Swing Dancing vs. Lindy Hop: What’s the Difference?
Dancers who are in the the early stages of their educational journey most commonly ask, “what is the difference between Swing dancing and Lindy Hop?” And like many oral traditions, the answers are as much a mixture of factoids as they are mired in lore, often changing or being augmented by the storyteller. Responses will vary based on the storyteller’s age, as well as where and from whom they learned. This can lead to a great level of frustration and confusion for a student who is looking for a simple answer as opposed to a 30-minute lesson about history, etymology and Jazz music. Below I will try to offer a simplified answer that Evita and I tell students when we are asked about these terms. I will also provide some brief insights as to where the words come from and the opinions of those who have contributed to the discussion over time.
“Jazz dance is anything that is danced to jazz music, so long as the movement corresponds in style.” – Jack Cole,
The simplest way I have understood the use of the term “Swing” as it relates to dancing is that it is an umbrella term that refers to many of the dances done to Jazz music during the swing era of our musical history in America. Whew…what? Very basically, jazz as a musical style evolved in the early half of the twentieth century. Jazz reached its height in popularity between the 1920s and 1950s, and swing music refers to a type of Jazz music. During that period, dance styles and fads evolved to match the music, including, but not limited to: Charleston (both solo and partnered), Lindy Hop, Balboa, West Coast Swing, Collegiate Shag and Peabody. “Swing dancing” is essentially an umbrella term that refers to many of the dances being done to swing music. A similar example would be “Latin dance,” which refers to dances like Cha Cha, Bachata, Samba, Merengue and Salsa.
Therefore, Lindy Hop describes just one dance that existed during that period. Its origin story goes something like this: a dancer named “Shorty George” Snowden and his partner, Mattie Purnell, won a 1928 dance marathon contest at The Manhattan Casino in New York City. It was during this contest that they executed a break-away step, whereby Snowden sent his partner into the open position to improvise before bringing her back into closed position. This was revolutionary, as people hadn’t seen this in ballroom/partnered dancing, and they subsequently won the contest. When reporters asked him what dance he and his partner were doing, he replied with something like, “The Lindy” or “that’s just Lindy’s Hop.” Regardless of the actual quote, he was referencing Charles Lindbergh’s historic trans-Atlantic flight, where newspaper headlines read: “Lindbergh Hops Atlantic.” It’s difficult to know if all the details are true, but it does make for a compelling story. It also illustrates that like many oral traditions where the details change depending on who’s telling the story, truth is elusive and resides with those who live longest.
What’s in A Name?
Today, some instructors differentiate Lindy Hop from other other styles by stating that is has an 8-count basic, whereas East Coast Swing (or Jitterbug) comprises 6-count patterns. From my understanding, however, the dancers who created and cultivated Lindy Hop in Harlem ballrooms like The Savoy, The Alhambra, The Cotton Club and Small’s Paradise didn’t codify their dancing into patterns and counts. It wasn’t until the Swing revival of the 1980’s that modern dancers spurred Al Minns, Norma Miller, George Llyod and Frankie Manning to break their steps down into discernible patterns. In the early 20th century, Arthur Murray and other dance studio owners who were looking to capitalize on the popularity of social dance laid the groundwork for this paradigm of learning through counts and patterns. Murray was known for selling dance to the world by way of cut-outs of feet that one would place on the floor to indicate the steps to be taken. This approach certainly appealed to many people because it demystified something as nuanced as social jazz dance, where few rules exist with regard to the “right” way to execute the dance.
One thing I’ve learned in the last 17 years of doing this dance, is that everything must be taken with a grain of salt when someone talks about the way it was, how it was done and who did it. Ultimately, having a little bit of context for the most commonly used terms will help you understand what a teacher is talking about. I haven’t even mentioned vernacular jazz steps, line dances, animal dances and fad dances like Tack Annie, Shorty George, Black Bottom, the Shim Sham, Turkey Trot, Buzzard Lope, the Big Apple, the Madison and many more, because exploring how those dances fit into the bigger fabric of social dancing of this time period would fill several books worth of information alone. I will provide some resources below, should you be interested in learning more about the history of Swing dance, music and culture. But for the moment, I hope it’s clear(er) to see that labels, often in their attempt to easily describe a thing, actually cause more problems than they solve. If something clicked for you when you heard it described a certain way, please let us know in the comments section below.
Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake by Julie Malnig
Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance by Marshal and Jean Stearns
Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman
Let me fix that for you:
“[lindy hop’s] origin story goes something like this: a dancer named Mattie Purnell and her partner George Snowden, won a 1928 dance marathon contest at The Manhattan Casino in New York City. It was during this contest that they executed a break-away step, whereby Purnell moved out into the open position to improvise before coming back into closed position. This was revolutionary, as people hadn’t seen this in ballroom/partnered dancing, and they subsequently won the contest. When reporters asked her what dance she and her partner were doing, NOBODY KNOWS BECAUSE NO ONE SEEMS TO FUCKING REMEMBER THERE WAS AN ACTUAL HUMAN DANCING WITH GEORGE FUCKING SNOWDEN.
Dood, you need to get some feminism up ya.
Wow Sam, way to take an informative and well written piece about the origins of a 1920’s dance style and interject your needless and idiotic sjw wailing about feminism of all things lol. If you spout off the wall nonsense like that regularly, people probably find you as insufferable as your comment is stupid.
Hey, Sam, thanks. I get tired of being invisible. It’s the people who are always visible who think its not important… and its not.. to them. So great point, appreciated.
^ This is interesting, and I’d love to know more about this. Where’s the source?
Thank you. You really have a wonderful appreciation of the history of the dance. And I like that you point out that there are no “truths” and no one really knows…that’s history I guess and from one dancer to another I am grateful that you don’t try to over simplify this complex artform. Great article. Thank you.
Thank you for the very lovely compliment. History and truth often walk diverting paths and cross only when it’s convenient. 😛 That being said, we also understand that to know where you’re going you have to know where you came from. We are seeing more and more that students in class know fewer historical figures, places and events as it relates to Lindy, so we must share the stories that have been shared with us to keep this dance and culture’s history alive. Take care and thanks again.
East coast swing is a term that was adapted from Eastern Swing just as West coast was from Western Swing. Both terms where comes by Burbank CA dance instructor Laure Haile initially in the “Sophisticated Swing” syllabus she created for Arthur Murray studios in June of 1950. The terms where used to describe perceived regional differences in Lindy Hop. The term East coast want even commonly used until the mid-late 1970’s. All East Coast Swing syllabi teach Lindy 8 count timing and movements as well. The real issue is bad instructors in studios that spend 400% or more time on gentrified afro-Caribbean dances Mambo, Cha Cha, bolero, and rumba. Those heavily trained movements then bleed into their swing.
Thanks for this very informative post! I’m currently attending a swing dance class in a nearby dance studio, and since then, I’ve been really interested in learning more about this dance.
I like to think of swing similarly. It’s an umbrella term covering dances of the jazz era as well as their predecessors and derivatives. “Swing” has as much to do with the pendulum-like movement that most of those dances share in common (in one way or another) as it does with the music they are danced to. In essence, one informed the other, but the retention of that feel is possible to a wider set of music than the name implies. The Shorty George story isn’t likely gospel, but it’s certainly a nice story (and probably not that important to those just wanting to understand terminology.) Thanks for the write up. Well done!
Where can I get lessons?
There is a half truth in this article. I am a dancer that had the pleasure of dancing the the Broadway show “Black and Blue”. Frankie Manning, choreographed, “Wednesday Night Hop”. There are at least 24 dancers out there in the African Diaspora that learned and performed from him and his protège, Mickey Davidson. We are not invisible. Chester Whitmore, Choreographer, Musician, Dancer, Band Leader, was the legs for Norma Miller up until her death last year. Perhaps you should have said you don’t have the information about the truths of Lindy Hops origin. But, those that have worked with the Masters have stories to tell. Vernacular dance should no longer be critiqued from a white perspective. It’s disrespectful to our ancestors who left viable black scholarship to only buy a few. Sorry. Not sorry. Black scholarship is alive and kicking. Don’t sleep. We do have stories to tell.
I want to thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I have the upmost respect for, and have worked with and/or taken classes from Frankie, Norma, Chester and Mickey. I agree that their stories, along with countless others, need to be shared with the greater Lindy community so as to provide a more honest and contextual history of Vernacular movement.
My blog post on this subject was not intended as a comprehensive historical account, but rather a quick guide for students who often get confused by terminology. I realize that this may be near-sighted and perhaps dismissive. For that, I do apologize and will reexamine my words to perhaps guide readers in a different way. Again, I’m thankful that you were willing to engage, and I’m wondering if you would be willing to share your experiences as a dancer/cast member of “Black and Blue” and what it was like to work with the dancers mentioned above. I think readers would value immensely from hearing your story, and if you’re ok with it, perhaps I could touch base with you via email to discuss further?
That’s one way to take things out of context. The message here is just a snippet of the massive history of swing dance and other forms of dance that influenced it’s development. The authors are just trying to clarify where the modern understanding of the terms come from and there’s nothing inaccurate about it. It is about perception afterall, whether or not you agree entirely isn’t going to change how people know the subject. Maybe it’s not entirely inclusive of all details that could possibly surround the origin of swing dancing as a whole, but the point seems to simply be to clarify that lindy hop is just one of many types of swing dancing comprised of a ton of different dance movements spanning many decades. Maybe instead of spreading anger and distaste you could share some of your stories. I’d love to hear more about the history from someone who lived it than the things that piss them off. I hear the anger from everyone else and I started dancing to focus on things that are enjoyable.
Hi! That’s a nice and nuanced article that warns new students about readymade and simplified answers. The literature will be of great help of those looking to dig further. Good job!
I like your article, at times you need to step back and clarify what’s going on, especially with all these different dance styles. You also touched on the media. These are the people that publish their thoughts on things they know nothing about. Who knows what Snowden really said? We tend to believe what we read not hear. I used to run a Swing night at a club in NYC, and I knew Frankie, he had a storehouse of knowledge, but his philosophy was, get out on the dance floor and have a good time. That’s what it’s all about!
This is such a great informative article. As more as I research about Swing Dance fascinates me more. But it reminds me about the discussion of Hustle and Salsa origins, etc. Apparently this is another one of those “Unsolved Cases”. Ha! Thanks a lot for sharing your knowledge and bringing this topic to discussion..