How and where did swing dancing begin? To start, it’s not one kind of dance. I feel I should have clarified this earlier, but I was fuzzy on the concept myself. I did, after all only experience rather the most basic beginner steps when I went swing dancing. “Swing” is an umbrella term for the lindy hop, the balboa, the collegiate shag, the charleston, the slow drag, jazz strolls, and the St. Louis shag or “speed” shag, among others.
To be honest, before researching this history, I had only heard of the lindy hop, the balboa, and the charleston. Of course, I’d heard of the charleston. Someone once, very inexplicably, asked me if I knew how to do it. I did not, to their disappointment. I think they thought I ought to know because I lived in the south.
The lindy hop is fast and energetic when danced by professionals or experienced dancers. It is enthusiastic, to say the least. The music for it originated with ragtime in the nineteen-tens and teens, and then evolved to hot jazz in the twenties, thirties, and forties, and finally into the big band sound.
The ragtime style sank into the clubs, underground venues, and imaginations of musicians and dancers in Harlem and New Orleans. A new kind of music emerged in the twenties, influenced by the energetic and soulful sounds of African/American musicians of the period:
Excuse the human moments as comic relief.
It was a music infected with the fever of the time, which encouraged the indelicate rumpspringing of post-Victorian era youth.
Allegedly, the name of the lindy hop was inspired Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic. His, er, hop across the pond. Some say this is a rumor, that no one knows for sure where it originated. Personally, I think it’s a compelling tidbit.
The dance itself is a combination of the more formal European partner dances, such as the foxtrot and tango, partnered (pardon the pun) with African social dances. It is interesting that such a popular dance, a dance so popular it was practically a social movement of itself, crossed racial and socioeconomic boundaries to touch the lives of nearly everyone under middle-age at a time when racial boundaries were so divisive.
The thing I find most inspiring about swing dancing, in all forms, is that it was the first time the youth of western civilization had been able to let go, physically, en masse.
That is not to say there were no dances that allowed them to do so before–there were Highland dances, Irish jigs, several Eastern European dances that were quite vigorous, groovy Mediterranean dances, et cetera. But all these were limited to the region. The only dances that crossed borders were graceful and restrained ballroom dances. Swing dance owes its own rhythm and groove to the African/American influence it received in Harlem and New Orleans.
Swing dancing crossed racial boundaries, but it never transcended them. According to Lisa Wade’s post for The Society Pages,
Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc. (Source)
Technically, as I said previously, the lindy hop was born from an amalgamation of influences. It is to be felt that the lindy hop was appropriated from those who originally danced it, and it was used as a tool of further racial prejudice. And it was, wherever it touched big money. But it cannot be argued that the lindy hop brought immense, unscripted joy to whoever danced it. It was part of the liberation of generations from the social strictures of centuries.
And for kicks (quite literally) and giggles, I simply have to add this: