Swing is a term associated with a type of Jazz music which has origins from the beginning of the 20th Century in the United States of America. The term “swing” is also applied to the dances that are associated with and danced to the Jazz music of the time. Jazz and, within it, Swing are two types of music that have origins in African American culture and its rich and complex history. Swing in particular is associated with jazz music from the end of the 1920s through to the 1930s and 1940s when the rhythmical feeling of the song was said to “swing” more, in comparison to earlier jazz music such as Charleston songs. Both the music and the dances were very widespread from the end of the 1920s through to the 1930s and 1940s. These swing dances include the Lindy Hop, Balboa, Shag, Authentic Jazz and other more “fad” dances of the time like the Charleston. Swing music and swing dances are still widely enjoyed to this day all over the world. There is more than likely a community near you where you could learn to dance to swing music.
The history of these swing dances and their origins is not always clear as there is not much written or recorded information from the time but from what little there is, especially from the stories of elders that were present during the swing era, we can piece together a general picture of the history and development of these dances.
The Lindy Hop, the most popular of the Swing dances, even to this day, originated from the African American community of Harlem, New York from around 1900. By 1928 the term Lindy Hop was very well recognised. The Lindy Hop is known for its high energy, fast and rhythmical footwork, and acrobatic steps (or aerials). The first aerial was created by the ambassador of Lindy Hop, Frankie Manning. Frankie was a celebrated Lindy Hopper during his youth and was part of the famous dance troupe ‘Whiteys’ Lindy Hoppers’, he also helped with the continued growth of the Lindy Hop well beyond his youth. There are other famous Lindy Hop dancers that are worth noting and looking into including Norma Miller, Shortie Geroge, Big Bea, Al Minns, Leon James, Dawn Hampton, Sugar and George Sullivan, Tops and Wilda Crawford, Willa Mae Ricker, Dean Collins, Jewel McGowan, Jean Veloz and many, many others. Lindy Hop is also danced to slower tempo and mid-tempo music with plenty of room for individual expression, rhythmical feet and connection with your dance partner.
Another important dance in the swing family is Balboa. It’s origins are from California and it is said to have originally started at The Balboa Peninsula on Newport Beach, a popular holiday spot at the time. The dance is characterised as being more upright and in a closer hold, the closed position involves the couple dancing with connection from the chest and is often called Pure Balboa. More dynamic steps later developed into the dance that involved separating from this connection and that is called Bal Swing. Nowadays it is quite common to mix both movements from Pure Bal and Bal Swing in your Balboa dancing. Some famous names from Balboa history are Hal Takier, Betty Takier, Willie Desatoff, Ann Mills, and Marge Takier among others. Dancers today often mix between Pure Bal and Swing Bal movements and also dance to a range of music with the average tempo of the dance being a bit more up tempo.
Shag, sometimes called Collegiate Shag, is a dance with similarly blurry origins. There are theories that it was created in the South of the United States of America with roots in Black American dances from vaudeville shows as well as some dances mentioned in newspapers in Carolina that were called “shag” dances. This was around the 1930s and also was danced to swing music. Shag became very big when it was introduced to the Harvest Moon Ball in 1937. The Harvest Moon Ball was an amateur ballroom competition which included many dance divisions including one for the Lindy Hop. There are a few historic clips of Shag dance, from the years that Shag was in the Harvest Moon Ball, as well as a well-known video clip called the Venice Beach Clip where you can see both Balboa and Shag being danced. It is a very dynamic dance which also works perfectly on faster tempo music allowing the feet to fly with it’s fast kicking basics.
Authentic Jazz, also called Vernacular Jazz or Solo Jazz, is an intrinsic part to swing dancing. It was often a part of the Lindy Hop and even Shag dances that were danced in the 1930s and 40s and is characterised as being an individual dance. Authentic Jazz routines such as the Shim Sham (adapted from the original Tap Routine), the Tranky Doo, the Big Apple, Mama’s Stew and others are a key part of the history of the dance and often intertwined with the partner dance. Lindy Hop being a Black American art form it thrives on certain characteristics of the culture which include individual expression and movement. Learning to dance as an individual to swing music and with an awareness of the history and the culture of swing music and dances is incredibly useful for developing as a dancer and is a fundamental part of the partner dances as well. The Lindy Hop often included moments of “break away” for individual dancing whilst still interacting with your partner, sometimes these solo jazz moments are danced as pre-planned choreographies, and sometimes as spontaneous, individual expressions of the dance.
THE MUSIC IN SWING
These swing dances were often danced in the many large and impressive ballrooms around America, predominantly as social dances, danced by the masses, but they were also performed and popular in various shows, films and soundies (short films). One famous ballroom which is particularly notable in the development of Lindy Hop as a dance is the Savoy Ballroom, which was America’s first racially integrated ballroom. It was also known as the best ballroom for Lindy Hop dancers and the birthplace of the famous Lindy Hop dance troupe, ‘Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were in a lot of films at the time including most famously “Hellzapoppin”, “Day At the Races” and “Radio City Revels” to name just a few. The group also toured throughout the United States of America and beyond into Europe and South America.
Swing music is an umbrella term which includes styles such as Ragtime, Dixieland Jazz, New Orleans Jazz, Big Band Jazz and the Blues. In the ballrooms of the era, dancers would be swept away by Big Band Jazz played by the best bands of the era including those of Chick Webb, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fess Williams, Erskine Hawkins, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and Harry James to name a few. These bands and this music also gave rise to incredible solo musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker among others. One of the great characteristics of swing music is that there is both impressive unison between the multiple musicians and that the music also allows for playfulness and improvisation from individual musicians.
The origins of this big band music come from New Orleans and the early jazz that was played there at the beginning of the 20th Century. The music developed and picked up a lot of different influences from across the United States including Chicago and Kansas City before it developed into that swinging big band style in New York that was especially characteristic of places such as the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The Big Band genre in particular owes a lot to great musicians and band leaders such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington who were among the first to organise and coordinate such large groups of musicians for dance nights, shows and tours. Swing was at its peak from around mid-1930s through to the end of the 1940s, sometimes called the Swing Era.
After the Second World War and because of various changes, including restrictions on venues and financial limitations, very few of the big bands remained. Two of particular note that lasted well beyond the Swing Era were the Count Basie Orchestra and the Duke Ellington Orchestra. For many others, the bands mostly developed into smaller arrangements called trios, quartets, quintets and sextets. Swing music remained but it simultaneously developed into a range of other great music including Be Bop, RnB, Motown and many more styles both within and outside of the Jazz family of music. There are also plenty of great musicians that continue to carry on the tradition of this swing music and some even the big band style including Wynton Marsalis, Enric Peidro, Jonathan Stout, Lester’s Blues, Reverent Juke and many others. The swing dances also carried on beyond the 30s and 40s and developed into other dances like Hand Dancing, West Coast Swing, Rock and Roll, and Boogie Woogie among others.
If you want to start discovering some of this great music we have created some playlists that are perfect for both beginner and more experienced dancers who want to listen to music that we really love.
Check out the playlists here: https://open.spotify.com/user/p9gestuy3wgn0rqfw3h0w5v7v
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT OF SWING
It’s impossible to look into the history of swing music and swing dances without encountering a lot of difficult and vital conversations about race. As mentioned previously, this music and these dances are predominantly Black, African American art forms and when not from the culture, it is important to be aware of and honour the culture and it’s struggles, both historic and in the present day.
There is a reason why there are not many historical records of the dances and a part of that is the struggle of Black people to have representation in a world dominated by white supremacy. As dancers and people who are interested in learning about this music and these dances it is vital that we stay humble in our relationship to the culture and keep educating ourselves on the history of these amazing artists as well as acknowledging the struggles that they faced and that is still faced by Black people today. These are not easy subjects but it certainly doesn’t mean we should shy away from them.
There is some great work being done both within the swing dance community and beyond, we would recommend looking into
- books such as ‘Natives’ by Akala (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/36352480-natives)
- videos such as ‘The Danger Of A Single Story’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare)
- organisations such as Collective Voices For Change (https://www.collectivevoicesforchange.org/)
- resources to keep learning from (https://www.collectivevoicesforchange.org/resources).
- ILHC Legacy Series for more specifics about the swing dancers we would recommend also looking into the (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL00oSiWZlEA2tpYpreezhqxiQ0PPq-DAf)
Swing dance, in all its forms, has a powerful, rich history and is a very fun way to dance to a beautiful form of music. It’s very easy to start learning swing dances, many major cities in the world now have swing dance scenes where they teach the main dances including the Lindy Hop, Authentic Jazz, Balboa and Shag. It’s a great way to get to know a bit about this African American art form and its growth as well as a great way to meet people. There’s also a lot of options online and for those that already have a bit of experience, check out our Patreon (www.patreon.com/ariandsimon).