We have been told this dance grew up on incredibly crowded floors,floors so packed you weren’t allowed to break away. In fact, a few of the ballrooms had rules you couldn’t break away — and the dance looks like it. Balboa is a small, hardly-traveling, chest-to-chest swing dance; just the kind of dance that would evolve on very crowded dance floors. And this aspect of the dance is probably what made Balboa generally a philosophically different kind of swing dance than the “Swing” or New York’s Lindy Hop.
Here’s what we mean. Everything the Old Timers have ever told us about Balboa leads us to believe it was not a performative dance by nature. If the dance did indeed grow up on very crowded floors, it makes sense that it wouldn’t be a performative dance — no one is watching you do it when all the onlookers can see is a sea of smoothly floating heads on the dance floor. (Now, just because the dance isn’t performative by nature doesn’t mean they didn’t care about how it looked. They certainly did. They just wouldn’t choose Balboa as the kind of dance they would do in a contest, for instance.***)
To the Old Timers, this dance they called Balboa was more about the feel — of both of their partner, and the floor. Balboa dancers cared about the partnership and how it moved together, and the shuffling motion that went along with your steps (probably another byproduct of the dance having evolved in a small spaces).
Some Balboa dancers, like the last couple in the clip above, danced a range of ad-lib steps (steps that add movement or change the rhythm), but most of the original Balboa dancers danced their basic quick-quick-slow pattern over and over again allowing variations on weight changes and shuffling and rhythms to shape their dance. As you can see in the video, those dancers aren’t trying to throw in impressive or even highly expressive moves — it’s more like they’re meditating, floating in a sea of swing.
The modern scene doesn’t tend to call this dance “Balboa,” the way the Old Timers did, but “Pure Balboa” or “Pure Bal” for short. Why do we need a different name for it, you ask? We’ll get to that soon.
The footage above was of these SoCal dancers in their older age. Some of them had been dancing almost exclusively Balboa with their partners for more than forty years.
Most of our footage of Pure Balboa back in the swing era is from background dancers in movies, likely because people in the film business realized Pure Balboa dancers were great at filling out a crowd while not taking too much attention away from the “Swing” dancers and Lindy dancers that would be placed front and center for the cameras.
An invented combination.
The Pure Bal dancers didn’t exist in a vacuum. With the exception of those few “no break-away” ballrooms, dance floors across the region could have dancers doing both Pure Bal and “Swing” on the floor, and some of the big dances in L.A. would apparently have Balboa dancers collecting on one side of the stage and “Swing” dancers on the other. Dancers would mingle, and some would learn both dances. Some of those “Swing” dancers even began putting Balboa into their “Swing,” adding it to their collection of steps.
Balboa fit nicely into “Swing,” giving some dancers a new basic starting point, and making the dance even more dynamic. This also lead to a specific type of “Swing” that would eventually be described by the name “Balboa-Swing” or “Bal-Swing.” The dancers who created and developed this specific dance style included Willie Desatoff, Maxie Dorf, Anne Mills, and Natalie Esparza, to name a few. This was not all “Swing” dancers, by the way — only a subset of people linked the two dances together, especially in the way leaders like Maxie and Willie did.
These two dancers were the most nuanced dancers of this style who stuck around to teach it to future generations. For them, “Bal-Swing” became more than simply adding Pure Bal to their “Swing” dancing — it became its own, separate, cohesive dance. They both expressed how a motion they called the Out-and-In motion (which we briefly mentioned in the “Swing” section) was the basic movement of their “Bal-Swing.” You’ll see that motion when you watch them dance in the clip below — and you can see how that Out-and-In motion is the glue they use to link everything together, and a major source for their momentum, expression, and swing. It’s also the Out-and-In motion that allows them to so easily go from the chest-to-chest Balboa to the more open “Swing” and vice versa.
It’s a defining aspect of the dance that someone new to the Balboa family of dances might not realize quickly, because it’s not called “Out-and-In-Bal-Swing,” which is perhaps a more accurate (though less accessible) name.
Here are some of the original masters dancing what they called “Bal-Swing.” Look for how often they use that Out-and-In motion to manipulate momentum and express the swing of the music.