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Meditatin’: German Swing Kids, Our Closest Relatives?

August 1, 2013

Meditatin’ is a collection of random thoughts. This post was inspired by researching our recent article on Germany’s original swing youth.

swing kids, probably 1940 according to website

It may sound strange when you first hear it, but I’d argue that, in a lot of fundamental ways, the modern Lindy Hop scene is more similar to the German swing youth scene than it is to the original American swing dance scene.

For instance, let’s start with demographics: The original American dancers were, at the beginning, lower-class blacks and other New Yorkers involved in a community act, and, later, common everyday teenagers of all walks of life doing the popular thing at the time. The German swing youth, however, were a mostly middle-class and upper-class educated group who loved swing and saw it as its own culture, despite it not being the popular trend among their community. Sound familiar?

I want to stress the appreciation and passion German swing kids had for swing music, and the recognition that, out of all the many German and other artistic things they could have been interested in or defined themselves by, American swing music was their choice. And, on top of that, they recognized it was worthy of its own culture.

This brings us to a second way the German swing youth are similar to the modern scene: swing culture and fashion. To most Americans of the original dance era, swing was just a basic popular music form, and dancing to it just another small portion of their overall social life. But unlike the American dancers, who were part of a popular movement, the German swing youth were doing something that many of their peers didn’t get into, and probably didn’t understand. (Most of Swungover’s readers undoubtedly have non-swing dance friends who probably don’t understand why we obsess so much over swing culture that we often visit foreign cities not to sight-see in them so much as just to dance in them.)

The original-era American dancers also mostly just dressed in what was popular at the time: The Harlemites wore their normal double-breasted suits, dresses, and skirts. Later, when the swing craze hit the mainstream, the jitterbugging teenagers just wore the clothes all American teenagers wore at the time. The German swing kids, however, defined their group’s identity by wearing fashion different from that of their peers. They did this by creating their own fashion based on their idea of 1930’s America and Britain. However — this is where it gets really fascinating — they elevated their fashion beyond the reality of 30’s and 40’s fashion into an abstract idea of that fashion, and we in the modern Lindy Hop scene have done the same thing.

Over the last thirty years of Lindy Hop we’ve gone through zoot suit phases, the Hollywood fashion phase, and the most current “vintage” styles — yes, we value vintage-style clothing. But the way we wear it is usually not for authentic replication — instead, it’s often an abstract idea of “vintage 30s and 40s clothing” that we use to capture what we see as the spirit of those vintage dancers.

So, unlike the original American swing dancers, both the German swing kids and we today live in a world that doesn’t often have the clothing and fashion of the American swing era on hand, and so we’ve both responded by recreating our abstract idea of what that fashion was and what it meant.

This is also pretty much what we’ve both done with the dance. It makes sense, as both German swing youth and modern dancers never attended a 1930’s/40’s American swing dance ballroom, where the original American dancers were simply making it up as they went along. So, just as German swing kids tried to piece together what “swing dance” was by looking at pictures of American dancers and trying to see what they could do that matched, we in the modern era look at old clips and try to come up with new moves that look like they could fit in that idea of Lindy Hop.

And when both the German swing kids and we today do this in our fashion and dance — when we focus on the abstract idea of what swing culture meant, instead of authentic recreation — we’re adding our voice to the mix. And that’s capturing the spirit of jazz.

The movie Swing Kids, along with the story of Germany’s actual swing youth, has always held a strange pull over me. The attraction makes a lot of sense once I realize it’s not just that I like the story of a group of passionate teenagers rebelling against fascism in a dark time. It’s because it’s actually a story about people very much like us.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2013 3:18 pm

    Potent stuff. I’ve always loved the movie Swing Kids and I certainly see the parallels between our swing culture today and the German swing kids. Swing dance, to me, has always had this aura of rebellion to it. It makes sense too if you look at the historical context where swing dance thrived in Germany. I remember reading something about swing dance and the whole concept of “Americana” (mind you, punk wasn’t out yet…or was it?) that was their choice of weapon.

    What do you think about the swing dance culture in Asia then? How do you see swing dance in their specific sociopolitical context?

    Love love this! This is the first time I’ve been to your blog fyi.

  2. August 3, 2013 4:44 pm

    Excellent observations Bobby, as always.

    Steph’s mention of Asia seems pertinent to me. For instance, I know that swing is huge in Korea (relative to its size in Europe and the US), but I don’t know much (read: anything) about where it fits within Korean culture more generally, and what role it fulfils for the dancers there.

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