Thursday 24th April 2014
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Lindy Hop History

Introduction

Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson (1941)
The Lindy Hop (or Lindy) is a partner dance that originated in 1920's and 30's Harlem, New York. The Dance itself consists of both 8 and 6 count steps and it includes footwork borrowed from the Charleston and Tap.

The dance can be wild and spontaneous, with frenzied kicks and body movements, or it can be cool and sophisticated. The most important aspects of it are that it is danced with your partner, to the music, and that you enjoy it!

The Lindy Hop is considered a cultural phenomenon that broke through the race barrier when segregation was still the norm. Modern dancers, interested in cultural history are piecing together the roots of Lindy through the tales and film footage of the original dancers, now in their 70s and 80s. Although the lineage and history of Lindy may be muddled, it is certain that it was born from the blending of African rhythms and movements with European structured dance.

The Lindy Hop has enjoyed a revival since the mid 1980's, when Swing Legend Frankie "musclehead" Manning, an influential choreographer and performer of the era, was rediscovered. Now the Lindy Hop and other Swing dances and variations are part of a world wide trend to get back on the dance floor.

The Forerunners of Lindy Hop

Looking back on where the Lindy Hop came from is an amazing study of American history and of the global cultural shift facilitated by the American GI's that traveled in World War II.

The influences of the Charleston and Tap dance are evident still in the Lindy we do today and the dance is also sited to have come from an early version of the Foxtrot. Remnants of older dancers such as the Cakewalk, Texas Tommy, Black bottom and popular "animal" dances such as the Turkey Trot and the Buzzard Lope are also expressed. What is interesting is that these came from African social dance culture, and some, like the Cakewalk was created when blacks imitated and mocked the formal dance structure of the whites, which they would then use in their entertainment routines. Ironically, the white spectators would then copy the entertainers, and a social dance that bridged the divide emerged.

Luckily, the two cultures found a common ground, called the Savoy Ballroom in New York. It was here that Lindy was fine tuned and grounded, and where the "Savoy style" that was to influence the world grew up.

The Savoy Ballroom

The Savoy Ballroom
In New York City, ballrooms dominated Harlem, but one, The Savoy was to become the king of Swing. The Savoy was huge, taking up the whole block at 141st Street and Lenox Ave. Lindy flourished there, partly because it was one of the few racially integrated ballrooms where White and Black could dance, be inspired and shared moves like no other place.

The Coat check could serve up to 5,000 patrons, and it needed to, with 70,000 patrons a year dancing at the "home of happy feet". The sprung floor was replaced every 3 years and came to be known as "the Track" due to its elongated shape. The bandstand at each end accommodated two live bands every night, 7 nights a week.

Jazz was in its heyday, since a night out dancing was cheap, and recorded music was not yet readily assessable. Names such as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Basie made music history in the battle of the bands held there. The players would feed off the dancer's improvisation as much as the dancers fed off the music. The atmosphere of the Ballroom must have been electric as the top dancers would meet in "Kats Corner" and take turns to show off and play with the rhythms. Weekly competitions promoted friendly rivalry between dance troupes and dancers were inspired to create new, more exciting moves to wow the crowd and win over the judges. Audiences were amazed to sight the first Aerial move (or airstep) created by Frankie Manning and his partner Freda Washington for these competitions.

Shorty 'George' Snowden
Dance Marathons were also popular, and it is during one of these that the Lindy apparently got its name. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was daring the first ever solo flight from New York to Paris, and people were absorbed with his "Hop" across the Atlantic. A great dancer by the name of George "Shorty" Snowden was at the end of a long marathon when a reporter watching asked what this crazy dance was called. The quick witted answer was that it was the "Lindy Hop" and the name stuck.

The atmosphere at the Savoy permitted a situation that was ripe for dancers to perfect their craft, and for something spectacular to come from The Savoy…

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers

Whiteys Lindy Hoppers
The Spectacular something was a "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers". Herbert White or "Whitey", the head bouncer at the Savoy, was skilled at drawing together the best dancers from the Savoy to join his dance troupe. He arranged performances and competitions all over the country, and got his group into many films, such as "A day at the Races" and "Hellzapoppin".

The Lindy then had an audience across the Nation, by which it inspired and influenced other dance styles. And it is this film footage still amazes and inspires the dancers of today.

The Granddaddy of Swing

"Lindy Hop" refers to this particular dance done and Swing was the music they would dance too. The term "Swing" is now commonly used to include many styles of dance: Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Balboa, Shag, East and West coast swing, Boogie Woogie, and has also inspired Jive, Rock and Roll, Ceroc, Le-Roc with regional differences in each dance family.

Many may say that Lindy Hop was the granddaddy of them all, but that should not imply that no one was dancing any form of Swing before Lindy swept the country. People were already creating dances to their local bands. The variations in the music and the conditions they were dancing in impacted on the dance that was created in that region. The performances that came out of the Savoy Ballroom however, must have rocked their world when they saw them on stage or at the flicks! They only had one chance to see a move before reinventing it for themselves, so the moves would evolve and become something new, and the dances would blend to accommodate the new fashion.

The Jitterbug

One such blending is the Jitterbug, which is so close to the Lindy hop that one might call it the same dance. The Jitterbug though, referred to a different styling, and may also refer to the way the white kids danced the Lindy Hop - as if they had been drinking an illegal moonshine called "Jitter juice". Nowadays, the term Jitterbug can be used to mean different dances in different places, but Lindy Hop still refers to the Savoy Style of dance.

Hollywood Style

Dean Collins and Martha Raye from the movie Hellzapoppin (1941)
Dean Collins inspired what we now know as "Hollywood" and "Smooth" style Lindy. Dean had learnt Lindy in New York in the early 30's before moving to LA and taking the Savoy Style Lindy Hop with him.

Once in LA, Dean smoothed out the dance and put his own emphasis on it. This lead him to choreograph and perform in many films including "Lets make Music", "Chool Song" and "Buck privates". Dean also broke the dance into teachable components, Arthur Murray being one of his students.

In more recent swing history, Sylvia Sykes and Jonathan Bixby rediscovered Dean Collins, and perfected the art of "smooth style" directly from its master. The swing revival has also prompted Erik and Sylvia Robison to coin the term "Hollywood Style", to refer to the style of dancing seen in movies of the era, including those starring Dean Collins.

The Neo-Swing revival

The original Lindy Hop died off as the music changed to Be-Bop and Rock and Roll. An entertainment tax made live big bands expensive and as recorded music became affordable, dance halls became smaller and more crowded, and the style of dancing had to change to accommodate this.

In the mid 1980's some of the original members were rediscovered by new dancers inspired by their film footage Steven Mitchell & Erin Stevens found Frankie Manning. The Rhythm Hot Shots found Al Minns, and The Jiving Lindy Hoppers found Mama Lu Parks.

Since then, Frankie Manning has come back on the dance scene, teaching new Swing dancers around the globe. The retro dance returned, along with neo-swing bands and vintage fashion. Lindy hit the movies yet again with "Malcolm X", "Swing Kids", "A League of Their Own", "The Mask" and "Swingers". The TV also favoured the new Lindy dancers, with appearances on Ally McBeal and the GAP advert.

The Lindy Hop is arguably bigger now than it was in its heyday. Whitey's Lindy Hoppers never would have thought that their dance would be spread across the world via the internet, videos, workshops and classes. Today knowledge moves fast, but some things stay the same - Swing music still inspires the freedom of improvisation, a romantic style remains in the dance culture and, most importantly, dancers still love dancing with a partner.

 

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