Lindy Hop is a Black American dance that originated in Harlem, New York City, in the late 1920s.
Lindy Hop was danced mainly in large ballrooms, such as the Savoy Ballroom in NYC, and evolved alongside the popular music of the day, played by Black Big Bands. The dance developed from a combination of earlier dances such as the Charleston, Breakaway, Texas Tommy, and Cakewalk. All of these dances were danced to early Jazz music form artists such as Sidney Bechet, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and James P. Johnson.
Each one of these dances has deep roots in West African dance, music and culture and therefore share the common Black American social dance values, such as individuality, spontaneity, rhythm, and improvisation. One of the groups that had a deep impact on the movement and music of jazz were the Gullah/Geechie, culminating, for example, in the creation of the Charleston step.
Lindy Hop appeared during a period known as Harlem Renaissance, which is considered the Golden Age of African American culture in music, stage performance, literature and art.
One of the biggest names of that period was dancer and singer Josephine Baker, who symbolized the beauty and vitality of Black American culture. She started her career in the Vaudeville circuit as a member of a Chorus Line, and later moved to France, where she was offered more career opportunities than in the segregated United States. The truth is that even though Black artists were the creators of Jazz music and dance, white artists were given more opportunities and made more profit off of these artforms. This is something that continues to happen today with different types of Black Art.
The first generation of Lindy Hoppers consisted of dancers such as “Shorty” George Snowden and Big Bea, as well as Leroy Stretch Jones and Little Bea. They would mix steps from Charleston and Breakaway, which, as the music changed, slowly developed into a new dance. This new style eventually became what we know as Lindy Hop. “Shorty” George is often given credit for naming the dance “Lindy Hop”, which was a reference to the transatlantic flight made by Charles Lindberg in 1927.
Here is an early clip that shows the evolution of Lindy Hop featuring “Shorty” George Snowden and Mattie Purnell, the third couple.
Entering the 1930s, the next big generation of dancers were known as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. They were fast, furious, young, and full of energy.
The group was put together by manager Herbert "Whitey" White, who was a bouncer at the Savoy Ballroom. Whitey not only organized these exceptional dancers, booked them to perform across the United States and abroad, as well as prepared them for competitions, such as the famous Harvest Moon Ball at Madison Square Garden. Their most notable appearances in Hollywood movies can be found in Day At The Races, Keep Punchin’, and the iconic Hellzapoppin’ - which is the unequivocally the most impressive Lindy Hop clip of all time.
Some of their most prominent members were Ann Johnson, Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Leon James, Norma Miller, Willa Mae Ricker, Billy Ricker, and Sandra Gibson. Frankie was the main leader and choreographer of the group, being responsible for important routines such as the Big Apple, the California Routine, and outlining the Hellzapoppin’ choreography.
After World War II and into the 1950s, the popular music styles shifted to Rock’n’Roll and Bebop, which meant that Lindy Hop was no longer the “hot dance” trend it once was. But just because the trends had moved on, that doesn’t mean that the dance ceased to exist - although many white people have propagated that myth for the last few decades. The truth is that is ceased to exist in white circles, whereas it kept being developed in the Black Community. Many of the prolific choreographers continued to compete, choreograph, and perform across the United States and Europe. People like Cholly Atkins, Norma Miller, Mama Lu Parks, and Pepsi Bethel are a few great examples of dancers who continued to create during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of new interest in Lindy Hop emerged, pushed by the Neo-Swing movement and even some TV-commercials, which led to young dancers reaching out to the old timers and inviting them to teach. Al Minns was one of the firsts to be contacted, in part because of his role in the research of Jean and Marshall Stearns’s influential book Jazz Dance. Shortly after Minns’ death in 1985, Frankie Manning and Norma Miller were a few of the remaining Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers still alive. Subsequently, they were some of the most influential performers and instructors during the 1990s and 2000s.
Today Lindy Hop is danced in every continent by people from different cultures and backgrounds, and you even get to practice and connect to other dancers through online events and platforms, such as iLindy. Learning about the Black American history, culture and values that have created this artform is an important part of our growth as dancers and members of the community. We highly encourage you to educate yourself and learn about them, which is why iLindy offers an growing library of resources for free.
Want to dig even deeper into the history of Lindy Hop?
How Lindy Hop Started: A Quick Overview
Then we highly recommend that you read the special history article written by Grey Armstrong