Swing History 101: The Birth of Lindy Hop (Early 1900s – 1929)
Music Comes First
In the world of street dances, the music always comes first. People hear a new music form start to arise, and it’s only a matter of time before they begin to move to it. The new American musical forms that began to emerge in popular culture in the 1900s — first ragtime, and then early “hot” jazz — were no exception. Many regional, and soon nationwide, dances began to evolve to this music.
It was in the middle of the 1920s, when the jazz age was going strong, that America encountered one of its first and greatest nation-wide fads: The Charleston. There is evidence to suggest that the Charleston step was part of African cultures which then spread through parts of the American south. But its modern form came when, in 1924, it was used as a song and dance number in the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild. (The song is the one that comes into your head when you hear the word “Charleston.”)
Soon after, the Charleston step swept across the nation and came to define the jazz age, even though it was a mainstream infatuation for only a few years. It’s important to American cultural history that the Charleston knew no boundaries; black, white, rich, poor — anyone could do the simple stylized step, as well as add to it a large number of other dance steps that went well to jazz. The Charleston came in both a solo form and a partnered form.
The Charleston wasn’t the only dance step being done to jazz. There were dozens of dances, solo and partnered, and fad dance steps from the 20s to the 40s. (Imagine the “Land of a Thousand Dances” song, thirty or forty years earlier.)
In late 1920s Harlem, for instance, there were at least three partnered dances on the hardwood floors of jazz clubs: Harlem’s own style of partnered Charleston, a dance called The Breakaway, and a dance we don’t know much about called The Collegiate.
The Breakaway soon began incorporating partnered Charleston steps so that the two dances looked very similar, though the reason the Breakaway was named as such is very important: For a couple counts of music, the dancers would leave closed position (though still connected by at least one hand) before coming back together. This dynamic was very rare in dance history, and would forever change the way we danced swing.
It’s very important for newspapers to have short, poppy headlines; not only are they trying to catch the reader’s eye, they’re also trying to use the shortest words possible so that they fit on the page. (Note, for instance, that “Lindbergh” is a long name.) So, one headline of the time read “Lindy Hops for St. Louis!”, among other variations.
It just so happens that around this time, the partnered jazz dances of Harlem had evolved one step further. The reason I mention the newspaper headlines is because the catchy phrasing of those headlines probably explains the name attached to that new dance style New Yorkers were calling the Lindy Hop. But we don’t know for sure.
The reason we don’t know is because Lindy Hop was a street dance, evolved by many people over multiple years, and not rigorously historically documented at the time of its birth. What we do have are stories, and not a lot proof to confirm or deny them. For instance, here’s one:
One of the greatest Breakaway and partnered Charleston dancers of Harlem was a man named “Shorty” George Snowden. The story goes that, in 1928, Shorty was in a dance marathon, which were popular at the time. As the hours dragged on, he continued to bust out his energetic style of partnered Charleston and Breakaway. A reporter called out to him, “What are you doing with your feet?”
“Why, it’s the Lindy!” he said.
And thus, according to some historical sources, the Lindy Hop was born and/or named.[*] [For my new readers, clicking on the footnote stars, like the one above, will take you to further information. And sometimes too much information.]
The facts of the story are all possible — however, since this was 1928 (according to Shorty’s own recollections), a year after Lindbergh’s success, chances are the name and dance had been around already. It’s also important to note this is not the only story of its invention, and certainly not agreed upon historically. For instance, Malcolm X, who was a Lindy Hopper in the early 1940s, said he had met at least two dozen people in Harlem who claimed to have invented the dance.
The First Great Lindy HopperRegardless of whether or not he was the first to give the name “Lindy Hop” to the dance, Shorty George IS an extremely important figure for us. First off, he was definitely one of the major forces in inventing movements and ideas during Lindy Hop’s communal birth, as well as evolving it further throughout the 1930s; he was, by many accounts, the first great Lindy Hopper.
Second of all, he was probably the first to form a group for entertaining people with Lindy Hop and thus was responsible for being the first Lindy Hopper to elevate Lindy Hop to the level of performance art (in as much as early Lindy Hop could be considered a performance art).
And, finally, he and his group were the first we know of to ever put Lindy Hop on film:
(Or, watch with special Swungover commentary here!)
This is a dance clip of Shorty George in the film “After Seben” in 1929. (The film’s name is probably the phrase “After Seven” pronounced with a chewy dialect.) He and his partner are the third and final couple in the “contest.” These three couples mark the birth of Lindy Hop on film.
Though at first glance it might look simply like a variation of partnered Charleston, the seed was planted for what would become the basic step of Lindy Hop — the swingout — as well as its most important trait: the ability for partners to express themselves both individually and as a partnership.
The dance was beginning to reflect the heart of jazz music itself: the beautiful harmony of individualism and teamwork.
One of the most important characteristics of jazz is that it evolves. We’re going to oversimplify a bit, but we think you’ll get the gist.** During the 1920s, jazz had a strong, syncopated “vertical” feeling to the rhythm. One of these early rhythms may be described as “boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick.”
During the late 20s and early 30s, this rhythm began smoothing itself out into a rolling, “horizontal” rhythm. So, by the mid-1930s, the average jazz song had emphasis more on every beat, with a smooth shuffle. Now the rhythm could be described more like “chickta-boom, chickta-boom, chickta-boom.”
This rhythm was said “to swing.”
Watch the “After Seben” clip above a few times, taking a few repetitions to concentrate both on leaders and followers. Who are some of your favorite dancers? Why? Reply in comments if you so desire.
Extra Credit (20 pts): Check out the first few episodes of Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary. It’s on Netflix.
Special Thanks & Historical References:
For this article, I’d like to give a special shout-out to the books Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop, by Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman (Don’t worry, beginner students, you’ll learn more about the name Frankie Manning soon), and This Thing Called Swing, by Christian Batchelor, both of which helped a lot with insight into the early Harlem jazz dances and provided much of the basic information in the article. A huge thanks to Cynthia Millman for looking over the article in its development and the useful feedback she gave.
Also, special thanks to vintage jazz musician and historian Craig Gildner for looking over the music sections of the essay and providing further insight. Craig has lent his talent to most of the great modern swing dance bands at one time or another. You can check out his own big band playing here and here. (Always desiring to spread the love of jazz knowledge, he even chose clips of his band that highlight slightly different styles of rhythm.)
And, as always, to my editor, Chelsea Lee.
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Hit either “back” on your browser or the footnote symbol beside the footnote to return to a footnote’s spot in the original text.
* — At one point, this simple story gained a catchy embellishment: It goes that “Shorty,” when asked about the dance step, happened to see the headline of a newspaper nearby that said “Lindy Hops The Atlantic!” and, inspired, told the reporter “It’s the Lindy Hop!” As mentioned in the article above, the marathon, according to Shorty’s own version of the story, took place a year or so after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, so current newspapers would not have had such a headline (nor has anyone yet found that exact headline in a historical paper). However, this telling of the story is often spread, so don’t be surprised if you run across it. (Like many things in jazz anecdote history, it is much more concerned with being a good story than being 100% accurate.)
Now, we do know there were some mentions in newspapers of dances being done called “The Lindy Hop” named after Charles Lindbergh, but those dances are not described and there easily could have been multiple “Lindy Hop” dances after the historic event.
(And, what’s interesting to note is that we today don’t quite understand how famous Charles Lindbergh was in 1927. One of the common themes of Bill Bryson’s new book One Summer: America, 1927 is how incredibly famous Charles Lindbergh became after that one single flight — following his landing, he had tours around the country of dozens of parades where thousands upon thousands of people swarmed to see him, even during his plane landings, forcing him to land in nearby fields rather than risk injuring people. Based on the books description of Lindbergh’s fame at that time, it’s a little surprising there weren’t a dozen dance steps named after him. And, it’s quite possible there were, we just don’t know about them.)
Shorty George himself retold his famous story using “It’s the Lindy” in Marshall Stearns’s book Jazz Dance, which is the wording I went with in the main article above, in hopes of being as accurate as possible. Sadly, this is not as catchy as if he had said “it’s the Lindy Hop!” But historians have a duty to be accurate, not catchy. (Which is one reason bad history gets passed around more easily.)
If Shorty remembered correctly (many years after the fact) and did say “Lindy,” then this could possibly mean that the dance had been around long enough for the dancers of it to have abbreviated the name of the dance from “Lindy Hop” to “Lindy,” which I imagine would take at least a few months of the dance being around. However, this conjecture is little more than a whim — who knows if he remembered the incident correctly in the first place, as it occurred during a one-off interview decades before he told the story to Stearns.
There have been debates on Lindy Hop websites about trying to track down the actual proof of some of the stories told, so if you are interested in the debate, there is more out there.
** — What we’re oversimplifying is the complexity of jazz rhythms and their evolution compared to each other.
For instance, in jazz bands, every instrument in some way contributes to the feeling of the rhythm. Drums, basses, guitars, pianos, and whether or not there’s a tuba present will make for different sounds and syncopation. For instance, in the world of 1920s recording equipment, tubas showed up much better on jazz recordings than basses, but a tuba player can only keep a steady hot jazz rhythm without hyperventilating if they play on one beat out of every two. Hence, recordings of 1920s jazz often have an obvious “boom-chick” feel. Many of those same bands played with basses instead of tubas at concerts, which would have had changed the feel of the rhythms from what was heard on the recordings.
Also, when something dramatically changes in jazz, only parts of it change. So, even in the “swing” era, when the new jazz rhythm and use of band orchestration was taking over popular music, there were still groups and individual musicians playing jazz music in 1920s rhythms, and even ragtime rhythms.