Swing music, and the eponymous dance craze it spawned, was all the rage in the 1920s and 1930s. After a brief loss of popularity it experienced a strong revival in the last couple of decades and is now more fashionable than ever.
Learn more about its fascinating origins, before trying a free Swing dance class for yourself to see just how infectious its moves can be.
As descendants of African slaves migrated from the rural Deep South to the urban north east of America in search of opportunity, they took along their own unique brand of jazz.
Harlem in New York during the 1920s and 1930s was a major African-American hub and is widely acknowledged as the birthplace for Swing. Musicians Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Cab Calloway led the new ‘big band’ sound in the district’s famous nightclubs. In March 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened its doors in Harlem and quickly made a name for itself, boasting a giant dance floor and a raised double bandstand podium, drawing the largest crowds to the best bands of the time.
The music was upbeat and made people want to get up and dance. Then, in the 1940s, swing jazz evolved into the driving rhythms of jump and jive, and boogie woogie, both of which were more frenetic again. These styles, in turn, morphed into rockabilly and the early rock and roll of the 1950s, but were still suitable for Swing dancers.
The move from rock and roll to folk-inspired singer/songwriters of the 1960s and glam rock of the 1970s, put paid to Swing for a while, but a revival in the 1990s saw the return of both swing music and partner dancing, which remain strong today.
Harlem’s community found it impossible to sit still to the big band swing jazz they were listening to in clubs like the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club. As the music was fast and furious, the dance was made up of high-energy moves based on traditional African dances and the era’s crazes, the Charleston and the Fox Trot. The resulting high-octane dance became variously known as Lindy Hop, Swing, the Jitterbug and the Jive.
As the ‘all-American’ dance took hold in the 1930s, Herbert White of the Savoy Ballroom formed a dance troupe called ‘Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’. When they were showcased in a number of Hollywood films – A Day at the Races (1937), Hellzapoppin (1941), Sugar Hill Masquerade (1942) and Killer Diller (1948) the Swing bug intensified. The dances evolved with the changing music and differed slightly by region, but always retained the Swing’s basic steps and its aerial acrobatics.
What’s in a name?
As people started talking about this new dance craze, which was part-Charleston and part-African moves, everyone wanted to give it a name. The best known story goes that in 1927 in the Savoy, a dance enthusiast ‘Shorty George’ Snowden first coined the term ‘Lindy Hop’. Not long after, Charles Lindbergh’s groundbreaking solo transatlantic flight and a newspaper headline proclaimed, ‘Lindy Hops the Atlantic’.
When asked what the moves were called in the club one night, Shorty George replied the ‘Lindy Hop’, which seemed apt for the adventurous leaps and somersaults. In 1932, Duke Ellington established the phrase ‘Swing’ for both the music and the dance, when he released his classic song, ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing’, while two years later Cab Calloway brought out his new tune, ‘Jitterbug’, which lent its name to the faster dance moves.
Try a free Swing dance class near you
Swing is one of the most popular dances taught at Arthur Murray Studios, for its complete package of great music, high energy moves and cardio benefits.
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