The State of the Hop: Looking Back, Moving Forward, and Swinging Out
About 10 years ago it was rather fashionable to declare that Lindy Hop was dying or already dead. Again.
In the aftermath of the Neo-Swing boom of the late 90's, this was somewhat understandable since dance floors were not as packed as they were just a few years previous. However, a long time promoter astutely observed to me that the scene was merely returning back to the norm established in the mid-nineties. It’s been a decade since that conversation, and events in the scene have demonstrated how right he was , but also how Lindy Hop has evolved in ways that no one could have predicted at the time.
2014 will mark the 100th birthday of Frankie Manning, which will be commemorated in New York City at Frankie100. Depending on who you believe, the modern Lindy Hop revival started in earnest around 1984, so theoretically, 2014 will also mark the 30th anniversary of the modern Lindy Hop community.
While not as dramatic as 100, turning 30 is a fairly significant milestone in most people’s lives. It’s about that time when people start settling down and thinking in the long term, but in order to do that, you take stock of your current life situation.
People talk about different aspects of the scene or the dance, but I've found that they’re often they’re coming from a very limited perspectives, and ignoring how different facets of the community are interrelated. That’s an easy thing to do in our community because we’re mostly connected informally through events and social media. There’s no really reliable way to get a big picture view of the entire scene, but that’s what we're going to try to do here.
Is The Dance Evolving?
People will often ask why isn't Lindy Hop danced to modern popular music. My first instinctual response is to tell them that they’re not asking the right question. Let’s put aside the notion that if you want to partner dance to pop music using modern movements, then there are several scenes that already do that, so retreading their footsteps seems redundant.
Consider, however, that those dances developed over time as part of broader culture. This is what separates modern Lindy Hop from many other dances. The dance lay isolated for several decades before separate groups of people around the world specifically sought to do it again based on what they saw in old movie clips. The result is that rather than the dance growing as part of an overall culture, we have been building a culture around a preexisting dance.
Very astute observers will note that I just described “cultural appropriation.” They would not be wrong, but that’s not the whole story, nor is it the end of the story. However, there’s not really a good way to address that without going into a very lengthy tangent, and I’m not entirely certain that I would be the right person to lead that discussion anyway. Lindy Hop is a black dance rooted in the African American experience. Being mindful of that tradition while respecting it has been and will continue to be a challenge for this community.
That the modern scene has largely developed separately from this tradition connected only through a tenuous umbilical cord of a few original dancers does impact our current perspective. I had an interesting conversation with Sylvia Sykes recently where we talked briefly about the pre-neo swing era in Lindy Hop. Sylvia was one of the only modern Lindy Hoppers to learn directly from original era legend, Dean Collins in the 1980’s, and she was also one of the first people to travel extensively to teach Lindy Hop.
Washington, DC has one of the oldest Lindy scenes in the country, starting in the mid-1980’s. From what I can gather, it grew out of the contra and zydeco dance scenes. To put it colloquially, they were a bunch of fun-loving, older hippies. I always thought that was a unique circumstance to DC, but according to Sylvia, that pretty much characterized most of the other swing dance scenes around the country through the 90’s.
They didn't realize it at the time, but the neo-swing boom of the late 90’s essentially rebooted the scene. The large numbers of new people brought with them a variety of expectations and goals for their participation that didn't always align themselves with established dancers and promoters. The so-called “Style Wars” of the late 90’s-early 00’s was one manifestation of this.
If you watch Karen & Andrew’s homage to Lindy Hop in their 2010 routine, notice how the dance goes from the bad ass recreation of the Rhythm Hot Shots in 1994 to the beginner level dancing of the Gap Ad in 1998. This is obviously not the dance evolving, but merely reflecting the capabilities of the people who were popularizing it at the time.
This is what people talk about in their observations about general trends in dance styles: Everyone looks like Erik & Sylvia or Skye & Frida or Max & Annie. Dancers are too musical. They’re not musical enough. Not enough connection. Too much Charleston. Not enough soul. Etc.
It’s Not a Bug, It’s a Feature
One of the more recent iteration of this observation comes at the end of Ryan Francois’ TEDx Talk where he talks about the influence of the internet in flattening out the overall style of dancers.
On one level he does have a point in the sense that the overall stylistic differences are being minimized, but I don’t think it makes sense to lay this at the feet of the Internet. In laying out the differences between each city, he overlooks the other point that the majority of people danced the same within each city.
Pay attention to the girl all the way to the left. Not long after the video starts, she changes levels and gets down. It doesn’t take long before all the other girls are doing the same thing. Peter Loggins uploaded this video and there’s not much information about it, but I think it’s safe to say that it is very old.
Old time New York City Lindy Hoppers will tell you that you could tell what ballroom people danced in the most by their dance style. Later, DC Hand Dancers from the 50’s and 60’s could tell you what neighborhood you were from based on what moves you did. Why is that? The answer is that you pick up the foibles of the people that you socialize and dance with regularly. It’s the same reason why different parts of a country will use the same speech patterns and colloquialisms. It’s why your group of friends will often have inside jokes that only people in the group will get. This is how you can lead a Minnie Dip on almost any Lindy Hopper who has been dancing for a decent amount of time.
Technology isn’t the cause of stylistic similarity spreading across Lindy Hop scenes; it’s merely amplifying an existing social dynamic that has always been characteristic of cultures, subcultures, and—well—people.
Ultimately, trying to focus in on particular dance trait that a lot of people are supposedly sharing is too myopic. Instead, consider this:
If you looked onto a crowded dance floor 10 years ago, you would have noticed how everyone looked too much like one style like Hollywood, or Savoy, or Old School, or groovy. The music at dances both locally and at big events tended to be more modern jazz sounding and recorded. You could count the number of blues and balboa events combined, in the entire world, on the same hand.
10 years before that, it would have been easier to walk across the floor since it was much emptier. You could count the number of national/international level Lindy Hop events on your one hand. Balboa was often offered as a novelty class and blues dance was something you did at Herrang. The floor craft of those few couples would have been much worse since connection was such a foreign concept that even Herrang, the most established Lindy event at the time, was just embracing the social, improvised aspect of the dance.
And ten years before that? In 1984 we wouldn't be having this conversation because very few people knew what Lindy Hop was outside of the old timers and their friends in New York City and Southern California.
Look over this arc of recent history, and you’ll realize that a lot has happened in a short period of time. This is why it’s hard for me accept general criticism of overall dance trends as any kind of artistic tragedy.
This isn't a matter of seeing the glass as half full vs. half empty. The glass is full. In fact, it’s overflowing.
Take a look around you. Herrang has expanded to 5 weeks. ILHC is being broadcasted live over the internet. BluesShout just celebrated its 11th year. All Balboa Weekend, will celebrate its 14th. There are solo jazz weekends on at least three continents. In preparation for Frankie100 this year, you can now find someone to shim sham with on every inhabited continent on this Earth.
It’s hard to see how we could have gotten to this point without internet technology. Neo-swing may have re-ignited interest, but social media from Jive Junction’s first guest book to Kickstarter raising over $100,000 for a documentary about the dance continues to fan the flames of growth.
I do get to hear a lot of criticism about the kinds of web sites and posts about the dance current in the scene, which some people feel may not reflect the community in the best light. This is the curse and blessing of the kind of democratization that technology brings to the masses.
If it makes you feel better, it’s important to note that one of the points I in-artfully made in my paper about the development of the Lindy Hop scene was that sights and sounds always trump text in any discussion about dance. You can start something online, but our short history shows that it usually gets resolved on the floor. There’s a lot of criticism out there about the internet creating walls between people, but since social dance is something that can only be done physically, in person, the internet only serves to amplify existing ideas and relationships. Overall, this should be considered a good thing. Otherwise, our dance world would be much smaller, and not nearly as wide spread as it is currently.
Music Making & Hip Shaking
The most significant example of this dynamic is the way that live music was embraced by the community by the middle of the last decade. That collective decision has shaped the dance more than any comment thread or blog post. In turn, that music continues to shape the dance in more ways than one.
After near continuous complaining and discussion on various discussion boards about the type of music played at Lindy Hop events, Amy Johnson took the next major step in that discussion by making live music an integral part of the revolutionary Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown contests starting in 2002. Fortuitously, Showdown’s inclusion of live music coincided with the first wide spread use of dance videos on the Internet. More people had access, and, just as significantly, the lines between far-flung dance scenes began to erode almost instantly. This simple tweak to a dance contest, along with wide exposure, almost single-handedly brought live music to the forefront of the Lindy Hop world.
This new paradigm, of course, provided us all with something new to argue about. The common criticism of the music played for dances now is that it is too “charlestony.” You hear this particularly from dancers who have been around long enough to remember the New Testament Basie/Oscar Peterson-heavy sets of the early 2000s, and who miss what they perceive to be a vanished and more authentic aesthetic. This is an unavoidable consequence of embracing live music in the aftermath of the community’s struggle to figure out what the best music is for dancing. Jump blues derived from Neo-Swing is too simplistic and repetitive. Modern jazz has changed so much and is played in a way that many Lindy Hoppers find undanceable. Even when they are asked to play Swing era standards, many modern jazz musicians still play in a way that is not appealing for dancing.
I’ve interviewed a number of musicians as to why there is a reticence for musicians to play in a manner more directly inspired by that classic swing period. Some think that it’s because modern jazz technique is taught as a more current way of playing Swing music, and there is little incentive or appeal to playing rhythms and melodies in the way they were done in the 1930’s and 40’s. In reaction to that evolution, hotter forms of jazz from the 20’s and early 30’s were “preserved” more or less parallel to the rest of jazz. However, this still left the Swing Era style of playing and arranging music in limbo.
In rejecting modern jazz playing as fun for dancing, dancers simply turned to the only other available alternative of traditional jazz. This has caused some observers to despair that more vertical based Charleston style dancing is displacing what is considered classic Lindy Hop.
While people may disagree as to the degree of how the dance has changed, I don’t believe that there is a reason to believe that this will be a permanent change. One thing that people are overlooking is how dancers are affecting how musicians approach dance music. The first step was addressing more obvious ways of playing in regards to tempos and length of songs. The continued interaction with dancers, however, is bringing a more nuanced understanding of classic Swing Era jazz to musicians. Then there is the almost too-strange-to-be-true phenomenon of Lindy Hoppers maturing their own musical skills to start bands that are a mix of other dancers and musicians who are also attracted to that style of playing.
As the music continues to change, so will the dancing. Social dancing has always adjusted to the music. After the so called “style wars” that characterized discussions about dance soon after the neo-swing boom, fans of dancing to slower, groovier music temporarily found a home in the blues scene, but the dynamics over there have followed the same course. In order to prove that blues dance is a separate, distinct entity, they have emphasized playing more authentic blues music rather than just slow music of any genre. Contests and performances to that music have introduced a new status quo of dance into that scene.
This is also why I believe that Balboa will not achieve the same level of independence as the blues scene does from Lindy Hop. Despite some people’s insistence, “balboa music” does not exist as a genre of music to anyone of consequence, especially musicians. Balboa’s recent appeal seems to come from its portrayal as the “geekiest” of the swing dances. In order to counter the perception that it is an easy dance where not much happens, dancers are told of the amount of technical subtleties needed to truly master the dance. This has inadvertently created a perception of a high bar for competency for a dance that does not have the visual appeal of Lindy Hop. Because of this and the fact that balboa is still danced to the same music as the Lindy, the two dances and communities will probably remain tethered together for the foreseeable future.
Overall, live music brought a level of energy that helped to popularize faster dancing, but that has had an unintended consequence. Faster music requires certain amount of athleticism, which has helped to attract younger dancers. This especially pronounced at many larger events.
This is quite an development when you think about the fact that Lindy Hop first developed around the mid 1920’s and then fell out of the public consciousness around the mid 1950’s; around the time when Frankie Manning “retired” to become a postal worker and the Savoy Ballroom closed. The modern revival has lasted about the same amount of time, yet the demographics, or at least in the travelling community, still skew relatively young.
15 years of perspective since the neo-swing revival make it easy to see why the Swing Era ended. The people who grew up swing dancing in the 30’s and 40’s went to war, and then came home to start families. The dynamics are slightly different now, but dancing all night long, all weekend long does not fit into the lifestyle of most people as they get older, so it’s easier to understand the drop off after the initial lindy addiction subsides. We’ve generally done a good job of attracting new dancers. However, consider that younger dancers tend to not have very much money. That impacts how much promoters can charge for their events. That in turn dictates how much they can spend on venues, instructors, musicians, and any other sundry extras that can make their event more appealing than the other half dozen swing or blues events occurring almost every weekend around the world.
From the time the dance was named after Charles Lindberg to the year that the Savoy Ballroom closed spans about 30 years. In that time Lindy Hop came into its own, grew into a dance that helped define a generation, and then faded away. In the intervening 26 years, the dance became a part of history, and not even the few faithful practitioners ever expected any kind of resurgence. Yet here we are, around 30 years into the modern revival. It is now possible to go a Lindy event on almost any continent and dance with a crowd whose average age is probably around 30.
Lindy Hop is in uncharted territory now because the dancers of the original generation didn't concern themselves with issues like bringing in newbies or retaining students. They didn't worry so much about how the change in music would affect the dance because they grew with that change and either changed their dancing or stopped dancing altogether.
The main difference between now and then is that people have worked very hard to deliberately establish institutions designed to sustain interest in the dance. Herrang Dance Camp just celebrated 30 years of existence. The International Lindy Hop Championships just six, but is broadcasted live over the internet with the help of Yehoodi.com. And it’s not just big events: Rochester just hosted Steven Mitchell and Virginie Jensen for the 16th year in a row which is longer than what most people consider to be the "Swing Era."
The essential irony here is that the events themselves—rather than the internet—are responsible for the marked similarity in dance style both nationally and internationally. Recall that the rise of YouTube and of major events was nearly simultaneous. In terms of dancing, the two things fed one another, but an emphasis on the internet has led critics to ignore the leveling effects of a dance culture that embraces frequent travelling for weekends.
Additionally, while serious students of the dance will often point to vintage films for examples of how dancers looked differently from each other, they forget that their sample size is both absurdly small and absurdly talented. Most of those performances are by some of the best dancers of that generation. The members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers had near daily access to practice in the Savoy Ballroom where Chick Webb and some of the greatest musicians of that era rehearsed. While these people are great inspirations, they are not practical examples to follow, nor are they indicative of what it would have been like to be a normal dancer during the swing era.
But even if we do not limit our discussion to those great dancers of New York City and Southern California, remember that those old timers also reminisce about how you could tell what ballroom or even what neighborhood a dancer was from. That was not because they valued individuality any more or less than we do today. Most of those people simply did not have the means to travel as extensively as people do today.
What is interesting to note is how many of the best dancers of this generation came out of scenes that were well established by the time of the Neo-Swing boom. The New York Swing Dance Society, Swedish Swing Society, London Swing Dance Society, Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association, Ithaca Swing Dance Network, Northern California Lindy Society, Washington Swing Dance Committee were all hosting regular dances and workshops that allowed people to concentrate on dancing and socializing. Dancers from smaller scenes will attest that running a local scene and getting better at dance are not always compatible goals.
Furthermore, these same great dancers have logged what can only be considered an astonishing number of hours on the dance floor. They've long since passed through the phase of copying old masters and moved on to leaving their own mark on the dance. This takes time, which is why it’s in many ways quite silly to lament the lack of a varied styles. Most of us simply do not have the time—or, honestly, the talent—to be marvels of creativity and inspiration. That's not to say we should not aspire to those heights, we just need to be mindful of certain realities.
In this small attempt to assess the state of the Lindy Hop scene, I've tried to tackle the two most common complaints about the modern situation (music and style) while placing it all in a context that complicates rather than streamlines the simple explanations put forward. At the beginning of this piece, I suggested that Lindy Hop is bursting at the seams with new dancers, events, and ideas, but this is not to say that there aren't problems in the scene, or, to put it in a more complex way: risks.
We have an abundance of events, and this has created a professional and incredibly talented class of dancers who travel from weekend to weekend spreading the love. The explosion of competitions, however, has created a strange new dynamic in the scene not present 10 years ago. It’s now possible to be a regular dancer without ever truly engaging with one’s local dance scene. Those with the passion and the funds often spend their time and money travelling, and, while this is in many ways a good thing, it can make us forgetful of the hometown Lindy scenes all across the country that provide the mass of dancers who populate the larger events.
Events are wonderful, but they can’t alone sustain a culture of jazz music and dance. If every good dancer or instructor dreams of taking the show on the road, we end up with local scenes and venues without experienced dancers and personalities to lead them. By the same token, and I think we’re seeing this now, we end up with an instructor bubble at the higher level.
This is where focusing on sustainable teachers and venues at the local level becomes crucial, because this is where we can really develop the jaw dropping talents who can wow us all 10 years from now. Imagine if a 14-year-old Nina Gilkenson had never had the chance to develop her chops in a local dance scene. Rather than spend her time dealing with the administrative realities of running a dance, it's more than likely that she would have found some other creative endeavour to satisfy her creative urges.
Aside from local scenes, the professionalization of the dance has created a very appealing and seductive ladder for the creatively ambitious to climb. This is part of community, and a motivation to climb has produced some excellent dancers and teachers. Unfortunately and perhaps inevitably, ladders create idols, sacred cows, and Buddhas on the mountaintop. A truly vibrant scene requires people with different kinds of vision, and I would venture to say that we are too often looking up. The greater the distance between the average dancer and the people on or aspiring to the top, the less true connection occurs, and the less useful information gets passed along.
Let me reiterate that these problems are for the most part inevitably tied to a scenario of growth and development. The Lindy Hop scene is sinking down roots; it is blossoming rather than decaying. Ultimately, how the dance develops and evolves it's not about doing your triple steps differently. It’s about how to integrate Korean culture and mores with Lithuanian ones with the African American core of the dance. It’s about how we accept gay and lesbian dancers or those who don’t want to be limited by traditional gender partner dance roles. It's about acknowledging those people in the back of the ballroom practicing the pretzel. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for a more nuanced view going forward.
First, we need to recognize that the laments over homogeneous style are slightly misguided and certainly historically misinformed. Creativity, uniqueness, and excellence are by definition rare. They take time and dedication to develop. Beyond this, people dance for a host of different reasons; we would do well to recognize that the average social dancer pays the bills and that they deserve room in the Lindy scene as much as any of the hot dogs.
Second, live music in the modern scene is a relatively new, and still growing phenomenon. We have certainly not seen the end of its development, and while we can work to steer its direction, it is premature to mourn. Things are happening, and they will be interesting and complex. Once in a while we should step back and appreciate that our scene has overwhelmingly embraced live, messy jazz. It’s incredible. 10 years ago, no one could have predicted it.
Third, going forward we need to take advantage of the opportunities we have to nurture and support local dancing. Despite the proliferation of events, this is where the vast majority of Lindy Hop in the world happens. We've developed a massive superstructure for dancers to travel and learn from the best. It’s time for us to turn some of our attention back home, and build new dancers rooted to a town, a venue, a place. Some of them will become great, and some of them will be truly mediocre. All of them are worthwhile.
Finally, as Lindy Hop grows and takes us to strange and unpredictable places, we should remember that nothing is more powerful than the individual attention that experienced dancers can provide to those just starting out. This goes beyond the handing down of technical skills and includes the preservation of certain values that make Lindy Hop what it is: we do this for fun, we take care of each other, and, whenever possible, we eliminate rather than cultivate the class distinctions that petrify scenes. From Skye and Frida on down, we can spare a minute here and there to connect with people who have just discovered what we have known for years: Our dance, our music, and our scene are unbelievably awesome.
This essay is dedicated to my mother.
I would also like to thank Michael Seguin for stepping up in helping me finish this essay when my life got crazy by first consulting, then editing, and finally co-writing the conclusion. Michael is the co-proprietor and head insaninator of The Mobtown Ballroom in Baltimore, Maryland.
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