Clàudia Fonte and Friends Are Reinventing the Wheel of Jazz Dance

As regular readers will be well aware, I love swing dance. Whether Lindy hop, Balboa or St. Louis shag is my current thing, I just can’t critique a track without considering how I would move to it. If my imaginary dance-along is satisfying, the write-up is likely to be favorable—if I can’t catch a good groove to a side, then that fact might count against it. (That said, my lust for dance is such that I could probably bop to a ticking clock.) More than once have I questioned whether this is a fair way to rate records. After all, scoring songs on how danceable they are might strike some as rather one-dimensional.

But then I remember this publication’s unwavering commitment to old-time jazz: that foot-tapping stuff which just demands to be danced to—even if only from the ankle down. And so I remained confident in my assertion that danceability was a fair metric for rating music. When I sat down with esteemed reed man Ewan Bleach (see the May edition) he only entrenched my position deeper. Then I had a chat with renowned jazz dance teacher Clàudia Fonte—now, I’m entirely at peace with the idea.

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The Spanish physiotherapist and pro performer has spent half her lifetime moving to music. Based in Barcelona, her expertise is sought all over the world—Clàudia has been invited to major festivals in Poland, France, Bulgaria, and the USA, as well as across Spain. She is a member of Jazz Messengers, a trio of Spanish dancers and choreographers also featuring Sonia Ortega and Héctor Artal. And while many teachers (and learners) are content with building up and breaking out a mental library of authentic steps, Clàudia and her swing-mad colleagues are on a mission not just to reenact old-time jazz dance, but to recreate it.

I had read a little of Jazz Messengers’ philosophy and was keen to hear more about it. Clàudia’s website describes their work as the development of a “personal dance language… based on rhythmical movement.” How does that translate onto the stage? “Having a dance language is like me speaking English: it’s not my first language, but I feel comfortable because I use the same vocabulary all the time,” Clàudia explained. “So with dancing, instead of always trying to expand my vocabulary, I’m always trying to develop what I know and give it context. It’s doing what helps you express yourself, rather than looking for new things all the time.” She added, “To keep pushing in different directions is the key to learning anything, but adding more steps and using more memory is not the same as pushing.”

Far from being a radical new take, this philosophy goes back to the roots of jazz dance—the Harlem nightclubs, California dance halls and New Orleans gin joints. “It’s all about the feeling,” said Clàudia. “The steps we learn were created by someone in response to a feeling—the music made them move a particular way.” Rather than simply perfecting tuck turns, Texas Tommies, and Tacky Annies, JM respond to each tune in a way which feels natural. “We’re not just reproducing what somebody did once: we’re trying to keep improvising and creating,” Clàudia said. “Improvisation should always be there, in jazz, and for us to improvise we need to be always connecting to the music.”

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Of course, Clàudia and Co have watched all that old footage of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Josephine Baker and so on—and their moves are clearly within the same idiom—but they don’t let their forebears’ work limit their own. “To me, simply learning the historic steps is not really dancing,” said Clàudia. “It’s a part of the process, but building a vocabulary is not the same as having original thoughts.” She added, “I really admire the dancers from back then. I always get something new every time I watch them. But I feel like you have to find your own expression—I think that, if you watch other dancers too much, it’s easy to miss the point of being yourself.”

Clàudia’s inspiration comes from musicians, rather than other dancers. “I think of the musicians and I as working towards a common goal,” she told me. “That feeling, to me, is the feeling of jazz—there should be a close connection between the musicians and dancers.” She explained that the most inspiring bands were the swinging ones with killer rhythm sections. “For me, Count Basie is king,” Clàudia said. “And then the double bass of Ray Brown or the rhythm guitar of Charlie Christian—pretty much anyone who was in Basie’s band.” She added, “Duke Ellington as well, for sure. And Cab Calloway for his presence on the stage. I really enjoy Chick Webb’s work, too—as long as it swings, it’s good.”

Clàudia Fonte (center), with Sonia Ortega Betriu (left), and Héctor Artal defy gravity at the Chase Festival in 2018. (photo Copyright 2018 Your Crémant; via Facebook)

Often, the musician doesn’t even have to play for Clàudia to find inspiration. “Sometimes I’ll research the meaning of a record’s title and find out the intentions of the song,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll go on YouTube and find videos of musicians talking about their goals—that’s a huge inspiration to me,” she added. “For instance, Illinois Jacquet became famous for the solo on ‘Flying Home.’ He said that when he was about to stand up and solo, another musician next to him said, ‘Go for yourself.’ And he stood up and did it, and it went down in history. So I always go for myself, starting with what is comfortable to me.”

An accomplished partner dancer, Clàudia’s main focus is on solo forms. She began with tap, aged 15. “My parents didn’t understand why I wanted to go to this dance class, with people who were much older than me,” she told me, “but my classmates didn’t want to. My parents said OK, but no partner dancing—so I started with tap, then discovered jazz. Later I started practicing Lindy hop at dance socials, which I picked up very quickly because the movements were intuitive to me.”

Within five years, Clàudia was teaching. I too have taught a bit of dance—just beginner Lindy hop, for about one year. This was partly out of financial necessity and partly out of ego: I wanted to be an admired authority on swing dancing (even if only in my small town), just like the teachers I idolized. Clàudia never aspired to international swing dance stardom, focusing her professional efforts on physiotherapy. “I just loved dancing and wanted to do more—it was never my goal to become a teacher,” she said.

Nauck

Nonetheless, her approach has attracted enough interest from all over Europe to make a career of it. “I started teaching internationally in 2018,” she told me. “It eventually became almost every weekend, up until the pandemic. I enjoy being able to travel and learn about different places and cultures. I’ll just do it as long as I enjoy it—and as long as people will allow me to teach them.” The attention hasn’t given her a big head, however. “You can be inspired by other teachers, admire their work—but they’re not saving lives. I just applied more time and effort to this, while you were doing something else. It’s nothing really special.”

Despite enjoying partner dance, Clàudia’s preference for solo styles endures. “Dancing with a partner, I found it more difficult to really express what I was feeling,” she explained, “so I focused mostly on solo dance. That said, these days I’m enjoying partner dance more because I have people to practice with regularly and develop a partner dance language with.” It’s an enjoyment which many dancers will be able to relate to, with two years of social distancing and social bubbles so fresh in their memories.

In fact, most swing dancers (including this one) would no doubt say that stepping out on the dancefloor alone was their idea of terrifying. After twelve years in the scene, meeting dancers all over Europe, I’m comfortable in claiming that very many take up the pastime as an antidote to isolation, desiring closeness in an increasingly individualistic society. As well as offering endless pleasure, this physical collaboration provides something of a protective cloak: with everyone on the floor engrossed in their own partnership, no one is watching you.

And yet Clàudia argues that every dancer would be better off beginning the journey by themselves. “I’m surprised how many people will partner dance without really understanding themselves first,” she told me. “I think that if you come to solo dancing last, you’ve come to it late.” Her logic runs that if one first learns to dance alone, one develops useful tools to bring to the partner dancing table. “I understand why it can be scary,” she added, “because often people’s experience with solo jazz is more like a memory quiz—related to learning moves, not feeling. And that traumatizes a lot of people, because they can’t remember the steps or move the way they are expected to.”

The answer is a change in approach, she argues, something similar to the way pioneering swing dancers like Frankie Manning and Norma Miller operated—or, latterly, Jazz Messengers. “I think if we worked more on body movement in classes, it would awaken something which people can then connect to the rhythm,” said Clàudia. “Then you can add all the shapes, but not all at once.” Going back to her “dance language” metaphor, she added: “I think there’s too much focus in most solo jazz classes on building the vocabulary and not enough on developing original thoughts—if you begin with the thoughts, you can then start developing your own vocabulary.”

It might all sound a bit woo, particularly to those pushing for historical accuracy and contextual awareness—of slavery, segregation and so on—in the practice of swing dance. Clàudia is all for this movement. “If you want to do something, you had better invest time in your self-education, making sure you know more and more about it,” she said. “There’s no way forward without this step. The historical context is not a separate topic of study.” She shares her learning with the students in her classes, alongside the practical mechanics of dance, but encourages a focus on self-directed learning. “I want to believe that everyone will take the time to do the same,” she added.

Ask a jazz musician about their career highlights to date, and they are generally quick to name a particular club, concert hall or country where they always wanted to play. Clàudia can name no such highlights—she just loves being able to do what she loves most. “I like teaching, competing, performing and learning equally,” she said. When pushed, she added, “I guess Jazz Messengers for me is a highlight. It’s a group of likeminded people I can develop a language with. Last weekend, JM performed in Valencia*—there was live music and it was great and we just said yes, we’ve got it. The sense of togetherness is something very valuable to me.”

If you like the sound of Clàudia’s philosophy, check out her website at claudiafonte.com where she offers online tuition, wherever you are in the world.

*this interview took place in February 2023

Dave Doyle is a swing dancer, dance teacher, and journalist based in Gloucestershire, England. Write him at [email protected]. Find him on Twitter @DaveDoyleComms.

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