The Great Debate: Should Lindy Hop be danced to other music?
Guess what! That’s right, another new series! I’ve also thrown up a black-and-white picture of people swing dancing, just to keep switching things up around here. (Actually, Wham! beat it out.)
Usually at Swungover I try to come to some sort of conclusion about something before I post it, even if it’s just a temporary conclusion. But there are lots of questions regarding the scene that aren’t easily answered, if they are answerable at all— debates with plenty of good points on each side of the issue. So, that’s what this new series will tackle. It’s called The Great Debate, where I’ll try to present a few different sides to the more puzzling arguments attacking the swing scene. And, here’s the thing: I’d love for you, dear readers, to please go crazy in the comments or on your own blogs, offering your own opinion on things. (Just please leave the trash-talking to other forums of discussion than the Swungover comments section.) Also, if there is a debate you’d love to have discussed here, please email me at email@example.com. I’d love to hear what other people think are the great debates of the swing scene.
We’ll start off the series relatively simply with this first question:
Should Lindy Hop be danced to non-swing music?
By the schizophrenic Robert White (and Robert White)
The reason almost every dance exists in the first place is because of the music that inspired it.
Almost every beginner Lindy Hopper goes through a phase where they hear a song and say, “Hey, you can Lindy Hop to this!” It’s perfectly natural, and you should not be ashamed if you’ve gone through this phase, or are still going through it.
However, I think this phase comes about because, for most people, Lindy Hop is the only social partnered dance they know, and they love music, so they try to express themselves to other music using the only tool they have—Lindy Hop. But most other forms of music already have dances that specifically evolved to express that particular music. Hip Hop music has Hip Hop dance, and if you tried it for awhile, I would almost garuntee it’s actually a much more pleasing way to express Hip Hop than to force Lindy Hop to it.
Lindy Hop is a dance created specifically to express yourself to swing music, and that’s where it lives. Here’s where some of you who may have agreed with me (Mr. No) so far, may suddenly disagree with me: I think Charleston music is no exception. Lindy Hop should not be danced to Charleston music because Charleston has already specifically evolved to perfectly express Ragtime and Dixieland music and rhythm. (Not to mention that it seems slightly odd to Lindy Hop to music that was often created a decade before Lindy Hop as we know it existed.)
Frankie Manning himself, in the documentary Ken Burns’s Jazz, Episode 4 states that “Lindy Hop itself is done to swing music. If you know what a swing is, it’s very smooth and it flows…before that you were doing Charleston.” (Dean Collins, Norma Miller, and countless other old-timers have said very similar things, regarding swing rhythm being an intrinsic part of Lindy Hop.)
Now, I’m not suggesting you have to do only original pre-1930s Charleston steps if you dance to a pre-1930s song. You can easily further evolve the Charleston by adding your own flavor, personality, and making up new Charleston moves, but it’s the foundation of a dance that’s the point here. Charleston is a dance that doesn’t move horizontally much, and puts more emphasis on vertical rhythm, just like a Charleston song. And, more important to this debate, the foundation of Lindy Hop as we dance it today was built for swing, as in, music with swung rhythms from the early/mid–1930s and after.
Trying to dance Lindy Hop to other forms of music can easily become a simple case of misuse; like using a sports car to haul lumber when there’s a perfectly good truck in the driveway.
Lindy Hop is a street dance, not a planned thing with such strict rules as “You can’t dance Lindy Hop to other music.” Frankie Manning himself supposedly showed how one could dance Lindy to a Hip Hop song, inspiring Steven Mitchell to create many “Hep Hop” steps and even an album of Hep Hop music.
Dancing is about joy—so why stop people from having joy dancing the dance they know to other music than swing? Besides, it might inspire the dance to grow. Nothing encourages growth better than forcing something outside of its comfortable box, and dancing to different music might inspire new moves and variations that can evolve once again to fit the Lindy’s original swing rhythms.
Besides, Lindy Hop might not be able to afford to be picky about what kind of music it’s danced to. We’re already a small sub-group within a small scene of partnered dance lovers. Once people start putting stipulations on what is or isn’t Lindy Hop, then you stifle creativity, you limit possibilities, and you turn people away, people who don’t want a hint of a ballroom-like regulation put on their dance.
Professional Lindy Hoppers, perhaps, are at a point where they care about being so authentic that they only dance to certain styles of jazz. However, the swing scene as a whole primarily consists of people who simply enjoy dancing and meeting people and aren’t so worried about being authentic or professionally expressive dancers. (Even pros will dance Lindy Hop to other music, as many cross-over Jack and Jills will show.)
We also, as a scene, have a far greater ability to hear different music than the original Lindy Hoppers did. It IS possible for us to have a Charleston band one night and a swing band the next and a Blues band the next. So, in one sense, it might be more natural for us to expand the dance than it would have been for an old-timer who might have only danced Lindy Hop only to swing music because that was the only music they heard at the dance hall that wasn’t a Waltz or Latin dance number.
Regarding doing Lindy Hop to Charleston songs, many great dancers have altered their rhythm and move choice to dance Lindy Hop to a Charleston song with great looking results that fit the music nicely. The same thing has happened recently with Soul music.
This is because one of Lindy Hop’s strengths is the very foundation Mr. No spoke of: Its basic lead and follow mechanics, allowance of solo expression, and 8-count basic can easily be adapted to support different dance forms.
To go back to the Charleston topic; Charleston was a beat that evolved into swing music and a dance that evolved into Lindy Hop, so surely it’s not a stretch to “devolve” the Lindy Hop foundation to its roots, and do the same with some of its modern moves, to create a style of Lindy Hop that fits Charleston music.
Besides, there’s all sorts of “transitional jazz” songs whose rhythms are between Charleston and Lindy Hop that make a “strictly swing” policy tricky. Think Fats Waller’s “24 Robbers.” It’s impossible to say that Skye and Frida’s routine to that isn’t “Lindy Hop.” (Mr. No would like to point out at this point that while the piano in the song “24 Robbers” often has a Charleston rhythm, the brushes on the snare go back and forth between a slight Charleston emphasis and a more swung rhythm. Fats Waller can’t be easily labeled.) (Mr. Yes would like to point out that he didn’t interrupt Mr. No’s argument, so Mr. No should kindly shut his port hole up.)
So, where would you draw the line? When is a song too Charleston to Lindy Hop to? I think the answer to that can only be decided by what people feel like dancing to the music. For instance, if people thought you should only ever dance Lindy Hop to swing music, we would never have this routine:
Aside: Okay, so this was a great excuse to post this routine by Jeff and Liz. It was the perfect ending to the Lindy Focus (always a great-spirited event) showcase contest, and what the video doesn’t show is the entire room, judges as well, giving a standing ovation to the dancers. Many people were tearing up. The flash mob was a complete surprise to everyone who wasn’t in it. It was kind of bizarre, suddenly having a third of the audience stand up and walk out onto the floor in the middle of a couple’s showcase routine.
This routine made a lot of people happy, feel like they were part of a supportive greater community, and probably made them very excited to dance soon after the contest. That to me is the spirit of what Lindy Hop is about, so to me, it’s Lindy Hop.
When I heard the Frankie Manning Hip Hop story, I heard that Frankie danced to a Hip Hop song because he was showing that the particular Hip Hop song he was dancing to had a similar accent as swing. And, a lot of Soul music is a close relative to swung rhythms. However, I still contest that you have to alter the dance so much to fit the new music that it becomes something other than Lindy Hop.
If you danced your classic “Lindy Hop” to Soul music, it wouldn’t make sense. However, you can use some of your Lindy Hop lead and follow mechanics to create what becomes an undefined Lindy/West Coast/Soul hybrid.
So, I guess instead of saying “You can’t dance Lindy Hop to non-swing music,” perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that “You can dance Lindy Hop steps to non-swing music if you want, but at that point, it’s no longer Lindy Hop.”
This is reinforced by almost every international-level Lindy Hop contest, which almost always only use swing music. (Though some of them often use music that could be described as more Charleston in rhythm, which begins to blur the lines and make my argument tricky. Perhaps the use of Charleston music is because of a scene-wide popularity in Charleston music, and the scene as a whole hasn’t questioned whether Lindy Hop is still considered Lindy Hop when danced to it or not.)
The Blues dance scene has always understood the connection between the music and the dance, as Blues dancers use many Lindy Hop mechanics, but know that what they do is it’s own dance, evolved specifically for the type of music they dance to. So they call it Blues, not “Slow Lindy Hop” (which itself is only a small, specific subcategory of Blues).*
So, like the routine Mr. Yes mentioned, a performance can be incredibly charming, well-danced, and have a very positive spirit (all things that make up great Lindy Hop), but moving to the rhythm of a Reggae-ish Pop rhythm takes the swing rhythm out of the dance and thus, to me, makes it officially NOT Lindy Hop. Yes, it might have inspired people to dance and be happy, but I’d argue that good movement and storytelling are what make this routine inspirational, not the fact that there is Lindy Hop in it.
In that light, such a performance would be more of an artistic or theatrical piece that experiments with taking Lindy Hop outside of its foundation, and would therefore, in my opinion, be a perfect submission for a Cabaret contest. (And I’d hate to be the act that would have to follow Jeff and Liz’s, by the way. At Lindy Focus IX, no one had to.)
The mere fact that Charleston music is often used for Lindy Hop competitions shows that the scene as a whole is open, at least to some extent, to allowing Lindy Hop to step outside this strict “swing-only” definition of it. This means not everyone thinks Lindy Hop is intrinsically tied specifically to swing music. If you can make an exception for Charleston music, you should be able to make an exception for any music that inspires someone to do Lindy Hop.
And, if you expect people to adhere to a certain idea of Lindy Hop, perhaps contests should define what they think Lindy Hop means. Maybe, just so all competitors are on the same page, a contest should be billed as a Lindy Hop contest done to swing music from 1935 to 1945 between 180 BPM and 250 BPM.
Otherwise, the dance is done by people, and it is us, the people as a whole, who really decide what Lindy Hop means. For instance, Frankie Manning, though a great source, is not the only person who has a say in what it means. A hundred years from now, “Late-2000s Style Lindy Hop” might come into vogue, and people will assume that to us, Lindy Hop meant a dance done to early jazz music of all kinds. (It will also mean there will be a whole new generation of people trying to imitate Skye.)**
So, what have I left out? Where does the debate go from here? What do you agree with/disagree with? What are the problems inherent in these specific ways of thinking? What are some other ways to look at the problem?
Note: Our West Coast Swing Siblings
I would consider this debate rather low-key in the modern Lindy Hop scene; it’s probably not the first thing on a lot of people’s minds. However, the West Coast Swing scene has, for several years now, been in the middle of a severe identity crisis.
The “swing” in West Coast Swing came from its roots in Western Swing and Rhythm and Blues music. However, watch almost any modern West Coast Swing choreography, and you’d be hard pressed to find a swung rhythm. In a sense, the younger generation took over, and most of them prefer to dance to contemporary popular music. The result is that people are constantly questioning if contemporary West Coast Swing is still at its heart the same thing as the original dance, and, if it still actually swings at all.
My answer to the West Coast scene (not that anyone has—or ever would—ask me) is to acknowledge that the musical differences between contemporary Pop music and classic Rhythm and Blues music are so great that the dances that would do justice to them warrant different contests at this point.
So, the big events could have both a “Classic West Coast Swing Music” comp and a “Contemporary” comp, at least for the top dancers (the lower levels could dance to a mixture in their contests), though I imagine this would be tricky to do with their points system, and would add another dozen contests to events already filled to the brim with them. Besides, I’m sure someone has already mentioned this to them and there’s some reasons why it’s not a good idea. Or, maybe I’m late in thinking it’s still a big problem; maybe contemporary has won? Does this mean no more harmonica song? (The “Splanky” of the West Coast Swing world? By the way, Mary Ann Nunez is a badass.)
If West Coast Swing goes all contemporary, though, we officially get to take back the term “Swing dance.”
*— However, apparently the Blues scene is having some similar debates at the moment. Thanks, Chelsea!
**—Okay, so its always easy to make people-imitating-Skye jokes. And, I promise I’ll stop, because, really, the scene is growing out of it and a lot of young artists are emerging from the Skye imitators that once numbered the ballrooms.
I hope the readers know that Skye Humphries is one of my favorite swing dancers to watch (just like many of you) and I think is one of the greatest Lindy Hop artists of the new generation. However, I think many of you will agree that Skye’s dancing is often so different from everyone else’s that attempts to imitate his style, rather than simply be inspired by it, come off as, well…. Maybe I’ll put it this way: You can be inspired by Louis Armstrong’s singing, like Billie Holiday was, and take elements of his style and make it your own. Or, you can try to imitate Louis Armstrong exactly: gravely voice, scatting, phrasing, all of it. Which one of would you rather listen to sing, Billie Holiday or a Louis Armstrong imitator? Which would you rather be? (You know, leaving out all the years of pre-adolescent prostitution, drug use, and living with national racism.)
However, in the spirit of this great debate series, I should mention that often artists get a great deal out of imitating those they look up to. They learn to live in that dancer’s shoes for awhile, learn a little bit about how that dancer thinks, even. The problem, I think, comes when it’s adopted by a dancer in place of their own voice.
Besides, you know, we’ve all tried a blatantly-Skye move or an entire blatantly Skye dance before. Or, at least, I know I have. Anyway, this is all SO not important to the debate. End of footnote tangent.
Special Thanks go out to champion high-school debater (and modern lawyer) David Lee who helped look over the post and make sure I didn’t say anything stupid.