'Alive and Kicking': SXSW Review

Alive and Kicking Still - H 2016
Courtesy of SXSW
Some great ballroom acrobatics enliven dance doc.

Susan Glatzer takes a twirl through the modern swing-dance revival.

Moviegoers with two left feet might be forgiven for assuming that the modern-day swing revival, in which ordinary Joes and Janes wear retro clothes to dance like it's the Depression again, went the way of the Twist sometime after the mid-1990s revival we saw in Swingers. Not so, says Susan Glatzer, whose Alive and Kicking paints it as a thriving global phenomenon whose practitioners embrace it with religious zeal. Offering likeable characters and some killer footage of couples throwing each other around at high speed without mussing their hair, the documentary will please at fests and on TV while likely nudging more than a few sedentary viewers to go find dancing shoes of their own.

According to the doc, which offers some history but prefers spending time in the present, swing was in long hibernation mode until the 1980s VHS boom not only introduced youngsters to old films, but let them pause, rewind and analyze the jaw-dropping dances they occasionally found there. Four global hotspots of revivalism developed; then, when Swing Kids, Swingers and a bullet-time Gap commercial coincided in the '90s, the trend went mainstream.

New devotees hunted down dancers like Frankie Manning, a seminal Lindy Hop choreographer who had gone on to a long career with the postal service; he and other still-vital elders became much-sought instructors at the classes and conventions popping up around the world. (Though not all were as generous as Manning: Sassy Norma Miller, who claims to hate beginners, crows, "I wouldn't teach a crippled crab how to use a crutch!")

The film celebrates the many 90-plus-year-olds who take part in the current scene, but its heart is with the new disciples. These great-looking youngsters rhapsodize about the power of this improvised, intimate dance form as a means of forming instant connections with strangers: a "three-minute romance" that, instead of being prelude to a pickup, comes without sexual expectations. Plenty of interviewees describe going to a dance as a remedy for information-age isolation. The exact words aren't spoken, but "these kids today, with their texting and their Facebook ..." is the general idea.

Glatzer doesn't strain to structure her movie around one central contest, though we do see the dance craze's competitive side. She's more attentive to the sense of family among enthusiasts and to questions about how one can make a living with swing — getting on a circuit of weekend events and private classes — not to mention how long one's body can stand up to the quicksilver spins and tosses required. Though its cinematography is nothing to write home about, the action Alive and Kicking captures is so transfixing, one marvels that dancers can keep it up for five years, much less five decades.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Documentary Competition)
Production company: Swing Pictures, LLC
Director-screenwriter-producer: Susan Glatzer
Executive producers: Jason Blum, Robert Rippberger
Director of photography: John W. Macdonald
Editors: Heidi Zimmerman, Nick Andert
Composer: Steven Argila
Sales: Blumhouse Films

Not rated, 88 minutes