This is a new series breaking down the names and history of the original air steps of the pioneers of Lindy Hop from the 1930s-1980s. You can find the rest of the series here.
What’s in a name?
An air step’s name is a surprisingly useful thing. When you’re trying to figure out what air step you’re about to execute with your partner, how it works, or what to shout while you’re in the middle of an improvisational jam circle, you’d be surprised how much a name can help or hurt.
In April and May of 2020, we used the sudden free time of the COVID-19 quarantine and our FaceBook network of dancers to search for the original names of air steps, and gather information about what other common names there were for the Air Steps in the modern era. We were fortunate to have the input of many Air Step experts from different generations of dancers.
One thing you will notice about the modern names is that they come from a wealth of sources — rockabilly culture, European Rock n’ Roll dancing, influential teaching couples with imaginative names, and names that have passed down a teacher-to-student legacy, some of them from the very originators of the moves.
However, one of the things we have also noticed is that many of the historical names have been forgotten in the modern scene. Lindy Hop legend Ryan Francois has pointed out that not only does remembering the names respect the dance’s history, there’s a reason the original dancers named a step the way they did. And, if you know that name, it can help you understand how they thought about that step, how they did that step.
This is the beginning of a series where we will go through the core repertoire of airs steps handed down by the Lindy Hop pioneers of the 1930s through 1980s, from both our Harlem and SoCal elders. When possible, we will title them by the names the original dancers used. As we publish each each new air step, here are some things to look out for:
You will notice that the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers — the source of most of our classic air steps — tended to name air steps after the flyer’s general action and trajectory: “Around-the-Back,” “Handspring-Front-Flip,” “Over-the-Shoulder.” You will see that as a common thread through many of the steps.
1930s and 40s SoCal dancers, though, seemed to have only a handful of air steps, which they tended to give more impressionistic names, like “Flying Dutchman,” and “Sky Whip.”
Modern dancers of the 90s and 2000s, often because they did not have the original name at their fingertips, have renamed most of the original steps — “Knickerbocker,” “Pancake,” and “Lamppost,” are just a few of the dozens of examples, as you will see. These names tend to reflect the common trait in language that shorter, catchier terms that stick out are more likely to become the popular terms. They are linguistically infectious.
When you see it all together, we think you’ll agree it’s a rich tapestry of variety, individuality, and function in Swing Dancing, and how much it all rests on the foundation of great generations of our elders.
Our first entry is Ace-in-the-Hole and Ace-in-the-Hole-Down-The-Back.
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Do NOT attempt these air steps without consulting experts on technique, spotting, and safety.
Ace in the hole
It appears Frankie called this step Ace in the hole. In Frankie’s autobiography, he describes it as one of the earliest air steps he did, explaining that Naomi Waller and he did it at a Cotton Club performance in 1936. “Which was one of my favorites because she would get up there and kick her legs wildly.” (Thus further giving evidence that THIS above, and not the next air step on our list below, is the original Ace-in-the-Hole.) We imagine the “in the hole” part of the name was referring to the entrance of the step.
Though we have included it in our list of air steps, the Ace-in-the-hole was more of an “extreme lift.” (Air steps being defined by the fact that the flyer was in the air without support. Lifts, where a partner supported another in a trick step the entire time their feet were off the ground, had been around in Lindy Hop long before air steps.)
We have begun with this step not only because alphabetically it is first, but also because it seems to be the first acrobatic step done in Lindy Hop that conveys both the height and the drama that would commonly be associated with air steps. The first time we see this step on film is in 1933’s Rufus Jones For President, where a dancer who is almost certainly “Twistmouth” George and a partner do an early version of it:
The next time we see it is in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball, done by Mildred Cruse & Billy Williams.
The original swing era Southern California dancers also had this step, and named it The Flying Dutchman. Some who had contact with original SoCal dancers describe how the Flying Dutchman refers to an entire move series including a series of “side-cars,” that then leads into the candlestick. (Original SoCal swing dancer Roy Damron said “Flying Dutchman” was one of the few steps they had a name for.)
Then, likely in the late 1960s, Harlem Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Hoppers under the training of Mama Lu Parks developed a version where, having gotten the flyer up in the air for the Ace-in-the-Hole, the thrower would then launch the flyer up and away from them into an open position ending. It’s beautiful to see, even though it’s definitely up there on the highest-lndings-for-flyers chart. Definitely want to make sure flyers have healthy landing technique (and knees) (and spotters) (and enthusiastic consent) (and mats?) before attempting it. (We will release footage of this when we have premiered it elsewhere.)
The most common name in the modern era for this air step is by far the Candlestick, possibly via Rockabilly dance culture in the late 1900s where some of our responders had heard it from.
Original names: Ace in the hole (Harlem), Flying Dutchman (SoCal)
Most common names for the air step: Candlestick.
Less common/Region-based: Boxcar, Cable car, Candle, Spike, Flying Dutchman (or “Dutchman” for short), Handstand (UK), “Candle” or “Candlestick” in native languages.
Danger zone: In hands-on-hips style, thrower’s lumbar spine will especially have a lot of force on it. It’s a tall landing so flyers feet can be in danger on landing. Falling down thrower’s back head first is obviously not a fun situation. Be careful out there, folks!
Bonus: There are two different main techniques for the “candlestick” part of the Ace-in-the-hole step. Can you see the difference between the one below and the Day at the Races version above?
Ace in the hole down the back
Possibly the longest original air step name, Frankie called this step Ace-in-the-hole-down-the-back. (See also “Handspring-down-the-back.”)
Al Minns, Frankie Manning, and Norma Miller all separately mentioned being involved in inventing an air step where the follower started to go too far back and ended up sliding down the back. However, that incident was most likely referring to the Handspring-down-the-back (pancake) because Norma Miller does a Handspring-down-the-back in Hellzapoppin’, and the first time I have seen the Ace-in-the-hole-down-the-back in footage it is done by the generation after Norma & Frankie’s in the late 1940s.
Commonly today the Ace-in-the-hole-down-the-back is simply called Ace-in-the-hole, probably from having been passed down in a shortened form that therefore lost the reference to the original air step. (See also: Ace-in-the-hole (above), Down-the-back.) This step does not appear in Lindy Hop before 1940s, giving even more credence to the Ace-in-the-Hole being the original name of the “candlestick” part of the air step.
Original name: Ace in the hole down the back.
Most common names for the air step: Ace in the hole.
Less common/Region-based: Waterfall, Kanonkulan (“Canon ball,” Swedish), straddle into dive bomber, straddle into dive, straddle into ace in the hole (90s SoCal), spike, Blue Outlaw
Names shared with other air step’s common names (So be careful using them!): Ace in the hole, waterfall, spike, Blue Outlaw.
Danger zone: Aside from dangers of Ace in the hole, this has the obvious danger of head injury due to the flyer going head first towards the ground. If thrower isn’t stable, they could fall backwards on flyer. Be careful out there, folks!
Bonus: We’d like to give a shout out to Washington DC’s Tom Koener and Debra Sternberg, who created a version of the Ace-in-the-hole-down-the-back that, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, still stops my breath to this day. Ironically, we would guess it is safer in some ways than the standard version, because it allows both partners to prepare for the drop-down-the-back. However, in waiting, it builds anticipation, making it appear more death-defying. (Before he does it, Tom crosses himself.) This is them doing it in a jam at Frankie Manning’s 80th birthday party, Can’t Top The Lindy Hop (1994).
I’ve done both versions of candlestick, here is the closed-position version, with Andrea Phoenix flying. I have not yet done Ace-in-the-hole-down-the-back, but it’s on my list.
HAVE DIFFERENT NAMES?
(Or fun stories about this air step?)
We must recognize the many people who helped supply names and background for these air steps and we thank everyone so much for their contributions to the research. Furthermore, we wanted to give a special thanks to some air step & Lindy history experts who went above and beyond the call of duty: (in alphabetical order.)
Nathalie Gomes Adams, Felix Berghäll, Kim Clever, Ryan Francois, Rusty Frank, Yuval Hod, Crystal Johnson, Mark Kihara, Nalla Kim, Tom Koerner, Peter Loggins, Mattias Lundmark, Cynthia Millman, Kenny Nelson, Daniel Newsome, Julie Oram, Forrest Outman, Zack Ricard, Anders Sihlberg, Benjamin Sundberg, Jenny Thomas, Annie Trudeau, Nick Williams.
One response to “[Classic Air Steps]: Intro & Ace-in-the-Hole (Candlestick)”
[…] George and a partner, do an early version of the lift Frankie Manning called Ace in the hole. It’s followed by a low-level supported partner trick that also happens to be the first […]