History of Swing

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History of Swing

This was excerpted from an article by 
Rick Archer at SSQQ Dance Studio

Everyone has heard of the Argentine Tango and the Viennese Waltz of Austria. Equally famous is the Samba from Brazil while Cuba is given credit for the Rumba and the Cha-Cha. Spain is known for the Bolero and Pasa Doble. Germany has its Polka. Ireland has its Jig, Scotland has the Reel, and England originated the Foxtrot. France developed the Minuet, the Pavan, the Galop, and the Cotillion. However, no matter how wonderful all these dances are, our National Dance for Red, White, and Blues all over, is the Swing.  This is the story of SWING, the All-American Dance!

Swing Dancing refers to partner dancing where the man literally "swings" the lady

through a series of dance patterns.  Swing Dancing can either be simple or complex.

The "Simple Form" has been around a long, long time. Every high school in the country has a type of Swing where the guy swings the girl; they both rock back to the ends of their arms, and snap forwards to begin the next move.  For example, when I was in high school back in the 60’s I was envious of the two guys at every dance party who would duck under their left arm, turn the lady, then do the fabulous Pretzel!  They knew less than 6 moves between them, but that was more than enough. I never failed to notice the line of girls waiting to dance with them. I would watch to see what their footwork was, but it was always a mystery to me. Now that I think about it, they probably didn’t know either. More than likely the two boys did the armwork and used whatever foot happened to be free. Now referred to as "Shaggie Jitterbug", other names include "Street Swing", "Hand Dancing" (i.e., no footwork necessary), "High School Bop", and "Rock’n Roll".  As I said before, this style of Swing is universal, but limited in the number of patterns and very tough on the arms.

So where did the "Complex Form" of Swing come from?  Well, first came the music...

Swing Dancing owes its start to Jazz music, which is considered to be the only art form to originate in America.

A bright light emerging from an otherwise dark period of American history, Jazz was an offshoot of Gospel and Spiritual music created by black Americans.  Jazz rhythms had existed in The South for a long time (Dixieland, Ragtime), but were slow to gain national acceptance due to racial resistance.  Jazz had two major offshoots: Swing and Blues.

Blues Music was close to the original feel of the Spiritual with its emphasis on storytelling vocals. Sometimes using a guitar for accompaniment, the song and the singer was the center of attention. "Singing the Blues” has long been synonymous with soulful lyrics and powerful vocals.  The singer has always been the center of attention.

Swing Music had vocals too, but concentrated much more on the interweave of coordinated Instruments.  In Swing music, the bandleader and his musicians were considered the stars.  Music has long been a powerful source of inspiration and motivation that often gives rise to Dance.

The words people use to describe music they love are  "exciting", "inspirational", "enchanting", "sublime", and "intoxicating".  Plato believed music to be the finest instrument for civilizing and binding people together (though it is clear he never anticipated Rock'n Roll or the Rolling Stones).

Music has always had the power to thrill people, creating energy and emotion that seeks expression through dance. In the dance business, it is an axiom that the music drives the dance. In other words, the song comes first, then people try to find a way to dance that expresses the tempo and feel of the music. The most popular dance in America is usually inspired by the most popular music (e.g., Disco music created Disco dancing).

As Jazz Music became popular, suddenly America had its first dance craze!

With New Orleans as the "Cradle of Jazz", Dixieland music, Ragtime, Blues, and Spiritual music had been developing in the South for a long time before and after the Civil War. As freed slaves migrated in search of opportunity, they moved up the mighty Mississippi to St Louis, then on to Chicago as well. For example, Louis Armstrong, a major Jazz pioneer, started as a cornet-playing teenager in New Orleans. After he moved to Chicago, Armstrong rose to fame first with the Creole Jazz Band, then with the Fletcher Henderson Band during the Roaring' 20's. 

Many musicians moved from the South to Harlem, a black enclave in New York City. Harlem is given credit as the Birthplace of Swing music, the Charleston, and then Lindy Dancing as well during the 20's.   Swing music began right in the heart of Harlem with Duke Ellington and Count Basie leading the way. Playing in famous nightclubs like the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club, these two famous black musicians helped to create a new form of music.  Their bands also became the early models for the famous Big Bands in the 1930‘s.

Duke Ellington reigned supreme at the Cotton Club in Harlem from 1927 to 1933.  It is Duke Ellington who is given credit for coining the name "Swing Music" with his classic 1932 song, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't got that Swing."  This Swing sound was energetic and exciting.  Plus it made people want to Dance!

However back in the 20s, there were no traditions in partner dancing to draw from. As the Swing sound hit Harlem, people danced freestyle as they looked for ways to express themselves to the vigorous energy of the music. Into this vacuum came the CHARLESTON, which fit the music to a Tee.

Swing Dancing got its start back in the Roaring 20s after the arrival of CHARLESTON.

A spirited dance characterized by swinging feet & outward heel kicks, the Charleston probably goes back to Africa. Its American origins began on a small island off the South Carolina coast. The dance began when an all-black revue company left the island to perform in stage shows. Obviously they started in Charleston where their show became a huge hit. After Charleston, the company performed at one city after another, making their way north up the Atlantic coast till they finally made it to Harlem in 1913. World War I put everything on hold, but in the 20s the stage was set to see the Charleston break loose with passionate abandon as America's first dance craze. America had won the war, the Yanks had returned from Europe, the economy was booming, and now everyone wanted to party!

At first people danced Charleston apart, then found ways to dance it together holding hands or even in a closed position with the man‘s arms around the lady. From the closed Charleston came the "Swing out", a variation where partners would separate to the ends of their arms.  Since the man used his left arm & the lady her right arm, their balance improved when the Swing out started on the man's left foot & the lady's right foot.  Simple developments like this marked the start of structured footwork. Could dance studios be far behind?

In the beginning dancers went to the end of their arms, which then stretched like rubber bands to snap the partners back towards one another.  After their arms got sore enough, footwork like the backstep, the twist, the ball-change, & the rock step became ways to stop momentum without having to use arm tension. As you can guess, first came the armwork patterns without any particular footwork. However as they practiced, a sense of recurring footwork began to develop as a natural way to keep their balance at the end of a move. For example, some basketball players know the exact number of steps a particular move takes & the foot they must start with; one extra step will allow a defender to catch up. Dance systems developed in the same way as dancers discovered precise footwork to gracefully accomplish their moves with an economy of effort.

Lindy gets its name!

As Swing music developed in the 20s, so did a new dance, which was part Charleston, part, something else.  The Savoy was an enormous Ballroom, which occupied an entire city block in Harlem and served as the home to black musicians like Count Basie, Chick Webb, and later Cab Calloway.  This new dance magically acquired its name in 1927. Although I have read 3 different versions of the story, the gist of it went like this:

One night shortly after Charles Lindbergh's historic solo flight across the Atlantic, a huge dance marathon was in progress at the Savoy. A very talented dancer was doing jumps, leaps, & somersaults followed by sky-scraping acrobatic lifts with his partner. Impressed by the young man's skill, a reporter asked him what he was doing. "Hey, man, take a look, I'm flying!  I'm doing the Lindy!"  The airborne image clearly fit.

Called the LINDY HOP in next day's newspaper write-up, America had its first Swing dance.  Interestingly, many of today’s Lindy patterns include all sorts of variations on the Charleston. It was the addition of the newer "Swinging" patterns plus the acrobatics and jumping that signified the emergence of this newer dance form.  Inspired by the music, it almost seemed like the dancers were indeed ready to fly!

Swing Dancing and Jitterbug.

The term SWING DANCING came along five years after the LINDY HOP got its name. As mentioned earlier, Duke Ellington is given credit for coining the phrase with his hit song  "It Don't Mean a Thing if You Ain't Got That Swing!"  Soon afterwards, the music was often referred to as "Big Band Swing Music".

The term JITTERBUG also appeared in the early 30s.  Cab Calloway, a famous black bandleader, is given credit for coining the term with his 1933 song "The Call of the Jitterbug", but its original meaning was far removed from dancing.  Back then the "Jitterbug" had darker connotations. In Calloway's case, he had a trombone player who trembled from alcohol abuse (i.e., he had DTs known as the "bug juice jitters"). Not long after the song came out, the meaning of "Jitterbug" shifted to become a slang word for "hepcat" (a musician who plays swing or jazz) and the type of music he played (i.e., Jitterbug music). "Jitterbug" shifted again to signify a person who moved his body well while dancing ("Shake, Rattle, & Roll"). By the late 30s the "Jitterbug" had joined "Lindy" to become yet another popular name for Swing dancing.

Swing music gained wider acceptance in the 30s. Many White musicians recognized the genius of the new sound and worked hard to copy it. In a switch, the famous Big Band leaders like Glen Miller ("In the Mood", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "String of Pearls"), Tommy Dorsey ("Opus I"), Artie Shaw ("Begin the Beguine", "It Had to Be You"), and Harry James ("Two O’clock Jump") were all white, a reflection of the racial problems of that day.

Benny Goodman, who became the King of Swing, changed all that.  Known for classics such as "Stompin' at the Savoy", "Let's Dance", "Don't Be That Way", and the famous "Sing, Sing, Sing" immortalized in the movie "Swing Kids", Goodman overcame not only prejudice against his Jewish background, but also hatred for having the guts to organize the first integrated Swing band in the late 30's. Using many of the arrangements he had learned from the famous black bandleader Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman merged the talents of noted black musicians Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton along with his famous drummer Gene Krupa, who was white, to create the finest Swing band of the era.  Goodman further helped Swing music cross racial barriers when he brought Swing music to the Paramount Theater in New York (1936), then on to Carnegie Hall.  Fortunately, his music so terrific it just pole-vaulted any racial resistance to help Swing music quickly become a national sensation.  Interestingly, its companion dance the Lindy spread much more slowly. Although many Americans had heard of the dancing, most of them had not actually seen the Lindy.

First it took slavery to help create the music. Now it took none other than Adolph Hitler and his Nazi brutality to bring Swing dancing to the world!  Sad but true, the All-American Music and Dance had some pretty tough origins.

World War II was the major reason that Swing dancing became an American sensation. 

The radio had already made Swing music enormously popular but the spread of the dancing lagged far behind. Back in the 30's there was no television to spread images of the dancing around the country quickly. However by the start of the war, all of the large cities had become Jitterbug hotbeds. When GIs, sailors, and flyers enlisted to fight for our country, they were sent to major ports for a temporary stay before departure. These service men & women headed straight for the USO dance halls since dancing was by far the major form of recreation. As the 40s began, many GIs from all parts of the country now saw the Lindy/Jitterbug for the first time. Once they saw it however, they didn’t waste any time learning how since dancing was the quickest way to break the ice in an age when time was very precious.  Swing dancing had arrived!

Europe already knew something about Swing dancing. The 1993 cult movie "Swing Kids" makes it clear that little pockets of Swing dancing existed in Germany in the 30s. However Great Britain saw Swing dancing explode in popularity when the GIs brought the dancing with them during the long duration of pre D-Day staging. Spending every spare minute courting the English women, once again the GIs used Swing dancing in the clubs as a way to work off a lot of nervous energy. (There is an excellent Lindy dance scene in the 1979 Richard Gere movie "Yanks" which describes this period perfectly. Not only was Swing music played in all the clubs, Swing dancing was everywhere plus frequent brawls between the GI‘s and the English over competition for the women.)

The Lindy also acquired yet another name, "Jive", the British slang word for "Jazz". Although its impact on England was the strongest, as one country after another was liberated, the Lindy appeared in France, Italy, the Philippines, Japan, and yes, Germany. American culture had found a very peculiar way to make its Swing Dance international!

West Coast Swing is born in California. 

The Whip is born in Texas.

It was during the 1940s War Era that the WEST COAST SWING originated in California. This state orchestrated much of the Pacific Theater war effort. Not only was there an enormous military industry and many military bases, the important Pacific ports like San Francisco and San Diego were temporary homes to many thousands of GIs who awaited departure into the Pacific.

By now Hollywood had caught on to the dancing, further popularizing the spread of Swing dancing. Many Lindy dance scenes were included in wartime movies and filmed press releases. Film clips from this era indicate that dancing absolutely sizzled on the West Coast. Can you imagine how crowded the USO dance halls were?  Unfortunately Lindy dancing took up a lot of room. West Coast Swing developed out of the sheer necessity to find a way to squeeze more people on the crowded dance floors.

The West Coast Swing is a dance where the partners face each other in a straight line. The lady presses against the man with her left hand, pushes off, goes to the end of her arm, then returns back to him (generally in the most provocative way she can think of!).  The man pretty much stays in place holding his ground. The West Coast Swing's straight line (also known at the "Slot") became only way to Swing dance on crowded floors since couples were able to dance side by side without bumping into one another quite as much.

Interestingly, GI's returning home to Texas from fighting in the Pacific brought back with them the rudiments of this primitive West Coast Swing. However the switch from the fast Swing music to the much slower Texas Blues completely changed the feel of the dance. With extra time on their hands, Texas girls playing with the dance discovered a sensual bump and grind that fit the sound like a tight skirt to a well-curved woman.  An offshoot of the California dance developed right here in Houston and other parts of the state that came to be known as the Whip!  (For further information on the history of the Whip, click here)

The End of the Swing Era

The SWING ERA lasted from the early 30s to the end of World War II. By comparison the Disco era (75-81) & two Country-Western eras (80-83, 92-95) were much shorter. The Great War's end saw many changes in the music industry. For one thing, World War II took away one of Swing's great leaders with the loss of Glen Miller in a tragic plane accident. In a less well-known development, Music union leader James "Boss" Petrillo fought labor battles with mixed results.  Though musicians now received royalties for their recordings, many artists were put out of work by his actions. In a move that broke countless hearts, Frank Sinatra's departure from the Tommy Dorsey Band had important symbolic overtones as well.  For twenty years the Big Band leaders and the musicians had been the stars. Now the Crooners and the Singers were taking over, pushing the band to the background.

Besides, people were ready for something new and perhaps their nerves needed a rest.  All the tension of the war years had taken quite a toll. The most popular songs from 1945-1955 were sentimental ballads like Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera" & Bing Crosby's "White Christmas". As the Swing music faded, so did the Lindy. Nevertheless, it had been a great ride!  Music historians note that Swing music was "an explosion of genius, a spontaneous musical event to rival the era of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms." That is high praise indeed for this fabulous music born of Southern cotton field despair & Northern ghetto poverty. And yet it suddenly went virtually dormant for 50 years!  What brought it back?  Read on as the story of Swing music and dancing continues to unfold.

The Blues are coming!

For every Dinah Shore lullaby heard on the radio, in the ghetto a musical locomotive was gaining steam by the minute!  Called the Blues, this guitar-accompanied sound had lingered behind Swing music in the background for 30 years. The Blues began to emerge in the late 40s with singers like Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald belting out  their soulful tunes.  Enticing lyrics, flashy guitar riffs, & lots of bop (a bounce in the music as opposed to the smoother Swing sound), the 50s would soon see the Blues acquire a more famous name!

Rock'n Roll Sweeps America!

"Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley is the song given credit for starting the R&R craze in 1955.  This crossover hit combined catchy blues-style lyrics with an electric guitar-driven beat. Recorded by a white artist as opening music for a movie about high school in the black ghetto (just as rap music introduces many of today's ethnic movies), the song created an enormous sensation.

The Blues had been suppressed for years as "race music" due to its anger & bold sexual themes. Too raw in this original form to appeal to a wider audience, Bill Haley succeeded in modifying the Blues to a new sound that white listeners (i.e. "teenagers") could relate to. 

Taken as a sign that mainstream America's resistance to the black culture was weakening, the record industry was encouraged to publish more of this so-called "new music". Not only did many black singers get their big break, but white singers began to "borrow" their sound.  Just as white musicians had copied the Swing Sound in the 30’s, now white singers began to rerecord black songs that had never received airplay on mainstream radio stations. For example, when Little Richard first recorded "Tutti Frutti" the song went nowhere only to suddenly become a smash hit when Pat Boone re-recorded it (to Little Richard's quite understandable frustration). For that matter, Elvis Presley's musical background included gospel singing. His overtly sexual style of performing closely mimicked black singers he had grown up with.

Even the new name had black origins. The word "Roll" was ghetto slang for "Necking". Nor does it take much of an imagination to guess what "Rock'n Roll" meant.

Indeed, this new sound was sexy and so were the early stars like Elvis, Chuck Berry, & Jerry Lee Lewis. Rock'n Roll was here to stay!  Once the sound caught on, it was impossible to stop. Totally ignorant that the Blues had risen from the despair of slavery, 50s teenagers embraced the themes of rebellion, restlessness, and heartbreak as deeply personal. Feeling totally misunderstood, teenagers across America swarmed to the music stores to buy now classic songs like "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", "Johnny B Goode", and "Great Balls of Fire".  Parents everywhere shook their heads in disgust.

Happy Days!

In 1956 Elvis debuted with the Blues-inspired "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog".  It was clear the crossover of Blues into mainstream popular music was complete. The era that gave us "Grease", "American Graffiti", & "Happy Days" was now in full Swing (and the world would never be the same!).

Jitterbug dancing was big in the 1950s, but underwent changes. As the smooth swing sound faded, the equally smooth 8-beat Lindy/Jitterbug patterns were no longer used.  However the quicker 6-beat patterns thrived in the 50s because they fit the feel of the new music better (the East Coast Swing we teach today with its Triple Step footwork closely resembles the 50s version).

In addition the Jitterbug acquired new names. In 1957 Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" introduced "Rock'n Roll Dancing" to TV. Unlike the 30's when the dancing spread slowly due to the lack of TV, "American Bandstand" changed all that. Kids across the country tuned in, saw the new style of dancing, and started to copy it immediately. They would clear the furniture in the living room and dance right along with the TV show!

Rock'n Roll had quite a few different names - Bop, Boogie-Woogie, Stomp - but one nickname in particular seemed to stick out. In 1958 Danny & the Jrs released a hit song "Let's Go to the Hop". A phrase passed forward from the 20s, the "Hop" now referred to the popular dance parties in the late 50s. Using the no-shoes-allowed gyms, "Sock Hops" were huge fun with the Stroll, dance contests, Rock'n Roll bands, Greasers, Poodle Skirts, & Top 40 music.  If you were a kid, the 50's were fun times to be alive!

Trouble looms ahead for Swing Dancing.

Swing dancing was headed for big trouble in the 60s. Chubby Checker's early 60s hit "The Twist" is credited with paving the way for the 1960s FREESTYLE DANCING. Simultaneously R&R Swing dancing lost popularity. When I began high school in the 60s, Swing dancing had sunk to the level of "Street Swing".  There was little footwork, jerking leads, end of the arm snapbacks, and lots of Pretzels. In other words, after 40 years, Swing Dancing was more or less back to Square One. Just as Charleston ruled in the 20's, now Freestyle took over as one dance craze after another appeared: the Jerk, the Swim, the Frug, the Hully-Gully, the Monkey, Watusi, Mashed Potato, Cold Sweat, & the Hand Jive.  Great Motown Soul music, Go-Go dancers writhing in cages high above the floor, and ugly clothes far scarier than Halloween costumes are my enduring memories of the 60s dance scene. 

The 60s also marked an increasing departure from the rhythmic Rock'n Roll music to highly a-rhythmic, undanceable Rock and Folk music. As music reflected war protest and drug experiences, the end of the 60s marked a 50-year low point in Swing dancing. We are fortunate the traditions of Swing dancing were quietly continued inside the dance studios like Fred Astaire & Arthur Murray during this period as part their Ballroom curriculum. Dormant for now, fortunately Swing dancing would live to rise again!

The Disco Era!

Acid Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Folk Rock, Woodstock, & Hard Rock dominated the radio in the early 70s. The music that got America dancing again was hip, jazzy, & black (i.e. the Isaac Hayes theme from "Shaft", plus snappy dance music from the Isley Brothers,  Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown).  This new sound broke from the Motown Blues traditions to add more instrumental work, frequently blending in powerful Latin rhythms until it eventually turned into Disco music. The vocalists lost some of their importance for a while as the "Disco Beat" reverberated in every dance club. Even computers turned out a few hits.

Disco Dancing actually started around 1973 as part Freestyle, part line dances with little partner dancing other than a silly dance called "the Bump".  There were many dance clubs here in Houston, but almost no partner dancing. Disco line dance classes were taught in several adult education programs (and who do you suppose signed up for every one of them?).

The first big Disco dance hit was "The Hustle" ('76), the most successful singer was Donna Summer, and "Saturday Night Fever" (late 77) was the movie that took Disco to its peak. Famous for John Travolta's solo dance scenes, the picture featured great Disco partner dancing as well. Quickly partner dancing became more important than Freestyle. Now for the first time since the 50s Partner Dancing was popular again.

Today's Swing dancers might be surprised to find that the major 70's Disco partner dance, the LATIN HUSTLE, was a direct clone of 4-step Swing footwork. Many of today's Swing moves are mirror images of the Disco moves from the 70's. The clothes are definitely different, the music is quite different, but the many of the patterns are similar.  The Hustle was characterized by its gracefulness and use of lovely Latin hip motion.  Today's Swing has the jump style with the kicking backsteps.  The moves may be the same, but definitely the Look is quite different. Cheer up; no Swingers will ever be accused of doing Disco.

The Latin Hustle became a favorite partner dance, so fluid & graceful.  However dance history was about to repeat itself. Just as the Lindy died when the Swing music lost popularity, the Latin Hustle simply vanished as people grew tired of Disco music.  Here in Houston people from time to time ask about the Hustle, but it will just have to await its moment.  However if it ever does regain its popularity, the Swingers will find learning it a cinch due to its near step for step reflection of Swing footwork.

Urban Cowboy, Western Swing, Whip, and Achy Breaky Heart.

The Disco era ended two years earlier in Houston than in other parts of the country. In 1979 John Travolta filmed "Urban Cowboy" right here in the Bayou City (A jazz teacher, Patsy Swayze, from right here in Houston choreographed the dancing!).  This aptly named movie included many C&W dance scenes while it glamorized a Western lifestyle set in a big city.  In retrospect the film was ho-hum, but the story line was an uncanny fit for many Houstonians. Here in the Bayou City the movie's impact was enormous. Two months before the film was released in June, 1980, one Disco after another suddenly closed only to reopen the next day as a Western club.  As fast as they could hang the sign & faster than you can say "Slow Slow Quick Quick" Houston's dancers traded in their polyester shirts & Disco dresses for boots & tight-fittin' jeans. Urban cowboys ruled Houston!

Interestingly, since Disco died such a sudden death, soon after all the clubs turned Country, a new dance emerged that combined Two-Step/Polka timing with Disco-style Double Turns.  A new dance had been spawned from the ashes of the now forgotten Disco: Western Swing.  A dance that basically originated right here in Houston, Western Swing became so popular that to this day it is a fixture in every Houston Western club. Although the Urban Cowboy Western era only lasted perhaps a year nationally, here in Houston it took interest in Western dancing to a new level that has never died. Even as Swing rules in the late 90’s, Houston’s love affair with Western dancing continues unabated.

The mid to late 80's were the Golden Era of Whip dancing here in Houston. Just as many Disco Dancers flowed right into Western dancing after Urban Cowboy, by the mid 80's many people were looking for more dance challenges. They certainly could not have found a bigger challenge than Whip (for more on the History of Whip, click here).

The music certainly helped. Great dance music by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Billy Ocean, Tina Turner, and Paula Abdul provided one super Whip song after another for inspiration. MTV hit the airways and tripled the power of the music industry. Even the Rock music was danceable with the Rolling Stones, Inxs, Don Henley, and Eric Clapton putting out music perfect for Whip. Plus there were dance clubs everywhere to practice the Whip. There were Whip contests with flashy costumes, break dancing, and stunning acrobatics. Then something terrible happened: the music dried up.  The black artists turned to rap. The rock musicians took their cue from Seattle Grunge and Kurt Cocaine, oops, Cobain.  Whip took a huge nosedive.

Western pays the rent.  Line Dancing takes off. 

The 90's marked the emergence of great Western music. The songs got a whole lot more fun to listen to as the decade began.  George Strait, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Randy Travis, and Reba McEntire led the way. During the Whip era, Western dancing was always strong in Houston, but with the newer country music sounding more sophisticated than ever before, Western dancing heated up here in Houston like a supernova. Then a funny thing happened.  An unknown artist named Billy Ray Cyrus hit it big with a silly song called "Achy Breaky Heart".  What set the song apart from the rest is that someone had actually choreographed a line dance to the song. Just as silly as the Macarena craze, everybody wanted to learn the Achy Breaky Line Dance. Then they had to learn   the Boot Scoot Boogie Line Dance. Then the cable station TNN (Nashville Network) decided to make line dancing part of its daily programming.  Line Dancing swept the nation!

But oddly enough, it never took hold in Houston. Our hometown's love affair with the Texas Two-step, the Western Swing, and partner dancing in general was so strong that it literally froze out the Line Dances.  Houston was the only city in the Country that was Western Dancing before the new Western Line Dance craze came along. Throughout most of the 90's, Western Swing ruled.

Jump, Jive, and Wail!  The Story of 90's Swing!

Everyone says the 1998 Gap Commercial with Brian Setzer’s remake of "Jump, Jive, and Wail" started the Swing Craze.  Nonsense. Nor did "Saturday Night Fever" start Disco. Instead, both were individual moments that stirred pent-up energies to create an explosion!

The roots of the Swing movement go back to the late 80’s, early 90’s. Some of today’s top Swing bands like the Cherry Poppin Daddies and Royal Crown Revue started as punk bands playing Seattle-style grunge rock. Tired of the scene and looking for a change, they noticed some of their most requested music was neo-swing songs of their own creation.  Taking a hint from the increasing popularity of their Swing songs, some bands as a form of rebellion against the shabby Grunge look decided to go retro. They adopted 40’s swing attire complete with flashy Zoot Suits, black and white Bleyer shoes, and chains. Now they were more outrageously dressed that the tattered shirts and jeans of the other punk bands. Nevertheless, the clothing inspiration came first from the early success of their music.

Swing Kids

The 1993 cult hit "Swing Kids" struck a major nerve. It was a sad and highly romantic movie about German teenagers reacting against the Nazi disapproval of the Black and Jewish inspired 30’s Swing music. It featured terrific Swing dancing, Benny Goodman classic’s like "Sing, Sing, Sing" and the same spirit of rebellion against authority that helped drive the popularity of "Rock Around the Clock" in the 50’s.

Swingers

The West Coast is given most of the credit for the Swing Movement. A sleeper hit called "Swingers" came out in 1996. Featuring a couple of losers in LA who were going nowhere, one young man suddenly finds himself snapping out of a movie-long depression as he Swing dances with his new girl friend to the music of the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies. Although it is the only dance scene in the entire movie, it is a moment of such redemption that coupled with the title "Swingers", the dancing comes to symbolize "The Way Back" from despair. Oddly, no explanation is given why his dance skills are better than someone with six months of classes.

Coupled with these two movies, the interest in the neo-Swing music continued to grow. Groups like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Indigo Swing combined with the previously mentioned Cherry Poppin' Daddies with their famous song "Zoot Suit Riot", Royal Crown Revue, the Big Bad Voodoo Daddies, and original Stray Cats band member Brian Setzer to sell a lot of records.  Not only did the great swing beat and terrific instrumentation appeal to the younger generation, but the fabulously rhythmic music managed to get some over-30 feet stompin' as well.

The Gap Commercial 

Swing Dancing was quiet at end of 1997.  Interest in Swing classes improved steadily in 1998, nearly doubling in the first six months. Then came the famous Gap Commercial in the spring of 1998. It featured sexy Lindy dancers doing aerials and cool moves in Khaki pants to an infectious rendition of "Jump, Jive, and Wail" by Brian Setzer. People across the country were mesmerized by how much fun the dancing was and how good the music sounded.  Everyone had vaguely heard some of neo-Swing music. For example, MTV had been playing the outrageous "Zoot Suit Riot" video in their mix and some of the music had been playing on local radio as well.  In the background of their minds, they remembered "Swingers" or "Swing Kids". Plus there had been various news stories on local TV and CNN chronicling the emergence of Swing music and dancing. But it was the Gap Commercial that announced to the world that Swing was Back in Town!  Now everybody sat up and took note!

The effect was instantaneous!  Once the Gap Commercial came out in the late spring, Swing went through the roof at dance studios.  All summer long, classes that were 40 people a year ago were now 80 strong.  Where there were two Swing nights a week a year previous, now they were up to three nights.  As we started 1999, the Beginner classes had grown to 100 people a night.  The Swing Extravaganza on the first weekend of 1999 had well over 200 people participating.

Is Swing going to crest or it is going to go higher?  America hasn’t seen anything like this since the Days of Disco. Swing has more room to grow.  We shall see.

The Amazing Story of the Lindy Hop!

By eerie coincidence, just as interest in Swing music was growing, an extinct dance known as the Lindy Hop was returning from the dead thanks to a couple of kids and a 70 year old post office worker in New York. It was such a million to one shot; obviously no one could ever have predicted the outcome of such a simple moment in time.  I honestly think the story would make a good movie. Here goes!

Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell

One day in the mid 80s Erin Stevens and her dance partner Steven Mitchell were watching vintage 30’s movies. Their eyes bulged as they saw the fabulous aerials being performed in Lindy scenes from movies like "Hellzapoppin’" and the Marx Brothers "A Day at the Races". They both thought the dancing was cool. Erin Stevens was curious to know if anyone was still around who might be able to show her that style of dancing. Armed with some of the names she had found in the credits from the movies, she started to do some investigating. Calling around the country from LA, at one point, the name "Frankie Manning" was suggested to her. Not knowing him from Adam, she found the name in the vast New York City phone book and simply called him up. "Are you Frankie Manning, the famous dancer?" she asked.

Frankie Manning

Frankie Manning was stunned. "Famous" was not exactly the word he would have used. When Frankie had returned from fighting in World War II, he came home to find that interest in Swing/Lindy dancing had begun to fade. Frankie had been a championship dancer in the 30’s, an original Lindy dancer at the fabled Savoy Ballroom in Harlem who danced to the swing music of Count Basie. In his time Frankie had won numerous contests, invented aerials, was filmed dancing in movies, had performed with his dance company before Royalty and famous people, and even found time to hang out with the legendary singer Billie Holliday as his dance company toured the world. Now after fighting brutal hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific, Frankie had come home to find the world had changed during his absence.  As Dinah Shore lullabies like "Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy" dominated the radio and the Big Bands exited stage right, Frankie didn't need any help reading the writing on the wall. As the 40's reached their conclusion, he decided to hang up his dancing shoes and move on.  There was absolutely no way for a black man to make a living with his dancing ability now, so he got a job with the Post Office, settled down, and raised a family. A quiet, private man by nature, forty years had come and gone. No one knew anything about his past.

Frankie Manning had been a great dancer, the best. In some ways, this was like asking Michael Jordan if he ever played basketball. But Frankie’s past was anonymous. He even had a co-worker who offered to give him dance lessons. Now at 72, single with grown children in their 40’s, some kid in LaLaLand he had never heard of calls out of the Blue to ask him about a part of his life he thought had ended long ago. The next thing he knew, Erin Stevens started to beg him to teach her how to dance like the 30’s.

Apparently it took a lot of coaxing and pleading, but finally Frankie agreed to meet with her and her friend Steven. Erin and Steven got on a plane and flew off to New York. From what I gather, the lessons did not go smoothly. His rust combined with little experience at explaining footwork, leads, and timing were a big handicap, but apparently the two students were determined to learn.

Getting the Ball Rolling!

The next step is a fuzzy area I am unsure about. Somehow Frankie managed to teach Erin and Steven. From there the three of them got other people interested in the Lindy on both coasts.  The rebirth continued when Frankie began teaching Lindy in New York.  About 10 of his original Lindy students banded together to form an organization they named the "New York Swing Dance Society". Intelligent, media-savvy, white New Yorkers, not only did they get hooked on the dance, but using their contacts, they were able to spread the "word" in what seems much the same way a forest fire starts from a single spark. These people were literally Swinging before Swing was cool again. The point is, interest in the music and the dancing had been growing long before the Gap Commercial came along.  What the commercial did was make it obvious to the whole country that interest in Swing music and dancing was shared by everyone, not just a few pockets of people here and there.

Frankie's 80th Birthday Party in 1994

In the next 8 years, Erin, Steven, and Frankie did everything they could to promote the dance. They did workshops across the country, went to Europe to teach, performed, made instructional videos, appeared on TV, and basically did whatever it took to continue the Lindy Hop Revival. Frankie in his 70’s was becoming quite a celebrity in the dance world. In particular, interest in the Lindy had become very strong in two places: LA where Erin and Steven taught and New York where Frankie taught.  In 1994 the NY Swing Dance Society had a huge party to celebrate Frankie Manning’s 80th birthday. They rented a fabulous dance floor, invited the best dancers from New York, California, and Europe to perform, and had a wonderful black tie and gown dance. Rallying around the cry "Can't Top the Lindy Hop", everybody who was anybody in the Lindy dance world attended. They videotaped the entire event and marketed the tapes. Through their efforts, now the whole world could see this wonderful dance that had disappeared, but had come back thanks to the efforts of Frankie Manning and the two Swing Kids whose energy got the flames flickering again.

Before anyone gets too confused, today’s Swing and today’s Lindy are not the same dance. They are very good friends that can be used to the same music, although Lindy is much easier to the slower tunes while Swing prefers the faster music. Lindy has an 8-count basic with intricate footwork and many Charleston variations. Swing has a 6-count basic with minimal footwork. Swing is more popular because it is far easier to learn and it fits the modern music better than Lindy does. Nevertheless, after learning both dances, students like to say that Swing is Hot, but Lindy is Cool.

As the year 2000 nears, Houston has a terrific reputation in national Swing circles.  Perhaps New York did originate the Lindy and so what if California developed its West Coast Swing. Houston is not only the birthplace of the fabulous Western Swing, which is now danced around the USA; it is also the proud hometown of the legendary Whip.

 

This was excerpted from an article by
Rick Archer at SSQQ Dance Studio