History of Swing
This was excerpted
from an article by
Rick Archer at SSQQ
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",
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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 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
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 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