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Swing Dance Origins & Development
by
 Kurt Lichtmann


Cornell University, Ithaca NY Swing Dance Faculty, Phys. Ed. Dept.

Music: New musical styles tend to inspire new dance styles. Music for swing dance varies in tempo (deviations of as little as 20 beats per minute, or less, seem to give a different "feel"), texture (small to large ensemble, as well as instrumentation), and attitude(smooth, to funky, to gritty). Big Band Swing, Jump Swing, Jump Blues, Rockabilly, Doo Wop, Piano Boogie, Guitar Boogie, and Rhythm & Blues are the current musical styles for swing dance. There are some who enjoy (gasp!) Disco & Funk tunes for West Coast Swing and Shag, but those who are appalled far outweigh the rebels. (I say: "Whatever!") Anyway, dance styles reflect these musical genres.

Origins: Swing dance locates its roots in the spontaneous dances of gifted improvisers to the music of Ragtime Piano, Jump Blues, and Dixieland at the turn of the century. "The South" is the region of origin for this music, and hence the ultimate region of origin for swing dance.

Many popular partner dances of the western hemisphere owe their birth to creative and talented people of African origin: not only Swing, but also Tango and Salsa! The wild jumps, kicks, and goofy jazz moves of Lindy Hop, as well as the sleek, subtle, sexy "latin styling" of West Coast Swing are clearly traceable to black genius . Let us consider the anonymous individuals who, independently of each other, adapted European social dance partnering ideas (both courtly and folk) to free, expressive African movement. Swing music and Swing dance are precisely the marraige of African and European approaches to both.

In addition, those so inclined drew upon the vast repertoire of complex footwork from the Irish and Balkan folk traditions. How are these influences transmitted? Moderately gifted dancers might see something only once for it to enter their repertoire. Seeing into the principles of the movements, they proceed to create totally new ones. These people don't need unending rounds of classes!

Dancers: Willa Mae Ricker & Leon James, 1943

Swing Dance Development

Growth: Regional dance styles grow not only because of a common musical base (local bands and radio stations), but also because people tend to copy the outstanding individuals in a dance hall. And, as people travel from one region to another, they pick up dance ideas, return home with them, and leave off some their own ideas with their hosts. Television and movie theatres have certainly played a significant role in popularization and cross-pollination of swing dance styles.

A very popular swing dance style could be expected to influence many regional and personal styles. However, to call ONE style the "origin" of all others might be a bit short on perspective. As Big Band Swing came to dominate the popular music scene in the '30s and '40s, its predecessor forms of Jump Blues, Ragtime piano, and Dixieland continued to flourish and develop. Similarly, although Frank Manning's ultra-performance Lindy Hop style was highly influential, with many spin-off variants, there were also parallel developments. (With all the creative talent in the Savoy Ballroom, would you expect to find a homogeneity of style across its glorious 4000-capacity dance floor?)

Sub-styles: Some of the swing dance sub-styles are highly personal. Some never expand beyond a small group, or achieve codification with a specific set of named moves, or are taught in classes. Many never have characteristic names, or make it to the movies, or survive the change of generations. But for the individuals dancing, and for those who enjoy watching, these styles are every bit as "valid" as the big popular styles.

Dancers: Stanley Catron & Kaye Popp, age 17, 1943