One Legend of the Origin of Swing

The word “swing” was originally used to describe a form of jazz music. Later it became synonymous with the dances that were performed to the music. Today, there are two styles of swing that are considered ballroom dances: East Coast Swing (or Jive) and West Coast Swing.

The origins of swing can be traced to the dances of the African-American community of the late 1800’s, particularly in the southeast where they danced to a ragtime type of music. In contrast to the dances of the upper-class whites, the African-American dances were exuberant with exaggerated body movements. After being featured in the Ziegfield Follies in 1923, a dance originating from the black dockworkers in the port of Charleston became popular worldwide. The Charleston, although really a line dance, is thought to be the direct predecessor of swing.

In the 1920’s, elements from many of the black dances (including tap) started to merge together in a section of New York City known as Harlem. The driving force was big band jazz, which itself was improvisional. The catalyst was the block-long Savoy Ballroom, with a band stage at each end. Evenings at the Savoy usually started with line dances, and then dancers would pair up according to abilities. The better dancers assembled in a section of the ballroom called the “cat’s corner” where swing was born. The evolving dance form was given a name in 1927 when a reporter asked “Shorty George” Snowden what dance he was doing. He replied that they were celebrating Lindy’s hop across the Atlantic (referring to Charles Lindenberg).

By 1930 the Lindy Hop had acquired its characteristic 8-count “swing out” from a closed to an open position, where partners would separate and improvise for a few steps. The dance continued to encourage improvision, and in a 1935 dance competition Frankie Manning introduced the first “air step” by tossing his partner over his head. The dance quickly spread across the US, being carried by the traveling big bands and dance troupes. But the Savoy Ballroom remained the center of the swing movement. It was desegrated and was one of the few places where whites and blacks could dance together.

However, the Lindy Hop had many critics. It was considered a “Negro dance” and was not accepted by the majority of white folk. Many thought the dance was indecent, and dance instructors refused to teach it. The Lindy Hop attracted a lot of publicity from the press, mostly negative, which increased its appeal among the younger set. Detractors referred to the people doing the dance as “jitterbugs,” a derogatory term used to describe the shakes (delirium tremens or DT’s) associated with alcoholics. But the dancers eagerly adopted the word themselves, and thus the Lindy Hop became known as the Jitterbug.

In 1937 a young dancer named Dean Collins left the Savoy Ballroom and brought the Lindy Hop to California. His style of Lindy was smooth and well anchored, with a whipping action on the swing out. Collins and his partner Jewel McGowen did much to popularize this style of swing on the west coast, and they appeared in numerous Hollywood movies (e.g., Abbot and Costello’s “Buck Privates”). Many believe that the Dean Collins style of Lindy was the predecessor of what we know now as West Coast Swing. However, Dean Collins himself refused to discuss different swing styles, saying that it was all swing.

Meanwhile, dancers on the east coast began to omit the 8-count patterns from the Lindy Hop. This important development simplified the dance and made swing more accessible to a larger audience. When asked about this transition, Frankie Manning replied, “We discovered that we didn’t need 8 steps. We could do it in 6.” A “refined” version of this form of swing was adopted by the dance studios in the early 1940’s and eventually became known as East Coast Swing.

By the time World War II started, swing was king. However, wartime ment the end of the traveling big bands, and smaller combos forced changes in the music. Jazz lost its “swing” and became something to listen to, not dance to. The popularity of swing dance, and dancing in general, fell sharply. Then in the 1950’s a new generation of youth discovered swing. But this time it was not danced to the smooth swingin’ sounds of the horns but to the new harsh sounds of the electric guitar. All across the country teenagers were rocking and rolling to Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. Then Chubby Checker introduced the Twist in 1960, and swing dance virtually disappeared from popular culture.

In the mid-1980’s there was a resurgence of swing in popular culture. This was partly due to the nostalgia and “retro” movements, and an increased interest by musicians in the swing style of jazz. A new hard-hitting “neo-swing” music became popular among the young, and nightclubs started offering swing nights with free dance lessons. Several dance instructors strove to resurrect the early swing styles, such as the Lindy Hop, by seeking out some of the original swing dancers and studying old movie clips.

Since its inception swing had been an improvisional dance. Now that swing has been plucked from the protective arms of the ballroom community and dropped back into the streets, we may expect to see more improvision and evolution in swing as the Lindy Hop meets the Hip Hop. But regardless of swing’s prospects for the future, the recent swing movement has reminded us that swing is not just a dance, it’s an attitude. And “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

by Steve Edmondson

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