What is the Lindy Hop?
Lindy Hop is a dance done with a partner, that evolved out of The Charleston in the late 1920s. It flourished in the Swing Era of the 1930s and 40s. Lindy Hop is an African-American artform that spread from the ballrooms of Harlem, New York, across the United States and to the rest of the world. It was sometimes called The Jitterbug. Lindy Hop is alive and kicking today, with a thriving social dance scene here in London today. Lindy is energetic, joyful and fun – it’s the happiest dance on earth! Click on the videos to see some vintage Lindy Hop in action, or keep reading for a more in-depth history of the Lindy Hop…
Are Swing Dancing and Lindy Hop the same thing?
“Swing Dancing” is an umbrella term for a family of partnered dances that had their heyday in the 1930s-40s. A swing dance is any dance done to swing music. That means swinging jazz (sometimes called Big Band) which was the pop music of the late 1920s to 1950s. It is played live by many wonderful jazz bands today.
So Lindy Hop is a swing dance. There are other swing dances also danced and enjoyed in London’s swing dance community (such as Balboa, Collegiate Shag and St Louis Shag). Lindy Hop is the most popular swing dance, so if someone says, “I’m going swing dancing” they probably mean Lindy Hop.
- Lindy Hop is an American Swing Dance.
- “Swing Dancing” means any dance done to swing music.
- “Swing Music” means swinging jazz music, originally created in the Swing Era. It was music meant for dancing to.
- The “Swing Era” means roughly the late 1920s to the early 1950s, when Big Band swing music was pop music.
- The word “Swing” describes the feeling & rhythmic style of the music.
History of Lindy Hop: Timeline
Photo: Buddy Bolden Band circa 1905.
Late 1800s: Jazz is born
The history of jazz music deserves its own timeline, but for our purposes the most important thing to know is that jazz music was an African-American creation born in New Orleans around the late 1800s.
Jazz was a fusion of African and European musical and rhythmic traditions. Louisiana had been first a French colony, later purchased by the USA, and New Orleans was a major port for the transatlantic slave trade. Jazz arose out of this complex boiling pot of cultural clashes, societal change, suffering and tragedy, hope and beauty.
Jazz evolved quickly and grew in popularity, spreading across the USA by the 1910s and 1920s, thanks to new technologies like radio, phonograph records and cinema. By the “roaring twenties” it was the most popular music in America and had spread to Europe and other parts of the world too.
Today we call this early jazz “Dixieland Jazz”, “Hot Jazz” or just “New Orleans Jazz”.
This early style of jazz did not “swing” yet, but it was still great for dancing! From the moment jazz was born, there were people dancing to it.
Photo: Couple dancing the Charleston in the 1920s.
1920s: The Charleston
Before Lindy Hop, the first mass dance fad done to jazz music was The Charleston.
The Charleston would have started appearing and evolving in the 1900s-1910s in Charleston (South Carolina), from which it gets its name. Just like jazz, it was a Black American creation, combining syncopated African dance influences with European Ballroom dance.
But the date we usually cite as the beginning of the Charleston craze is 1923, as this is the date that James P. Johnson wrote the famous song “The Charleston”, as part of a Broadway musical called “Runnin’ Wild” that featured the dance.
Video: footage of The Charleston in the 1920s.
The Charleston was originally an African-American dance, but like so much Black culture, it was appropriated by white America and quickly spread across the country and then around the world, aided by new technologies like radio, cinema and phonograph records. It was the greatest dance fad the world has ever known.
Josephine Baker brought the Charleston to Paris in the mid-1920s, and footage shows Londoners dancing the Charleston by around that time too.
Charleston was a dance you could do on your own, or with a partner. In footage from the 1920s you will notice it is danced in a closed embrace, in the European Ballroom style, and it’s fairly upright and stiff in the upper body.
Photo: Nightclub Map of Harlem, 1933.
Late 1920s: Harlem is the place to be
By the late 1920s jazz was the most popular music in America. Jazz evolved rapidly, getting more complex & sophisticated. The bands got bigger and more organised, and the rhythm started to swing.
Many Black Americans were leaving the southern states of the USA from around the 1910s onwards, to escape discrimination and racial segregation in the South, and seek better economic conditions in major northern cities. Known as The Great Migration, it was one of the largest movements of people in United States history.
Many of the best jazz musicians left the South, heading North to cities like Chicago, St Louis and especially New York City. By the late 1920s you could hear the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and many other influential jazz musicians. The African-American neighbourhood of Harlem in uptown Manhattan had become the centre of swing music, and with music came dancing.
In Harlem, the heart of New York’s Black community, they were dancing The Charleston (and other dances) anywhere people were partying. In this jazz-infused atmosphere, their dance was evolving into something unique, special and rooted in Harlem’s culture.
Photo: inside The Savoy Ballroom.
1926: The Savoy Ballroom opens
In 1926 the grandiose Savoy Ballroom opened its doors in Harlem, occupying an entire city block from 140th to 141st Streets. It was called “The Home of Happy Feet”. The Savoy became the great gathering place for Harlem’s community and dance found its home.
Most ballrooms in America at this time were segregated – Black dancers were not allowed to enter white ballrooms. Many ballrooms and nightclubs in New York barred Black people from entering. But The Savoy was special. It was integrated – anyone could dance there, regardless of the colour of their skin.
Video: early Lindy Hop in After Seben (1929). First generation Savoy Ballroom dancers “Twistmouth George” Ganaway, “Shorty George” Snowden and Mattie Purnell.
In the Savoy Ballroom the Charleston evolved into something new and different. The Big Bands were starting to have a smoother swinging rhythm, so the dance became lower and stretchier.
From the Charleston’s closed embrace, the Savoy dancers had started to break away out to what we call “open position”. This made the dancers stretch away from each other then slingshot back in. More rotation was developing too, the dancers swinging around each other in circular motions. To cope with this new dynamic, the hand grip changed from the high ballroom hand hold, to a new waist-height grip.
This new dance was imbued with African-American dance traditions of rhythm, syncopation, improvisation and joyful exuberance, but it needed a name…
ca. 1927: Lindy Hop gets its name
The Savoy Ballroom dancers probably started calling it The Lindy sometime around 1926. So where does this name come from?
Aviator Charles Lindbergh was one of the biggest celebrities of the 1920s with his pioneering solo flights across the globe. His nickname was “Lucky Lindy”. So it’s likely that the Savoy Ballroom dancers starting calling the new dance The Lindy around that time. But there is one good story (that may or may not be true) about where the name Lindy Hop came from.
The story goes that in 1927 a dancer in the Savoy Ballroom named George Snowden, was asked by a reporter what the name of the dance was. Having no answer, he looked around and spied a newspaper, the headline of which read “Lindy Hops the Atlantic”. So George turned to the reporter and said, “It’s the Lindy Hop” and the name was born. It might not be a true story, but it’s a good story!
Photo: The Savoy Ballroom, Harlem.
1930s & 1940s: Harlem’s Golden Age
Popular hit songs celebrated Harlem nightlife and the Savoy in particular: Take the A Train, Drop Me Off In Harlem, Stomping at the Savoy. With the best jazz bands in the world playing at The Savoy, the Lindy Hop kept evolving and growing, with new steps being born every day. Weekly Saturday night dance contests at The Savoy pushed the Harlem dancers to be the best in the world, and the dance just kept getting hotter. In the 1930s acrobatic “airsteps” were introduced, taking the dance to (literal) new heights.
White Americans flocked to Harlem to witness the new dance. Musical theatre, vaudeville and nightclubs capitalised on its popularity by hiring Lindy Hoppers out of the Savoy to perform for white audiences. Harlem’s elite Lindy Hoppers performed at nightclubs like the Cotton Club, in Broadway shows, Hollywood films and toured nationally and internationally in the 1930s and 40s. They were especially known for their acrobatics and high flying airsteps. The most famous of these groups was known as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (named for their manager, Herbert “Whitey” White, an enterprising bouncer at The Savoy who turned entertainment agent).
Opposition & The Rise of The Jitterbug
As young white Americans were drawn to the new dance, public opposition to Lindy Hop found its voice. This racially charged opposition came from many camps: religious leaders, prohibitionists, medical professionals and traditional dance institutions.
“We permit, if not freely endorse, by our criminal indifference, jam sessions, jitterbugs and cannibalistic rhythmic orgies to occupy a place in our social scheme of things, wooing our youth along the primrose path to hell!”
– Catholic Archbishop Francis J. Beckman, 1938
Religious parties denounced the dance as pagan and profane. Scientific racism came from many camps, who traced the liveliness of Lindy Hop to “primitive, barbaric tribes of the African jungle.”
Video: Groovie Movie (1944). Dancers Lenny & Kay Smith, Chuck Saggau & Irene Thomas, Arthur Walsh & Jean Veloz.
White opposition to Lindy Hop had two distinct effects. Firstly it unified the African-American communities in their pride of this cultural form as distinctly African-American. Conversely, however, it encouraged white American youth to appropriate the dance, not out of amity with African-Americans, but as a means of explicit resistance to societal norms and the traditional values of their parents’ generation. Both groups sought to construct and separate themselves from the white American establishment, but along different lines.
For white American teenagers, the dance became known as the Jitterbug. The same community-building power Lindy Hop held for African-Americans, the Jitterbug held for the creation of a white American youth culture that would soon span the nation.
Lindy Hop – or Jitterbug – had become a national craze and spread to other parts of the world including, of course, here in Great Britain. In the Second World War, America’s armed forces brought the dance to many countries overseas. With men at war, women on the homefront learned to lead and danced Lindy Hop with each other.
Video: Jammin’ The Blues (1944). Dancers Marie Bryant and Archie Savage.
By 1942 market forces compelled the New York Society of Teachers of Dancing to officially introduce the Jitterbug into its teaching repertoire. The Arthur Murray school of dancing introduced Lindy and Jitterbug.
By the mid-1940s, the Lindy Hop was completely entrenched in American culture. LIFE magazine featured Lindy Hop on its cover in August 1943 declaring, “A true national folk dance has been born in USA”.
Video: Lindy Hop danced to Rock ‘n Roll music in Don’t Knock The Rock (1956).
1950s on: The evolution continues
The Lindy Hop never died out. But World War II had a huge impact on swing which would change the music and dance landscape. Musicians & dancers were drafted into the military, some didn’t return. In the US there was a wartime tax on dance halls, and in Europe many ballrooms were repurposed for the war effort. Fuel rationing made touring difficult and a general decline of nightlife during the war made it less viable to feature big bands. Bands shrunk in size. Swing orchestras that had been 20 or more musicians, broke into small combos of 6 or 7. The sound changed. Cinema musicals and early television gave singers the cult of celebrity over other musicians which remains to today (it’s hard to imagine that 1930s teenagers clamoured for the autograph of a horn player or a clarinetist).
Swing music evolved into new musical forms. One branch, Bebop, shifted jazz music away from the dancefloor to become a more cerebral, listening experience. Branching off in another direction, Rock & Roll and early R&B music kept people on the dancefloor but with new rhythms that inspired a different type of movement. So Lindy Hop evolved too.
The children and grandchildren of Lindy Hop include dances like Jive, Rock & Roll, Ceroc, Boogie Woogie, Rockabilly and West Coast Swing. These dances all evolved out of Lindy Hop over the decades after World War II.
In 1958 the legendary Savoy Ballroom closed its doors after more than three decades of Lindy Hop glory.
By the 1960s solo dances like the Twist were preferred and partnered dancing was mostly sidelined from mainstream pop culture.
Photo: Christian Bale in the film Swing Kids (1993).
1980s & 1990s: Everything swing is cool again
In the 1980s, Lindy Hop had a renaissance. A few dedicated students sought out surviving legends of Lindy Hop (by then aged in their 70s or 80s) and dragged them out of retirement to teach a new generation of dancers. So why did it swing back into fashion, so to speak?
Well, we might have had a sense of nostalgia about the swing era that belonged to our grandparents. The original dancers were ageing and so began a sense of urgency to learn from them before it was too late. There’s something to be said also for the idea that the 1980s generation shared some affinity with the generation of youth who lived through the Depression and WWII.
Musically in the 1980s there was a movement away from the 3-chord simplicity of contemporary pop music, back towards the musical maturity and complexity of big band swing. A style called Neo-Swing emerged out of Los Angeles, with bands like Royal Crown Revue, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Brian Setzer Orchestra and Indigo Swing playing a 90s take on the Big Band sound. Jazz influences made their way into mainstream pop songs (can’t you just hear that 80s saxophone solo?)
1940s clothing styles had a comeback in mainstream fashion (think shoulder pads, two-tone shoes and baggy trousers). The release of swing era films on video cassette for home viewing created a new market for old black & white movies. The Betty Boop cartoons were re-released, and Felix the Cat merchandise was popular with children. 1980s-1990s films like The Cotton Club, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Swing Kids, Malcolm X, Back to the Future and Swingers showed 1940s & 50s style, music & dance to a new generation.
Photo: Frankie Manning
1986-2009: Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop
Frankie Manning was one of the greatest Lindy Hoppers of all time. He is credited with creating the first airstep. He was a Savoy Ballroom legend. He was the leader and choreographer for the Savoy Ballroom’s elite dance team, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. In the 1930s and 40s he toured the world performing Lindy Hop in stage shows that spread this joyous dance in the original swing era.
In 1986 Frankie was sought out by both American and Swedish dancers, who travelled to New York to find him. From 1986-2009 he travelled the world teaching Lindy Hop and its history to the new revival generation. He was not the only swing dance legend to take on this role – Al Minns, Norma Miller, Sugar Sullivan, Sonny Allen, Jean Veloz and Irene Thomas are some of the other greats who became teachers to the swing revival.
However, Frankie deserves special mention. More than just being a legendary dancer, his warmth, his humour and his vision helped shape the modern swing dance community into one of love, respect, unity and inclusivity. He is the father of modern swing dance. He was our friend, our mentor, our inspiration.
We call him the Ambassador of Lindy Hop – which is the title of his biography, if you would like to learn more about him. World Lindy Hop Day is 26th May, which was Frankie’s birthday. He was still dancing & teaching all the way up until he died at the age of 95 in 2009. We will always remember him.
Lindy Hop today
The swing scene today is an international community with shared values, as well as a shared passion for the music, dances, fashion, film, culture and history of the swing era. There is a lot of variety in style and taste in the community, but we are united by Frankie’s vision for us.
Some dancers in our scene love to dress in vintage style and others prefer to keep it modern. Some swing dancers learn all the dances in the swing family (Lindy Hop, Balboa, Shag, as well as the solo Vintage Jazz Dances which you dance without a partner). Other focus on just one. Today many Lindy Hoppers learn how to dance both roles – Leader and Follower. There is a movement towards gender neutral teaching (like here at JazzMAD).
Smaller communities around the country and the world are strongly connected by social media to make one large global swing community. Since the swing revival happened at the same time that the Internet was born, the Lindy Hop community has always been very present on the Internet. There you will find an overwhelming abundance of articles, videos and resources if you care to dive in.
Finally, swing tourism is a real thing! Travelling to other cities & countries for swing dancing is a big part of our dance culture today. There are workshops, festivals, retreats and exchanges all over the world where you can go to dance and connect with people in a different culture.