Swing Dancing

What we talk about when we talk about “swing dancing”

Swing dance is a group of dances that developed with the swing style of jazz music in the 1920s–1940s, with the origins of each dance predating the popular “swing era”. During the swing era, there were hundreds of styles of swing dancing, but those that have survived beyond that era include: Lindy Hop, Balboa, Collegiate Shag, and Charleston. Today, the most well-known of these dances is the Lindy Hop, which originated in Harlem in the early 1930s. While the majority of swing dances began in African American communities as vernacular African American dances, some swing era dances, like Balboa, developed outside of these communities.Somewhat surprisingly, “swing dance” was not commonly used to identify a group of dances until the latter half of the 20th century. Historically, the term “Swing” referred to the style of jazz music, which inspired the evolution of the dance. Jitterbug is an umbrella term that denotes all forms of swing dance, though it is often used as a synonym for the six-count derivative of Lindy Hop called “East Coast Swing”. It was also common to use the word to identify a kind of dancer (i.e., a swing dancer). A “jitterbug” might prefer to dance Lindy Hop, Shag, or any of the other swing dances. The term was famously associated with swing era band leader Cab Calloway because, as he put it, “[The dancers] look like a bunch of jitterbugs out there on the floor due to their fast, often bouncy movements.”The term “swing dancing” is often extended to include other dances that do not have certain characteristics of traditional swing dances: West Coast Swing, Carolina Shag, East Coast Swing, Hand Dancing, Jive, Rock and Roll, Modern Jive, and other dances developed during the 1940s and later. A strong tradition of social and competitive boogie woogie and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Europe add these dances to their local swing dance cultures.

Lindy Hop

The Lindy hop is an American dance which was born in Harlem, New York City, in 1928 and has evolved since then with the jazz music of that time. It was very popular during the swing era of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Lindy was a fusion of many dances that preceded it or were popular during its development but is mainly based on jazz, tap, breakaway, and Charleston. It is frequently described as a jazz dance and is a member of the swing dance family.In its development, the Lindy hop combined elements of both partnered and solo dancing by using the movements and improvisation of African-American dances along with the formal eight-count structure of European partner dances – most clearly illustrated in the Lindy’s basic step, the swingout. In this step’s open position, each dancer is generally connected hand-to-hand; in its closed position, leads and follows are connected as though in an embrace on one side and holding hands on the other.There was renewed interest in the dance in the 1980s from American, Swedish, and British dancers and the Lindy hop is now represented by dancers and loosely affiliated grass-roots organizations in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania.Lindy hop is sometimes referred to as a street dance, referring to its improvisational and social nature. In 1932, twelve-year-old Norma Miller did the Lindy hop outside the Savoy Ballroom with her friends for tips. In 1935, 15,000 people danced on Bradhurst Avenue for the second of a dance series held by the Parks Department. Between 147th and 148th street, Harlem “threw itself into the Lindy hop with abandon” as Sugar Hill residents watched from the bluffs along Edgecombe Avenue.

East Coast Swing

The dance was created by dance studios including the Arthur Murray dance studios in the 1940s, based on the Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop was felt by dance studios to be both too difficult and too unstructured to teach to beginning dancers, but there was market demand for training in Swing Dance. The dance studios had initially dismissed Lindy Hop in particular as a fad. East Coast Swing can be referred to by many different names in different regions of the United States and the World. It has alternatively been called Eastern Swing, Jitterbug, American Swing, East Coast Lindy, Lindy (not to be confused with Lindy Hop), and Triple Swing. Other variants of East Coast Swing that use altered footwork forms are known as Single Swing or “Single-step Swing” (where the triple step is replaced by a single step forming a slow, slow, quick, quick rhythm common to Foxtrot), and Double Swing (using a tap-step footwork pattern).East Coast Swing is a Rhythm Dance that has both 6 and 8 beat patterns. The name East Coast Swing was coined initially to distinguish the dance from the street form and the new variant used in the competitive ballroom arena (as well as separating the dance from West Coast Swing, which was developed in California). While based on Lindy Hop, it does have clear distinctions. East Coast Swing is a standardized form of dance developed first for instructional purposes in the Arthur Murray studios, and then later codified to allow for a medium of comparison for competitive ballroom dancers. It can be said that there is no right or wrong way to dance it; however, certain styles of the dance are considered correct “form” within the technical elements documented and governed by the National Dance Council of America. The N.D.C.A. oversees all the standards of American Style Ballroom and Latin dances. Lindy Hop was never standardized and later became the inspiration for several other dance forms such as: (European) Boogie Woogie, Jive, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing and Rock and Roll.In practice on the social dance floor, the six count steps of the East Coast Swing are often mixed with the eight count steps of Lindy Hop, Charleston, and less frequently, Balboa.

Charleston

While the dance probably came from the “star” or challenge dances that were all part of the African-American dance called Juba, the particular sequence of steps which appeared in Runnin’ Wild were probably newly devised for popular appeal. “At first, the step started off with a simple twisting of the feet, to rhythm in a lazy sort of way. [This could well be the Jay-Bird.] When the dance hit Harlem, a new version was added. It became a fast kicking step, kicking the feet, both forward and backward and later done with a tap.” Further changes were undoubtedly made before the dance was put on stage. In the words of Harold Courlander, while the Charleston had some characteristics of traditional Negro dance, it “was a synthetic creation, a newly-devised conglomerate tailored for wide spread popular appeal.” Although the step known as “Jay-Bird”, and other specific movement sequences are of Afro-American origin, no record of the Charleston being performed on the plantation has been discovered. Although it achieved popularity when the song “Charleston”, sung by Elisabeth Welch, was added in the production Runnin’ Wild, the dance itself was first introduced in Irving C. Miller’s Liza in the spring of 1923. Willie “The Lion” Smith noted that the dance was known well before that; in particular, he mentions the version done by Russell Brown under the name “Geechie dance”. Charleston rhythm. Play (help·info)The characteristic Charleston beat, which Johnson said he first heard from Charleston dockworkers, incorporates the clave rhythm and was considered by composer and critic Gunther Schuller to be synonymous with the Habanera, and the Spanish Tinge. Johnson actually recorded several “Charlestons,” and in later years derided most of them as being of “that same damn beat.” Several of these were recorded on player piano rolls, several of which have survived to this day. The Charleston and similar dances such as the Black Bottom which involved “Kicking up your heels” were very popular in the later part of the 1920s. They became less popular after 1930, possibly because after seven years of being fashionable people simply became less interested. The new fashion for floor level sheath evening dresses was also probably a factor. The new dresses constricted the leg movements essential for the Charleston. There is a British Pathé Instructional Short from 1933 in which a new variation – The “Crawl Charleston” – is demonstrated by Santos Casini and Jean Mence. This shows a very sedate version of dance similar to a Tango or Waltz. It wasn’t until dress hem lines rose toward the end of the thirties that the Charleston is again seen in film.A slightly different form of Charleston became popular in the 1930s and 1940s, and is associated with Lindy Hop. In this later Charleston form, the hot jazz timing of the 20s Charleston was adapted to suit the swing jazz music of the 1930s and 1940s. This style of Charleston has many common names, though the most common are Lindy Charleston, Savoy Charleston, 30s or 40s Charleston and Swing(ing) Charleston. In both 20s Charleston and Swinging Charleston, the basic step takes eight counts and is danced either alone or with a partner.Frankie Manning and other Savoy dancers saw themselves as doing Charleston steps within the Lindy rather than to be dancing Charleston.

Balboa

The Balboa is a swing dance that originated in Southern California during the 1920s (though it may have started as early as 1915) and enjoyed huge popularity during the 1930s and 1940s. The term Balboa originally referred to a dance characterized by its close embrace and full body connection. It emphasizes rhythmic weight shifts and lead-follow partnership. Different dancers in the same region at the same time also danced “swing,” a dance characterized by twists, turns, and open-position movement. Over time, these two dances merged and became collectively known as Balboa. The original Balboa dance is now referred to as Pure Balboa, and the original “Swing” dance is now referred to as Bal-Swing or L.A. Swing to differentiate it from other types of swing. Because of its emphasis on subtlety and partnering rather than flashy tricks, Balboa (Pure Balboa in particular) is considered more of a “dancer’s dance” than a “spectator’s dance.”Balboa is danced to swing music, primarily big-band swing music of the 1930s and 1940s to artists such as Chick Webb, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington at tempos of about 180 to 250 beats per minute. It is also danced to other types of swing music, including small combos and gypsy jazz (e.g., Django Reinhardt). Because the basic step takes up such a small space, Balboa can also be danced to fast music (over 300 beats per minute). The dance can also be drawn out and danced to slower tempos, when it is known as slow Balboa. In the modern swing dancing era, thousands of dancers continue to enjoy Balboa alongside other swing dances such as Lindy Hop and Charleston, and lessons and dances are available in cities around the world.

Shag

The Collegiate Shag (or “Shag”) is a partner dance done primarily to uptempo swing and pre-swing jazz music (185-250+ beats per minute). It belongs to the swing family of American vernacular dances that arose in the 1920s and 30s. It is believed that the dance originated within the African American community of the Carolinas in the 1920s, later spreading across the United States during the 1930s. Because the basic step takes up such a small space, the Shag can also be danced to fast music (over 300 beats per minute). The shag is still danced today by swing dance enthusiasts worldwide.

St. Louis shag is a swing dance that evolved from the Lindy Hop, Collegiate Shag and Charleston. It is a fast, closed position dance that is usually done to stomp, jump, and boogie-woogie music.St. Louis Shag is a territory swing dance which originated in St. Louis, Missouri in the 1930s. The dance has a stationary 8-count basic that is commonly composed of triple-step, kick, triple-step, kick. Another basic version, popularized by Kenny Wetzel, an East St. Louis native who moved to Southern California in the 1950s, is composed of triple-step, kick, step-stomp, run-run. Eddie Plunkett and Dottie Spokesfield of St. Louis had another version of the basic composed of triple-step, kick, double kick.The dance’s rhythmic variations include inside crosses (also known as over the tops), fall off the logs, and customizable stomps, kicks, taps, and holds. St. Louis Shag is often done to up-tempo swing, rock and roll, and blues music. Dancers usually transition freely between shag and jitterbug steps.The Shag has a long history in St. Louis, first in swing, then rock and roll, jazz, jump blues, and R&B, which probably changed the dance’s look and feel while preserving its characteristics. Pioneers of St. Louis Shag include 1930s and 40s-era dancers Tommy Russo, Dolores Shy, Virginia Shy, Mike Renda, Joe Renda, Eva Renda, Eddie Plunkett, Dottie Spokesfield, Jim Byrnes, and Lorraine Byrnes. Dancers from the 1950s, ’60s, and beyond include Kenny Wetzel, John Bedrosian, Valerie LaFemina, Bob Brooks, and Sylvia Sykes.

© Swing Devils at ASU, 2019

Header/BG Image by Eric Esquivel under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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