Why Do the French Still Dance Le Swing?

As I was about to travel to Brittany in France for a wedding recently, I realized in a panic that I had to brush up on my rock 'n' roll swing dancing skills -- as no French wedding is complete without dancing "le rock."

I told my British and American colleagues who said, to my astonishment, that the rest of the world had pretty much given up swing and "boogie-woogie" dancing a few decades ago.

So as I was skimming through the green pastures of Brittany aboard the Train a Grande Vitesse, or Very Fast Train, I set out to find out why the French have kept the swing dancing tradition alive to this day.

And after dancing "le rock" at the wedding to some appalling 1980s tunes for an entire night (check out my video to see what it looks like), a few glasses of Champagne under my belt, and later having spoken with a few experts -- sober this time -- I think I have unraveled the mystery of the love story between the French and rock 'n' roll swing dancing.

Swing dancing -- known in France as rock 'n' roll, or simply "le rock" -- is incurably old-school, and that's exactly why the French love it.

French Love the Night Life, the Boogie

This love story goes way back, according to Aix en Provence-based dance professor Vincent Ravigneaux.

As American GIs came and liberated France from Nazi occupation at the end of World War II, they brought along a few cultural golden nuggets that included chewing gum and, of course, boogie dancing.

At the time, legendary American dancer Frankie Manning was shaking America's dance floors and hearts with his Lindy Hop dance -- the ancestor of rock 'n' roll dancing. Manning is now 94, and he still dances.

The French youth embraced Manning's moves immediately.

In the blink of an eye, the good old French music hall artists Edith Piaf and Charles Trenet became has-beens, and trendy French youth began to dance the Lindy Hop in the caverns of the hip St. Germain district of Paris.

Shortly after, when rock 'n' roll was officially invented by Chuck Berry and Elvis and the like, the French kept dancing boogie-woogie and Lindy Hop, but they started to call it "le rock."

"The cultural impact of Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll on the French was huge," Ravigneaux told ABCNews.com.

"In the 1960s, the French used to dance le rock, not only in clubs, but also at village dancehalls and guinguettes," he said, referring to balls often held on riverbanks in which accordions are a must.

Rock 'n' Roll for the Posh

As years went by, revolutionary rock 'n' roll itself became old hat. New music styles, such as electronic music and hip-hop, emerged. On those tunes, one could dance without a partner. Throughout the world, most people gave up on rock 'n' roll swing dancing -- or, everyone but Frankie Manning... and the French.

Today, rock 'n' roll dancing is a must in France, especially for members of the upper class.

For them, it has become a way to distinguish themselves from the other half, according to Paris-based Thierry Mantoux, author of the legendary Guide du BCBG, or Guide of Good Chic Good Genre.

Most people in France know more or less how to dance rock 'n' roll, but the French posh have taken it to a higher level. While rock 'n' roll was originally a subversive genre, the French elite have turned it into a fun but harmless dance and symbol of class.

"Rock holds an essential place for members of the upper class," Mantoux told ABCNews.com, "partly because it is difficult to learn."

The kind of rock that people dance in the chateaux of Brittany is stiffer, less groovy and generally less acrobatic than the boogie-woogie that gel-haired, leather-jacketed people made famous in the 1950s.

"It is a way to show that instead of shaking one's body feverishly, one can dance with technique and elegance," said Mantoux.

While most French only dance "le rock" to rock music, the French posh make a point of swing dancing on any kind of tune -- the more random, the better. Dance, techno, pop music -- any tune is an opportunity to show that one can dance "le rock" on the most unexpected genre.

Monique Antonini gives rock dancing classes in the very fancy 7th arrondissement (or district) of Paris.

Although many dancers come from the upper class, she says people from all kinds of backgrounds take classes with her. An hour of individual lesson at her school costs around $90.

"From children to elderly people, all kinds of people want to learn how to dance," Antonini told ABCNews.com. "It is fashionable. For adults it is a good way to fight timidity, chill out and meet new people."

As Antonini was listing the endless benefits of "le rock," she was suddenly interrupted by a Japanese couple, standing right in front her, eagerly waiting for their lesson to start.

With the wedding season now at its peak, Antonini said her school is school is packed with last-minute students who need to hone their skills before tying the knot.

The presence of this Japanese couple, along with an English couple, might fuel hopes that 60 years after the GIs brought rock 'n' roll to the country of Edith Piaf, France may soon export the tradition back to a happy few.

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