This is a new series breaking down the names of the original air steps of the pioneers of Lindy Hop from the 1930s-1980s. Check out other posts in the series here.
PLEASE NOTE! When considering what to donate, please note the steps, the original dancers who danced them, the names of the steps, and the contributions of the many who helped put names to them are not my intellectual property, and therefore are not what I’m asking donations for. Basically, I do not ask for donations for the creation of the content, but merely the researching, gathering, and compiling of the information. Please take that into consideration when donating.
Do NOT attempt these air steps without consulting experts on technique, spotting, and safety.
Over the back
According to Frankie Manning, this was the first air step in Lindy Hop (where the flyer is thrown in time to the music, as opposed to simply lifted.) Since it also involves the leader flipping the partner with the throw, it is also the first known partnered flip in Lindy Hop history on top of it. This step opened the doors of inspiration and lead to the air step renaissance in Lindy Hop in the late 1930s.
The idea for the step first came when Frankie got inspired by Big Bea & “Shorty” George’s traditional performance exit:
Frankie imagined the partner going all the way over, and worked it out with Frieda Washington for a contest at the Savoy, which likely took place in 1935-1936. Accounts of this night were told by Norma Miller, historian Ernie Smith, and others before Frankie Manning began opening up and talking to people about his life in dance in the 1980s. But, once he started telling the story of that night himself, no one could tell it like him.
Frankie & Frieda called their new invention Over the back, setting up the basic format Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers would use in air step naming, wherein they tended to name the step after the flyer’s motion related to the base.
As far as I have seen, this step first occurs in Lindy Hop on film in the 1937 HMB performed by Gladys Crowder & Eddie “Shorty” Davis:
As I showed in the previous entry on lifts, no matter how many times, and how high, a dancer had lifted their partner in the air, actually throwing or flipping a partner was not done in Lindy Hop on film before this time, and definitely would be done a lot more relatively shortly after it. So, the introduction of throwing & flipping steps led to an obvious, dramatic change in Lindy Hop content. So much so that if you ask a random person on the street today to describe swing dancing, one of the things they are likely to describe are partners throwing and flipping each other around in the air.
But we do want to put the first air step into an overall more realistic context. In case you thought of Lindy Hop as being calm and unathletic before air steps came along, think again. Here’s footage of a Harlem Lindy Hop contest, most likely from 1933-ish:
As you can see, the first generation of Lindy Hoppers was burning calories, getting on the floor, rolling over, jumping, and holding each other up, with the same performance energy the 2nd generation would fly through the air with. But even though there were no air steps in this footage, you can see how air steps would fit right into the character of the dancing. It makes sense that the next step was throwing a partner and letting go, and it makes sense that a young, creative, athletic couple would be the first to try out the idea.
As we shall explore in this series, air steps grow in number and in height shortly after 1937, and, by the 1940s, the crowd of the Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden was seeing dozens of the classic air steps we know of today in a bombardment done primarily by Whitey’s Lindy Hopper contestants.
The air step continued to be used throughout Harlem Lindy hop history. Then, generations later, Ryan Francois and his partner Sing Lim flew the Over the back one-armed, making a new variation:
The most common modern name of the classic Over the back step seems to be Back to back.
Original name: Over the back.
Most common name: Back to back, Frankie’s back to back.
Less common/ regional: Rygg kast (“Back flip” in Swedish), La Cloche (“The bell” in French, Montreal), Backpack, Over the top
Names shared with other air step’s common names (So be careful using them!): Several air steps could be described as “Over the back,” “backpack,” and “over the top,” so make sure to communicate clearly with a partner when beginning work on this step.
Danger zone: Shoulders can get bad strain, heads can knock together, flyer can land on their knees, or their head(!). Be careful out there, folks!
Frankie knew there were acrobatics in other dance forms, so he always specifically said theirs was the “First air step in Lindy Hop.” It turns out that Frieda and Frankie re-invented this step. It was done by a Charleston couple and caught on film in the 1920s as shown below.
Frankie & Frieda had no idea about this Charleston couple’s step — we have YouTube, they didn’t — and when he first saw it late in his life, he said, “If we’d seen that video we wouldn’t have had to work so hard at figuring out how to do the step!”
Re-inventing moves happens all the time; there’s only so many ways human bodies can do things, and exploring those ways often ends up with a similar result that someone else has done before. It doesn’t devalue the creative mind that unknowingly re-invented the thing.
Besides, Frankie & Frieda’s contribution to the future of Lindy Hop wasn’t so much the step itself as the inspiration it gave to many of the Whitey’s and future generations of Harlem Lindy Hoppers to continue exploring flipping and throwing acrobatic steps into Lindy Hop — steps that would showcase Black American creativity, skill, and strength, and have come to help define Lindy Hop ever since.
And, as we shall see as this series continues, many of our great Lindy Hop elders were inventors of great air steps.
HAVE DIFFERENT NAMES? (Or fun stories about this air step?) SHARE BELOW!
I must recognize the many people who helped supply names and background for these air steps and I thank everyone so much for their contributions to the research. Furthermore, I 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.