Swinging Sundays at the Cicada Club
It is 5 past 8 and the dance floor is bare except for the movements of one man outlined by a sequined hat, tuxedo and porcelain colored gloves. The figure moves with ease across the floor as a hushed silence rests on the lips of onlookers. Within a matter of minutes a second silhouette joins in unison with Perciva Wellington's fluid footsteps. By 10 past 8, the dance floor is crowded with the tapping of leather soles and the ruffle of silk as dancers swing dance to the beat of Chester Whitemore's Central Avenue Revue Band. Although his first time performing at the Cicada Club, Wellington has single handedly inaugurated the night with the tact of his footsteps.
Wellington was trained initially as a street dancer but has been practicing swing and tap dance in recent years after being exposed to the famous dancing duo, the Nicolas Brothers. Wellington often performs at various events across Los Angeles and tonight is only one of the several events he brings his craft to. Although the night is a mixture of entertainment in the form of music and performance, the uniqueness of Maxwell DeMille's Cicada Club is the overwhelming role of audience participation. Wellington says of the night, "It was wonderful, especially when the audience started to have fun and enjoy themselves. They forget about whatever problems they have and enjoy the moment."
Sunday nights at the Cicada Club is unlike any other event in Los Angeles. The weekly event offers a unique experience that transports visitors back to the elegant days of Hollywood's golden age of dance clubs. Every week the club recreates the 1930's with orchestras, dancers and patrons that seem to be plucked right from a scene, that is too often, restricted to the mediums of literature and film.
Aubrey Coles, a first time attendee dressed in a maroon vintage dress and mink shawl says, "I love old and nostalgic things. I loves movies like L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia. This event recreates those moments." Like many, Coles is delighted by the opportunity to experience the era through direct observation and contact.
Maxwell DeMille, the host and founder of the weekly event now in its second year, has always been a fan of the night club scene of the early 1900s and has produced swing dance events since World War I. DeMille says, "It's a lot of fun. It's a chance to relive how things were in the past. It's like a movie, but you can actually be apart of the movie."
Richard Liberman, the general manager of the Cicada Club, adds, "People love living in this period. It's a great excuse to dress up in vintage clothing. It's like you're walking back in time to a simpler time. People need that right now especially considering how fast paced L.A. is."
At every turn, the spacious nightclub is filled with women in elaborate vintage dresses and gloves reaching the cusp of their elbows. Men also adhere to the strict dress code and arrive dressed in tuxedos and pressed suits, some even finishing the ensemble with a Derby hat.
Dan Standiford, dressed in a suit with dirty martini in hand throughout the night, says "What people want here is a sense of high class and style lacking in normal life. These days, in most restaurants there is no sense of uniform decency. Everyone here knows they have to look nice. Sometimes, you need places like a fancy supper club."
Sidno Garner, a singer who preformed with Whitman's band, says, "You can see all this in magazines and books, but here you can see it in 3D. It is right in front of you." He adds, "It's like one of those sci-fi movies. You step into another era - a time capsule. You travel through time. You would never guess it was 2009."
Whitman, the conductor of the band, teaches swing dance to several of the patrons and lectures on music history across the country. He not only energized the crowd throughout the night, but also electrified the crowd with his tap dance routine. Whitman led the enthusiastic participants in various dances throughout the night. During the highlight of the night, Whitman paired up patrons and had them showcase their dance moves in a circle. After every couple danced to a cheering crowd, they were once again then paired off with new partners as they went through the circle once again to the claps and beats of the orchestra. College students danced with patrons twice their age and strangers quickly became friends within a matter of one song. Whitman says of performing at the Cicada, "It fits like a glove."
It is clear that DeMille and the staff of the Cicada Club make every effort to retain authenticity. The club is housed in the famous Oviatt Art Deco building built in 1928 in Downtown Los Angeles. The club retains much of the original design that the French designers created. High ceilings and a grand chandelier dangles above the dance floor filled with L.A.'s finest swing dancers and vintage enthusiasts. The spacious club also offers diners the opportunity to observe while eating dinner as well as overlook the orchestra and dancers from the mezzanine. With the vintage interior design and elegantly dressed patrons, simply stepping into the club is an experience in itself.
Not only does the club retain an aura of authenticity through interior design but the drink menu is also carefully crafted with liquor that was primarily consumed in the 1930's such as bourbon, gin and absinthe. The drink menu also offers several martinis named after cultural icons of the era such as the "The Bettie Page" and "the Hayworth."
Liberman has seen a variety of visitors who attend the weekly event during his time collaborating with DeMille. He says, "We have our regulars and followers. A lot of characters come out Sunday nights." Patrons range from regular swing dancers, business men who sip martinis to couples enjoying a romantic dinner using the musical-like entertainment as a backdrop for their own personal Hollywood movie. He also notes the many actors who attend who enjoy creating their own character throughout the night.
Liberman also mentions the growing number of young people who attend the weekly dance events such as the UCLA Swing Dance Club and the USC Dance Club.
Katrina Haus, 19, Vice President of the USC Dance Club, can be found at the Cicada Club at least once or twice a week."I have a strong passion for the era and dancing is my main way of connecting with it. It's very enjoyable and a fun activity." She admits that most of her peers do not share the same passion for swing dance but is glad that she is able to meet like-minded individuals. After a thoughtful glance, she continues, "It's clean, as opposed to wild parties and unsafe sex."
Rachel Burns, another younger patron who attended the Cicada for a friend's birthday, says "I wish there were more events like this. It's much more fun than going to a boring club. Everyone seems friendly and is willing to dance with one another. There is no pressure. Usually when you go to a club, people stick to one group. Here, it's casual." She adds, "Also, people aren't really drunk here. People are just having a good time, naturally."
Garner adds, "L.A. has quite the reputation of being a socially isolated place. There's not much of stranger meets stranger atmosphere in most places. Here, everyone is your potential friend. It attracts people who are looking for others to have a good time with."
In most night clubs in Los Angeles it is all too common to see men lurking in the background after being rejected by a plethora of women throughout the night. It is a rare scene to see the majority of patrons approach a perfect stranger and be embraced. The difference stems from the fact that attendees are not searching for a fling, but a dance partner.
Garner says, "If you have a diet of not being afraid of new things and people with different backgrounds, you're bound to equip yourself with skills you didnt have. This type of event attracts people who don't fear each other. People always want to congregate where they are not threatened." He continues, "It's really an amusement park for adults. This is a ride - a roller coaster of music, food and fun."
In addition to being a night of enjoyment, entertainment and participation, the Cicada allows for appreciation of an era of American history. Maxwell DeMille's Cicada Club recreates a time period that is both magical and often unaccessible, and can simultaneously be enjoyed in a historical and social context. The event is not simply one of dance and music, but is a reenactment of a way of life that is often buried in history. The variety of patrons is only one reminder that an attendee does not have to be from an era to appreciate it.
Maxwell DeMille's Cicada Club is a one-of-a-kind experience available to anyone who is looking for something different from the overplayed night life scene that Los Angeles is increasingly guilty of. In a city that often dehumanizes clubgoers through the filtering process of categorization and judgement, Sunday evenings at the Cicada gives ordinary people the opportunity to feel like extraordinary individuals starring in their personal Hollywood movie.
Wellington, a performer who started off the evening in the spotlight, says, "Dance is just ordinary movement, expressed in an extraordinary way."