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Swing

By Carrie Stern

Swing, so-called for the big-band jazz to which it is danced, is the common, general term for one of the longest-lived, most flexible social dances ever to hit the dance floor. Claims of origin, or for an originator, abound. Variants of swing each claim a unique designation and regional specificity. The likelihood is that none of these claims is strictly true. Instead, this quintessential United States dance evolved here precisely because of the confluence and collision of multiple movement traditions. Based on either an eight or six count step pattern, swing is extraordinarily adaptable, a key to its long life. Swing has also played a symbolic role in social change.

History

Under the umbrella of swing comes an array of dance variants identified with different regions of the country and by a variety of names. The Lindy Hop, however, supposedly invented in honor of Charles Lindbergh's "hop" across the Atlantic in 1927, is one of the earliest and best known. While Lindbergh may be the source of the name, the Lindy was not “invented” at all. Since the days of slavery, blacks and whites had been exposed to each other’s dance. Slaves mixed steps and movement practices carried from their homelands with elements of white social dance learned on the sidelines of social events or, occasionally, taught to them by whites. One theory about the Cakewalk, for example, states that it was a parody of the formal ballroom dances performed at plantation gatherings. (There is also some supposition that black caretakers, as a form of play, danced with their young white charges.)

The Lindy incorporated aspects of older dances such as the Texas Tommy, partnered versions of the Charleston, and the twostep. Even the term "hop," referring to the basic step of the dance, was not new, having been used in reference to earlier, similar steps appearing in honky-tonk and rhythm and blues dancing. As swing music emerged on the bandstand, these older dance forms were adapted to the new music, dancers finding new ways of moving.

George "Shorty" Snowden, a Savoy Ballroom champion, claims credit for popularizing the Lindy, though he’s not alone.1 It happened on June 17, 1928, the eighteenth and last day of a racially integrated dance marathon in New York City's huge Manhattan Casino ballroom.2 Dance marathons, events that lasted several days with a prize going to the last couple on the floor, attracted both sponsors and audiences, all of whom paid a fee to watch the event. Audience-sponsored minicontests—on-the-spot competitions—were a popular aspect of marathons. Minicontests, arranged with the emcee, offered five or ten-dollar prizes put up by the sponsoring audience member.3

Historians Marshal and Jean Stearns described Snowden’s break-through:

During one of these contests-- as he remembers it--Snowden decided to do a break-a-way, that is, fling his partner out and improvise a few solo steps of his own. In the midst of the monotony of the marathon, the effect was electric, and even the musicians came to life....As Shorty explained later, trying to recall just how it happened: 'I was really doing the regular steps, just like we did them at the Savoy…only a little faster. That's why they called me a flash dancer, because of my speed.....It was just the speed that confused them maybe, but of course most [white] people had never seen anything like it, fast or slow (Stearns 315-316).’

The speed, bounce, and apparent wildness of the dancers’ movement purportedly led band leader Cab Calloway to call the dancers “jitterbugs,” a slang term referring to alcoholics with “the jitters,” i.e., delirium tremens. Calloway’s 1934 song, “Call of the Jitter Bug” popularizing the term. Internet versions of the lyrics vary, suggesting that Calloway may have changed them over time. What all versions share, however, is the message that the jitterbug corrupts because “swinging” is so much fun.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X provides vivid descriptions of jitterbugging and of the organization of Lindy Hops, as dance events were called. Here he describes dancing a "Showtime" at Roseland (Boston) with a teenager named Laura. “Showtimes” were a period of dancing set aside for the best dancers to show-off their best moves. His description gives the feeling of dancing.

I turned up the steam, Laura's feet were flying; I had her in the air, down, sideways, around; backwards, up again, down, whirling....Her hair was all over her face, it was running sweat, and I couldn't believe her strength (Haley 64, 66).

The Lindy, jitterbugging, caused a general revolution in popular dance in the United States. The freedom it offered the individual dancer, rather than the couple, was unprecedented. Not until the appearance of free form rock and roll in the late 1960s, and violent punk dancing in the mid-1970s, would there be such a major change in social dance.

Structure and Style

Swing’s longevity is due largely to its adaptability. The basic dance has been performed to music ranging from early hot swing to boogie-woogie to the highly contained cool jazz of the late 1940s. A simplified six-count swing dance called jive accompanied early 1950s rock’n’roll.4 Swing dancing has been adapted to country and western music, and rock star Christina Aguilera’s 2007 recording “Candyman,” with its WWII-inspired video, is now a swing dance staple.5

Also contributing to its longevity, the structure of the Lindy is simple and easy to learn, The simplicity of the basic step allows for variations in skill, flexibility in technique and style, and room for a good deal of showing off. It is possible to dance an entire musical number without ever varying the basic step. The structure also provides room for modification, adaptation, alteration, and innovation both on the ground and in aerial steps.

There are two basic swing patterns. The eight-count pattern, common in West Coast swing, described here from the leader’s point of view, follows this structure—

Step side left—1, 2—Slow “Rock” to step back right—3—Quick Step forward left—4—Quick Reverse the sequence stepping first to the right.

The “quick, quick” is called a rock step because of the swift change of weight. The movement pattern can also begin with the quick, quick, the slow coming on beats 3, 4 and 7, 8 depending on the variations, turns, etc. that are introduced into the pattern.

The six-count pattern, which suits boogiewoogie for example, described here from the follower’s point of view, follows this structure. The follower always begins with the right foot, the leader with the left—

Step side right—1, 2—Slow Step side left—3, 4—Slow “Rock” stepping back right—5—Quick Step forward left—6—Quick

Swing teacher Margaret Batiuchok—a prime mover in New York City’s swing revival in the 1980s and a member of the Swing Dance Hall of Fame—adds that the dance requires a “swinging feeling” that relates “to the music's syncopated beat, which accents off-beats instead of…the usual first beats of the phrase” (Batiuchok 10). The movement’s swing develops from how the body feels, or attacks, the beat— “1, a2” rather than an even “1,2,3,4” like a polka, for instance. To accomplish this uneven attack the body remains fluid. Batiuchok again: “The body…is loose enough to drop into the beat with weight…The drop does not end in a splat or finish, but is…continuous…and smooth, as easy as a bouncing ball. This can be done at any tempo, which makes it more fun. The variety opens up the possibility for more different moves and moods” (Batiuchok 10).

Over the basic rhythm both moderate and skilled dancers incorporate imaginative footwork, slides, twists and spins, and a variety of sometimes difficult partnered and solo turns. In early 1940, just out of the eighth grade, Malcolm X, then Malcolm Little, learned to Lindy at the Roseland State Theater in Boston's Roxbury section. Here he talks about partnering.

You kind of work opposite them, circling, side-stepping, leading. Whichever arm you lead with is half-bent out there, your hands are giving that little pull, that little push, touching her waist, her shoulders, her arms. She's in, out, turning, whirling, wherever you guide her. With poor partners, you feel their weight, they're slow and heavy. But with really good partners, all you need is just the push-pull suggestion. They guide nearly effortlessly, even off the floor and into the air, and your little solo maneuver is done on the floor before they land, when they join you, whirling, right in step (Haley 63).

Ideally, the entire body responds to the music. Cynthia Millman describes the first time she saw swing innovator Frankie Manning dance. “He didn’t just move his feet and legs; rather, his entire body and even his face responded to the rush of music coming from the bandstand. All of his joints seemed to be bending constantly and articulating rhythmically, an orchestra of moving parts….there was a hip nonchalance to his style” (Manning & Millman 15).

Many "Showtime" swing dancers also knew a little tap dance and incorporated it in their break-aways. As swing grew in popularity, the rhythmic relationship between tap and swing music, and the common steps, led tap dancers and tap choreographers to incorporate swing steps into tap routines. The resulting steps include "flying swing outs" and "flying circles," which have a tap framework and are popular with swing dancers.

Improvisation is important, both separately during break-a-ways and jointly with partners. Improvisation ranges from small, delicate, sometimes impossibly fast twists, stamps, or kicks to large swing-outs and turns. Accomplished partners may add lifts or flips, “air steps” in which dancers simply take off from the floor. Not since Queen Elizabeth I danced the La Volta had social dancing include lifts. In the 1930s and 1940s many jitterbuggers regarded air steps as mere exhibitionism. They preferred to display their skill on the ground. But the autotelic thrill of going into the air spurred many dancers to experiment with height; today classes are taught in aerial moves. Again, Malcolm X--"Nobody in the world could have choreographed the way [African Americans] did whatever they felt--just grabbing partners, even the white chicks who came to the Negro dances....Some couples were so abandoned--flying high and wide, improvising steps and movements--that you couldn't believe it” (Haley 50).

Lindy and Social Revolution

The Lindy not only revolutionized dancing, it also figured in the nascent social reform that the 1930s ushered in, change that eventually lead to both the civil rights and the feminist movements. Social dance in the United States typically followed European forms in which men lead. While this remains true of the partnered Lindy, in the break-a-way, even more than in relatively egalitarian Square Dancing, also a U.S. invention, women freely invent steps expressing their movement instincts without regard to their partners’ dancing. Aerials call for an athleticism not previously allowed women on the dance floor. This new vigorousness in dance, particularly for women, was a corollary to a general movement towards a liberated female physicality that had begun at the turn of the 20th century.

The Lindy also presaged the touch-less sexuality of rock and roll dancing. Band leader Paul Whiteman commented in 1939 that "the present dancing fashion is the least suggestive I've seen in my twenty years on a bandstand. It's one of the few styles that doesn't require contact between the two partners...It's the sort of thing one would expect in a democratic country” (God Bless the Jitterbug 160, quoted in Berg 18).

The Lindy also played a role in integration. Early Lindy was primarily an African American dance, but not for long. “Slumming” is a term used for whites visiting black entertainment venues. As documented by observers from Dickens to Malcolm X, there is evidence that during these visits whites, generally young and male, joined in dancing, eventually bringing the new dances back to their home dance halls. Many dance halls were segregated into the 1940s. “Non-segregated dances,” such as the one during which Snowden claims to have inaugurated the “Lindy Hop,” were generally “black dances” that white dancers were allowed to attend. AfricanAmericans were rarely allowed to dance at “white dances” even when the bands were black. The Savoy Ballroom’s conscious nonsegregation policy was unusual and helped spread the Lindy, one of a number of ways in which swing played a role in integration. “Integrated dances,” like those at the Savoy or Roseland, often forced on dance halls by youth activists as well as market demand, provided opportunities for social mixing of the races unheard of up to this time.

The 1940s also found young whites and blacks gathered at special youth social clubs. Primarily educational, these politically conscious clubs also sponsored dances with live jazz bands. Swing acted as an ice-breaker, particularly at events aimed towards bringing teens into integrated settings where they could discuss politics while challenging segregation policies. These encounters were not without stresses born of the unfamiliarity of the integrated social context and fear of FBI informants.6

Revival

By the early 1960s, with the advent of new social dances like the Stroll, the Madison, and the Funky Chicken, and free form dancing evolving from dances like the Jerk and the Pony, swing disappeared as a major social dance form--but not completely. A white generation that grew up dancing freerock’n’roll also learned to swing at weddings and in living rooms, and from television. African American youth initiated many of these new styles of dance but traces of swing can still be seen in dancing on shows like Soul Train.7

In 1983 a reconstructed swing performance by the Mama Lu Parks Dancers at the Brooklyn Academy of Music helped revive the dance. A small community of primarily white swing dancers was already springing up in cities like Los Angeles and New York. One of them, Margaret Batiuchok, was half of the first, inter-racial Harvest Moon Ball swing championship pair, dancing in 1983 with Savoy ballroom dancer George Lloyd, who was twice her age.

Like many new swing dancers, she had learned swing dancing from her father, a doctor. Walking home from a college class she discovered the now defunct City Limits, New York City, where people were swing dancing several nights a week. It was there she met Lloyd. Swing became her life. Batiuchok is a founder and current president of the NY Swing Dance Society, one of several groups nationally that promotes swing. A tireless teacher of the form, she was one of a handful of dancers who brought attention to Savoy era dancers as teachers and swing mentors. In addition to Lloyd they include Norma Miller and masterful swing teacher Frankie Manning, former chief choreographer of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Savoy champion dancer, and winner of a Tony Award for the Broadway production Black & Blue. Manning became a mentor to many new swing dancers. Through these teachers and propagators of the form, swing has an active life across the country, burgeoning new forms, and devoted followers who channel the 1930s and 1940s in dress and behavior.


NOTES:

1. In only one example, Broadway dancer Ray Bolger claimed on a 1964 Today show that he had invented the Lindy as a tap number at the Hotel Coronado in Saint Louis in 1927. (Stearns 323)

2. Into the 1940s most dance halls scheduled specific, and separate, times for Caucasian and African-American dancers. 3. The best dancers at any dance event were, and are, known for their "speciality," their unique qualities and movements.

4. While they are historically related, social dance swing should not to be confused with the dance performed in the Latin Division of International Style Ballroom, which is said to be based on the dance World War II American troops brought to England.

5. “Candyman” was written with Linda Perry; the video was directed by Matthew Roloston and Aguilera. Perry and Aguilera are upfront about the melody that borrows liberally from the Andrews Sister’s 1941 “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and includes a military cadence sampled from Run to Cadence with the United States Marines, Vol. 2.

6. This little-documented history comes from personal experiences described by this author’s parents in New York City and those of Dr. Shelley Berg’s parents in Washington D.C.

7. Soul Train, created by Chicago DJ Don Cornelius, aired from 1971 to 2006. 


Carrie Stern is a dance writer, teacher and performer. From 2006-2012 she was the dance writer for the Brooklyn Eagle, a column she initiated. She has contributed to Dance Teacher, Dance Magazine, Dancer Magazine/Dance.com and the blog Classical TV, as well as other publications. Stern is currently an adjunct lecturer in dance at Queensborough Community College, and has taught dance and performance studies in the School for New Learning at DePaul University, technique at F.I.T. and writing at the New School. A Teaching Artist for 30 years, with musician Jessica Lurie, she received a Brooklyn Arts Council/Arts In Education regrant in 2009, ’10, and ‘11 for “Yo, Poetry” an integrated arts composition program in poetry, dance and music. Stern received a 2004-2005 New York Foundation in the Arts School Arts Partnership award for “The Play’s the Thing.” She also teaches ballroom dance to children and adults. A choreographer and performer originally from Chicago, today Stern is primarily interested in improvisation, facilitating a Brooklyn based improv group since 2006. Videos of her site-specific work were purchased for the collection of the Chicago Public Library. Stern has sat on arts panels for both the Westchester and the Brooklyn Arts Councils. She has a PhD in Performance Studies.

 

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books & Articles

Anderson, Jervis. This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988.

Batiuchok, Margaret. “The Lindy.” MA Thesis, Gallatin Division of New York University, May 16, 1988.

For more on Batiuchok go to—http://www.nysds.org/nysds and www.danceMB.com.

Berg, Shelley C.  "'Cheek-to-Cheek,'" term paper [photocopy]. 1981(?). Gift of Ms Berg; collection of the author.  

Buckman, Peter. Let's Dance. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1979.

Dixon-Stowell, Brenda. "Dancing in the Dark: The Life and Times of Margot Webb in Afro-American Vaudeville of the Swing Era" PhD. Dissertation. New York University, 1981.

Emery, Lynne Fauley. Black Dance From 1619 to Today. Princeton: Dance Horizons,1988.

Engelbrecht, Barbara. “Swinging at the Savoy (review,) Dance Research Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2, Popular Dance in Black America (Spring, 1983), pp. 3-10.

"God Bless the Jitterbug." The American Magazine Vol.CXXVIII No.3. 1939, September.

Haley, Alex and Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. New York: Ballantine Books, 1965.

Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African American Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Hugill, Stan. Sailortown. New York: E.P. Dutton and Co, 1967.

Manning, Frankie and Cynthia R. Millman. Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.

Martin, Carol. Dance Marathons: Performing American Culture in the 1920s and 1930s.  Jackson, Miss: University of Mississippi Press, 1994.

Miller, Norma and Evette Jensen. Swinging At The Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Sante, Luc. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1991.

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

Stevens, Tamara with Erin Stevens. Swing Dancing. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

Sussman, Warren I. Culture As History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Szwed, John F. and Morton Marks. "The Afro-American Transformation of European Set Dances and Dance Suites." Dance Research Journal 20:1 (Summer 1988).

Moving Image

92-year-old Savoy ballroom dancer Norma Miller at New York Swing Dance Society (NYSDS) Nov 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pR8DKsjVRo\

Dance from Hellzapoppin' with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahoJReiCaPk

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers in Radio City Revels 1938: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esW9ho0YLpA

Margaret Batiuchok and George Lloyd: http://thejamcellar.com/blog/2006/12/19/george-lloyd-margaret-batiuchok/

Margaret Batiuchok and Sonny Lee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXtYewgadQw

Margaret Batiuchok and George Gee: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kdHnzXiQTs

Dawn Hampton and John Dokes with George Gee's orchestra: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4oG7TNVc54 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lrj-dwOICfE

Al Minns talking about swing and other dance forms; in two parts: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6DlmqOWBlg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uQvlwNxKJH0