Swing Dancing

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Swing Dancing

In the 1930s swing bands emerged at the forefront of American popular music, evolving from the jazz genre, which was primarily produced and listened to by blacks, into one patronized also by urban whites. Long before baseball was integrated, the big swing bands—led by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie—brought together black and white musicians in a new social amalgam that decisively changed American culture. Musically, swing offered rhythmic flexibility. Swing music is marked by a subtle swaying, living pulse, which came from musicians playing just ahead of the beat enough to be syncopated, or dragging behind it enough to be bluesy. Swing, notes historian Lewis Erensberg, caused "a general revolution in the popular dance in the United States" as white youth took up the black dance innovations in order to banish whatever ballroom gentility remained in the Depression. After World War II, swing grew increasingly fragmented, and became less of a dance music and more of a concert music. Although bebop succeeded it as the new wave of jazz innovation, it did not stimulate a new form of social dancing.

Harlem became the cultural capital of black America in the late 1920s and it is here that swing dancing began, first appearing as the Lindy Hop. Originated among secret gangs in Harlem—which was quickly being populated by African-Americans as whites departed—the steps were refined and made famous by dancers at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Lindy Hop refers to Charles Lindbergh's "hop"—his historic solo flight—across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. Observing the acrobatics of some dancers at the Savoy Ballroom, "Shorty George" Snowdon, a dance enthusiast, said "Look at them kids hoppin' over there. I guess they're doin' the Lindy Hop." The swing combined steps from the shag, the Texas tommy, and vaudeville into a ballroom dance—a syncopated two-step or box step that accented the offbeat; the fundamental innovation of the dance was the "breakaway," when the partners spun away from each other and improvised a break. The acrobatic or "air steps" were judo-like variations in which partners would roll and flip each other over the back. The Lindy Hop evolved into the jitterbug—a more acrobatic and an almost "choreo-graphed" version of the Lindy Hop. "The white jitterbug is oftener than not uncouth to look at," reported the New York Times according to swing historian David Stowe, "but his Negro original is quite another matter. His movements are never so exaggerated that they lack control, and there is an unmistakable dignity about his most violent figures."

Jitterbug enjoyed enormous popularity from 1936 until the end of the war. Every soda shop had a jukebox where teenagers were able to jitterbug after school. Eventually, in the late 1940s, the Lindy and jitterbug evolved into what has come to be called "East Coast swing"—which had a rotating character, the couple has no fixed relation to the room. An almost separate version of swing dancing developed on the West Coast, in which the two partners remain in a narrow slot on the dance floor. Even after swing was musically moribund, jitterbug remained the basic framework for couples dancing in the early days of rock 'n' roll. It passed from the scene only after the Twist had introduced the stand alone form of dancing in the early 1960s.

In the late 1990s, partnered social dancing began to make a comeback, with swing dancing an integral part of the revival. There has also been a renaissance of swing and big band music—typified by groups like the Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Ballroom dance classes became extremely popular, particularly on college campuses. In the larger cities, ballrooms, dance clubs, and the larger dance teaching studios offer special nights of swing dancing. Contemporary social dancing reflected an extensive process of blending: for instance, hip hop dance styles have incorporated elements of the Lindy and jitterbug and new swing styles showed a strong Latin influence.

—Jeffrey Escoffier

Further Reading:

Erenberg, Lewis A. Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York, Macmillan, 1968.

Stowe, David. Swing Changes. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1994.