JAZZ DANCE HISTORY & CULTURE: A BRIEF INTRO
More Than a Dance
As swing/jazz dancers (especially for non-Black swing/jazz dancers), it's critically important to understand the history and culture associated with Lindy Hop and the broader umbrella of swing and jazz dance. Lindy Hop is a Black vernacular jazz dance, and to love Lindy Hop is to love Black history and culture. At Jazz Attack, the goal is to appreciate, not appropriate, and one of the first things a dancer can do to respect the art form is to learn and share its history and culture.
The following is an ultra-brief overview of our current understanding of Jazz Dance history and culture from our experience, conversations, and research. We're guests in the culture so we're bound to get some parts wrong. Please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org if you notice any inaccuracies or insensitivities -- we're always trying to get better.
Before the Lindy
African & Afro-American dancing existed long before the Lindy Hop. African movements and rhythms combined with European musical influences fostered musical styles like Ragtime and dances like the cake walk, the black bottom, the turkey trot, the camel walk, and more! Black harbor workers in 1910s-20s South Carolina are attributed with developing the Charleston dance. Meanwhile, Black communities in San Fransisco were shaping the Texas Tommy, and tap dancing spread across the country's floors and stages.
African American styles of music and dance had (& have) a strong emphasis on communal participation, call and response, individuality & self-expression, and connection to the music.
Pictured: the Jenkins Orphanage Band demonstrating early Charleston music and dance.
Early Lindy Hop
Mid-1920s - Early 1930s
Faster swung music during this period featured a mostly upright, driving "charleston" or "hot jazz" feel. Styles of partnered dance such as partnered Charleston, the collegiate, and the Breakaway, which featured kick steps and transitions between a closed position (think slow dance) to open position (think holding hands), became more popular. Dancers in this clip from the 1929 movie "After Seben" showcase many of these new developments. Notably, the dancing by the third couple, "Shorty" George Snowden and Mattie Purnell, is sometimes cited as the first example of Lindy Hop on film, as their movements feature a swingout-like step, jazz steps, and trick steps that went on to define the style.
The Savoy Ballroom opened in 1926 in Harlem NYC and quickly became the place to be for great swing dancing, although it's important to note that patrons enjoyed many different styles of music and dance on any given night. This venue, which stretched the full length of a city block and had two bandstands to ensure the music never stopped, served as the proving grounds for many a great Lindy Hopper. More on the Savoy in "The Swing Era" section.
Pictured: Lindy Hop contest scene from the movie After Seben (1929)
Trigger warning: the following video contains an actor (the announcer) in blackface
The Swing Era
Mid-1930s - Mid 1940s
Swing music is the soundtrack of the nation. Folks are swingin' out and dancing the Lindy Hop from coast to coast, but the Savoy Ballroom, which may have been the first integrated ballroom in the United States, is still the place to be. Bands like the Chick Webb Orchestra and Count Basie Orchestra start to really roll the rhythms in their tunes, and the dancers held on and swung out. The Savoy's bouncer turned floor manager, Herbert "Whitey" White, forms Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the world's premiere Lindy Hop troupe, which tours across the world and even makes the leap to Hollywood sets & screens.
In 1935, New York City holds the first Harvest Moon Ball dance competition (more on its origins here), featuring several ballroom dance divisions and a Lindy Hop division. Originally set to take place in Central Park, immense crowds forced the event to be moved to the 20,000-seat capacity Madison Square Garden, which quickly sold out! Imagine the atmosphere!
Pictured: Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra in the 1941 film Hot Chocolate
The Torch Bearers
1950s - Mid 1980s
After most traveling dance groups had to break up when the men were drafted into WWII and jazz music veered more towards virtuosic bebop over danceable swing, the Lindy Hop's popularity with the masses began to fade. Radios played more Rock & Roll and ballrooms across the nation, including the Savoy, were forced to close their doors.
However, contrary to a popular anecdote, the Lindy Hop did not disappear after WWII only to have a "revival" in the 80s. The Lindy Hop never died. Committed dancers like "Mama Lu" Parks (top right), with the help of several late-Savoy legends, taught and trained children and adults in the craft and continued to enter teams in the Harvest Moon Ball. Her dance company toured for an incredible 29 years, pushing the limits of speed and gravity. Sonny Allen and the Rockets (bottom) brought musical revues featuring Lindy Hop across the Americas. Savoy ballroom legend Ms. Norma Miller continued touring with 'Norma Miller and her Jazzmen.'
Pictured: Collection of video clips of Mama Lou Parks & her Parkettes
The Modern Swing Scene
Late 1980s - Present
In the late 1980s a number of events brought swing dance back into the public eye. Old Hollywood clips featuring Whitey's Lindy Hoppers were rediscovered by groups in Sweden, London, and NYC. Neo-swing music and vintage-esqe fashion came back into style and was featured in films like "Swing Kids." Even GAP got in on the action with a wildly popular commercial "Khakis Swing." However, none of this would have been possible were it not for several older generations of Lindy Hoppers who, in their 60s through 90s, traveled the world to teach eager crowds their craft. Particularly notable were the efforts of Norma Miller and Frankie Manning, who sometimes traveled 40+ weekends/year.
Now, going on 100 years after its original creation, the Lindy Hop is Alive and Kicking all over the world. From Philadelphia to Berlin to Bangkok and all the way back to Harlem, nearly every major city and many a small town the world over features a tucked away yet fun-loving swing scene. Each scene has its own character and style, but they are united by a love of this dance and music. Most scenes feature a regular social dance, and scenes often converge for weekend workshops and exchanges.
Nearly all of the first and second generations of Lindy Hoppers have passed away, but there are still living legends who swung out in the Harvest Moon Ball and at the Savoy Ballroom telling their stories. It is more important now than ever to learn, appreciate, and continue to pass on and share the history and legacy of what might just be America's greatest original art form.
Pictured: Social dance between current pros Rikard Ekstrand (Sweden) and Hyunjung Choi (South Korea) dancing at Swim out Costa Brava 2018 (Spain) to the music of Professor Cunningham and his Old School (Australia/USA)
Racism & Appropriation
Throughout All Eras
Despite their incredible talent, Black Lindy Hoppers have dealt with (and continue to face) racism in many forms. Jazz and jazz dance, like many art forms, were born out of struggle and oppression, and were initially shunned by white society. Members of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers created several of the greatest Lindy Hop sequences of all time, only to have their scenes get cut from movie showings in the south, and then be denied seating in segregated restaurants and theatres while on tour. Even the Harvest Moon Ball contest was likely initiated in 1935 as a way to help quell racial tensions fueled by segregated housing, lack of economic opportunities, and poor quality public facilities for NYC's Black residents.
When the Modern Lindy Hop scene took shape, many dancers and scene leaders were quick to join the fun, but slow to recognize these roots. This is problematic, especially because today's local social scene and slate of professional dancers are made up of mostly white (or non-Black) dancers, which would be a pretty clear case of cultural appropriation if left unaddressed.
Although the scene still grapples with this issue, there are some things we can all do to appreciate this dance, music, and culture. If you're still reading, you've started to do the first, which is learning the history and cultural context of the dance. Second, we can all strive to be welcoming to new dancers, no matter their background, and listen to what they have to say. Third, we can make an active effort to share our knowledge with others and always be open to learning more ourselves, even if it may make us uncomfortable.
Fourth, we can commit to building anti-racist scenes and classrooms, and address issues directly when they arise. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Contemporary Music & Dance
The influence of jazz music and dance extends far beyond Lindy Hop. Many other styles of swung dances developed around and after the swing era, including blues dancing, balboa, collegiate & St. Louis shag, and more.
Jazz music also branched out in many directions, transforming into and influencing the creation of bebop, R&B, soul, funk, rock & roll, hip hop, and countless other genres. Similarly, the dances people would do to these styles of music evolved out of jazz dances. Put a jazz dancer next to a hip hop dancer and you're guaranteed to notice some similarities between the two.
In this way, it's important to experience other Black vernacular dances outside of the "swing dance" bubble. Taking classes in styles such as House, Waacking, Popping & Locking, and more will only further improve a jazz dancer's understanding of the possibilities that lie beyond what has become a somewhat isolated style of jazz dancing.
If you're in Philly, one of the best places to do this is Urban Movement Arts, where you can find jazz dance classes (run by Ragtag Empire) alongside other Black vernacular dance classes (like House, Hip Hop, and others) scheduled next to each other every week.
Looking to Learn More?
Start with these resources!
There are lots of things you can do, including taking classes in other genres, viewing archival video clips, and checking out some of the print and video resources below:
Mike McDermott's Lindy Hop Video Archive
Bobby White's Swungover Blog
Jazz Attack's Interviews with Lindy Legends
How History & Culture Affect how we Organize Jazz Attack
As a non-profit organization run by primarily white dancers that seeks to promote and share Lindy Hop and jazz dance, it is of utmost importance that we respect and honor jazz dance history and culture, and the Black roots of the music & dance we've come to love. The following is not an exhaustive list, but here are some of the ways that we keep this in mind while organizing Jazz Attack:
The Pay-it-Forward Program: It's Jazz Attack's priority to make dancing accessible to everyone. The Pay-it-Forward program is a equity-minded initiative, using community-sourced crowdfunding to provide free admission to anyone that is unable to attend Jazz Attack for financial reasons. Just grab a sticky note from the sign-in table, hand it to the volunteer, and enter -- no questions asked.
Organizer Anti-Racism Training: All Jazz Attack organizers complete a series of exercises designed to push them to think, and more importantly, act, in a more inclusive manner. One key component of this training is completing Julia Loving's "21 Lindy Hop Questions," which have resulted in a number of changes in how we run our events.
The Lindy Legend Series: While the first and second generations of Lindy Hoppers have passed, there are still dancers alive today that danced in the Savoy Ballroom, toured with Mama Lou Parks, or were important parts of Lindy Hop and Jazz Dance history. Recognizing that their stories were not being told, Jazz Attack conducted ten interviews to help preserve this history. Once it's safe, we hope to bring some of these elders to Philadelphia or visit them where they are. You can view the interviews here. The idea for this series came from our first anti-racist training.
Music Selection: You won't here swingin' Disney tunes, Frank Sinatra, rock & roll, swing-able pop tunes, or electro-swing at Jazz Attack. Jazz Dance was created alongside jazz music, and part of promoting and sharing authentic jazz dance means that we'll be playing authentic jazz music. While "authenticity" is a loaded word and there's a fuzzy line between staying true to the roots of the dance and gatekeeping the art form, we do our best to feature music from original swing artists and their modern counterparts that have studied their techniques extensively, all while continuing to innovate in the form. The same goes for the bands we hire to play every second Thursday.
Lessons & Teaching: At Jazz Attack, we teach Lindy Hop, not East Coast Swing or other commodified variations of the form. That's not to say that they aren't fun dance forms in their own right, but Lindy Hop & (solo) jazz dance are the forms that evolved with jazz music. We also ensure that our teachers are well-versed in jazz & jazz dance history and culture, and that they make an active effort to impart this information in their lessons.
In-Event History: Jazz Attack regularly hosts events in a number of formats that promote Black history & jazz history. From artist-themed nights, to lectures with local musicians and teachers/professors about Philly's jazz history, to "this month in swing history" during announcements, history and culture are a central part of Jazz Attack's Events
Coming Soon -- The Jazz Attack Little Free Library: We're in the process of gathering books, articles, videos, and other materials to make a jazz & jazz dance history and culture mini-library. Attendees will be able to read & watch for free at any event, and may be able to check out certain items.
Coming Soon -- Field Trips! The best way to learn is to experience. Once it's safe to do so, we're looking to plan trips to the Philadelphia & National African American Museums, NYC Swing Scene & relevant Harlem sites, walking tours of Philly's jazz music & vernacular dance history, and more.