By Kate Beavis and Ian Hartley
Image by Amy Rose Photography
New Orleans was the centre for the development of jazz in the early 1900s and dancing to ragtime and other jazz music stimulated an amalgam of African and European styles from the ethnic mix of people in the city. Jazz soon spread throughout the USA to cities like Kansas City, Chicago, St Louis and New York, as musicians moved from the southern USA and as records and radio brought jazz to a wider audience. By the 1930s, swing music had become popular and dance styles such as the Cakewalk gave way to Charleston, the Black Bottom the Breakaway and most notably, the Lindy Hop.
The Lindy Hop
Stimulated by watching the white folk dancing the Charleston and with influences from the Foxtrot, the Texas Tommy and the Turkey Hop, the black dancers in New York developed a 6 and 8 beat partner dance, which became known as the Lindy Hop. The home of lindy in New York was the Savoy Ballroom, which became a mecca for swing dancers of the 30s and 40s and who were also influenced by tap dancers of the day. There is an apocryphal story that Shorty George Snowden (an early swing dancer) was asked by a reporter what style some people were dancing at a dance marathon in New York. George replied “the Lindy Hop” as he had just read in a 1927 newspaper headline that Lindbergh, the aviator, had just ‘hopped’ the Atlantic. It’s a good story and it may be true! In the Savoy Herbert ‘Whitey’ White became a mentor of some of the dancers and formed Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a troupe of the best dancers, which he promoted getting them work dancing on stage with great swing bands of the era. This stimulated more interest in the dance.
Lindy Hop was well suited to the swing music of the 30s and 40s. As often happens, when new people learn a dance, it can get simplified. So, it was in the 1940s when the GIs came to the UK they brought a simplified lindy style or East Coast Swing style with them. The UK had its dance bands but the popular dances of the day were the foxtrot, waltz and quickstep. The ‘jive’ was a “breath of fresh air” or a “disgrace” dependant of your point of view. Because of the wild antics of some of the dancers they were known as jitterbugs, a name said to be given to the energetic youngsters by Harry White, a musician who played with Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. The six beat style developed into the jive danced in the UK to rock and roll in the 1950s.
The lindy hop can be danced single or triple time and can have eight or six beat rhythms. Eight beat ‘triple time’ lindy hop has enabled modern dancers to take more leisurely steps to slower tempos whereas Charleston variations look best when they are danced to up tempo swing music. The dance is a true vernacular one, with individuals creating their own moves, often spreading throughout the dancing world as other dancers copied them. By the 1960s and 70s the original lindy style had almost died out until enthusiasts – notably Erin Stevens in the US and the Jiving Lindy Hoppers in the UK – revived the ancient art and encouraged original lindy dancers like Frankie Manning and Norma Miller to pass on their knowledge. The revival of the period music and dance has seen a parallel revival of clothing of the period.
Another swing dance of 30s USA is the Balboa, which gets its name from the Balboa peninsula at Newport Beach some 40 miles south of Los Angeles. The Rendezvous Ballroom, where numerous famous swing bands played for dancers, became its focus. The original Balboa was originally a closed position, face to face (chest to chest) eight beat dance, but soon this opened out to what became called Bal Swing. The small rapid steps of the dance allow it to be danced to fast tempo music. The revival of this dance followed the new found interest in all swing dances and dancers like Maxie Dorf, Hal Takier and Willie Desatoff could pass on their original skills to today’s dancers.
The term “shag” in the USA is used for several dance styles. Arthur Murray, the famous dance teacher, mentioned in his book Let’s Dance in 1937, an article saying that shag was danced and known all over the country under different names such as “Flea Hop”. Differing styles of shag evolved including Carolina and St Louis Shag, but it is The Collegiate shag that has caught the imagination of modern swing dancers, the most popular style being the double shag. It probably originated in New Orleans and was danced to ragtime and fast jazz. However, there were centres of Collegiate Shag in New York, Virginia Beach and several east coast cities in the US. This style of swing dance has been the most recent to be revived and it is perhaps the most energetic. The six beat basic is often danced with a hopping motion and to fast tempos. I find it perfect for up-tempo western swing music.
Taking their lead from the 1920s tap routine The Shim Sham, several dancers have put together ‘strolls’ or line dances using vintage jazz steps. One that has stuck is the Jitterbug Stroll that was choreographed in 1992 by Ryan Francois and incorporates jazz such as the Suzie Q, boogie backs, tick tock and the Shorty George. This 4 wall jazz stroll has become a permanent fixture at swing dances.
So, if that has inspired you to put on your dancing shoes, come along to meet and dance with GI Jive on April 22nd and 23rd at York Racecourse.