There are several styles of dance that fall under the umbrella term of ‘swing dance’. These can include lindy hop, charleston, balboa, collegiate shag and solo jazz.
How did lindy hop come about?
The lindy hop was first and foremost a social dance, and as with all cultural phenomena, there isn’t a neat timeline or definitive set of answers to its evolution. However, there are a few key things you should know that will help you appreciate just what a wonderful dance it is.
The lindy hop is a partnered social dance that originated in the African-American communities of Harlem, New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. It evolved with the swingin’ jazz music popular at the time, and its hub was the iconic Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
Sets of moves improvised on the sidewalks made their way into energetic dance competitions in the Savoy, a grand two-tiered ballroom that stood at 596 Lenox Avenue, spanning from 140th to 141st Streets. Unusually for ballrooms at the time, the Savoy was integrated. Dance writer Carrie Stern paints a picture of the Savoy as follows:
According to news and publicity sources following its opening in 1926, the Savoy contained a spacious lobby framing a huge, cut-glass chandelier and marble staircase. Roomy basement checkrooms and carpeted and mirrored lounges served thousands of patrons per night. An orange-and-blue dance hall with a soda fountain, tables and heavy carpeting covering half its area abutted a polished, sprung wood floor commonly described as 250 feet by 50 feet, as long as a football field and about half as wide, though these measurements were probably exaggerated. Due to excessive wear by the approximately twenty-five million pairs of dancing feet that crossed the floor between 1926 and 1958, the floor needed replacing on at least four occasions. A disappearing stage at one end, two bandstands holding the ‘best big bands in the nation’ meant there was never a pause in the music, one band picking up the beat as the other left off.
Whitey’s Lindyhoppers were a professional performance troupe of African-American dancers from the Savoy Ballroom. Founded in 1935 by Herbert ‘Whitey’ White, the group performed nationally and internationally, and appeared in Broadway productions and several feature films (for example, A Day At the Races in 1937 and Hellzapoppin’ in 1941). The group was ultimately disbanded around 1943 when most of its top male dancers were drafted to the US war effort. Whitey’s Lindyhoppers occupy an iconic position in lindy hop history, and the legacy of the original African-American dancers (including prominent members such as Al Minns, Leon James, Frankie Manning and Norma Miller) continues on today.
What’s in a name?
The origins of the name ‘lindy hop’ are often debated in swing history. One theory is that it was named after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 non-stop ‘hop’ across the Atlantic.
When everything old is new again
Lindy hop reached its peak in the 1940s, before slowly starting to go out of style in the 1950s as the sounds of bebop, cool jazz, and rock and roll began to change the music and dance landscapes. Luckily for us, lindy hop had a major revival in the 1980s. Dancers in the US, UK and Sweden sought out original dancers (such as Frankie Manning and Norma Miller of Whitey’s) and asked them to share their knowledge, in turn kicking off a global revival.
Now there are thriving swing communities all around the world, including right here in Canberra. International teachers travel the world conducting workshops (like our very own Jumptown Jam) and globally there is a packed calendar of competitions, camps and social exchanges.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing
Swing dancing and swing music go hand in hand, and the rise of lindy hop was intertwined with the popularity of swing music on the bandstand. If you’re looking to explore the wonderful world of swing music, from wailing big bands to classic jazz standards, here are a few names to get you started: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Chick Webb and Benny Goodman.
For modern bands nailing the swing vibe and playing for dancers all over the globe, check out: Johnathan Stout and His Campus 5, Gordon Webster, Naomi and Her Handsome Devils, The Hot Sugar Band and Professor Cunningham & His Old School.
In Canberra we’re lucky enough to have some top-notch jazz musicians who can keep us swinging out. Keep an eye out on Facebook for our Thursday Night Hop Live socials to experience the joy of dancing to live music! Our annual events, the Jumptown Jam and Canberrang, also feature fantastic line-ups of live music.
The lindy hoppers of today are indebted to those dancers that came before them, many of whom were instrumental not only in creating the dance, but in passing on the lindy tradition and keeping the dance alive. Some names to note are Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Mins, Leon James, Pepsi Bethel, Dawn Hampton, Jean Veloz and Dean Collins. Learning about the history and context of swing can be an important part of your dance journey, and at Jumptown we encourage to inform yourself and learn more about this fascinating piece of living history. Some helpful places to start are:
- Hear Norma Miller in conversation about ‘doing the lindy’ here and find out more about Frankie Manning here.
- Youtube is a treasure trove of inspiration. We’d recommend looking up footage of original dancers (try iconic scenes with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin’, A Day at the Races and Keep Punching), as well as current clips from the Harlem Hotshots, the Snowball, the Savoy Cup, Lind Focus, and the International Lindy Hop Championships.
- The Track is an American podcast interviewing professional dancers, musicians and organisers on the modern international swing scene.
- Big Band Bash is an American podcast dedicated to exploring the music of the swing era.
- The 10 part 'JAZZ' documentary by Ken Burns provides context on the social and cultural history surrounding the music.
- Two essays by dance writer Carrie Stern have comprehensive information on the Savoy and swing.
- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has concise articles on the lindy hop and the role of social dancing.