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History of Swing Dancing

Updated on November 16, 2014

Most of the chronicles about the origins of swing dancing lay its roots in the 1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance was taking hold in New York City. However, given that dancing in general is such a continually evolving art form, it’s likely the roots date back even farther. One story traces it to the exuberant dances of the southeast African American community in the late 1800s. Since these dances were likely variations on movements originating in Africa, it might even be more accurate to trace the dance back even farther to Africa itself.

The Glory Days

Regardless of when you pinpoint the true beginning of swing dancing, it’s hard to argue that it did indeed come to fruition in the 1920s with the Harlem Renaissance. At that time, big band jazz was ruling the airways, upbeat improvisational dancing was a burgeoning phenomenon among the black community, and Lindbergh had just hopped the Atlantic. Dancers like “Shorty” George Snowden, Big Bea, Leroy Stretch Jones, and Little Bea dominated the dance floors, especially at the Savoy Ballroom. One night in June 1928, a reporter watching “Shorty” George freestyle on the floor asked him what he was doing with his feet. “Shorty” reportedly spotted a newspaper sitting on a bench next to him with the headline “Lindy Hops the Atlantic” and quipped that the dance was called the Lindy Hop. Whether that’s true is debatable, but the name quickly took hold and dancers became known as Lindyhoppers.

Early versions of the Lindy Hop placed more emphasis on fast-paced, fancy footwork, but when a new crop of dancers including the legendary Frankie Manning emerged in the mid-1930s, the eight-count pattern became more standard and aerial maneuvers like the Side Flip, Hip to Hip, and Over the Back began to infiltrate the dance.

It wasn’t long before a bevy of dance troupes like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, the Hot Chocolates, and the Big Apple Dancers, were travelling along with big bands creating a dance craze across the country. However, dance studios were not so quick to jump on board. Believing it to be indecent they refused to incorporate the Lindy Hop into their teachings. That certainly didn’t stem the growing popularity of the dance, however. In fact, the lack of any formalized instruction actually spurred variations of the Lindy Hop. There was the eight-count Balboa, characterized by a close embrace with quick intricate footwork; the six- or eight-count Collegiate Shag, which involved quick steps and hops performed in a slow-slow, quick-quick rhythm; and the St. Louis Shag, a variation of the Charleston involving very quick steps and kicks.

Though some naysayers dismissed the Lindy Hop’s potential to stick around, the dance only continued to transform and gain momentum as the 1940s began. On the west coast, a man named Dean Collins introduced a smoother version that incorporated swift and controlled whipping motions (known later as West Coast Swing), while dancers on the east coast dropped the eight-count pattern in favor of a simpler six-count one (known later as East Coast Swing). At this point, dance studios began recognizing they needed to start teaching what everybody was clamoring to learn and so the New York Society of Teachers adopted the less complex six-count pattern that had recently surfaced. Arthur Murray wasn’t far behind. The national chain soon began instructing its teachers to find out what was being danced in their areas and to start teaching that style.

Whiteys Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin

The Comedown and The Comeback

Swing dancing continued to reign supreme throughout the war years, but as the fighting wound down, so did the dance’s popularity – at least temporarily. Jazz music had mellowed and was thus becoming less conducive for dancing. The lull was broken in the 1950s when rocking and rolling performers like Bill Haley and the Comets, Little Richard, Elvis, and Chubby Checker exploded onto the scene. A new generation of dancers discovered swing and brought a new set of variations to the dance including: the Lindy Charleston, a cross between the traditional Lindy and the classic Charleston; Imperial Swing, a cross between East Coast Swing and West Coast Swing; the Push and the Whip, Texas variations of West Coast Swing; and the Mo-cathy, a “silly” version of swing during which partners do not touch.

Unfortunately, the resurgence was short-lived and when other dances, such as the Twist, were introduced in the 1960s, swing faded further and further into the background until it essentially disappeared. The next resurrection of the dance wouldn’t happen until the early to mid-1990s, when it was featured in movies like Swing Kids and Swingers and even television commercials for GAP. Swing had made a comeback, though it never quite recaptured the popularity of its heydays in the 1930s and 1940s. However, it’s still enjoying a presence today thanks to shows like Dancing With the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. It’s one dance that will never completely go out of style.

Want to learn to swing dance – check out my article with step by step instructions.


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    • spartucusjones profile image

      CJ Baker 4 years ago from Parts Unknown

      Thanks for the awesome hub! I really got a kick out of the Lindy Hoppers video! Those were some pretty sweet dance moves.