Swing dance—the heart and soul of Lincoln Center's annual Midsummer Night Swing festival—originated with the Lindy Hop, an African American response to jazz music of the "swing era" (late 1920s through the 1940s). Swing music represented a new way of composing and arranging sound, and the Lindy was an innovative means of making dance the visual equivalent of this music. A simple but workable technical definition of swing is the shift from "two-beat rhythms with accents on the upbeats" to "four/four rhythms with accents on the downbeats." But, of course, it's so much more than that!
Tracing the origins of the Lindy takes us north of Lincoln Center to Harlem and to three of its legendary ballrooms: the Alhambra, the Renaissance, and the Savoy, with the latter regarded as "the pinnacle." As legendary Lindy Hopper Norma Miller and swing-era historian Ernie Smith said, ". . . the Alhambra was grade school, the Renaissance was high school, and the Savoy was college, and beyond!" Without these ballrooms to nurture its bloom, the Lindy might never have existed. Here's the connection: swing music manifests a balance between orchestration and improvisation. Likewise, the Lindy (and the other swing-era dance form, rhythm tap dancing) uses arranged structures and improvisation as equal partners. Both the music and the dance(s) "combine improvisation and arrangement in a single structure." And they met, meshed, and matured in the large, open ballroom spaces where both could stretch their limits.
We see this partnership with music and dance time and again in African American performance art, with one form feeding the other. For example: the Cakewalk became the embodiment of ragtime music; and the Charleston was the movement response to Dixieland jazz. And so the Lindy is music in motion, brought to life by the big band sound of the era. The "swing" in the Lindy had a lot to do with the dancers utilizing their bodies like finely tuned instruments, adding counterpoint and sophisticated rhythmic variations to their movement phrases, allowing the spectator to see swing as well as hear it.
Legend Shorty George Snowden dances the Charleston & Breakaway (1929) by Published by JazzMAD LondonLincoln Center for the Performing Arts
Legend has it that the Lindy was created from an improvisation on the partnered version of the Charleston when Shorty Snowden, a marathon competition dancer, rocked back on his heels and swung his partner out, performing what is now called a breakaway. There's actually footage from 1929 to support this contention.[v] In it, Snowden and his partner are the final dancing couple. They begin with the Charleston and exit with a traveling Cakewalk. In between, during their beautifully smooth routine, Snowden does his famous breakaway—the forerunner of the Lindy Hop.
Addressing one of the cultural issues around the Lindy—namely, its appropriation by whites—brings us to the quagmire that faces us as people living in a society plagued by racism. Ownership and entitlement are crucial issues when the stakes in economic profit and artistic recognition are so high. The Lindy was a dance of freedom and liberation, supposedly representing "the American spirit"; yet those who created it were, and still are, kept in their place by racial segregation and discrimination. As Norma Miller said, "A lot of people wanted to do this dance. But we had an edge. . . . We didn't want them taking our dance—they had everything else." [vi]
And in 1930, Carl Van Vechten, white American writer, photographer, and Harlem Renaissance patron, added some history to Miller’s statement and put it bluntly: "Nearly all the dancing now to be seen in our musical shows is of Negro origin, but both critics and public are so ignorant of this fact that the production of a new Negro revue is an excuse for the revival of the hoary old lament that it is pity the Negro can't create anything for himself, that he is obliged to imitate the white man's revues. This, in brief, has been the history of the Cakewalk, the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom. It will probably be the history of the Lindy Hop."[vii]
Van Vechten speaks of "Negro revues" because the most popular ballroom dances ultimately found their way to the Broadway musical stage. Although our millennial perspective has evolved, there is no denying the truth of his assertions. Contested issues around race, appropriation, and ownership are commonplace on contemporary swing dance blogs.[viii] What African Americans long for is acknowledgment of and respect for the black roots of swing dance—in word and in deed.
All stories about the white interaction with the Lindy are not about love and theft. Black swing music and dance (along with modern art) were condemned by the Third Reich and publicly denounced. The Nazi party line characterized them as obscene, primitive, and rife with "cannibalistic abdominal contortions." This extreme example is chronicled in Swing Kids (1993), one of the least known yet best Hollywood films about World War Two and Nazi Germany. The Swing Youth of Hitler's Germany "pitted themselves in direct opposition to the Hitler Youth movement by dancing the Lindy, listening to jazz, and dressing like 'hep cats,' all of which marked them as 'degenerate.'" Indeed, for many, swing was the sound of democracy and the legacy of freedom.
With such a contested backstory of passion-aggression/love-hate, it is our responsibility to revise and correct the historical record on swing culture, and to give respect and pay credit where they are due. That starts by knowing and celebrating where the "swing" in swing comes from.
© Brenda Dixon-Gottschild 2018. All Rights Reserved.
Originally published on June 11, 2018, at www.lincolncenter.org/article/lindy-hop-origins
About the Author
Brenda Dixon-Gottschild is an author, scholar, dance historian, performer, choreographer, and professor emerita of dance studies at Temple University. She has written four books: Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance - Dance & Other Contexts; Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era; The Black Dancing Body - A Geography from Coon to Cool; Joan Myers Brown & The Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina - A Biohistory of American Performance.
Cover Photo © Kevin Yatarola
Photos 2–3: Courtesy of Life Photo Archive
Photos 4 & 5: © Kevin Yatarola
[i] "Swing dance" is an umbrella term originating in the 1980s when the Lindy experienced a renaissance, largely through the efforts of young white dancers. The authentic swing-era terms were Lindy and Jitterbug.
[ii] Giddins, Gary. Visions of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. p. 13.
[iii] Dixon-Gottschild, Brenda. Waltzing in the Dark – African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, p. 71.
[iv] Ostransky, Leroy. The Anatomy of Jazz.  Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1973 p.246.
[v] Full video: https://youtu.be/LcnpZfsfwDA
[vi] Dixon-Gottschild, op. cit., p. 73, quoting Norma Miller.
[vii] Dixon-Gottschild, op. cit., p.74, quoting Carl Van Vechten.
[ix] Back, Les. "Nazism and the Call of the Jitterbug." In Dancing in the City, edited by Helen Thomas, 175–197, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. p.183.
[x] Dixon-Gottschild, op.cit., p.219.