It Began with a Hop to the Music: The History of Swing Dancing

Swing Dancing dates back to the 1920s, when the black community took African dance moves to create the Lindy Hop and the Charleston while dancing to contemporary Jazz music. As the dancing evolved, its popularity swept across the country. As dancers swung the night away in clubs, Hollywood picked up on the phenomena and created over 100 movies that included choreographed Swing dancing scenes. Today, Swing dancing can still be found on dance floors across the country, from dancing schools to night clubs.

In 1927, the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York was a successful club that drew in the black community. Its giant dance floor with its double-wide raised bandstand saw the most famous black bands, and the best dancers, with contemporary Jazz music emulating from all directions. One night, a local man by the name of “Shorty George” was enjoying the dance scene at the club. This was just after Lindbergh’s successful flight to Paris. A reporter was at the club and asked Shorty George what the name of the dance was. He looked around for a few seconds and saw a newspaper heading titled “Lindy Hops the Atlantic”. He then told the reporter that the dance was called the “Lindy Hop”. This was the first step towards the Swing dance revolution that would soon sweep the nation.

The next milestone in Swing dancing was in 1934, when Cab Calloway introduced a new tune, called “Jitterbug”, a bouncy six beat rhythm with the same name. Around the same time, dance troupes started popping up. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers was formed by Herbert White, the head bouncer at the Savoy Ballroom. One dance troupe member, Frankie Manning, was the chief choreographer. Manning was also a featured dancer for the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, where he revolutionized the Lindy Hop dance with the synchronized ensemble Lindy routine and the Lindy Air Step. Frankie Manning and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performed on stages around the world and in the movies. 

Dean Collins was a dancer at the Savoy Ballroom in New York since he was 14 years old. By the time he was 18, he was given the Dancer of the Year award from New Yorker magazine. In 1936 he moved to Los Angles and took the Savoy Style of Swing dancing with him, adding his own style and movements. He won dance contests in California and began to teach his version of the Savoy Style Lindy, called the West Coast Swing, which is now the official state dance of California. Dean also choreographed and danced in many Hollywood movies. He taught Swing dancing to most of the dance teachers, dancers, and movie stars in Los Angeles.

As the 1930s continued on, so did the popularity of Swing dancing. The first impressions of the Lindy were negative. Heads of famous dancing societies looked down upon this style of dancing. The American Society of Teachers of Dancing president Philip Nutl, stated his opinion that that it wouldn’t last past the winter of 1936. Donald Grant, who was the Dance Teachers’ Business Association president, said that he felt Swing music "is a degenerated form of jazz" and that those that are devoted to the style are victims of the instability of the economy. Older generations thought Swing dancing was too sexual and vulgar. In Germany, Swing dancing was banned, but not censored. Young people found easy ways around the ban and continued listening to and dancing to Swing music. Germans turned to the British to hear their favorite Swing tunes and realized it was a great tool for propaganda. They then formed their own Swing band and used the music for Nazi propaganda, hoping that people in Great Brittan would listen to them. The popularity and disapproval of Swing dancing were moving in alternate directions until the naysayers could not longer turn their heads to the high level of popularity the Swing music and dances where generating. There was also a short period of time around 1944 in which the United States instilled a 20% federal excise tax against dance clubs, forcing clubs to erect “No Dancing Allowed” signs across the country.

Swing dancing styles vary by region and are largely based on the popular music of the area. In the beginning, Swing dancing was done to the sounds of traditional jazz or ragtime music. The Lindy Hop evolved with the introduction of Swing jazz music. People on the West Coast favored blues music, which is a bit slower than jazz, which caused the creation of the West Coast Swing style. West Coast Swing is also danced to R&B, Pop, and Funk music. Regions where country music was popular saw the Swing variations called the Country Western Swing and Push/Whip, to match the beat and rhythm of the country music. The Carolinas are home to the Carolina Shag which is closely related to the West Coast Swing, but at a slower tempo, and the entire East Coast was home to the East Coast Swing. Other regionalized Swing styles include the Savoy Swing, Jitterbug, and Lindy Hop in New York, made famous by the Savoy nightclub. The Imperial Swing is St. Louis' own version of East Coast Swing. Whip and Push dancing are similar styles, primarily found in the Texas area, that incorporate intricate arm work and are closely related to the West Coast Swing. DC Hand Dancing is popular in the Washington DC area and is a variation of West Coast Swing with the man doing most of the fancy movements. Jive is a very upbeat dance in which the performers look to be hopping off the ground. The Supreme Swing is a more modern style that started in 1977 in Oklahoma by Jerry Crim and is a combination of the Dallas Push, the Houston Whip, and West Coast Swing.

Most people will agree that the Swing Dancing heyday was in the 1930s through the 1950s, but Swing dancing continues today. As music popularity changed from Jazz to Blues and then to Rock & Roll, Disco, and Country Western, dance moves evolved with it. Swing dancing styles are the foundation of many other dancing styles, including disco and country line dancing. With the arrival of such Swing dancing movies as Swing Kids and Swingers in the late 1990s, along with a famous Gap commercial featuring sexy Lindy dancers performing aerials, Swing Dancing had a revival. Dance schools had a giant increase in new enrollments for all styles of Swing dancing. Frankie Manning was working at a Post Office and was contacted by Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell, requesting Swing Dance instruction and all three promoted the dance as hard as they could, appearing on TV, making instructional videos, touring the world, performing, and doing anything else they could think of. But, this revival died down as the new millennium crept up. Today, Swing dancing clubs and contests are still held around the world, for many different Swing styles, and jitterbugs young and old alike still enjoy Swingin’.