IN DECEMBER OF 2002, RUSTY FRANK WAS VOTED LOS ANGELES' "LINDY HOPPER OF THE MONTH." THIS INTERVIEW WAS CONDUCTED BY SONIA ALVARADO FOR HER WEBSITE DANCINGLA.COM:
1. Rusty, I understand you started tap dancing at the age of 6. What was your biggest accomplishment as a tap dancer?
Gee, that's a tough question, because I've really been lucky and met and worked with so many of the great legends of tap. I do think one of the things of which I am most proud is "Jazz on Tap," a show I did up in the Bay Area that featured tap dancers with jazz musicians. In that show, I actually got to book and dance with two of my heroes -- The Nicholas Brothers. The show lasted for one week, and just to hang around those guys was beyond amazing.
For myself, probably the most exciting and thrilling experience was doing a 51-city tour of Europe with the Glenn Miller Orchestra and tap dancing in those gorgeous old theaters. Wow! Some of them were pretty tricky, too, because they have those raked stages... I had been warned by some old-timer tap friends of mine who had toured before World War II. And they were right, trying to dance on a stage that slants down towards the audience is really a challenge.
There was one night in Scotland that particularly stands out, because it was a breathtaking theater from the turn of the century (imagine gold gilt balcony boxes, etc.). And in these side boxes were a bunch of swing dancers dressed in WWII Allied Forces uniforms. While I was dancing, one of the handsome young "soldiers" actually threw a Hershey Bar onto the stage at my feet! I really felt like I was back in the '40's!!
Some other standouts have been meeting Fred Astaire when I was sixteen (need I say more), doing the Shim Sham with Gene Kelly, and, of course, meeting and getting to know all the people for my book, "TAP!."
2. When did you discover Lindy Hop and why did it capture your attention?
You know, the funny thing about this is that I had seen "A Day At the Races" a million times, because I was a Marx Brothers fanatic as a teenager (my name is Rusty because it was Harpo's in "Go West" -- took it as a nickname back then). I enjoyed the "All God's Chillun Got Rhythm" number with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, but, at that time, it was all about the Marx Brothers for me.
It was during a trip to England in January of 1996. Terry Monaghan, the director of London's amazing "Jiving Lindy Hoppers," wanted to meet me because of my tap book and all. He suggested that we meet at the 100 Club (then London's premier Lindy Hop club) and then go out after. We had a nice get-together, and he left me with a video tape of his group. When I got home to the States, I popped it into the ol' VCR and just about fell over. I think I must have watched that thing over and over again for weeks. It was the Jiving Lindy Hoppers performing "I've Got My Fingers Crossed." That was it. That was THE moment. I knew then and there that I just had to do it.
3. You were already an accomplished tap dancer; how did you go about learning swing and Lindy Hop?
Well, what happened next was a great set of circumstances. The Stevens Sisters asked if I would teach tap dance at Swing Camp Catalina that same summer (1996). The irony was that, here I was in L.A., dying to learn Lindy Hop, and I didn't know it was right in my own backyard. I just had this video tape of the English group. So I went out to Catalina that June, and there it was! Lindy Hop in all its glory. Sweden's Rhythm Hot Shots, England's Simon and Louise, the Stevens, and the legendary Frankie Manning, not to mention the over one thousand lindy hoppers from around the world there to enjoy the weekend. I thought I had found heaven. And, like all of us who have that moment when we see it and want it, I wanted it so badly I just couldn't wait.
It turned out Simon and Louise were dissolving their dance partnership. So I proposed to Simon that I come over to England and he and I could do a professional swap -- I would teach him to tap, and he would teach me to Lindy. I was working at the Disney Animation Studio at the time, and it was actually easy for me to take this chance. I went over in August, and it was trial by fire. We got a job the first week I was there. He taught me a few quick steps and, boom, I was on stage. I have to say, we really worked hard for the year and a half I was over there. We trained rigorously, hours and hours every week. I also had the benefit of all the European professional lindy hoppers stopping through London -- they all wanted to do trades for tap. My early training was with every top name you can think of. I clearly remember saying to myself during those early days, "I can't wait until I can say I have been Lindy Hopping for two years." I knew what that would mean. It's simply a dance that has to find its way through your body. You have to get out on that dance floor and just do it. I didn't have any problem learning the steps, because of my extensive tap dance background, but it was that partner business that was the challenge -- not to mention the styling. Jeeze! When I think about it, still, the same thoughts go through my mind.
4. You make a living through dance performance and instruction. Other than your livelihood, what does dancing mean to you personally?
Dancing is simply my greatest joy. Ever since I was a child, dancing gave me just about the greatest happiness I know. I feel like I am flying. Dancing resonates with every chord in my body. The smile you see on my face is a true and honest expression of my utter elation. It is when I feel the most myself.
5. A couple of years ago you and your dance partner were practicing an aerial together (something you had done dozens of times), and you fell and broke your neck... How did this tragic experience change you as a person and the way you live your life?
Hmmmm. During the early days of my recovery, the most difficult aspect was having to be reliant on people. I was previously so fiercely independent, enjoying doing things for myself, and shy or afraid to ask for help. Embarrassed even. So I think learning how to gracefully receive was really a big part of the experience. How did it change me? That's hard for me to say. Perhaps those around me might be better able to answer that. I know I've always been one to really go after my dreams and one to try to make my dreams come true (one of my favorite sayings is "Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it.") Wow... this is a hard question.
The biggest challenge really has been the long-run. I guess most people don't know that, in addition to breaking my neck in five places, I also had an incomplete cervical cord injury. The latter has really been the "bear" of the accident. I've had serious chronic pain since the injury. Almost debilitating at times. I've tried just about every kind of pain treatment program you can think of, and have just gotten off of a year of taking morphine for the pain. I have to get these monster shots in my head every few months in order to try to get the nerve pain to subside. (Peter always says we should take pictures of the doc giving me those shots in my head -- the needles are 3" long -- just to get people to think seriously about choosing to do aerials and to train seriously if they are going to do them.) Basically, what I'm trying to say is, the hardest part of this injury is living my life through this pain -- having my life, and having a quality to my life with chronic pain.
6. When did you know that, not only would you walk again, but you would dance again?
When I hit the ground I heard a lot of crunching, and the first thought that went through my head was that this was VERY serious. I couldn't feel anything and yet was fully conscious. I thought I wasn't breathing, and I felt like I was floating in the air. Peter ran up to my apartment to call 911, and I was lying on the grass out on the front lawn where we had been practicing our aerials. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, blue sky, quiet. I thought, "I'm going to die on Riverside Drive!" It seemed so anti-climactic. I guess you see your own death as being a bit more dramatic, a car accident or, way later, old-age... not just lying on the grass on a sunny day. I really remember the quiet. Anyway, then I thought, "Wait, my life isn't flashing before me, there's no white light..." you know, none of those things you read about. So I thought that just maybe I had a chance. But I knew it was gonna be a big fight to come back from where I was -- completely paralyzed. So I asked myself, "Do you want to live if you are a quadriplegic?" No. "Do you want to live if you are going to be a paraplegic?" Yes, I think I could do that. But then this feeling came across me that I was going to be okay. I seemed to just sense it. Then Peter was back and I could hear the sirens. He told me I was breathing (which I couldn't feel yet). He said it was like a computer which had just crashed and was rebooting -- I was blinking, breathing, I could whisper things to him. Then the firemen arrived and the paramedic who saved my life (Keith Scott). He was the one who recognized that I had a spinal cord injury and got everything going. He did a quick check, and by this time I could actually feel when he touched my feet and legs. He looked me right in the eyes and told me I was going to be okay. I believed him. The first four days in the hospital were pretty nightmarish, as you can probably guess. That's when I had the Halo put on and was in the ICU. I was still completely paralyzed from my neck to my waist, including my arms and hands. But I could move my feet and legs a little bit -- and that assured me that I was gonna get through this. Everyone rallied around me, and I'll never forget any of it. But one of the sweetest moments I remember occurred after I'd been in the hospital for seven days. Peter was visiting. It was night. I still couldn't walk. It was scary. I could barely stand. But he helped me out of bed, and we did one basic -- step step rock step. And I cried. I had danced again.
7. The recovery was long and I'm sure very painful... what kept you motivated?
Yes, the recovery is long and, as I've said, very painful (at times I really thought the pain would take my life). So what kept me motivated? First of all, everyone around me. Students, friends, family. I can't stress that highly enough. But finally there comes a time when you, yourself have to take over. I've always been an optimist. My motto has been, "Come on, it'll be fun!". This accident just about had me beat.... This is hard to talk about and difficult to explain, but there have been some extremely lonely and dark times. During these I just tried to survive and hope. Hope that I would pass through these valleys. That life would become bright again. Hopeful. And filled with dreams. And the amazing thing is, I have passed through the darkest, deepest valley, and have finally clawed and scrapped my way out. I can't say it was through sheer will. When you get that beat, you just sometimes have to wait. You do your best to live. But you just have to let the time do its healing.
Now, two and half years later, I feel like myself again. Like I have my life back. My vitality. I am looking forward to the next year with so much excitement. I can't wait to see what happens next. I have dreams and projects to create and fulfill. More dances to have ....
8. If you couldn't dance, what would you pursue as a career?
If I couldn't dance.... I would find something.... but what, I can't tell you now what that would be. I don't know. I would have to be forced to find it.
9. I don't know how many people know this, but you're an author; tell me a little bit about the focus of the book you wrote.
Oh yes. I wrote a book called "TAP! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories 1900-1955." That was in 1990. Basically the idea came to me when my tap teacher, Louis DaPron passed away. I was so struck that he was now just gone from all memory, as no one had yet really documented this era of great tap dancers. I thought, "Someone needs to write a book about these people!" Silence. More silence. Then the silence -- I knew there was no one out there doing it. So I knew if it was going to happen, I had to do it. I'm not a natural writer. It doesn't come easily to me (I got a "D" in creative writing in 2nd grade, and I think it pretty much scared me off...). But I thought about the kind of book I would want to read. I loved books with loads of pictures. I loved autobiographies. So I thought I would interview living legends of tap dance, edit out my questions, and have it as though you are just sitting at their feet hearing them tell about their lives. I thought it would be great to have tap dancers from all avenues - Broadway, Hollywood, niteclubs, chorus lines; and to represent all the styles -- rhythm, classical, swing, legomania, eccentric, flash, comedy...., and to represent all the people -- men, women, children, and all races. It hadn't been done before. It was about time. And happily, I finished the project while most of them were still alive to enjoy the book and enjoy the recognition in their late years. The great thing is that the book is still in print and considered the "bible" amongst tap dancers. And after all these years, I enjoy picking it up and reading their stories. What people they were. What lives they led! Talk about passionate about dancing. Dancing was these peoples' lives.
10. Tell me about some of your hobbies.
Most people who know me know that I don't live in the past, I play in it. I love watching old movies. I live in a 1921 house and have decorated it with all the vintage things I have collected since I was about fifteen. I don't have too much free time, because of the nature of my job; but when I do, I love to just get together with a friend or two and relax watching an old movie or just visiting. When I recover a little from my exhaustion (all swing teachers know what I am talking about), I love to be outside in any nature (the beach, the mountains). And I love my cat, Smudge. She's sitting on my lap, purring, right now. Animals, in general. What joy they bring to our lives.
11. There seems to be a concern these days about the swing scene shrinking in size -- do you have ideas to keep it going strong and growing here in L.A.?
I think the most important thing we can do is to make it as friendly as possible. If every dancer would make it a point to dance with beginners each time they go out dancing, make them feel welcome, introduce them to other dancers... I know we could keep this scene strong. I am constantly impressed with the fact that wherever I go, people always tell me that they've always dreamed of swing dancing. I know the people are out there. We just need to invite them in!
12. What have been some of the most exciting moments for you as a Lindy Hopper?
Creating the show "Swingin' The Century" with Bill Elliott. Wow! You just can't top that. Choreographing routines to his fantastic music, dancing with that fabulous cast, having his orchestra on stage with us belting out those tunes. Talk about flying!! But if I had to mention some other fun stuff: dancing at the Hollywood Bowl, the tour of Europe, teaching in Europe, especially in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Russia, England (well, there goes the "especially"...). Working with so many great dancers. Having so many wonderful dancers right here in Los Angeles to "play" with.
13. Where do you see yourself personally and professionally in 5 years?
Five years.... that's a very good question. My life has been so unpredictable so far. Not to mention diverse -- not many people know I was an environmental and human rights activist before dancing full-time. I was the Russian interpreter for Greenpeace on two of their anti-whaling voyages; I lived and worked in Japan fighting against their whaling practices; I went to Ethiopia twice on human rights missions... I don't know if I should put this in print, but it's no secret: I've been arrested eleven times in non-violent direct-action campaigns for these causes. Actually, funny enough, my first arrest was for tap dancing on the streets of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco ("causing an obstruction on the sidewalk" -- I wish I had been that good! And, by the way, the charges were dropped....). So, what I am trying to say is, my life has been an amazing journey this far... I hope it continues to wind a wonderful road. I just basically want to help make the world a better place, I want to help bring peace to the world, and bring happiness and joy into people's lives. If it's through Greenpeace, fine. If it's through dancing -- perfect.
14. What's your advice for beginners who are still struggling to master those basic steps?
Enjoy yourself! And don't worry! You will always be learning and struggling to master something new. Please believe me on this one. I know, I still am, seven years later. So if there is one thing I could say to you, it would be "Enjoy the process. You always will be in it! And what a wonderful place this process is. Filled with wonderful people, sensational music, and a high the likes of which you can get from nothing else."