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Swing Dance - What Is It?

posted Mar 5, 2014, 11:40 PM by Joreth InnKeeper   [ updated Jan 14, 2018, 12:23 PM ]
What is swing dancing?  Well, that's a very big question.  It's kind of like asking "what is rock music?"  There are lots of variations of swing dancing, and several sub-genres and regional variations and everyone you talk to will probably give you a slightly different answer about the history or the categorization.

Swing dancing was developed in the United States and is a uniquely American dance style, developing as a direct response to American music.  However, it has branched out and morphed over the decades with a lot of other countries embracing this fun dance for their own when it was introduced to them by American soldiers overseas.  This article will address only the US evolution of swing.  

Basically, modern swing dancing can be very loosely divided up into 3 main categories based on their origins - East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, and Lindy Hop.  From there, they can be further divided into many other types such as Jitterbug, Jive, Shag (which itself is 3 different versions - Collegiate Shag, Carolina Shag, and St. Louis Shag), Balboa, Charleston, and others.

Some people already have an idea of what swing dancing is, but for many, their idea of swing dancing comes primarily through movies since dancing in general, and partner dancing in particular, is not quite as encouraged in society as it was in previous generations.  The whole squaredancing in gym class or Cotillion training things are kind of a dying experience these days, so we're left with movies unless we are lucky enough to grow up knowing partner dancers.  If you got all your knowledge of swing dancing through Hollywood, you might not be aware of just how much variety there is in the swing dance styles.  Although there are lots of movies that featured swing dancing (Swing Kids, Blast From The Past, anything with Frankie Manning or Whitey's Lindy Hoppers), here are two major movies that illustrate what  people generally think of when they think of swing dancing:  Hellzapoppin' and League Of Their Own:

Although this is definitely characteristic of how swing dancing started, and this style of swing dancing is still danced today, as mentioned above, this is not the only style of swing dancing you can find in today's nightclubs, ballrooms, stages, or competition floors.  That would be kind of like saying that rock music was only Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly.  Sure, in the early days of rock music, they were the premiere rock performers, and today you can clearly hear their influence in modern rock, including some bands who deliberately maintain that style.  But there's also Marilyn Manson and Bon Jovi and The Doors and Credence Clearwater Revival and ... you get the picture.  The whole point of the original Lindy Hop was improvisation and individual style.  So several different flavors, if you will, have developed over the decades, with each dancer putting his or her own unique flare to the dance and finding ways to dance it to all the different sorts of musical styles that have developed since WWII.  If Whitey's Lindy Hoppers in Hellzapoppin' don't suit your style, look around, there are more variations to be had.

Swing dancing started more or less in the 1920s and '30s in response to Jazz music in New York, specifically in Harlem.  The consensus is that a reporter went to the Savoy theatre, where all the hot street jazz was being played at the time, and asked what this fast-paced, acrobatic new dance they were doing was called.  Since Charles Lindbergh has just made his famous solo flight across the Atlantic, Shorty George, a well-known swing dancer at the time, told the reporter "it's Lindy's Hop!"  And the name Lindy Hop was born.  

Eventually, it's said, Hollywood took notice of the new dance style and tried to add it into movies.  But it turned out that the two partners spinning around and doing tricks was kind of hard for the cameras to follow because the camera was just as likely to get someone's backside as their front.  So, as legend has it, they altered this spot dance (a dance done when the couple dances more or less in the same spot on a crowded dance floor) into a "slot" dance.  This is where the lead dances more or less in place and kind of whips the follow back and forth as though dancing in a "slot" on the floor.  This was easier for cameras to catch the faces and fronts of the dancers, when they were facing the same direction fairly often.  Since this was a California variation, this eventually led to West Coast Swing.  It was also called Hollywood Swing, as opposed to New York swing, where Lindy originated.  Because of its smooth styling, West Coast Swing can be danced to fast or very slow music.

Back on the East Coast, the formal ballrooms were finally forced to acknowledge this street dance or lose students for not teaching it.  They grudgingly studied Lindy and modified it somewhat to match the more formal and codified ballroom structures and to create a teachable and standardized version for beginners out of a mostly improvisational dance style.  This became what is now known as the Jive, which further evolved into the social version called East Coast Swing.  Much like its predecessor, ECS is usually done to fast tempo music, particularly music that has a "swing" to its rhythm because of its 6-counts, which can be confusing for some people listening to music written in 4/4 time and the "swing" feel makes that easier.  East Coast Swing is a 6-count step (1-and-2, 3-and-4, 5, 6), while West Coast Swing is usually done in 8 counts (1, 2, 3-and-4, 5, 6, 7-and-8), and Lindy tends to use a mixture of both, although these are not rules written in stone.  One of the characteristic 8-count steps in Lindy is the "swing out", and a version of that step is called the "whip" in West Coast Swing.

To put all this in perspective, here's a flowchart showing how the different swing variations came from one another, and a timeline for approximately when each variation first showed up:

The Evolution of Swing Dancing

Here is a video of modern Lindy Hoppers.  Note that they are dancing in a spot or a circle-ish space, with the dancers facing all directions throughout the dance.  Although most of the movement is happening below the waist and the upper body stays fairly stationary in a bent position, there is still quite a bit of bouncing happening in the steps, mostly created by the bending of the knees rather than lifting up or jumping.  This is a very big dance with large steps and wide arm movements, as well as a lot of variety and improvisation in the individual styling of the dancers hands, arms, face, and posture.  You also see a lot of Charleston or Charleston-like steps, side-by-side steps, and steps done in tandem (done together instead of mirrored, either side to side or front-to-back facing the same direction).  Originally this dance was characterized by its acrobatic steps, but, although it remains aerobic, you can see that it does not need fancy flying aerial lifts to still be a fantastic dance style.

Lindy Hop Dance Contest -

This video of West Coast Swing shows how it evolved into a very smooth style.  The dancers' heads hardly change altitude at all.  There's almost no bounce whatsoever and all the movement takes place below the waist.  This video also shows a great example of what it means to dance in a "slot".  You'll notice that the lead dances more or less in place, rotating from side to side as he whips his partner back and forth along an imaginary line on the dance floor from left to right and there's almost no moving forwards or backwards towards or away from the camera.  Even when the lead does move, though, he still dances in that same line as the follow.  You also see the same bent knees and wide-open leg stance and steps as the Lindy, but it has lost its acrobatic feel and the dancers have a much more upright posture from the waist up - all the better to move in close for the full-body contact steps.  This is a great video to show the range of tempo that WCS can be danced to, as it opens with a fairly fast-paced pop song and closes with a slow, sultry, jazzy blues song.

West Coast Swing contest -

East Coast Swing is characterized by its ballroom influence and its 6-count pattern.  It's much bouncier than West Coast Swing, closer to its origins in Lindy, but it's also much less improvisational than Lindy with codified steps.  You can clearly see the triple-step, triple-step, rock-step pattern in the video throughout the dance.  Also noteworthy is the posture, which is much more upright than Lindy or WCS.  Backs are straight and instead of both knees being bent the whole time, many of the poses involve one leg held straight for those "ballroom lines" with sharp kicks and pointed toes.  Social dancing differs from competition dancing in many ways, however, and one of those ways is that social ECS has a much more relaxed posture similar to Lindy.  But always that triple-step pattern is the basis for the East Coast Swing (even when they do a variation called single-step, the dance still uses the same triple-step patterns).  ECS can also be fast or slow tempo.  Jive & Jitterbug are both related to ECS and are very fast-paced with lots of kicks and flicks of the feet.  You've probably seen Jive if you've ever watched Dancing With The Stars, as that's the ballroom competition version of swing dancing.  

East Coast Swing competition -

Swing dancing can be done to a very wide variety of music genres, but it is most commonly socially danced to music with a "swing" rhythm like jazz, Big Band-era music, '50s Rock & Roll, R&B (rhythm and blues) from the '70s through today (also called "beach music"), '80s rock and later "rockabilly" retro-style rock and ska music like Brian Setzer (also from Stray Cats) and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin' Daddies.  Because of that "swing" in swing music, opportunities to swing dance socially or publicly in non-ballroom or non-swing-specific venues may not be very common, depending on the social music scene in your area, until you become proficient enough to count out a syncopated dance step to a non-syncopated song.  

But also because of the style of music most associated with it and the flashiness of the acrobatics, swing dancing is one of the most commonly desired-to-learn dances, especially among younger age groups.  So you may find more classes and more specific-swing dance events being held in your area and more people willing to take lessons than many of the other ballroom dances, with the exception possibly being salsa events and classes (since both salsa and swing originated as street dances, they continue to be more common in non-ballroom settings than other ballroom dances).  Since both swing and cha cha have a syncopated "triple step", they can often be done to many of the same pop songs.  Although many dancers still prefer to swing dance to songs with a swing rhythm and cha cha to songs with a Latin rhythm, which makes swing just a little bit less easy to do in pop nightclubs than cha cha if you stick with that segregation convention.