Welcome back to Let’s Talk About Lindy Hop and Blackness, an eight-part series discussing race, specifically Blackness in the Lindy Hop community. In the first part of this series, we looked at the Black experience in the Lindy Hop community today. The question, the one that started this whole series, boils down to one thing; How did we get here? How did we get to the point that so many Black people feel so alienated from our own heritage?
Pouring over books, interviews, periodicals, and videos, I found myself with a deeper and more complex story to tell than I originally anticipated.
So, if you– as I did –think you know this history, I encourage you to read on anyway. By specifically looking into lesser-known voices, those who are oppressed, and weaving together knowledge from different communities, I have a story to tell that may not match the most common myths and prevalent histories. This study could be done for years, which I don’t have. So please extend me a little grace with some potential holes in this history. This is a quick and dirty version.
I’ll be approaching this history in sections. These sections are segmented into groups and rough timeframes. History is said to be told by the “Victors.” To get a full picture we need to look at a more contextual and richer view. So, we will be starting with the least dominant history.
Let’s set the scene.
It’s the early 1900s. Jim Crow laws and etiquette have been a feature of Black lives for about 50 years. Sharecropping isn’t working out and there are claims of work, dignity, and safety in the north. With that, a massive exodus begins. People move north and west into the cities to find work. They bring with them the culture and music of the Black south, where it mingles with the culture of the Black north. Suddenly many sounds and ideas exist in a singular place for the first time! A singular, cramped, and expensive place.
A different kind of racism is normal in the north; it’s hard for Black businesses to fight against and succeed. Black people struggle to relax in these northern cities. Most are severely underpaid and so, create their own events. It’s at these events (think rent parties) where much of Black culture deepens on itself. People wanted to leave behind the trappings of the south and so wove those aspects into new forms of expression. This was happening in major cities all over the country. While New York, Harlem specifically, hit a true renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance took off! Redefining what it was to be Black,-at the time called “Negro”—this movement really explored what being Black means. A focus was put towards putting Black culture on the map, by celebrating the richness of Black culture, and intellectual thought. Although there was some debate on respectability politics, within Black circles, today this is generally seen as an important moment of Black American history. The Renaissance was a major factor in solidifying Black culture, queerness, feminism, arts, and music. As these things came together, white businesses started seeing Black people as a potential revenue source. The willingness to invest in ‘Race Records’(Black music recorded for Black audiences) expanded.
Dance has always been an important part of Black life. With the influx of people, from different regions, they brought different dances and variations together. The Black upper class reached for making themselves into what they thought white people would respect, exploring traditional white dances and making them their own. Meanwhile, the lower class kept much of the dances from home, simply modifying them for the emerging music. The music brought together, Blues, Stride Piano, Ragtime, Vaudeville, Boogie-woogie, and most importantly(for this story), Jazz.
It was out of this time period that swing music emerged.
With all the changes in music, the dances of the time change. Dance in Black culture is always about music and expression first and foremost. Although some foundational beliefs and ideas stay the same, other factors may change with time. All are a part of a constant cycle of modifying old dances into new ones with innovation. By the 20s, the dancing and music had started to look and sound like swing. There is a lot of debate about how and where the dance started; Honestly, though, it’s not that important. What is, is that it took off.
Dance venues were incredibly segregated at the time. Many of the Black-owned clubs struggled because of racism. Most clubs were inaccessible to Black audiences since swing- as with most Black dances -came from the youth. It was around this time when The Savoy opened. We will talk more about its specific history in part 4 on my website at a future date. For now, it’s important to know that it was not Black-owned, hired Black bands to perform and was not segregated (although white dancers made up only around 15% or less of the clientele). As the Great Depression hit, the Savoy was one of the few places one could still go dancing for cheap in Harlem. So, the young folks of the day flocked to it.
The dance was dismissed by white audiences for years. Meanwhile, the Black community from this time, talk about the atmosphere being akin to a party. Flirting, kissing, and make-outs were common. Women regularly danced with women (undoubtedly an influence from the Renaissance) and queer representation was not unusual. Drugs and alcohol(after prohibition) were regularly used by dancers. The dancing was exciting, extreme, and innovative. The bands played loud and complex rhythms. Soon, the second generation of kids came up and started to expand the dance yet again.
This was not going to last, as a new threat was looming over the shoulder of these art forms. The threat? White ambition.
White folks hated swing. Musicians thought it was beneath them. White dancers found it to be “wild”, “Barbaric”, “strange”, “A Bad Habit”. They viewed it as a thing for Negros, not for them. One Newspaper described Lindy Hop as “a violent, acrobatic flinging-about”. It was derided often to the point of saying that no white person would be able to dance it the same way. The dancing was improper and [white] youths should learn more “Acceptable” dances.
At the time, traditional European dances were still celebrated-even if a bit boring to the young people. Knowing these dances was as much status as it was important for folk tradition. The earlier dances taken on from the Black community such as Truckin’ and Charleston were highly discouraged by the older white communities. Can you guess why so many white youths picked it up? Important figures in the dance world tried to dissuade them by highlighting the importance of folk dances. They praised the elegance of dances like the waltz and foxtrot, and ultimately the creation of other dances, like the castle walk to offer other options. Most didn’t even see Lindy Hop as something that would catch on.
Instead, they were concerned about other emerging dances. But, swing started to spread. Record labels were seeing the financial gain of this style of music. The question became, what if we took this and made it for white audiences? They’d never listen to Black musicians, but what if white bands played it?
Many Black musicians were hired to write music, only to have the white bands go off to make huge amounts of money playing live and creating records. With that exposure, white youths fell in love with swing music. A simmering desire to learn to dance to this music started building. Access was a huge limiting factor, as most who wanted to learn couldn’t “find” instruction. As per normal, once there was clearly money to be made (and it wasn’t going away), dance instructors started taking more notice. Still concerned for the moral safety of the younger dancers, white instructors met up to modify the dance to be more appropriate.
There were different tactics used by different instructors. The Castles tried to create alternatives. Arthur Murray watered down the dance and modified it for white palates and sensibilities. Lindy Hop was brought up at teaching conferences and attempted to be formalised and codified. “The jockey step” was created for a massive festival. It was also felt that many of the steps weren’t safe or possible for white men to learn. As time went on the white version of the dance, that many were learning in informal classes and on campuses, looked very different to what the Black dancers were doing.
By ’37 Newspapers were saying that swing music had “invaded the classiest joints” and “the fundamental step for ‘swing’ was — the Shag”. By the 40s Life said:
“in its early days the Lindy flourished on the lower strata of society. Negroes were its creators and principal exponents, and Arthur Murray would no more have taught the Lindy Hop than Rachmaninoff would have given lessons in Boogie boogie. But with the renaissance of swing, the Lindy climbed the social scale.”
They continue describing how it was “America’s impatience with restriction” that created Lindy Hop, and “A dance still in a phase of transition and growth, but whose basic steps have crystallised into recognizable patterns.“ We know when they said “American” they were no longer thinking about the Black dancers of Harlem.
By the 40s, Black people were being pushed out of their own dance and music. Musicians were seen as less desirable by many and paid less than their white counterparts. White musicians had spent years boiling down and codifying what they thought made jazz and swing work. Groups used written music, which many blacks couldn’t read. With things being segregated it was just easier to hire an all-white band. White dancers took over many dance spaces and jobs that came out of swing.
Outnumbering the Black dancers and already being prioritised, the focus shifted away from meeting Black needs and wants from venues and bands. Unable to stop this, many Blacks referred to white dancers as Jitterbugs. A nickname that was taken by white dancers, later on, unaware of the insult behind it. Black dancers sneered at their unrhythmic dancing and called them jitterbugs because they were like bugs skittering across the floor. Still, many more Black men were drafted into the war. Leaving fewer to continue dancing Lindy hop exclusively.
Meanwhile, there was a shift happening. As it does every 10 years or so, and as white culture takes over Black arts/spaces/ideas, there was an effort towards moving away from Lindy Hop by some. Frustrated by the lack of jobs many Black musicians went towards Bebop. It was created in part to push the music and in part because white people couldn’t dance to it or play it. Others went down the path of rhythm and blues. The younger dancers took this and modified swing to fit this emerging music.
The Bop is one dance that came out of this time period along with “The Off-Time”. In the 50s these shifted to dances like “The Walk”, and were continuously being innovated and modified. Every shift created communities who held onto the tradition of that specific dance, while the dance also continued forward.
At the same time, Lindy hop was still popular and many of the dancers from the savoy found work in the dance/entertainment field. In Black culture, it’s not so much that the dances “end” but they are built upon. That’s why you can still see aspects of swing in BBoying, for example. The youth innovate while returning to older styles of movement every ten years or so, while the rest of the culture continues to pass on the knowledge of the popular dances of their youth.
Swing had hit its stride around this time. Until the war, there was a great deal of money in swing. Festivals, riots, and dance-a-thons, for swing, were common. Previous spaces that never allowed dances started hiring bands and clearing space for dance. Big bands got bigger, and there was a huge demand for them. Sock hops were becoming commonplace as a safe place for teens. Swing took on an image as white America’s dance. Something wholesome for young white people to enjoy.
The efforts of dance instructors, years earlier, were solidified. The dance had become the antithesis of what it originally was. “… invading colleges and dance schools, The Lindy hop attained respectability as a truly national dance.” But, between the war and all the changes to the dance, it stagnated. It became too expensive to have such huge bands play, particularly with so many gone in the war. Soon, swing started to die off in white communities along with partner dancing in general. The kids had moved onto the new thing, (years after they began) bebop and rhythm and blues.
Bebop was too hard for white dancers and so many went towards rhythm and blues. Once there was a repeat of bringing in white musicians to make Black music, it took off. By the mid 50s sock hops were playing rock and roll instead of swing. The dances that caught on with the white community were all solo dances. With that, swing “died” and along with it “partner dance”. And the cycle continued.
As time passed “after” Lindy hop, more partnered Black dances sprung up, including but not limited to; DC Hand Dancing, Bopping, Detroit Ballroom and later, Steppin’.
But Grey, I was told the myth goes that dancing died out, how can this be?
Well, white partner dancing died; Black dances stayed doing what they always have. But it wasn’t of no interest to the white community, so it went unnoticed. These dances and communities were taught cross-generationally in the home, -unlike the formal dance classrooms of white spaces- typically in Black only spaces that one needs to be comfortable being in the Black side of town to even know exist. The fact that a surprising amount of white swing dancers are unaware that Lindy never stopped in Harlem and that there is a thriving community of dancers highlights this.
Much of Black history goes untold simply because for much Black American History, if white Americans weren’t interested in it, it simply didn’t get recorded or written about. We are an oral culture and our traditions are still kept alive that way. But white culture doesn’t respect that as a reputable way of maintaining records. So to many, it was as if it ain’t exist. To keep a history -or a dance- alive, it still has to be practised. As I’ve mentioned, typically a younger generation picks it up. They often learn directly from elders to reincorporate the information back into our dances.
There are signs that this continued.
Many of the most famous Lindy dancers went on to perform other dance styles, create groups, and push forward. They still performed swing dances and movements. Jazz festivals are still very much a thing and elders still dance to this music. It might not have been as popular, but as Norma says in an interview, it was seen as “just dancing”. It didn’t die, it just went back home and to smaller events.
It was in the 60s that we more commonly see interviews and dance videos with Al Minns. That continued-as far as I can tell- until he died in 1985. We also see him dancing with Leon James (who died in 1970). There is a video of Al Minns being interviewed for playboy, discussing being tracked down by the Swedes, and dancing in Sweden. We know that both Norma Miller and Dawn Hampton were also doing dance work (and other work) through this time period. Some say that Steppin’ is where the Black swing dancers ultimately went in our cycle of dance. Looking at the community today being primarily Black and how it took off in the 90s, it seems like a natural progression.
But, white history took a very different path. Without Black influence, white folks dropped partner dancing. By the early 70s, the idea of jazz had become nostalgic. 50s swing had taken on an image of the “good ol’ days”. Ads started cropping up in magazines trying to take advantage of the feelings of discontent within white Americans.
Things were changing fast in America. The romanticised view of the 50s provided an easy dream to hold on to in the face of civil rights, the Vietnam war, school integration, and more. Why not go back to “a simpler time?” Ads were common in magazines, selling this image alongside records. These records, books, and narratives, almost exclusively focused on jazz once it became popular with white audiences.
It sold you good music, family values, and conservatism. This was America’s folk dance and music after all! Jazz was America’s best gift to the world. With this, an image solidified around jazz, swing, and the dances that accompany them. These records and books were extremely popular. By the 80s, white Americans and the Swedish became interested in these dances again. They searched out the elder dancers and started trying to learn from them.
This set off one-half of white history moving forward into the current day.
As we shift to the 90s and forward, these two populations will be talked about separately. Although the terms may shift with whose narrative I’m following, the main difference between these populations is if their focus is on dance or not. “The Retro Swing” community and “The Swing Dancers”. It’s important to realise that these are two distinct groups that happened to become interested in the same timeframe but from drastically different starting points. With them comes a variety of baggage, values, assumptions, and “myths.”
By the time the 90s had come around, people who grew up in the punk scene were feeling alienated by how “mainstream” it had gotten. They felt that it had lost all meaning and had outgrown many of the aspects of the movement. Following the white punk tradition that still exists today (another story), they decided that the thing to do was to rebel against the current culture. -Because they could- In doing so though, they became what they were rebelling against earlier in life. Although they said it wasn’t about conservatism, it sure as hell looks like it.
In a desire to remain different, they looked towards the past to be inspired by American exceptionalism. Revelling in looking at the long-ago past (the 50s lol) they blindly celebrated a romanticised view, of the white-washed vision of the past. Falling, unknowingly, into the influence of commercialism. So, the retro-swing community was mostly interested in anything from America’s “great” past. If it was from their grandparents’ age, it was cool. A mashup of eras and ideas, with none of the context, they formed bands and hangouts that mixed these eras and music.
But with the punk background; copious drugs, alcohol, and sex were common. This also took place in lounges where much of the main activity was drinking, smoking cigars, and talking about their latest acquisitions. There was so much focus on being cool in this “exclusive” ingroup that they supported their small communities and the bands coming out of them. They viewed themselves as the saviours and reinventors of swing music. Unfortunately, majority of them were only pulling from the 50s for music inspiration and further watered down the dances. Dancing wasn’t really a focus but more so a way to reinforce white gender roles, and get status. So much of the focus was on complicated moves and lifts done to Arthur Murray’s east coast swing. They just wanted to have fun and do whatever they wanted. Everything about this moment became a status symbol in the community.
After different groups searched and found swing dancers in the 70s and 80s, white people started to learn from them. For some, it was formal contexts, as in Frankie being brought out of retirement to choreograph. Whereas for others it was for social dancing demos, as it was for Al Minns. By the mid-80s, more and more white people were seeking out elders from film to teach them lindy hop. White swing dance communities and organisations were starting up and slowly gaining traction. As more and more white people took classes from the dancers that lived through the start of the dance, they felt increasingly passionate about their new hobby.
Unfortunately, like the majority of beginning dancers, their passion outstripped their knowledge. One thing that became clear to me in the research- both in interviews I conducted, but also ones I watched- was that the dancers in many ways got started on the wrong foot, in terms of understanding the dance. By overestimating their understanding of the dance, it created a dilution of the instruction that was given. Lacking context and practice, a lot of ideas and values got integrated into the scene’s view of dance that carries into today.
If you listen to how people talked about, learned, and understood Lindy hop from the 80s to the 90s, a huge shift becomes obvious. In the 80s, it was obvious that there was a big difference between watching a film and getting it. Although equally excited and passionate about learning, there was a humbleness present. With my blog, I describe an important difference when it comes to participating in arts from another culture, the guest vs the tourist. There was an understanding that this dance was Black, and that there was much about it that directly clashed with their own values. Although people looked up to the old-timers, it seemed to be more from a place of expertise, not being a deity. People were participating because they wanted to connect with this expressive dance and music.
Bands felt they were “reinventing swing”, in the Neo-swing community, but in the dancers’ community, they were stuck with the 50s mentality of what swing sounded like.
People had, well-meaningly, started communities and therefore making money. In a desire to have more people to dance with, what used to be learned on the floor and in smaller groups, shifted towards a codified, streamlined formal class setting. No longer was the focus on mastery and development but instead the lowest common denominator and accessible fun.
A mentality of getting as many people into it developed. As much as it allowed the scene to grow, with so few able to understand the nuances of the dance, and so many taking it out of context, it slowly morphed into being a medium for participants to get whatever they wanted out of it. Moreover, a culture of status started to emerge.
Your closeness to Frankie mattered. Money and disposable income became bigger factors to see if you were “good” or not. Expectations of wearing vintage- and the status it gave you- were solidified. The dancing shifted away from doing it well, to doing it right. From a feeling to pattern recognition. Moment by moment, small, seemingly insignificant, shifts occurred to fit what the soon to be powerful members of the community were comfortable with. As these little things changed and more people felt (as beginners often do) that they were ready to teach, small scenes started popping up.
With the internet becoming more accessible, so did the ability to coordinate and shift the culture. Suddenly anyone with an internet connection could chime in on what they thought about the dance, the community, and culture. As the dance shifted towards low barrier to entry fun, and colleges got more involved, the attendees got younger and younger. Swing was a harmless thing for teens and young adults.
After the Gap commercial, both the Neo-swing community and the dancer community were suddenly overwhelmed with new people wanting to participate in swing. There was a growing interest over time which helped grow the Neo-swing community and its music came to the forefront. When 1998 rolled around the interest more officially became a fad. New people flooded into the dark lounges of the neo-swing community. They started offering dance classes and were more popular than the “stuffier” dancers’ community, particularly with the younger new people.
On the other hand, those who were more interested in the idea of family values, were underage, or generally conservative, shifted towards the dancers’ community. The communities that previously didn’t seem to cross over too much had “jitterbugs” clambering for any venue that would have them.
With a willingness to become active participants in both communities, they created demand. Some cross-pollination of these communities began in earnest, and a greater number of events and bands started up all over the country. In time these communities melded together. Between the media pushing its idea of swing to sell products, the Neo-swing community’s disregard for the dance or history, and the influx of new swing people going out and teaching others long before they were ready, the swing community became a melting pot of values and ideals. Most of which had little to do with the Black art form, they came out of.
Soon, swing was seen as not Black at all, but a white hobby. One with an embodiment of white ideals, values, and expectations. Although Black people have been speaking out about some aspects of this shift and their discomfort, they simply went unlistened to. Swing didn’t have a race, just as white people don’t. It was America’s dance.
If we don’t know history, we are doomed to repeat it or at least continue it. Moreover, I think it’s important to talk about why some of the issues that the current white swing community has and why. These issues don’t come from nothing. Both the Neo-swing and dancers of the 90s communities were built on nostalgia. Both projected a lacking understanding of history before the 1950s, and how this mattered to the dance. The two scenes were both idealising the past, for different reasons, along with their importance in the narrative.
Be that the Neo-swing community saying they were “reinventing” swing, or the dancers claiming to have “revived” it. These two communities were forced together even though there were plenty of conflicting ideas on what was important. On one hand, you have the neo-swing community; whose focus is on having fun, American exceptionalism, “innovation”, and generally a more adult and “degenerate” vibe. They cared about being cool, going against the grain, and saying “fuck the rules”. They celebrated conservatism, despite claiming it wasn’t about that. They were there to party.
On the other, you had the more serious conservative dancers. They wanted to learn and “save” this relic from the past. Study and knowledge were more of a focus; be that about the dance, music, or vintage. Dancing = status. Their community was more family-friendly oriented and so didn’t offer the same access to smoking and drinking as its more popular counterpart. As the influx of new people came in, there seemed to be more markers of status around clothes and who you knew and danced with, as people tried to distinguish the older dancers as having more value. They had a reverence for Frankie but picked and chose what they heard from him, often ignoring any other Black dancers’ more controversial statements.
Together you have a community that is rife with contradictions. Parts of the community felt the dance was mostly lifts and whatever was fun. While others felt it was study of the dance mechanics that mattered. The dancers claimed to be above things like drugs, alcohol, and sex while the neo-swing community actively celebrated those aspects of their community. The dancers wanted to go back in time, to preserve the dance and music exactly as it was. While the neo-swing community saw it as an opportunity to take what they wanted from the past and do what they wanted.
Status started to be able to be bought. Between the cost of instruction, workshops, events, and vintage clothing status was increasing in price. The status got people power. Otherwise, all one had to do to gain status was to start their own community or event. Throughout the 2000s- and through my learning in 2012 -there was a split in how the community was idealized and how much of it actually functioned like that idea. Which wasn’t much at all.
This self-blindness has allowed the scene to perpetuate several myths, legends, and false ideas. It’s set up to be difficult for anyone outwardly embracing the nonidealized parts of the community. Anyone that don’t fit the mould of the celebrated body/style, wants to talk about sex and power in the community, or isn’t financially well off, struggles to be heard. It has allowed people to project their own values onto the dance and the community. To the extent that I’ve literally been told that the dance is no longer Black, as white people have been doing it longer… As if they own it now.
It changed the dance and created gaps in how the dance functions in its codification. It has allowed for the dance and community to be shifted to white palates and interests. So much so that despite being from a very different culture, it is the inheritors of this legacy that feel uncomfortable and devalued. Had these communities stayed split, I can see a world where the neo-swing community had a moment and then stayed in dark clubs akin to people going to a disco night at the club. I can see the dancers’ community continuing down its path and becoming so codified, structured, and devoid of any non-Puritan ideals, that it ended up along the lines of West coast, square dances, or ballroom “hip hop”. But that’s not what happened.
So, here we are today, a little while after BLM resurged into white consciousness. The conversation and acknowledgement around race and culture have finally come to the forefront. White folks are starting to question what exactly is wrong with the scene today that it’s so alienating to Black people?
In the next part, I’ll be discussing bias and what goes unseen in the community. I’ll bring up some important points to address the question of, “Why don’t we have more Black Lindy (and honestly blues and fusion) dancers?” Did you miss the last part? Did you learn something new? Did I miss something? What are you excited to explore/learn/share with others?
Want to read the next part? Wait until next month!
Grey Armstrong is a writer and instructor of Black culture, history, and dance. His work focuses on unpacking unconscious bias, cross-cultural communication, in addition to culture formation. He also travels teaching African American vernacular dances and giving lectures on Black history and culture. He is the founder of the popular blog and website Obsidian Tea, which explores themes of the Black experience and culture, Anti-racism Praxis, developing cultural competency, and the evolving relationship between Black and white Americans in the United States from the Trans-Atlantic slave trade onwards. This style of work can be supported on his patreon.
A note: Throughout this piece I have been specific in shifting the default from “people” = white people, and Black Americans needing the distinct marker of “black people” by doing the opposite. This was on purpose. If it bothers you/or stands out you should look at why.