Like fashion, some designs stand the test of time. In case of dances, there are those that become a fad for a short period, until a new craze emerges. However, there are dances that endure, that do not go out of style and continue to evolve and adapt to modernity, and the Swing dance is one of them. We can consider them classic dances.
Swing dance is a group of dances that became popular in the 1920s to the 1950s, a time that is fondly called as the Swing era. The group developed together with a brand of jazz music – the swing style or big band music. Prior to its categorization, swing dance was not a blanket term for a group of dances comprising several dance styles. According to history, Swing was used earlier, specifically around 1910, when the Texas Tommy Swing dance first made its appearance in print, not in Texas but in Barbary Coast, San Francisco.
Frankie Manning and Dawn Hampton: Lindyfest 2008
Traditionally, like most of the dances in the past, the first wave of swing dances had their start at the African American communities. But we have to note that Balboa and Foxtrot, which are swing dances, started in the white communities in the United States. Of all the dances in the group, one of the most popular, then and now, is Lindy Hop, a Harlem-born partner dance that came about in 1927. This means it has been around for 87 years and still going strong!
In making this article, one of our valuable resources is Tom Blair, a dance instructor and a very avid Lindy Hopper from Tampa. We had the rare chance to talk with him where he shared his thoughts and a lot more about Lindy Hop and you will find excerpts from our interview with him here.
Q. What do you think differentiates Lindy Hop from other swing dances? Why did you choose Lindy Hop when there are several other swing and Latin dances?
A. For me part of the appeal of learning to Swing dance was the vintage aspect. The idea that I would be learning to do something that used to be very popular, was so exciting and fun, and yet so few people knew how to dance or even know much about it. Maybe it comes from watching too many Loony Tunes cartoons as a kid, but there’s something about Swing Jazz music that, and this is going to sound funny and a bit hyperbolic, moves my soul. Lindy Hop is traditionally danced to Swing Jazz. Both the music and the dance were created and evolved together. The rhythms, syncopation, melodies, even the song structures make we want to join in with the band. I just happen to do it with my body (and a partner’s) instead of an instrument.
Q. We understand that there are different swing styles. Can you tell us what they are? Where does Swing, or more specifically, Lindy Hop come from?
A. This is a much deeper and complex question than most people would realize. Lindy Hop evolved in the ballrooms of New York City, specifically the Savoy in Harlem in the late twenties. It came from Charleston along with knowledge of other folk and ballroom dances. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a famous dance group formed from dancers from the Savoy, showcased this style in a number of films during the 30s and 40s. The most famous is a choreographed routine in the movie Hellzapoppin’.
Hellzapoppin’ (1941) – Whiteys Lindy Hoppers w/ Dancers’ Names
Dean Collins is credited with exporting the Lindy Hop from New York to LA in the late 30s. LA dancers had evolved their own styles of dance to the same Swing Jazz music which they just called Swing and is now referred to as LA Swing or Randy Swing. South of LA on the Balboa Peninsula there was a style named Balboa that also emerged. These two styles are now danced in a sort of combination that most people refer to as just Balboa or Bal-Swing.
The Collegiate Shag was also highly popular down the East Coast at the time and many communities had their own regional variations to this and even their own local forms of “Swing” dancing. Nobody had YouTube or even VHS tapes back in the 30s and 40s and the dances spread and evolved quickly as people tried to copy moves from movies or recreate what they learned from a friend’s friend, and so on.
I would consider these all to be the vintage styles of Swing Dancing, where the current communities seek to balance keeping the movement authentic while still expanding and improvising. There are also modern styles of Swing like West Coast Swing or the Carolina Shag which continued to evolve to be danced to other music over the decades. These are impressive and fun in their own way, but I prefer the vintage styles and music.
Q. There seems to be more to Lindy Hop than what many people think. Are there things about Lindy Hop that are important and people should know about them? Would you like to expound on its roots and musicality?
A. The brilliance of the dance is that it is an improvised conversation between two individuals, using their bodies to interpret and respond to the music. No two dances are exactly the same. In the context of a social dance the moves are led and followed on the fly – they are not choreographed in advance. This can be difficult for people outside of the community to understand, because often what they see seems like it must be choreographed. What they’re actually witnessing is solid connection and communication, along with room for experimentation and playfulness. Sure, there are certain types of learned “moves” but the majority of the dance is a dynamic exchange of energies, calls and responses, and is completely made up in the moment. The magic moment is when you and your partner (who could be someone you’ve never danced with before this moment) create a unique, never-to-be-repeated piece of art that will only ever exist for those 3 minutes during that song in that exact moment, and then it’s gone.
Q. It seems that Lindy Hop is really quite popular. What do you see as the future of Lindy Hop in Tampa, Florida, the USA, and the world?
A. If you can’t tell, I love this dance. It fulfills so many needs. It creates a social outlet. It’s both a physical and mental exercise, releases endorphins, and is something you can keep working on and improving to no end. It’s one of the most positive things I’ve ever been involved with.
I’m doing everything I can to help spread and share this dance. I work a regular day job, but in my spare time you’ll find me out at local dances every week. I help teach lessons with Swing Gang on Sunday nights at the Zendah Grotto. I run a blog at lindyhopweekly.blogspot.com and I try to get out to travel and compete whenever possible. There’s already a large scene of Swing dancers in Tampa, but I’d love for it to grow even more.
Nationally, Lindy Hop is big. There are events almost every week somewhere in the country and large national events, workshops, and competitions almost every month. Internationally it’s growing even faster as communities in places like South Korea, Europe and China.
Q. Swing music and dance are closely interrelated. Do you have any recommended singers or bands?
A. It takes some time to develop a dancer’s ear. I’d start with some of the classics – Count Basie, Bennie Goodman, Artie Shaw or Chick Webb. Once you get past the unfamiliarity of hearing old recordings it’s hard to not listen to something like “Lindyhopper’s Delight” and not want to move your feet. I’d recommend checking out Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary (on Netflix streaming) or check out posts about music on my blog at lindyhopweekly.blogspot.com.
Some might be interested to know that this music is still alive and well with bands who specifically cater to the Swing dance community. You can’t go wrong with Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five or Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators. There are so many more to recommend.
Alas, we did not have the time and space to delve deeper into Lindy Hop, which is really very interesting. And we wish to express our sincerest gratitude to Mr. Tom Blair for sharing his personal experience with a fabulous dance called Lindy Hop.
Behind Lindy Hop
Many people are curious about the name Lindy Hop. The exact origin is quite ambiguous. Many say that it was actually because of a 1927 newspaper headline that came out in the papers about the successful flight of Charles Lindbergh to Paris. The headline said, “Lindy Hops the Atlantic.” Although part of the headline was taken, there is no actual “hop” in Lindy Hop. It is a solid and smooth dance with a constant rhythmic 8-count beat.
When it comes to Afro-Euro-American Swing dance, Lindy Hop is the authentic one. It is a joyful and flowing dance that reflects the hot jazz music from the big bands of the 20s. Like other dances, it drew from many influences, including West Coast Swing, Boogie Woogie, Black Bottom, Charleston and even Rock ‘n’ Roll. Tap, breakaway and jazz should also be thrown into the mix. After all, dancing the Lindy Hop means dancing to swing jazz music.
What distinguishes Lindy Hop is the footwork, which seems quite complicated. But when beginners learn the rudiments, it comes easily and naturally. It becomes so when you feel the music in your heart, in your mind, in your bones. That is what is so good about jazz music and it reflects on all of the swing dances. Those feelings all translate to your foot movements.
Different forms and styles
Swing dances do not have one single style. In almost every community, there is a unique form because the dance evolves from many different influences and forms of expressions.
In Los Angeles, their version of the swing dance included footwork influenced by Jig Trot, Fox Trot and Charleston. Areas in the south and Chicago had their own version as well, which was basically based on two-step. Most regional dances have their own influences. Swing dance during the early days took on many forms, such as Balboa, Shag, Charleston and Lindy Hop, which developed during the early days of swing era. By the 1940s, more dances developed, including elden Jive, Rock and Roll, Jive, Hand Dancing, East Coast Swing, and West Coast Swing. Shag had three versions – the Collegiate Shag, Carolina Shag and the St. Louis Shag.
In reality, Swing was a term that had no connection to the swing era or swing music for that matter. There was a dance called Texas Tommy Swing that came out in 1910. It was a misnomer because it surfaced in the Barbary Coast of San Francisco, while swing dances came about in the 1920s and 1930s.
Swing jazz music
As in most cases, music and dance developed and evolved together. Swing jazz music had a syncopated timing that was closely related to West African and African American dance and music that combined quavers and crotchets. These are then interpreted by swing dancers as triple steps and steps, but laced with their own rhythmic changes such as relaxed approach and delays in timing.
The development of the different dance styles of swing was normally a response to what music becomes popular. So we see the solo Charleston being danced to traditional jazz or 2/4 ragtime music. Swinging jazz of the 1920s and 1930s was used often for Lindy Hop and the Lindy Charleston was danced with either swing jazz or traditional jazz.
During the 1990s and 2000s, there were still several big bands that play contemporary jazz. These were swing revival bands from different cities, with the likes of Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators from Seattle, Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers from San Francisco, Gordon Webster Septet from New York, The Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra from Los Angeles and the Beantown Swing Orchestra from Boston, among others.
Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators – Ten ‘Til Five
The development of Lindy Hop was also as a response to the popularity of swing jazz during the 1920s and 1930s. But its popularity today is due to the popularity of neo swing music brought about by the swing revival late in the 1990s up to the early part of 2000s. Several music genres and styles have undergone changes from the time of the popularity of the original swing era that there were questions in the Lindy Hop community as to which type of music is best suited for Lindy Hop.
Lindy Hop uses a wide range of music. It can be danced to several types of swing jazz, such as jazz, jump blues, groove, rhythm and blues, soul, blues and even hip hop. In the American South and Southeast, country and rockabilly are the music that Lindy Hop is frequently danced to. As such, the movements of the dances associated with the music were also incorporated in the style of Lindy Hop, which further expanded and enriched the lively dance.
Association with music legends
While Lindy Hop can be danced to different types of music depending on the location of the Lindy Hoppers, the dance is heavily associated with big name musical personalities such as Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie and Duke Ellington and the big band arrangements that feature these music heavy-weights.
And while Lindy Hop became associated with some of the legendary music personalities, Lindy Hoppers also formed connections with local artists that perform live in their communities, such as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with bandleader George Gee.
Lindy Hop is still as popular as ever, and is actually gaining more following. Local teachers and cultures play a great role in its modern variations. However, you can still see the influences of past and contemporary dancers in the movements of individual dancers today. You see the influences of past masters of Lindy Hop such as Jewel McGowan and Dean Collins from the West Coast and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and Frankie Manning, the African American Lindy Hoppers that belong to the Savoy Ballroom. Dean Collins, the regular partner of Jewel McGowan, was also credited for bringing Lindy Hop from the East Coast to California. The Savoy (Ballroom), which started operation in 1926 became so popular with elite Lindy Hoppers. While the primary habitués of the dance hall were African Americans, it did not discriminate. Colloquially, knowing how to dance was the pass to enter the ballroom.
Competition as to which is the best Lindy Hop (era and dancers) ensued around the 1990s and early 2000s. Debates have been ongoing on which is the best, thus terms began to be associated with different groups of dancers and followers. The Lindy Hop that white dancers followed based on films was called Hollywood-Style Lindy Hop, while the one that was based on what the original African American dancers in New York performed was called the Savoy-Style Lindy Hop. The more recent groups, which has already sprung from different parts of the world however, recognize the fact that there is no one specific style that can be called the best, because Lindy Hop is as diverse as the music and dances that have influenced its constant and ongoing development.
Types of Lindy Hop
The ongoing development of Lindy Hop today is categorized into three – as a social dance, a performance dance and as a competitive dance. Generally in all three types, the partners may dance together or alone, incorporating the improvisation as the core of social dancing as well as in competition and performance styles. There are times when solo sequences are performed in which any or both of the partners start a breakaway, in which case the connection is temporarily broken for a solo act although they are still connected with the visual lead and follow prompts they use. It is exhilarating to see the solo act, which can involve the use of several movements, including modern dance, contemporary jazz, boogie steps, traditional jazz and even Charleston moves.
During competitions and social dances, as well as in Lindy Hop classes and performances, choreographed routines are involved, where dancers show some of the most famous routines, including First Stops, Tranky Doo, Lindy Chorus, Jitterbug Stroll, Dean Collins Shim Sham and Shim Sham.
Through all these types, there are dance floor traditions and etiquettes that are followed. These likewise developed through the years and are almost unspoken yet are imbibed by all the dancers and followers. These involved who to invite to dance, who should be the partner, teachers dancing with students, experienced dancers dancing with beginners and more. The rules are not consistent, but the one tradition that dancers follow is the jam circle, which started way back in the 1930s. To this day, this is followed by Lindy Hop communities. A jam circle is usually unchoreographed and spontaneous, where other couples can join, interrupt or actually replace the first dance couple performing in the cleared circle. You can call it “cutting in” or “stealing” one of the partners. Jam circles can also be planned to enliven the crowd at special events.
With all that talk about the dance, we should not forget one of Lindy Hop’s most popular founding fathers, Frankie Manning, who was born in 1914 in Jacksonville, Florida. His mother was a dancer and at the age of three, they moved to Harlem. Manning was already dancing as a child and attended evening dances at the Renaissance Ballroom before going to the Savoy when he got older. He was already a Savoy regular in the 1930s and from them on became a dancer in “Kat’s Corner,” which was reserved for the elite dancers. This was where competitions and impromptu exhibitions happened.
It was in 1935, during a dance competition at the Savoy Ballroom with George Snowden and his partner, Big Bea that Manning and his partner at that time, Frieda Washington, showed the audience the aerial step, a back to back roll, for the first time. Manning specially requested Chick Webb to perform the song “Down South Camp Meeting.” The execution of the dance step went flawlessly with the music, considering that it was only earlier that evening that Manning heard that particular song.
That same year, Manning began creating Lindy Hop routines for Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. While not officially named, Manning became the troupe’s de facto choreographer. They embarked on tours and even performed in films. The Queen of Swing, Norma Miller, was a partner of Manning. Most of the male dancers were drafted during WWII, which disbanded the group.
From 1947 to 1955, Manning performed with the small group he founded, called the Congaroos. After the group disbanded, Manning found work at the U.S. Postal Service. Around 1985, Manning was again touring and dancing, but this time he had become an inspiration as well as a very popular Lindy Hop instructor. His second career came about because of Al Mins, another member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers who was teaching Lindy Hop at Sandra Cameron Dance Center in New York. He told his students about Manning before he died in 1985. The following year, Steven Mitchell and Erin Stevens contacted Manning and tried to convince him to teach them the Lindy Hop. At first he was skeptical that younger people would be interested in the dance. The two students brought the dance with them to California, which resulted in the new interest in Lindy Hop and the revival of the swing. That same year, Manning was invited to come to Sweden by Lennart Westerlund. Working with The Rhythm Hot Shots, Manning eventually returned to Sweden annually to teach at the Herräng Dance Camp since 1989.
With the revival of Lindy Hop, it was just a matter of time before Manning found himself teaching Lindy Hop to younger followers around the world and coming back to places he’d been to several decades back, such as in Melbourne, Australia. At times he even performed with Norma Miller.
Frankie Manning was already 75 when he co-choreographed Black and Blue, a Broadway musical for which he won a Tony Award in 1989. He received the award as a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2000. In 2009 he was inducted into the Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame of the National Museum of Dance.
His birthday celebrations became reasons for Lindy Hoppers and swing dance enthusiasts from around the world to gather and create huge events such as in New York and Tokyo.
Present-day Lindy Hop
The largest number of Lindy Hoppers in the world are in the United States. The fact is, Lindy Hop’s popularity has spread worldwide, so communities are found today in several locations in Europe, Canada, South America, and in the Asia Pacific Region including Israel, Malaysia, Japan, China and South Korea. Unofficially, the international mecca of Lindy Hop is in Sweden, in the tiny village of Herräng, where the annual Herräng Dance Camp conducted by the Harlem Hot Shots has been going on for 31 years.
Indeed, Lindy Hop is very much alive, with social networking sites being utilized by dancers and communities to share dance cultures and specific dance forms. The culture for Lindy Exchange started in the U.S. and Canada and quickly spread to Europe and the rest of the world. Organized holiday camps and events bring Lindy Hoppers to many parts of the globe. Internet forums were formed by enthusiasts, with Yehoodi being the largest and with a huge international following. Members are currently planning several events for Frankie Manning’s centennial, from May 22 to 26, 2014.