[Image from the public domain, from the archives of the New York Public Library]
If you’ve never seen Balboa (or even if you have), this might be a good place to start. Balboa’s story begins about 90 years ago.
Balboa is danced to swing music with a partner, chest-to-chest. It’s efficient use of space and energy means it can be done to scorchingly fast music, but it is also suited to a more mellow pace. There are black and white video clips of balboa as far back as 1938 (the couple wearing all white in this contest clip), but balboa dates back to the 1920’s.
Young people around the US were dancing to jazz music, and they said a person could tell where you were from by the way you danced and what you were dancing. In Southern California dancers would converge on the Balboa Peninsula to pack the ballroom there for dance contests and social dances.
They brought what was hep in LA or Catalina, and when they came together from different towns they brought those different steps and styles to dance socially or compete, and in a giant, packed dance hall they came together and they impressed each other or wanted to best each other.
It was a sign of the times, or maybe a sign of just how good the music was in the swing era, that so many people loved swing dance and music that the big dance halls around the country had to put in place rules to keep dancers from breaking apart and doing air steps, as was popular in lindy hop. There was just no room on the dance floor.
Balboa grew out of this environment, an organic evolution, not planned nor with rigorous ballroom-style explanation. There were no balboa classes, and no one wrote any rules down until, as far as we can tell, 1954, when it earned 2 pages in a ballroom dance manual. So no one knew how to teach it, except by demonstrating it and doing it. And that’s why it almost disappeared.
Balboa was noticed with fresh eyes in the 80’s, still being danced by those same old-timers who developed it in the 30’s. Today balboa can be found, danced and beloved, on six continents. It’s resurgence was fostered in the swing dance communities and Balboa dancers are intertwined with Lindy Hoppers and Charleston fans.
Balboa was originally done nearly entirely chest-to-chest (a “closed position”). That is still done today, which many call “Pure Bal,” spiced up by variations in footwork, syncopation, weight-shifting, and all manner of techniques. These changes are not always apparent enough to be seen by people who aren’t looking for them, but they are felt by one’s partner.
This is what Balboa looks like today (In a demonstration done by pros)
I like this clip because it shows pure bal as well as “bal-swing,” the form which the original dancers developed in the 80’s, many years after their heyday at the Balboa Pavillion. It features different sorts of breakaways (“tossouts,” etc.). I also like this clip because you can tell that Mickey and Kelly genuinely enjoy the dance as well as their partner.
This is what Balboa looks like today (in a competition)
Bobby and Kate are among the most sought after instructors in balboa, because they understand the mechanics of the dance but are always experimenting with movement, shapes, and style.
Would you like to learn more?
- Bobby White’s much more correct and thorough history can be found here.
- A video of a lecture on the subject by Peter Loggins can be found here.