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Swing Dance History

A Brief History of Jive

By Erica Simpson


Swing dancing has enjoyed popularity for almost a hundred years. The history of swing goes as far back as the 1920s. The black community devised a number of dances, such as the Cakewalk and Charleston, to be danced to contemporary Jazz music. Combining the influences of these various dances led to a wild and spontaneous form of dance, named the Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom in 1927. The Savoy was a popular location, offering nightly dancing to all comers. It quickly attracted the best dancers in New York City, both black and white. The Lindy Hop is sometime credited with helping to break the race barrier in dancing.

The name Lindy Hop comes from the celebration of the famous cross-Atlantic trip by Charles Lindbergh. When asked by a reporter what the dance performed at the Savoy that night was called, an attendee replied, tongue-in-cheek, that it was the “Lindy Hop.” The name stuck, and this energetic form of swing has been referred to that way ever since. A variation called the Jitterbug came about in the early 1930s. Dancers of this style were thought to look as though they’d been drinking illegal moonshine, or “jitter-juice.” These wilder dancers often took up the middle of the floor, leaving the more sedate types to find a space along the edges. In the West, the dancers around the edges eventually tended to dance in a sort of “slot” formation. This styling eventually led to what is called West Coast Swing.

West Coast swing is distinguished from other forms of swing dance by its smoother, more sedate style. It has also been called Sophisticated Swing. When the Jitterbug and Lindy Hop were banned from serious dance halls in the 1940s, West Coast Swing took over. The West Coast Swing is known for a distinctive look resulting from its basic technique of partner connection. Partners stand with a low, loose-legged posture, giving them a low center of gravity. Elastic push and pull compression occurs between the partners. Carolina Shag has a similar stance, but less compression across the dance. The West Coast Swing is one of the most improvisational of the various types of swing, outside of its basic footwork. Modern West Coast Swing can be danced in the traditional, more conservative style, or more wildly, like the Lindy Hop. West Coast Swing is quite versatile, allowing it to be danced to almost any music in 4/4 time. Although it originated in what we generally think of as the “swing era” of music, modern West Coast Swing has been danced to funk, rock, and pop music, as well as the usual Big Band fare.

East Coast Swing, comparatively, is quite codified. This type of swing was developed from Eastern Swing, which evolved itself from the Lindy Hop and Foxtrot, for competitive dancers. In the 1930s, professional dance teachers tried to ignore swing dancing, because it was widely regarded as too wild for formal dance class. The popularity of swing proved impossible to avoid, however, and East Coast Swing was created as a formalized, tamed down version of the dance that could be taught to ball room dance students. The rules of East Coast Swing are defined by the National Dance Council of America, allowing dancers to be graded against one another in ballroom competitions. Because of this, East Coast Swing has been called Ballroom Swing as well. It is one of the only forms of swing dancing that can be danced in a right and wrong way. East Coast Swing is one of the simpler forms of swing dance, performed in six counts. It has also been referred to as Single Time, Triple Step, and Six Count Swing dancing because of this. The basic moves and styling of this dance make it forgiving and accessible to beginners, and forgiving of mistakes and different types of music. The East Coast Swing is popularly taught in ballroom dance classes, and can be done to almost any tempo or music style.

By the 1950s, swing dancing had effectively been co-opted from its Harlem roots into mainstream culture. It had been codified and tamed, and was being taught as a ballroom dance across the country. Many varieties of swing spread out from the original heart of swing, including hand dancing, Jive, and forms of swing danced to rock and roll music. Distinctions were made between Ballroom Swing and Street Swing styles. The latter styles are generally more creative and less geared towards standardized competition. Many forms of swing have also been and are currently popular as social dances. Many local communities for swing dance have formed and continue to be popular in the United States and many other countries. In countries outside the United States, regional forms of dance, such as Latin Dance, have had their own elements added to that area’s particular flavor of swing dancing. The historical development of popular swing styles has generally been in response to the music popular in that area and time. The Charleston, ancestor of swing, was danced to ragtime, the Lindy hop to swinging jazz. West Coast swing came later and was danced to the music of its time. New variants include Country and Western Swing, Hip Hop Lindy, and other variants which have come about in response to new types of music. The mutability and openness to creativity which has characterized swing from its very beginnings have allowed it to evolve with the tastes and individual preferences of the dancers, throughout the century.

Since the late 1980s, swing music has seen a revival in popularity. The Lindy Hop in particular has been brought back to life, with clubs and social groups for swing dancing popping up all over the world. The United States still hosts the largest number of swing dancers, but organizations exist in Europe, Asia, and Latin America as well. What started as a dance sensation in Harlem has spread all over the world and continues to evolve today.

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