April 30, 2004

Freeswing I

The People’s Movement: A Brief History of Lindy Hop as an Afro-American Dance of Resistance and Liberation

Lindy hop is an American vernacular dance, a jazz dance credited to the dancers of the Savoy Ballroom in the 1930s. Yet it has its roots in Africa, in the many cultures and traditions of the people taken in slavery to America. The Afro-American slaves blended the ancient traditions of their ancestors’ homelands with their day-to-day experiences as slaves and pioneers. And they were pioneers, as much as the whites - they worked the crops that founded the communities of the Americas, raising children and living their day to day lives in a land that was as foreign to their forebears as it was to the Europeans.

The traditions of worship through dance and song were taken into the churches of the new-made Christian congregations. The Ring Shouts of the 1800s, so shocking to white observers, with their emphasis on charismatic, sensual dance and performance, are echoed in the Big Apples and Jams of the current day. The ‘derision dances’ of Africa, where dancers mocked their enemies and rivals through imitating and exaggerating their movements, were remade in dances such as the Cake Walk of the plantation slaves. The Cake Walk was a competitive imitation of white owners: an exaggerated parody of genteel, European manners and posture. The derision dance - in much the same tradition as jokes and comedic theatre - were a space of resistance for the oppressed.

In the early 20th century, emigrating Afro-Americans, pushed north by the failing crops and increasing lynchings of the south, came to New York, drawn by WWI promises of work in the cities. New York greeted thousands of new residents with some trepidation, but the dances and music of the travellers, already made famous in the travelling minstrel shows, the vaudeville of the previous - 19th century - were welcomed with open arms. The shift from travelling show to the theatre stage was facilitated by white society’s passion for Afro-American dances. In 1913, the Lafayette Theatre produced the show Darktown Follies from which dancers such as Josephine Baker made their way to international fame. These dancers and shows brought the dances of the Afro-American community to the white public.

The Stroll, the Blackbottom, the Cake Walk, Ball the Jack, the Texas Tommy, the Charleston, the Jitterbug, Shag, Suxi-Q, Camel Walk, Truckin’ and so on, through to the lindy hop. All were originally social dances of the dance halls, ballrooms and jook houses of the Afro-American community, brought with the emigrants, or developed on the dance floors of the Savoy, the Rennaisance, the Alhambra - the ballrooms of New York. Many of these dances were brought to wider audiences Afro-American performers on the stages of clubs such as the Cotton Club.

On March 12th, 1926, the Savoy opened for business. The Savoy is credited as the birthplace for many American dance crazes, one of which was the lindy hop. Lindy hop, developed in dance halls, to live bands, was primarily a social dance, influenced - and influencing - the live bands of the day to which it was performed. Shorty George Snowden, hired by the Savoy’s manager Charles Buchanan to ‘perform’ for his clientele, is credited as one of the progenitors of lindy. The Savoy was important not only as a social dance space, but also as a space for couple to practice their dancing during the day. The lindy hop revolutionised American dance, in part because of its use of the ‘breakaway’, where partners moved out of the closed position, to allow for individual improvisation. With the Charleston as a key influence, lindy is characterised by it’s ‘swing’ - its syncopated two step, with the accent on the offbeat. Lindy dancers were described by observers of the time as bodies in motion: their feet appeared to fly, while their bodies seemed, in contrast, suspended in a calm stillness. Lindy’s horizontal smoothness is a characteristic feature of the dance. This is often described today as bouncing down, into the ground, rather than bouncing, up in time to the music.

Frankie Manning and his partner Frieda Washington were dancers and choreographers with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a group of dancers organized by the Savoy’s floor manager Herbert White. Manning and Washington performed the first air step, or arials in a competition between this group and Shorty Snowden’s Lindy Hoppers. From this point, the air steps (look here to find footage of Manning and Will Mae Ricker performing the 'over the back' air step) became a characteristic feature of lindy hop, perfected by Manning and Washington. Lindy Hop soared in popularity, with the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (with Manning as a key choreographer) touring with the big swing bands, including those of Duke Ellington and count Basie. The dance teams travelled as far afield as New Zealand, Europe, Australia and South America, appearing in numerous films and winning many dance competition titles. The group was disbanded after Manning and other dancers were drafted in WWII. While Manning and other members of the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers continued to perform as The Congaroo Dancers after the war, the decline of swing in the face of bebop and other new music led to their eventual disbanding in 1954.

To be Afro-American in the early 20th century - indeed, until much later in the century (and even, it can be argued, in the current day) - was to experience racial segregation, discrimination and oppression. Lindy hop, as an Afro-American vernacular dance, was developed in the social spaces of the Harlem community. Harlem - crowded, mistrusted by the white establishment as a hotbed of licentious, illicit and illegal behaviour - was at times a difficult place to live. The dances of this time and place - as with American vernacular dance throughout history - was not only a response to these experiences, but an expression of individual and community day-to-day living.

"Archives of Early Lindy Hop." Savoy Style. Savoy Style. United States. April 2004.

Malone, Jaqui. Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

Posted by Dogpossum on April 30, 2004 07:00 PM