Traditional closed couple dancing began in the United States after 1860, when young people moved from the rural environments to cities looking for employment. Alone for the first time, many young adults sought public meeting and dancing places. Because the newer dances, the waltz (Vienna) and polka (Czech), allowed closer-than-usual spacing between partners, large segments of the public condemned this behavior.
Closed couple dancing became acceptable after 1912 when the dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle began performing the waltz, the one-step, the tango (Spain), and other dances. Among the Castles many pupils was a young entrepreneur named Author Murray. In 1920, Murray marketed dance lesson through the mail making them affordable and standardizing dance steps.
Another major influence to social dance was a new style of music (ragtime), emphasizing syncopation in melody line. Still almost classical in comparison to jazz from the 30's, ragtime was called such because the musician would literally "rag" the tune, that is, play the bass line on the upbeat as opposed to downbeat. This gave a lively back and forth sound.
The early jazz sounds originated as a result of Irish and African-American music forms, much of which originated from the Louisiana bayous and New Orleans. One great musician who got his start here was Louis Armstrong. Starting off playing in floating hotels and casinos, Armstrong quickly became embraced by white culture (many would say sold out) and sold many records. Harry Fox fashioned a dance called the fox trot in 1912, which lead to the development of the Charleston in the Roaring 1920's, popular with flappers to the ragtime tunes of the day.
The music evolved into jazz during the 1930's. Swing, as it became known, was the commercialized and watered down version of jazz. A split formed at this point, with some musicians angered that the uniquely black music form had been taken over and commercialized by whites. Others were disappointed at the lack of improvisation in swing; one of the fundamentals of jazz is it's lack of written and set notation, which was a stylistic and practical impossibility for large touring swing bands.
The assimilation of swing and jazz into mainstream American culture attracted big bands, large dance halls, and acrobatic dancers called jitterbuggers, lindy-hoppers (named after pilot Charles Lindberg and his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic), and swingers. This style of dancing was largely pioneered in black Harlem--the original master of Lindy was Frankie Manning along with his touring troupe, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. These and other touring groups made the dance popular, along with the spread of the commercial home radio set and live broadcasts of big band concerts.
By the late 1930's and into WWII, swing had reached it's zenith in the United States. Although swing and jazz would continue beyond WWII, jazz would evolve in the 50's into "cool jazz", popular with Beatniks and spoken word poetry, and swing in general toned down to the crooning of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Lindy and swing dancing was still prevalent, as seen in many WWII movies, although the dancing didn't have quite the same flavor as it did in the 30's--now it was much more common and well known and jitterbugging to classics as well as the new "Rock and Roll" was the mainstay, as opposed to the acrobatics of Lindy. Even this slowly declined as Motown and slower tempos became popular in the 1950's. Never again would America see the dance halls packed with Lindy Hoppers, big bands belting out tunes with a feverish beat. Until now, that is.
Swing dancing nevertheless continued to evolve, but took on unique styles of each geographic areas. The diversity in the evolution of swing dancing is reflected in its names: Jive, Jitterbug , Lindy, Push, Whip, Shag, East coast swing, West coast swing , Imperial, Jamaican, Bop, etc. The music for swing dancing is as diverse as the dance styles. The Shag dancers dance to "Beach" music, the Boppers dance to rhythm and blues, push dancers like blues and classic disco music, and lindy dancers like faster big band swing music.
The current swing revival has it's roots in the late 80's, when many of the baby boomers heard about Lindy from the older generation. Fed up with disco and 80's music, many individuals founded swing societies to hold dances and gain support for a form of dancing that never really died. International groups from England, such as the Jivin' Lindy Hoppers, and Sweden, created more interest with their tours and public displays. As more and more people became interested in the dancing, the media caught on to the trend in the late nineties, as evidenced by modern swing bands rocket to fame, neo-swing filling the airwaves on previously "cutting edge" rock stations, and advertising with swing in it, most notably, Gap's Khakis ad.
Where will this current revival take us? That's up to you friend!! If you're interested in a dance form that is both challenging and rewarding, modern yet timeless and makes you look good with the ladies, then swing will never die out, even if the media decides to drop the acts that currently champion swing music and dancing.
As swing music and culture evolved, so did the different styles of dancing, usually around geographic areas. The most popular type of swing today is East Coast Swing, which is a term that usually connotes similar styles such as Jitterbug and Lindy Hop. However, there are many other types of dancing, a few of the more popular ones are explained here.
Originated in black Harlem in the 1930's and 40's. It's characterized by fast tempos, a good deal of kicks and turns, aerials, and an 8 count basic. Lindy has a feel of excited and brassy jazz to it, which comes across in the dancing. The most common basic is the Lindy Turn, where partners are in a circle and break away then come back together again. This break is central to Lindy as a place where dancers can improvise and show off their own footwork. Lindy evolved from the Charleston of the 1920's, and much of the Lindy Hop directly incorporates variation of the 8 count Charleston kick pattern. It is not confined to this 8 count pattern, however, the leader can freely interchange 6 count steps and turns and then shift back into Charleston or 8 count Lindy. The exact origin of the name Lindy Hop is unknown, although many credit Shorty George Snowden to dubbing it, after Charles Lindbergh's historic trans-Atlantic flight. It is danced to fast paced music, traditionally big band swing tunes, although it can be danced to fast blues (jump blues) and some rock and roll.
This was originally done by whites in the 30s/40s imitating blacks doing Lindy Hop. Popular music was speeding up, and the triple-step became a single step. The main difference is that it's based around a 6 count basic as opposed to an 8 count one. Its name hails from the rapid and excited look of the people that dance it. Usually this is what the beginning swinger learns first.
Originated in the southeastern U.S. in beach areas, most notably Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It's a 6-count dance, with mostly footwork and a few simple turns. Traditionally the man showing off and the woman doing basics. It's very laid back, 120 bpm shuffle music (beach music). Traditionally the music was rhythm and blues, mostly from the 1950's. There is very little motion in the upper body. Most of the motion is in the footwork, which can get pretty fancy! Its style developed from being danced in crowded tiny dance floors commonly found in bars. It was created to be easy to do on the beach with a beer in one hand and a lady in the other. The Carolina shag basic is 6 counts like Jitterbug or ECS, but rather than go left and right on the step-step, the partners go forward and back with respect to one another.
A smooth style that developed from Lindy Hop to slower tempos. It's been described as "the Cadillac of swing" by Robert Bryant. Dean Collins was a leading figure in establishing the west coast swing. It was in the 1940' s that Dean Collins and several others were the West Coast version of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers (the best of the touring and performance Lindy troupes out of 40's Harlem). It was first called western swing and then came to be called west coast swing to differentiate it from country-western swing dancing. It is danced more upright to slower music, allowing time for interesting footwork variations called "syncopations." West coast swing is a "slot" dance, which means that the woman travels forward and back along a single straight line on the floor, with the man moving off of and onto her line. Although there are turning figures, they still keep the woman on her line. The music varies, some people like rhythm and blues, some like contemporary rock, some like oldies from the 40's, 50's and 60's.
There are lots of style out there now, and many places to get specific swing shoes on the web. Other options include saddle shoes, or ballroom dancing shoes. With any shoe you might be dancing in however, look for a leather sole and a rubber heel. This will allow your feet to move without killing your legs, or your knees.
Keep your legs loose, straight legs are perfect. Avoid wearing huge gaudy belts, they can get in the way. Suspenders are great, the best kind are button-on style fasteners, they buckle in the pants and are less likely to come undone.
Traditionally a sharp dress shirt, vest and tie are where it's at. Keep in mind that if you're wearing a blazer you're going to get pretty warm pretty fast. Keep things light, if you're thinking style find a good textured cotton.
Most people have the fedora image in their head at the mention of the 1940's. It's a good image to keep in mind, if you can afford one. Mainly a matter of preference really, some dancers swear by them, some find it annoying picking them up after a big jump or fast turn.