“Jump, jive and wail”… grab these swingin’ moves

Audrey Gilliam

“It’s the same old syncopation … once again it sweeps the nation … rhythm had its seasons, summer, fall and spring. And they started dancing, now they call it swing.” Billie Holiday’s lyrics express the classy and energetic tone and the jazz-influenced history of swing dancing.

Couples across the nation have been doing the Lindy-hop for years, but where did this swing dance originate? And why has the popularity of swing dancing increased in the past few years?

First of all, swing is a kind of jazz music that has African and European roots. Swing music originated in the mid-1920s and was originally most popular among African-Americans until it entered the mainstream around 1935. The classic swing artists were Chuck Webb, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

The Lindy-hop, also known as the Jitterbug, is the authentic swing dance. The name is a reference to the newspaper headline declaring Charles Lindbergh’s flight to Paris in 1927, which read “Lindy hops the Atlantic.” Although the dance has no hop in it, it does have a solid flowing style, which is supported by a constant rhythmic eight-count pulse. Similar to swing music, the Lindy-hop draws on both African and European dance traditions.

The embracing hold and the turns can be traced back to Europe, while the breakaway and solid body postures originated from Africa. Swing dancing evolved with jazz music; however, it was originally based upon the Charleston and the Black Bottom, two popular dances in Harlem in the early 1920s.

In 1935, Frank “Musclehead” Manning created the first airsteps in a spectacularly energetic show at the Savoy Ballroom. After the addition of these graceful and ebullient aerials, the popularity of swing dancing soared and a swing culture was created. The jazz horns and saxophones flowed every Saturday night while the top swing dancers competed for the swing dancing championships. The wild popularity of the music and the culture continued until around 1945 when rhythm and blues and rockin ‘n’ roll replaced jazz as the music of choice.

In the 1980s, however, authentic swing dancing was rediscovered through the release of films such as “Hellzapoppin” and Day at the Races” which featured the energetic movements of the Lindy-hop. Many people began to learn the eight count pulse of the Jitterbug with vintage tapes from the 1920s dancers and also from new masters such as Steven Mitchell and Ryan Francois.

This led to the resurgence in the popularity of swing music, as well. Films, such as “Clueless” and “Swingers” feature appearances from bands that follow the swing and big band tradition.

The popularity of swing is not limited to the movies, however. The Philadelphia Swing Dance Society has been promoting the enjoyment and instruction of swing dancing since 1987.

This organization holds two swing dances each month at various locations in Philadelphia and also offers free lessons for beginners before the start of each dance. These classes are taught either by dance instructors or very experienced dancers.

Lesley Mitchell, board member of the Philadelphia Swing Dance Society, recommends these classes for those with little experience with swing dancing: “Lessons can help you to meet people within the group because the teachers force you to change partners, and can also help you to feel more comfortable when the music of the dance starts because you know what you’re doing.”

Mitchell also recommends that beginners tell their partners that they are just starting out: “Most people are very willing to help out beginners. Just tell them that you are a beginner and they will help you to learn a few new steps or help you to perfect the ones that you already know.”

The dances usually attract between 100 to 300 people of varying ages. The majority of the attendees are in their hirties, but the dances are also attended by people under 20 and even some people in their fifties and sixties.

The admission fee for these dances is usually between $10 and $12, students receive a $3 discount with ID.

The Philadelphia Swing Dance Society also hosts special events throughout the year. It brings in professional swing dancers and holds workshops in which these dancers teach classes.

In addition, at usually hosts activities to celebrate Frank Manning’s annual visit to the Philadelphia area.

Mitchell encourages attendance at both these activities and at the swing dances: “We have a very mixed crowd at these functions: we have some people who have been dancing since the beginning of the group-these people have met their wives, husbands and girlfriends there. But we also have crowds of students who come just to dance with their friends. Although the dances might seem intimidating at first, they are easy to learn and everyone is welcome.”