History of Swing Dancing. The history of swing dance dates back to 1920. Origins of Swing, Lindy Hop, Jitterbug and Jive
By Jake Fuller
- 8 min read.
It was an epic night of dancing in Sofia, Bulgaria. There were two live bands, several hundred dancers from around the world, and a grand ballroom that took my breath away as much as the actual dancing did.
Photo by Byron Stumman / Unsplash
History of Swing Dancing
The history of swing dates back to the 1920's, where the African-American community, while dancing to contemporary Jazz music, discovered the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.
On March 26, 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened its doors in New York. The Savoy was an immediate success with its block-long dance floor and a raised double bandstand. Nightly dancing attracted most of the best dancers in the New York area. Stimulated by the presence of great dancers and the best black bands, music at the Savoy was largely Swinging Jazz.
One evening in 1927, following Lindbergh's flight to Paris, a local dance enthusiast named "Shorty George" Snowden was watching some of the dancing couples. A newspaper reporter asked him what dance they were doing, and it just so happened that there was a newspaper with an article about Lindbergh's flight sitting on the bench next to them. The title of the article read, "Lindy Hops The Atlantic," and George just sort of read that and said, "Lindy Hop" and the name stuck.
In the mid 1930's, a bouncy six beat variant was named the Jitterbug by the band leader Cab Calloway when he introduced a tune in 1934 entitled "Jitterbug".
With the discovery of the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug, the communities began dancing to the contemporary Jazz and Swing music as it was evolving at the time, with Benny Goodman leading the action. Dancers soon incorporated tap and jazz steps into their dancing.
In the mid 1930's, Herbert White, head bouncer in the New York City Savoy Ballroom, formed a Lindy Hop dance troupe called Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. One of the most important members of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers was Frankie Manning. The "Hoppers" were showcased in the following films: "A Day at the Races" (1937), "Hellzapoppin" (1941), "Sugar Hill Masquerade" (1942), and "Killer Diller" (1948).
In 1938, the Harvest Moon Ball included Lindy Hop and Jitterbug competition for the first time. It was captured on film and presented for everyone to see in the Paramount, Pathe, and Universal movie newsreels between 1938 and 1951.
In early 1938, Dean Collins arrived in Hollywood. He learned to dance the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy and Swing in New York City and spent a lot of time in Harlem and the Savoy Ballroom. Between 1941 and 1960, Collins danced in, or helped choreograph over 100 movies which provided at least a 30 second clip of some of the best California white dancers performing Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy and Swing.
In the late 1930's and through the 1940's, the terms Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy, and Swing were used interchangeably by the news media to describe the same style of dancing taking place on the streets, in the night clubs, in contests, and in the movies.
By the end of 1936, the Lindy was sweeping the United States. As might be expected, the first reaction of most dancing teachers to the Lindy was a chilly negative. In 1936 Philip Nutl, president of the American Society of Teachers of Dancing, expressed the opinion that swing would not last beyond the winter. In 1938 Donald Grant, president of the Dance Teachers' Business Association, said that swing music "is a degenerated form of jazz, whose devotees are the unfortunate victims of economic instability." In 1942 members of the New York Society of Teachers of Dancing were told that the jitterbug (a direct descendent of the Lindy Hop), could no longer be ignored. Its "cavortings" could be refined to suit a crowded dance floor.
The dance schools such as The New York Society of Teachers and Arthur Murray, did not formally begin documenting or teaching the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy, and Swing until the early 1940's. The ballroom dance community was more interested in teaching the foreign dances such as the Argentine Tango, Spanish Paso Doblé, Brazilian Samba, Puerto Rican Merengue, Cuban Mambo and Cha Cha, English Quickstep, Austrian Waltz, with an occasional American Fox-trot and Peabody.
In the early 1940's the Arthur Murray studios looked at what was being done on the dance floors in each city and directed their teachers to teach what was being danced in their respective cities. As a result, the Arthur Murray Studios taught different styles of undocumented Swing in each city.
In the early 1940's, Lauré Haile, as a swing dancer and competitor, documented what she saw being danced by the white community. At that time, Dean Collins was leading the action with Lenny Smith and Lou Southern in the night clubs and competitions in Southern California. Lauré Haile gave it the name of "Western Swing". She began teaching for Arthur Murray in 1945. Dean Collins taught Arthur Murray teachers in Hollywood and San Francisco in the late 1940's and early 1950's.
After the late 1940's, the soldiers and sailors returned from overseas and continued to dance in and around their military bases. Jitterbug was danced to Country-Western music in Country Western bars, and popularized in the 1980's.
As the music changed between the 1920's and 1990's, (Jazz, Swing, Bop, Rock 'n' Roll, Rhythm & Blues, Disco, Country), the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy, and Swing evolved across the U.S. with many regional styles. The late 1940's brought forth many dances that evolved from Rhythm & Blues music: the Houston Push and Dallas whip (Texas), the Imperial Swing (St. Louis), the D.C. Hand Dancing (Washington), and the Carolina Shag (Carolinas and Norfolk) were just a few.
In 1951 Lauré Haile first published her dance notes as a syllabus, which included Western Swing for the Santa Monica Arthur Murray Dance Studio. In the 50's she presented her syllabus in workshops across the U.S. for the Arthur Murray Studios. The original Lauré Haile Arthur Murray Western Swing Syllabus has been taught by Arthur Murray studios with only minor revisions for the past 44 years.
From the mid 1940's to today, the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Lindy, and Swing, were stripped down and distilled by the ballroom dance studio teachers in order to adapt what they were teaching to the less nimble-footed general public who paid for dance lessons. As a result, the ballroom dance studios bred and developed a ballroom East Coast Swing and ballroom West Coast Swing.
In the late 1950's, television brought "American Bandstand", "The Buddy Dean Show" and other programs to the teenage audiences. The teenagers were rocking with Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry leading the fray. In 1959, some of the California dance organizations, with Skippy Blair setting the pace, changed the name of Western Swing to West Coast Swing so it would not be confused with country and western dancing.
Today, dancers over 60 years of age are still moving their Lindy Hoppin', Jitterbuggin', Swingin', and Shaggin' feet.
Balboa Swing: originated in Southern California in the 1920’s and was very popular in the 1930's and 1940's. The dance is characterized by its close embrace and full body connection. Balboa is danced to swing music at 100 to 300 beats per minute.
Savoy Swing: a style of Swing popular in the New York Savoy Ballroom in the 30's and 40's originally danced to Swing music. The Savoy style of swing is a very fast, jumpy, casual-looking style of dancing
Lindy style is a smoother-looking dance.
West Coast Swing: a style of Swing emphasizing nimble feet popular in California night clubs in the 30's and 40's and voted the California State Dance in 1989.
Whip: a style of Swing popular in Houston, Texas, emphasizing moves spinning the follower between dance positions with a wave rhythm break.
Push: a style of swing popular in Dallas, Texas, emphasizing moves spinning the follower between dance positions with a rock rhythm break.
Supreme Swing: a style of Swing popular in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Imperial Swing: a style of Swing popular in St. Louis, Missouri.
Carolina Shag: a style of Swing popular in the Carolinas emphasizing the leader's nimble feet.
DC Hand Dancing: a Washington, DC synthesis of Lindy and Swing.
East Coast Swing: a 6 count style of Lindy popular in the ballroom dance school organizations.
Ballroom West Coast Swing: a style of swing popular in the ballroom dance school organizations and different from the style performed in the California night clubs and Swing dance clubs.
Country-Western Swing: a style of Jitterbug popularized during the 1980's and danced to Country Western music.
Cajun Swing: a Louisiana Bayou style of Lindy danced to Cajun music.
Pony Swing: a Country Western style of Cajun Swing.
Jive: the International Style version of the dance is called Jive, and it is danced competitively in the US and all over the world.
Boston Jive: form of Swing similar to Lindy but with kicks.
About the Author
Jake Fuller is a staff writer for Centralhome.com.
First published in EWIE ECHO magazine (Volume 3, Issue 4, August 1995)