Everyone has heard of the Argentine Tango
and the Viennese Waltz of Austria. Equally famous is the Samba from Brazil while Cuba is
given credit for the Rumba and the Cha-Cha. Spain is known for the Bolero and Pasa Doble.
Germany has its Polka. Ireland has its Jig, Scotland has the Reel, and England originated
the Foxtrot. France developed the Minuet, the Pavan, the Galop, and the Cotillion.
However, no matter how wonderful all these dances are, I would never trade our National
Dance for any of them. Red, White, and Blues all over, this is the story of SWING, the
All-American Dance !
Swing Dancing refers to
partner dancing where the man literally "swings" the lady
through a series of dance patterns. Swing Dancing can either be simple or complex.
has been around a long, long time. Every high school in the country has a type of Swing
where the guy swings the girl, they both rock back to the ends of their arms, and snap
forwards to begin the next move. For example, when I was in high school back in the
60s I was envious of the two guys at every dance party who would duck under their
left arm, turn the lady, then do the fabulous Pretzel ! They knew less than 6 moves
between them, but that was more than enough. I never failed to notice the line of girls
waiting to dance with them. I would watch to see what their footwork was, but it was
always a mystery to me. Now that I think about it, they probably didnt know either.
More than likely the two boys did the armwork and used whatever foot happened to be free.
Now referred to as "Shaggie Jitterbug" here in SSQQ, other names include
"Street Swing", "Hand Dancing" (i.e., no footwork necessary),
"High School Bop", and "Rockn Roll". As I said before, this
style of Swing is universal, but limited in the number of patterns and very tough on the
arms (to read a lengthier description of the notorious
Shaggie Jitterbug, click here).
So where did the "Complex
of Swing come from ? Well, first came the music...
Swing Dancing owes its start
to Jazz music,
which is considered to be the only art form to originate in America.
A bright light emerging from
an otherwise dark period of American history, Jazz was an offshoot
of Gospel and Spiritual music created by black Americans. Jazz rhythms had existed in The
South for a long time (Dixieland, Ragtime), but were slow to gain national acceptance due
to racial resistance. Jazz had two major offshoots : Swing and Blues.
Blues Music was close to
the original feel of the Spiritual with its emphasis on storytelling vocals. Sometimes
using a guitar for accompaniment, the song and the singer was the center of attention.
"Singing the Blues" has long been synonymous with soulful lyrics and
powerful vocals. The singer has always been the center of attention.
Swing Music had vocals
too, but concentrated much more on the interweave of coordinated Instruments.
In Swing music, the band leader and his musicians were considered the star.
Music has long been a
powerful source of inspiration and motivation
that often gives rise to Dance.
The words people use to describe music they
love are "exciting", "inspirational", "enchanting",
"sublime", and "intoxicating". Plato believed music to be the
finest instrument for civilizing and binding people together (though it is clear he never
anticipated Rock'n Roll or the Rolling Stones).
Music has always had the power to thrill
people, creating energy and emotion that seeks expression through dance. In the dance
business, it is an axiom that the music drives the dance. In other words, the song comes
first, then people try to find a way to dance that expresses the tempo and feel of the
music. The most popular dance in America is usually inspired by the most popular music
(e.g., Disco music created Disco dancing).
As Jazz Music became
popular, suddenly America had its first dance craze !
With New Orleans as the
"Cradle of Jazz", Dixieland music, Ragtime, Blues, and Spiritual music had been
developing in the South for a long time before and after the Civil War. As freed slaves
migrated in search of opportunity, they moved up the mighty Mississippi to St Louis, then
on to Chicago as well. For example, Louis Armstrong, a major Jazz pioneer, started as a
cornet-playing teenager in New Orleans. After he moved to Chicago, Armstrong rose to fame
first with the Creole Jazz Band, then with the Fletcher Henderson Band during the Roarin'
Many musicians moved from the
South to Harlem, a black enclave in New York City. Harlem is given credit as the
Birthplace of Swing music, the Charleston, and then Lindy Dancing as well during the 20's.
Swing music began right in the heart of Harlem with Duke Ellington and Count Basie
leading the way. Playing in famous nightclubs like the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club,
these two famous black musicians helped to create a new form of music. Their bands
also became the early models for the famous Big Bands in the 1930s.
Duke Ellington reigned supreme
at the Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927 to 1933. It is Duke Ellington who is given
credit for coining the name "Swing Music" with his classic 1932 song, "It
Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't got that Swing." This Swing sound was energetic
and exciting. Plus it made people want to Dance !
However back in the 20s, there were no
traditions in partner dancing to draw from. As the Swing sound hit Harlem, people danced
freestyle as they looked for ways to express themselves to the vigorous energy of the
music. Into this vacuum came the CHARLESTON which fit the music to a Tee.
Swing Dancing got its start
back in the Roaring 20s after the arrival of CHARLESTON.
A spirited dance characterized by swinging
feet & outward heel kicks, the Charleston probably goes back to Africa. Its American
origins began on a small island off the South Carolina coast. The dance began when an
all-black revue company left the island to perform in stage shows. Obviously they started
in Charleston where their show became a huge hit. After Charleston, the company performed
at one city after another, making their way north up the Atlantic coast till they finally
made it to Harlem in 1913. World War I put everything on hold, but in the 20s the stage
was set to see the Charleston break loose with passionate abandon as America's first dance
craze. America had won the war, the Yanks had returned from Europe, the economy was
booming, and now everyone wanted to party !
At first people danced Charleston apart,
then found ways to dance it together holding hands or even in a closed position with the
mans arms around the lady. From the closed Charleston came the "Swingout",
a variation where partners would separate to the ends of their arms. Since the man used
his left arm & the lady her right arm, their balance improved when the Swingout
started on the man's left foot & the lady's right foot. Simple developments like this
marked the start of structured footwork. Could dance studios be far behind ?
In the beginning dancers went to the end of
their arms which then stretched like rubber bands to snap the partners back towards one
another. After their arms got sore enough, footwork like the backstep, the twist, the
ball-change, & the rock step became ways to stop momentum without having to use arm
tension. As you can guess, first came the armwork patterns without any particular
footwork. However as they practiced, a sense of recurring footwork began to develop as a
natural way to keep their balance at the end of a move. For example, some basketball
players know the exact number of steps a particular move takes & the foot they must
start with; one extra step will allow a defender to catch up. Dance systems developed in
the same way as dancers discovered precise footwork to gracefully accomplish their moves
with an economy of effort.
Lindy gets its name !
As Swing music developed in the 20s, so did
a new dance which was part Charleston, part something else. The Savoy was an enormous
Ballroom which occupied an entire city block in Harlem and served as the home to black
musicians like Count Basie, Chick Webb, and later Cab Calloway. This new dance magically
acquired its name in 1927. Although I have read 3 different versions of the story, the
gist of it went like this :
One night shortly after Charles Lindbergh's
historic solo flight across the Atlantic, a huge dance marathon was in progress at the
Savoy. A very talented dancer was doing jumps, leaps, & somersaults followed by
sky-scraping acrobatic lifts with his partner. Impressed by the young man's skill, a
reporter asked him what he was doing. "Hey, man, take a look, I'm flying! I'm
doing the Lindy !" The airborne image clearly fit.
Called the LINDY HOP in next day's
newspaper writeup, America had its first Swing dance. Interestingly, many of todays
Lindy patterns include all sorts of variations on the Charleston. It was the addition of
the newer "Swinging" patterns plus the acrobatics and jumping that signified the
emergence of this newer dance form. Inspired by the music, it almost seemed like the
dancers were indeed ready to fly !
Swing Dancing and Jitterbug.
The term SWING DANCING came along five
years after the LINDY HOP got its name. As mentioned earlier, Duke Ellington is given
credit for coining the phrase with his hit song "It Don't Mean a Thing if You
Ain't Got That Swing !" Soon afterwards, the music was often referred to as
"Big Band Swing Music".
The term JITTERBUG alos appeared in the
early 30s. Cab Calloway, a famous black band-leader, is given credit for coining the term
with his 1933 song "The Call of the Jitterbug", but its original meaning was far
removed from dancing. Back then the "Jitterbug" had darker connotations. In
Calloway's case, he had a trombone player who trembled from alcohol abuse (i.e., he had
DTs known as the "bug juice jitters"). Not long after the song came out, the
meaning of "Jitterbug" shifted to become a slang word for "hepcat" (a
musician who plays swing or jazz) and the type of music he played (i.e., Jitterbug music).
"Jitterbug" shifted again to signify a person who moved his body well while
dancing ("Shake, Rattle, & Roll"). By the late 30s the "Jitterbug"
had joined "Lindy" to become yet another popular name for Swing dancing.
Swing music gained wider acceptance in the
30s. Many White musicians recognized the genius of the new sound and worked hard to copy
it. In a switch, the famous Big Band leaders like Glen Miller ("In the Mood",
"Chattanooga Choo Choo", "String of Pearls"), Tommy Dorsey ("Opus
I"), Artie Shaw ("Begin the Beguine", "It Had to Be You"),
and Harry James ("Two O'Clock Jump") were all white, a reflection of the
racial problems of that day.
Benny Goodman, who became the King of
Swing, changed all that. Known for classics such as "Stompin' at the
Savoy", "Let's Dance", "Don't Be That Way", and the famous
"Sing, Sing, Sing" immortalized in the movie "Swing Kids", Goodman
overcame not only prejudice against his Jewish background, but also hatred for having the
guts to organize the first integrated Swing band in the late 30's. Using many of the
arrangements he had learned from the famous black bandleader Fletcher Henderson,
Benny Goodman merged the talents of noted black musicians Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton
along with his famous drummer Gene Krupa, who was white, to create the finest Swing band
of the era. Goodman further helped Swing music cross racial barriers when he brought Swing
music to the Paramount Theater in New York (1936), then on to Carnegie Hall. Fortunately,
his music so terrific it just pole-vaulted any racial resistance to help Swing music
quickly become a national sensation. Interestingly, its companion dance the Lindy spread
much more slowly. Although many Americans had heard of the dancing, most of them had not
actually seen the Lindy.
First it took slavery to help create the
music. Now it took none other than Adolph Hitler and his Nazi brutality to bring Swing
dancing to the world ! Sad but true, the All-American Music and Dance had some
pretty tough origins.
World War II helped spread American Swing Dancing all across the world!