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Swing Dance

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Leon James and Willa Mae Ricker demonstrating a step of the Lindy Hop


Swing dance is a recent umbrella term that describes the range of partner-dances associated with swing-music. Some like the Balboa, the Shag, the Peabody and rhythmic versions of conventional ballroom dances, actually pre-date swing-music. Swing Dance's defining core consists of a succession of couple dances stemming from the Lindy Hop or Jitterbug that took shape at the Savoy Ballroom in the late 1920s, and which drew on almost the entire history of African-American dance forms for its source material. Based on the "swing out" - two partners engaging in reciprocally counter-balanced swinging movements around each other - other embellishments were added. The Lindy Hop divides into variations on the "swing out," "floor routines" during which the partners dance together but without holding, and acrobatic "air steps," its most recognised feature. Connected by continuously flowing rhythms, all three "aspects" are danced without interruption. Usually when "socially dancing," practised couples mostly improvise their movements as opposed to more typically utilising rehearsed choreographies when "competing" or "performing." This diversity of interpretation expanded as swing music matured through the growing popularity of big bands like those of Benny Goodman, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington in the middle 1930s. Major touring, Broadway and Hollywood appearances followed as most notably expressed in the movie Hellzapoppin (1941). Having reshaped many other Swing Dances in its own image, LIFE magazine proclaimed The Lindy Hop as "America's national dance" in 1943. The original Lindy Hop became somewhat lost however among the many dance forms which derived from or were influenced by it, especially after the 1950s. The rise of Hip Hop in the later 1970s refocused attention back on the basics. The 1980s resurgence of the Lindy Hop unsurprisingly led to new interest in other formerly well-known Swing Dances, which are now jointly celebrated in events across the USA and literally all round the world.

Pictured left: Leon James and Willa Mae Ricker demonstrating a step of the Lindy Hop. One of the best known and earliest swing dances, the Lindy originated in the late 1920s; its crucial element was the “swing out,” which allowed the partners—-as pictured here—-to dance independently, improvising their own steps, rather than remaining in a continuous ballroom hold. (Photograph by Gjon Mili, published in LIFE Magazine, 1943.) 

Jitterbug dancers, 1938



Pictured rightJitterbug dancers, 1938. The term “jitterbug,” derived originally from a slang term for alcoholics suffering the “jitters,” and popularized by Cab Calloway, described both the wild rhythmic energy of swing dancing and its dangerously addictive pleasures.


Read an essay by Carrie Stern -- Selected Resources








In this excerpt from the 1941 feature film Helzapoppin’, members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (billed here as the Harlem Congaroos), perform their signature acrobatic version of the Lindy Hop. The costumes worn by the dancers reflect the subservient personas African American artists were often required to assume in mainstream entertainment during this era, but the dancers’ individuality, innovation and virtuosity belie the imposed stereotypes.