This is a new series, [Classic Air Steps] breaking down the names of the original Air Steps of the pioneers of Lindy Hop from the 1930s-1980s. This essay is the prequal to the series, briefly discussing pre air step movements referred to as lifts.
Before there were air steps in Lindy Hop (where the flyer is in free flight), there were what I will refer to as lifts. These were any steps where one partner held up the other, or strongly supported their weight, often for suspended periods of time.
In common dance terminology, “lift” conjures the image of one partner picking up the other via their waist, the kind of steps where height and grace are often the goal, like in a classic ballet pas de duex. But for our purposes, that is only one form of the action of supporting another partner’s weight, especially in a dance like Lindy Hop. And the rich variety of ways early Lindy Hoppers came up with to support one another set the stage for the time when lifting would become throwing.
Here is a collection of many of the Lindy Hop lifts that predated the advent of air steps in the mid-1930s.
The very first demonstration we have of Lindy Hop on film, After Seben, showcases a lift: Mattie Purnell & “Shorty” George Snowden do an early version of what many people today call a Baby doll drop. Shorty supports his partner as she sits down and then lifts her back up. This trick step was the climax of not just Mattie & Shorty’s routine, but the entire group’s performance in the film. From this fact, I think it’s safe to interpret that at the time, this move was one of the most impressive trick steps in Lindy Hop. (Thanks to Black Pepper Swing YouTube for the amazing colorizing!)
In a Harlem Lindy Hop contest that most likely happened around 1933-ish, some of the greats of the first generation shined their stuff in an all skate-style display. This couple, who is almost certainly “Shorty” George Snowden and partner, show off a small, supported jump that lands into a scooting lunge.
Below, a dancer who is almost certainly “Twistmouth” 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 instance of Lindy Hop “slow motion” I have seen on film. (1933, Rufus Jones for President.) (Side note: At least as early as 1919, films of things in “slow motion” — like diving, baseball pitches, boxing matches — were a novelty people could see at their local movie houses.)
The first Harvest Moon Ball showcased the Lindy Hop of the second generation — including Leon James, Norma Miller, and Frankie Manning. There are no air steps in the footage; but there is a lift. Here is Mildred Cruse & Snookie Beasely doing a step where the leader holds up his partner, stretched over the leg. Mildred keeps stepping her feet on the ground almost as if to still give the illusion it’s just another normal dance step. (Which may have had something to do with the Harvest Moon Ball having a rule that there were no lifts allowed. After this first year, HMB Lindy Hoppers quickly realized this rule did not apply to them.)
This trick might have later inspired the air step many people today call a Judo flip or Hip flip.
Based on Frankie & Norma’s accounts and other research, Frankie’s co-autobiographer Cynthia Millman puts the invention of the first Lindy Hop air step at late 1935 to early ’36, which just so happens to be the time that existed between the 1935 and 1936 summer Harvest Moon Balls.
The 1936 Harvest Moon Ball footage does not show air steps yet. But lifts continue to be an obviously impressive spectacle in the contest. Here are winners Mildred Cruse & Billy Williams showcasing both an Ace in the hole and an Onto the shoulder (our term). (We’d bet good money the Onto-the-shoulder is what inspired Frankie to create the air step known as Over the shoulder, which he said was the second air step to come into the Lindy shortly after the first. Or, perhaps Onto-the-shoulder is a step that came out of trying to do the Over-the-shoulder and not finishing the move.)
Mildred & Billy’s winning this year was surely to some extent linked to their use of these dramatic lifts that show the kinds of height and acrobatics the recently-arrived air steps take to the next level.
In this same HMB, Norma Miller & Billy Ricker showcase a lift that will looks like it could have been the inspiration for what would become their Shake around in Hellzapoppin:
In 1937, the first air steps appear on film in the 1937 HMB and A Day at the Races. However, air steps are still very rare at this time, and new lifts are still appearing. Here winners Gladys Crowder & Eddie “Shorty” Davis show off a dramatic lift that likely inspired the air step known today as the Hat trick. This trick has a bonus in that Gladys & Eddie, “a comedy team,” show off their strength and control by having the smaller Eddie swing the bigger Gladys through this trick.
And, below Johnny Smalls and the great future-air-stepper Anne Johnson do an Ace in the hole into a supported drag.
One can see from all of this footage that, though these are some wonderful steps, there is nothing yet that truly showcases the awe-inspiring acrobatics of partners free flying in air to the timing of the music — Frankie Manning’s specific definition of an air step (as implied in his autobiography, pg. 101).
In 1937, Big Bea & Shorty George performed in Ask Uncle Sol. Their performance ends with a lift that the comical couple was known for ending their routines with. It was this step that, a year or so earlier, inspired a young Frankie Manning to envision the first known follower-in-free-flight air step in Lindy Hop.
More on that, though, next time.
(Thanks EstilloSwing YouTube for the 4K AI version!)
Side note: Interestingly, these types of lift steps have for the most part been forgotten in modern Lindy Hop, most performing couples preferring to do air steps. But lifts have two great benefits: they can give dancers time to show off lots of personality, and are usually safer than air steps. They are also a great starting point for those wanting to get into air steps, as they teach some of the fundamental techniques of one partner supporting another’s weight.