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 is first and foremost a social dance, and as with many cultural phenomena, it can be difficult for historians to pin down a neat timeline for its evolution. However, there are a few key things you should know that will help you appreciate the heritage of this wonderful dance.
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.
Improvised sets of moves made their way into energetic social dancing and competitions in the Savoy Ballroom, a grand two-tiered ballroom in Harlem. It stood at 596 Lenox Avenue, spanning from 140th to 141st Streets and was a famed nightspot and hub for lindy hop. Unusually for ballrooms at the time, the Savoy was integrated.
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers 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 Lindy Hoppers 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 aviator 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 as a popular dance 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 uptick in popularity 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 resurgence.
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 social exchanges, competitions, camps.
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, Jimmie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Artie Shaw, Chick Webb, Lionel Hampton, and Benny Goodman.
For modern bands nailing the swing vibe and playing for dancers all over the globe, check out: Johnathan Stout & His Campus 5, Gordon Webster, Naomi and Her Handsome Devils, The Hot Sugar Band, the Hornsgatan Ramblers, and Professor Cunningham & His Old School.
In Canberra and Australia more broadly 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 importance of social dancing
At its heart, lindy hop is all about social dancing – after all, that’s how it was created! Although going to classes is great, once you have a beginner course under your belt we highly encourage you to come out social dancing as well. All levels of dancers attend (from beginners to advanced) and you don’t need to bring a partner as you just ask people to dance once you get there.
Social dancing is a fantastic way to practice your lindy hop and get comfortable with all the different steps and moves you learn in class. You’ll have fun and get a proper feel for the dance and the awesome music of the swing era, with all its joyous rhythms, improvisations and connections.
The lindy hoppers of today are indebted to those that came before them, many of whom were instrumental not only in creating the dance, but in generously passing on and sharing the lindy tradition. Some names to note are Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, Leon James, Willa Mae Ricker, Pepsi Bethel, Dawn Hampton, Jean Veloz, Jewel McGowan, and Dean Collins.
Learning about the history and context of swing is an important part of your dance journey, and we encourage to inform yourself about the heritage of the dance. Some helpful places to start are:
- Hear Norma Miller in conversation about ‘doing the lindy’ here and find out more about Frankie Manning here.
- Check out this Google Arts and Culture online exhibition for some great photos and facts on the legacy of Frankie Manning and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.
- Youtube is a treasure trove of inspiration. We’d recommend looking up the black and white footage of original dancers (try iconic scenes with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin’, A Day at the Races and Keep Punching, or footage from the documentary The Spirit Moves), as well as current clips from the Harlem Hotshots, the Snowball, the Savoy Cup, Lindy Focus, and the International Lindy Hop Championships.
- The Frankie Manning Foundation has curated an early lindy hop archive, with biographies of some of the original African-American dancers. It also contains a list of early films that included lindy hop, including the names of the featured dancers and the historical context of the footage.
- Read this article on the Harlem Renaissance from The National Museum of African American History and Culture (US). It sets out the historical background of how Harlem, NYC became a hub for African-American people and culture (including swing music) during the 1920s.
- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has concise articles on the lindy hop and the role of social dancing
- 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 jazz music.
Balboa is another swing-era dance that took off in America in the 1920s and 1930s. It was named after the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, California. It’s a partnered social dance done to swingin’ jazz and some of its distinguishing features are its close embrace and elegant, shuffling footwork. It evolved in crowded dance halls where space was limited, and because of its neat footwork and compact nature it’s perfect for faster tempos!
Balboa is danced all over Australia and the world, with plenty of dedicated workshops, competitions and social exchanges. At social dances (including here in Canberra) you’ll always find balboa danced alongside the lindy hop and other swing-era dances. In fact, many swing dancers can switch between the two, sometimes even during the same song!