What Is Swing?

Louis Armstrong, when once asked, “What is swing?” was silent for a while, and then responded, “If you don’t know, don’t mess with it.” In the Swing Book, author Degen Pener asserts, “Swing isn’t a particular type of music at all. It’s a way of playing music, the manner in which a beat moves, something you can hear and feel and, best of all, do.

Bandleader Artie Shaw has said, succinctly, “Swing is a verb, not an adjective….” For our purposes, “swing” encompasses the showy, energetic dance styles that emerged in Harlem in the 1920s and early 1930s. Although there are various perspectives on who originated the Lindy Hop, credit is often given to Shorty George Snowden who incorporated a breakaway move during a dance competition in 1928, attracting media attention. Shorty George was one of the stars of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, a venue that played a pivotal role in the development of swing dance. The term “Lindy Hop” is a reference to aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, who completed his historic trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.

Elements of the jazzy Charleston, with its kicking and pivoting movements, were adopted and became integral to the Lindy, as did the heritage of other popular dances such as the two-step and the Texas Tommy.

By the mid-1930s, as the Lindy  was gaining mass appeal,air-steps began to make an appearance. These sometimes heart-stopping aerials, where one partner (usually the follow) would be lifted or even tossed into the air, were pioneered by athletic dancers such as Al Minns, Frankie Manning, Naomi Wallace and Norma Miller. These flashy moves are a hallmark of vintage swing dancing.

The Lindy began to move out of the Savoy and other clubs, and into the consciousness of mainstream America as well as overseas. Talented performers, in groups such as the Savoy Hoppers and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, performed concerts, demonstrations, and appeared in movies such as Hellzapoppin’ and the Marx Brothers’ classic, Day at the Races. Swing dancing swept the country during the Big Band Era in the 1930s and 1940s, creating a frenzy during World War II.

Swing styles were highly regionalized, with dances such as the Balboa and Shag emerging in different parts of the country in response to the music. The “Hollywood” style of swing smoothed out the Savoy’s early earthiness—in keeping with its roots in African movement, it is danced low to the ground—and was featured in films during the World War II period. Dean Collins was an iconic Hollywood stylist.

Swing dancing was also popularly termed the Jitterbug, possibly due to the fast, “jittery” movements of the dancers. Swing dance, no matter what it was called, placed as much emphasis on solo improvisation as on couples dancing together. This is reflective of its close association with jazz music. No previous dance had provided such a forum for personal expression and creativity.

Some moves and footwork from swing were incorporated into more formal ballroom dancing styles. “East Coast Swing” and “West Coast Swing,” among others, remain popular in social settings today, and keep the basic 6-count footwork (triple step, triple step, rock step) familiar to Lindy Hoppers.

A resurgence of interest in swing music bloomed around the world in the 1980s and 1990s, spurring dancers to seek out the original swing artists, including many members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and recreate the joy and excitement of swing. Danced worldwide, swing is again promoted in swing “camps,” Lindy Exchanges, and studios in many countries.