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Evolution of American Popular Dance & Music: Swing

A look at the Influences on Meryl and Maks' Week 2 Swing Dance

Today’s focus touches on some of the music genres most often chosen to dance to Swing and the variants of Swing styles. Wiki’s page about Swing dance styles and the one on Swing era music are a helpful start. If you missed the post explaining this series, look here!

jumpin-jive-cab_calloway-fayard_harold_nicholas030Cultural Influences and Origins:

It cannot be underscored enough just how much influence America’s black population have had on popular culture. Thank goodness it did! In my opinion, an influence much larger than the weight of the demographic as a percentage of the total population. This outsized influence goes way back, to the days of segregation and pre-dates the 20th century. In this picture, the legendary Nicholas Brothers, do their thing with Cab Calloway conducting. A case of a movie following real life.

Swing style dances have their origins long ago, from different family trees. Swing origins fuses European partner dances with many non-partnered, far more athletic styles from the African American population, dating back to the 19th century. The Big Apple, Black Bottom, Cakewalk, Charleston, and Texas Tommy have all been named as source dances evolved from African dance, with the exception of the Cakewalk, which has been described as a poke at formalized white European style dancing. From the European influenced portion, the Foxtrot has been named as an influence on Lindy Hop, and other Swing style dances (and also the Jive, but that, too, is for another days post!) Due to the informal nature of Swing styles, it is known as a ‘street dance’. The music is traditionally noted for it’s strong rhythm and, initially, use of a lot of brass, woodwind instruments or both. Iconic big bands of your parents or grandparents era offered many swing style numbers. Later, many classic Rock and Roll songs, without brass or woodwind sections were enjoyed by Swing style dancers.

The WWIISoldiersDanceFtShelbyMissSpread and Evolution as a Dance and Musical Genre:

While the early twentieth century, from the 1920’s-1940’s saw the growth of Swing style dances, it was WWII, which saw Swing and other styles of American evolved dance spread around the globe. Most amusingly, after the US servicemen and women departed from a green and pleasant land, excepting the bombed out areas of Great Britain, the authorities tried to dampen down the passion for what was deemed, “rude American dancing.”

Often, the term ‘Jitter Bug’ coined by the Cotton Club’s legendary Cab Calloway, is used as a synonym for a Swing dance style. This isn’t quite accurate, as a Jitterbugger is one who might dance a Lindy Hop or other Swing style, but isn’t a dance style. Instead, in addition the the name of a Cab Calloway song, it referred to a person who was jittery, initially due to alcohol withdrawal, and later involving one who could do a lot of fast movements. Still, especially overseas during WWII, swing style dancing was frequently called a jitterbug.

lindyhopallSub-styles: Lindy Hop:

One of the most visually exciting Swing dances is the Lindy Hop. Originating as a named dance style in Harlem, NY in the 1930’s, reportedly named after Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight. While Lindy Hoppers sometimes appeared at the iconic Cotton Club, it was Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom which became the go-to venue for high quality performers, including ‘Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’ who are featured in the Hellzapoppin’ clip on this page. While it started as a very fast dance with a triple step element, it was a bit later the difficult aerial elements were added, by youngsters, to the displeasure of the older leaders of the dance style movement.

As the Wiki Lindy Hop entry notes, “Over the Back (the names describe the motion of the woman in the air) began to appear in 1936, the old guard of dancers such as Leon James, Leroy Jones, and Shorty Snowden disapproved of the new moves.[1] Younger dancers fresh out of high school (Al Minns, Joe Daniels, Russell Williams, and Pepsi Bethel) worked out the Back Flip, “Over the head”, and “the Snatch”.”

Check out this clip from the movie Hellzapoppin’. Although most don’t even know this performance exists, it’s one of the best movie dance scenes ever, at least within the Lindy Hop/Swing category.

Watching this clip, I was reminded of MnM’s swing, even though MnM kept the footwork to a swing, rather than the triple step of Lindy Hop, as the amount and difficulty of their lifts and tosses are surely on par with a full-force Lindy Hop.

As an interesting side note, the athleticism of Lindy Hop was more than most kids could manage, and certainly more than one of the popular dance studios could teach to the majority of their students. As a swing dance, there are recognizable elements of movement to the beat to other Swing style dances. Lindy Hop, though, has a WHOLE lot more steps compared most other Swing style dances, along with difficult and potentially dangerous lifts and throws. Thus, the nationally known dance studios facilitated the creation and promotion of a toned down Swing dance/Lindy Hop instructional program.

MERYL DAVIS, MAKSIM CHMERKOVSKIYHere is MnM’s Week 2 Swing with stunning (and extremely difficult) lifts and throws, reminiscent of similar work in the ‘Hellzapoppin’ clip. Maks said at the time, he was “taking advantage of their size difference,” to “throw her around a bit.” In my opinion and that of many, he most certainly did so and with fantastic results. After their performance, former DWTS Pro Chelsie Hightower wrote of their dance:

“Now, I know this is bold statement; I’m writing this at 4:15 a.m. and I’m feeling bold, so I’ll say that their performance was one of the highest quality dances I have EVER seen on “Dancing With The Stars”! There was nothing amateur about it. I’ll be honest and admit Meryl executed some of those lifts better than I could have. Well done, Meryl! Feel free to tell me how you did that first lift when you get time. From the Olympic ice to the ballroom floor, this woman brings nothing short of brilliance. 10!”

The Decline of Early Swing Style Dance and Music:

Post WWII, Swing music with a large band including a brass, woodwind section, or both was on the decline, in part, due to economics. Made worse, due to political meddling during the war, there was a 30% tax surcharge on dance halls. Which is why there were ‘NO DANCING’ signs posted in places where dancing was previously a popular pastime. This time coincided by a shift in music with evolution of blues and jazz based music into Jump Blues. Jump blues musicians frequently had a foot in both the jazz and blues musical genres. It is thought that Rock and Roll and R&B evolved out of the evolution of Jump Blues. Never fear though, Swing styles also evolved and Rock and Roll, in particular, was danced often to either East Coast or West Coast Swing. The Jive, now an international dance standard, is a type of Swing dance, with many different roots and worthy of it’s own post. Also, in the past 20-30 years, there has been a resurgence in musical styles perfect for upbeat, fast tempo, Swing style dancing.

Swing music in various musical and dance genres:

It should be noted, that talented dancers and choreographers can dance to and produce, a variety of styles to music a lay person would swear was a particular style and assume only one style could be danced to the musical selection. Thus, this list, isn’t anywhere near comprehensive, instead listed are fast tempo pieces befitting the type of energetic Lindy Hop and Swing dances posted up-thread.

Cab Calloway, Jitter Bug:
Tommy Dorsey cover of Boogie Woogie:
Benny Goodman Orchestra, Sing, Sing, Sing:
The Andrews Sisters, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B:

Brian Setzer Orchestra, Jump, Jive, and Wail:

Fusing traditional Charleston styling w/ athletic Lindy Hop moves, the Lindy Charleston for those who can do it well, is not only a heck of a work out, but a visual treat.

Want to read or see more?
Past SWAY reviews of the 2014 performances: 12/18 with Meryl Davis, 12/19 performance without Meryl Davis, and the first run of SWAY on 7/26. Info on ticketing and VIP benefits for the June 2015 SWAY production run. There are additional posts listed elsewhere on this page.

For more details on SWAY, including a series of delightful ‘Making of SWAY’ videos, go to:

Follow SWAY: A Dance Trilogy:

Twitter @SWAYshow


To learn more about Dance With Me dance studios and how to learn to dance, go to: Dance With Me USA

There’s something about moving, something about interpreting yourself to the music, that’s attractive, that’s interesting, that’s intriguing, and everyone wishes they could do that. ~ Maksim Chmerkovskiy

About SharonKinDC (15 Articles)
Intellectually curious. Asks 'why not'? Wife, Mother, Friend, Bizwoman. Love travel, architecture, design. Zep phreak. CFam supporter.
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