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Dance in the 1930's

Updated on August 2, 2012


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At the end of the 1920s, following the stock market crash, the world saw an important change in popular music. The sudden loss of wealth and power in western society brought people, black and white, to a more equitable position in society. Until then, dance was performed to the European/Western society style of music. Now there was an infusion of black musicians composing and arranging music for white bands. People were desperate for something new and different to distract them from the misery of the Depression.

“Swing” music became popular during this period, played by the Big bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey. Cab Calloway was a bandleader, dancer and singer that gave many dancers their start in show business. He toured with his dancers and band throughout America. Louis Armstrong emerged as a leading figure in the swing music. This strong, forceful jazz music emphasised the African rhythm and led ballroom dancers to experiment with new patterns of movement. The greater syncopation in the music was reflected in the steps being faster and sharper.

Lindy Hop, also known as Jitterbug, is the authentic Afro-American swing dance. The flowing style closely reflects the hot jazz music from the late 1920’s to the early 1940’s Big Band music. Just as jazz combines European and African musical origins, the Lindy Hop draws on African and European dance traditions, embracing holds and turns from Europe, the breakaway and solid earthy body posture from Africa. The dance evolved along with the new swing music, based on the earlier dances such as the Charleston and the Blackbottom, by the black people in Harlem. In 1937, Jitterbug was widely accepted after Benny Goodman’s performance at the Paramount Theatre in New York, where teenagers were described as “Jitterbugging in the aisles”. Swing was the original music for the Lindy Hop and was called Jive in England. Swing, Jazz, Boogie Woogie or Rock ‘n Roll is a general term for this style of dance.

Dance Marathons lasted from 1923-1933. With the depression, money was tight and work was hard to find. Dance competitions started where a cash prize came in handy. The idea was to dance and eliminate all but one couple that would last the longest. Rules were applied. 12 minutes each hour for a rest but not sleep, a shower every 12 hours, 8 hot meals per day. No slacks, shorts, spitting or smoking. Some dancers were married during the competition, some had to have dental work and some went mad. Twenty-five cents per hour was paid to each couple. It was a spectator sport and competitions were business sponsored. In 1932, one man died after dancing for 48 days. One promoter transferred his dancers into a removal van and on to a ship out at sea, in an effort to avoid the police. The dancers only stopped when they became sea sick. Bands would often speedup the music when they had been playing for hours. The longest marathon lasted 24 weeks and 5 days in Pittsburg.

Whiteys Lindy Hoppers of the 30s


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