at eight that night. They were tired, we were stupid. And for three hours we tortured each other. We used every trick in our arsenal of dance torture to thrash the living daylights out of those exhausted people. They did everything they could to avoid having to leave their seats and their glass of beer or wine.

Yes, indeed, they didn’t want to dance. They didn’t want to talk with us. They just wanted to go home. And so, we smiled and danced... with each other... again and again. We led Conga Lines, Stroll lines, did the Electric Slide, the Macarena... with each other. We performed cute 50’s jitterbug numbers.... while bleary-eyed donut makers , with bloodshot eyes sat at their tables, avoiding eye contact with us, afraid we might get the wrong idea and dart over, expecting them to participate... in their own torture.

That was the day we first developed Infinite Referral Participation. A dancer goes up to a table and says, “Who’s sitting at the NEXT table over that we should ask to dance?” Everyone at THIS table turns and stares at the people sullenly nursing drinks at the NEXT table. They confer among themselves while people at the NEXT table fidget nervously, unsure what’s about to happen. Then people at THIS table point at the NEXT table and say, “Jim. He’ll dance. He got drunk at Christmas and danced on a table.” And our dancer walks quickly over to the next table before Jim can escape to the bathroom, and says, “Hi, Jim. I heard you really like to dance.” And Jim’s only out is to desperately confer with HIS tablemates and point out a possible candidate at the next NEXT table over. And so on. It gave “table hopping” new depths of meaning.

Eight pm and the dance inquisition is over. Thirty seconds past eight and the room was empty. Numb from our ordeal, we slowly packed up. Going to the parking garage, three men who’d been at the event stopped and said, “Tough crowd, huh?” We looked at each other and then said in one voice, “Oh, no, it was fun.” “You tried, though,” said another guy. In fear of the truth, we simply nodded. We knew that he knew that we knew that he knew. Whew.

The Music Never Stops

A Newport hotel, just two dancers. Because the band didn’t know “Begin the Beguine”, one of our dance standards, we’d brought along a copy of a “head arrangement.” The “arrangement” was three pages taped together on which were printed just the melody and chords; from this the musicians would improvise the music. The trumpet player draped the music across a music stand and, joined by the guys on sax and trombone, began to play.

So Idy, my partner and I are dancing to “Begin the Beguine.” No big deal. The music is a little shaky maybe, but the audience is pleased (no one was throwing anything) and we’re heading towards the finish. As we prepare for the big lift, there’s a sour note from the trumpeter. I look up at the bandstand and see the trumpet player pointing furiously at the music, one page of which is hanging from the music stand. The guys on sax and trombone are huddled around the music stand shaking their heads “No, no!” The trombonist uses his slide to try and point out a different spot in the music. He hits the music stand. The music dangles precariously and then slowly falls to the floor.

This is happening in slow motion as I pick Idy up into a turning lift. I’m supposed to turn her until the music stops. We’re turning. And turning. And I’m trying to discern what’s happening on the bandstand. Someone leaned over and picked up the music. I think it was the trumpet player, but I’m turning and I’m getting dizzy, so I’m not sure. The musicians are playing a strange pastiche of “Begin the Beguine” and Klezmer music and there is no clear melody anymore.

I decide to cue the musicians. I bring Idy down out of the lift and we hit a pose. They keep playing. We shuffle around a bit and then start doing pivot turns. The trombone player is bleating on his horn and the drummer is playing what sounds like an ending cadence. I stop turning, roll Idy out to my right, roll her into dance position and put her in an oversway. The musicians are trying to find a chord, a something that will serve as an ending. I drop Idy into a shock drop and I roll her out to my right. Again. She rolls back in and I sit on one knee and she sits on the other knee and we look at each other lovingly (we do the best we can, anyway). The drummer hits a rim shot, thumps the bass drum and crashes a cymbal, and the rest of the guys play a wavering chord. The audience loves the image of romance we projected and they applaud us. Idy and I wave regally, flashing smiles left and right, and run off. That night we neglected to acknowledge the band. In fact, that night I never even got the music back. I figured they might need it to practice.

Who’s the Guy in White Pants, Governor?

The mansions of Newport are a favorite party site for political types. Hence the night we were hired to dance and lead participation for the New England States Treasurers’ Conference. The theme was Caribbean. Several weeks in advance I talked with the band leader. “We’re a Caribbean band,” he said, “and we wear white pants and Hawaiian shirts.” Coordination and planning is the name of the game, so I went out and bought a pair of nice white linen pants. sixty dollars and I knew I’d never wear them again, but, hey, I’m a professional.

The night of the gig, Idy and I drove our 1986 Camry with 188,000 miles past the limousines and Cadillacs and Continentals parked in front of the mansion. We drove to the far corner of the parking lot and parked in the dark under an old tree. Walking into the mansion, Idy and I were elegantly casual in Island Attire: lots of pristine white blotted with great blobs of pink and yellow and green and other blazing pastel colors.

The mansion had a foyer that looked down into the ballroom. We stopped in the foyer and admired the crowd. In black-and-white formal dress. We admired the band. In black-and-white formal dress. Long pause as this last fact took hold. Idy and I were clearly off-island on this one. Carefully unobtrusive (usually I’m obviously unobtrusive) I slunk down, put my back to the wall and inched my way around the periphery of the room until I was in front of the bandstand.

I slowly stood to my full height and asked the band leader, “Hawaiian shirts? White pants?”

“Oh, we decided not to stand out,” he said. “We thought we’d look foolish in Hawaiian shirts.” This is God’s honest truth. He actually said to me standing there in my Hawaiian shirt, “We thought we’d look foolish in Hawaiian shirts.” My only thoughts at that instant were of firearms. And how dangerous they are in the hands of a person who’s lost his mind to uncontrollable fury.

There was a long pause. I began breathing again. I told the bandleader what we were going to do during the upcoming dance segment of the evening. Teaching, dancing, teaching, and Conga line to finish. Perhaps I was a bit abrupt. Perhaps I didn’t speak clearly. I’ll never know.

To begin with, I had moderate success. I did a participation segment during which I convinced a hundred white stiff Yankee New England policitos to try the Merengue. They stomped their feet and bobbed their shoulders from side to side (what’s know as “Yankee hip motion”). But I had them smiling. Albeit hesitantly.

Idy and I danced a merengue. They liked that. The temperature in the room went up one degree. They were getting interested. I had a microphone in my hand and was about do a snowball merengue dance led off by Idy when the band cut me off and started playing a Paul Simon tune. Not even a new Paul Simon tune. The crowd looked confused. Then their natural indifference took over and they dispersed to chatter and glasses of scotch on the rocks.

I went up to the bandleader. I berated him. I called him a coward. An idiot. A traitor, a turncoat. An asshole. I think he’d heard it all before. He never even flinched. He held the trumpet in one hand and tried to wave me off with the other. When it became clear I was preparing to use the mike stand to seriously injure him, he shouted at me, “It wasn’t working. I thought we needed a change of pace.” I wondered how hard I could smack the bell of the trumpet with my fist so that his teeth would bend in without actually breaking off. A deep breath and I re-focused and said, “Just play a Conga Line next, and then we’re out of here.” Next stop, Conga.

So we’re leading a Conga line. We thread our way through the ballroom, the dining room, the solarium, the sitting room, the drawing room, the pantry, the coat room, (the bathroom was occupied) until we’re again conga-ing in front of the band. I gesture to the band leader: “Stop.” He pretends not to see me. We circle the ballroom again, and I shout in his face, inches from his endangered trumpet, “Let’s finish!”

His hearing and vision are fine. He sees me, he hears me. But he’s brain-dead. I want to finish the job. In my head I hear a sound like a locomotive going ninety miles an hour. My vision begins to blur. I’m holding Idy’s waist in the Conga line and she darts a glance at me over her shoulder. There’s the look of fear, even horror in her eyes. I loosen my death-grip on her waist. “Sorry,” I shout, “didn’t mean to hurt you.”

We snake the line into itself corkscrew fashion, and, when we implode, I raise my hands in the air and shout “Hooray.” I try to applaud and run to the bandstand simultaneously, but I come up short. Idy’s holding my hand tightly. She knows I want to leap onto the bandstand and smash things. Not that the bandleader would notice. He and his buddies are still playing the conga. They’re lost in their own little corner of co-dependent psycho-musical hell. By the time the band moved on to a new tune, Idy and I had already packed our costume bags and were crossing the foyer in a desperate attempt not to run. To our car. In the dark. Beneath the big tree in the far, far corner. Fun. It was fun. Sure. Ha. Ha. Ha, ha, haaaaaaa!

The next day I called the bandleader on the telephone. I berated him, called him an idiot, a coward, a half-assed unprofessional schmuck. Over and over again. For half an hour. He just kept listening, waiting. Finally he said, “What do you want? An apology?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “I’m sorry.” So I slammed down the phone. Guess I showed him. Fun.

Suspended Animation on Runway 7

Another job was at the tent behind Boston’s Aquarium. The tent adjoined the ocean on one side and the aquarium on the other. Inside the tent, next to the tiny dance floor, the agents had made us a “dressing room” out of pipes and black canvas. It was just four canvas walls ten feet on each side and ten feet tall. It had no ceiling. It was a mysterious priests’ alcove next to the dance-floor altar.

Seven dancers on this gig. Inside the “dressing room” were five chairs. We’d been told to arrive before the guests and we didn’t dance until after they finished dinner. The clients--telephone company account executives on a corporate field trip to Boston-- arrived an hour late and ate their dinners. Slowly. Nothing to do but whisper, warm up, and play musical chairs. The lights in the tent were floor lamps; none of the light penetrated the black canvas of our isolation cell. We shared a penlight I had in my clothes bag.

After two hours it was time to warm up and put on costumes. Make up for the women was the hardest, done using a penlight and a compact mirror. We took turns, two people warming up at a time on the floor, two donning costumes or doing make-up while standing. Four of us quietly ducked the various elbows, hands, legs and feet that the others were flailing about. But... don’t get exited... yet. That was nothing. Honestly, we were content in our little religious retreat, our iconoclastic isolation.

Two and a half hours after we’d arrived, time for the show. Four of us slipped from the holding cell and took our places on the miniature dance floor, ready for the sound tech to play our recorded music. He pushed some buttons. Nothing. After thirty seconds of awkward silence and the sound of account execs disinterestedly stirring various substances into their coffee cups (anti-depressants would have been best), the recorded music faded fitfully in, nowhere near the beginning. Two of the dancers tentatively began and Idy and I waited, trying to discern where we were in the music. No clue. I took control.

I raised my hands and shouted, “Wow. That was something! Now let’s start from the beginning of the music.” The sound man glared at me as he rewound the tape. The sound of spoons in coffee cups reached a cacophonous level. But wait, there’s more. Three hundred yards away, across Boston bay, was Logan Airport. “Pilots, we have opened runway A33C.” A jet took off. Right at us. It screamed by. Directly overhead. Twenty feet. Overhead. And our music began. Again. From the beginning.

That night our every dance was punctuated by the sound of jet turbines spinning ninety thousand times. Per second. It was the longest twenty minute dance show we ever did. At last, the final dance, the closer, a Lindy Hop with aerials. We began with a 747 and four lindys. It was when the DC11 crossed overhead during Idy’s back-to-back flip that her hand caught my right suspender, tearing it loose from my pants. The suspender hung down behind my back, alternately dragging on the floor and whipping around, smacking Idy. Without a dynamic tension between the right and left suspenders, the left one fell loosely over my shoulder and down my arm. Desperately, I pushed it back up and raised my shoulder to hold it in place.

An 1101 accompanied me, the Dancing Hunchback of Lindy Hop, as I hobbled through the dance, trying to keep my pants up. I was doing fine, too. Until ten seconds from the end. All that was left was a bunch of kicks and a big jump over Idy’s head. On the last kick I reached down to touch the floor with my left hand. I never even saw it coming. The suspender fell off my shoulder. As I put my hands on Idy’s shoulders, preparing to jump over her head, both suspenders dangled joyously free behind me. I pushed myself up, jumping fully upright. Going up, up over her head. It had always worked before.

But this time, my pants. My pants started down. Down over my... my, my buttocks. Sagging, the pants caught Idy on the back of her head as I went over. She toppled forward onto her hands and knees. She pushed backwards, disentangling herself. I desperately jumped forward into a crouch, one hand up, the other holding my pants. Idy jumped onto my back, raising her hands in triumph. The room sat in stunned silence for a few seconds and then three account execs who’d just finished their third bottle of wine began to applaud. Tentatively. A jumbo jet passed over our heads. I hoped that maybe it was about to crash, engulfing us in a ball of flame. No need. We had already immolated ourselves. For “fun.”

The Big Apple Cubicle People

One year we did a dozen or so Christmas and holiday gigs. We did a gig in New York City. The agent kept finding ways to ask, “But if you’re REALLY good, why do you live in Boston?” She finally hired us anyway, and we drove down to do a holiday party in a nightclub near the big Electric Plant on the River just north of the Bowery.

The gig began with the club in darkness, illuminated only by the neon Budweiser sign over the bar. The clients were watching an hour of slides they’d taken of each other sitting in their cubicles: wearing funny hats, holding funny signs, looking embarrassed. Wearing funny hats while holding funny signs and looking embarrassed. It was a different kind of crowd than we were used to. From the beginning they were drinking heavily. We were jealous.

Slides over, we started our dance show. The cubicle people liked the lindy to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” They liked the Big Apple to Benny Goodman’s “Jingle Bells.” But they balked when we did Charleston to Victor Herbert’s “Toy Soldier.” Too cute maybe with the red pillbox hats. I don’t really know. We did two more numbers after the Charleston. I think; I can’t remember. All I do remember is asking the female dancers in my company to kick higher and keep smiling. No matter what. The clients liked the high kicks. They cheered.

We finished our show and as we started to bow, the DJ put on some country western music and everyone promptly forgot us and rushed on to the floor to dance. We escaped to a dark corner, but after twenty minutes our client found us and asked us to lead the Electric Slide. It was clear to us that she was not from the same division as the Cubicle People. During the Electric Slide, the crowd turned ugly. We were pretty ugly by that time too, I think. Taking the hint (and a few kicks and pushes) we disappeared from the dance floor.

Later, we were talking quietly among ourselves. In a corner of the coat room, crouched beneath the coats. (You have to understand, there was no privacy for us, this place was crowded! We had a “dressing room” off the coat room that was four feet square. We had costumes hanging from boxes, lights, the moulding around the ceiling in that tiny space. The only place we could “hang” and talk was crouched under coats. We weren’t avoiding the client. Honest.) Discovered, the client dragged us onto the dance floor to lead the Macarena. People tried to hurt us. Cubicle People vs. The Dancers. That night we stayed up late after the gig, drinking and laughing hysterically. A week later we got a letter from the agent that said,"Fantastic work, excellent work! They loved your dancing. Thanks for coming down."

Heaven and Hell are Neighbors begins Part 2 -- To be continued !!