Stating the problem: What the heck is 'swing dancing' anyway?

A favourite quotation of mine comes from the jazz critic, Garry Giddins who features in Ken Burns' 'Jazz' documentary series:

"[Jazz] is the ultimate in rugged individualism. It's going out there on that stage and saying, 'It doesn't matter how anybody else did it. This is the way that I'm going to do it.'"

And another, from the great Duke Ellington:

"Put it this way. Jazz is a good barometer of freedom... In its beginnings, the United States of America spawned certain ideals of freedom and independence through which, eventually, jazz was evolved, and the music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in the country."

The great irony of jazz is that its central tradition is innovation. The greatest jazz musicians and dancers, past and present, rose to fame not by doing what had been done before but by doing something new, their own way, stretching the frame provided by history. I'm not claiming that any old thing qualifies as jazz, provided it's different. I'm claiming that good jazz - both music and dance - is about putting a few new brushstrokes on the giant fresco, which has grown at the hands of many before you, rather than just going over the same old strokes again. I am no jazz connoisseur but I think there might be something in this idea as a guiding principle for getting to the heart of good jazz dancing. In my experience the most common definitions that people seem to have for 'swing dancing' are something like the following three:

1) History: 'Swing dancing' is an umbrella term for the various vernacular jazz dances of the original jazz era. The exact dates and dances included tend to be controversial but the general idea is understood. It follows that the highest goal of any modern would-be swing dancer should be to recreate the dancing that was done 'back in the day', tiny snippets of which can be watched in old videos.

2) Moves: This is an extension of 1). Swing dancing consists of a large list of predefined moves and routines, which have either been handed down from the original swing era or have been created since, 'in the spirit' of that era. According to this definition, a dancer's goal should be to learn and remember these patterns, as well as how to mix and connect them in ways which feel natural, look impressive and reflect whatever music is being danced to.

3) Rockstars: Good dancing is whatever is done by the people who win the most competitions and/or get the most teaching gigs. An aspiring dancer's goal should be to emulate the dancing done by those people.

Predictably perhaps, I think these definitions all miss the point because they focus on doing what someone else has already done; they forget the innovation. I think that all three of the above are kind of 'grades in swing school', phases that dancers progress through as they improve. But in order to graduate, a dancer has to move beyond these and find his/her own style.

But what does that mean?

Good dancers do what they do for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it's about fancy moves or aerials, which are athletically difficult. Sometimes it's about dancing to the level of a partner, deliberately going easy so that a dance can be fun for someone of a lower skill level. Sometimes it's about being silly and not taking things too seriously, or it could be about taking things very seriously and trying to win competitions. The list goes on. But in my experience there's one universal across all these situations: No matter what the circumstances or goals, good dancing will be improved if it's also musical.

So, what is musicality? It seems to be something that is generally understood - everyone knows musical dancing when they see it - but difficult to break down and explain. So then, if this blog is to focus on picking apart in a scientific way the fundamentals of jazz dancing, this seems like a good place to start...

Sharon  – (February 23, 2009 at 9:10 AM)  

"...they emphasise the importance of doing what someone else has already done; they forget the innovation."

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Drew you echo my sentiments exactly. I have observed (and found incredibly paradoxical) the tendency for many people in the scene to teach and/or perform swing dancing as a strictly defined form, where there is one correct way to execute a defined 'move', and where emulation of vintage clips (Hellzapoppin, anyone?)is held as the highest form of the medium.

There is a time and place for preservation, recreation and celebration of the historical form - it's great to keep the source alive - but the danger lies in assuming that is all there is. It would be insane to suggest that that best thing for the art world is for every new artist to only ever recreate the styles of Picasso and Monet, ad infinitum.

It's my understanding (and correct me if I'm wrong) that lindy hop was not codified until after the swing era. In other words, during the actual bona fide swing era (the one that purists are trying to accurately emulate) - the dance itself existed as improvisation around a basic understanding of lead/follow, and grew by innovation and individual example on the social dance floor. There were no group classes with a teacher saying "okay, today we'll learn the correct way to do a Texas Tommy - everbody step step triple step..."

My dance partner has noticed two broad kinds of follows (pun intended) in the social scene today. Some follows get excited when he 'mucks around' and tries random 'non-defined' moves to express musicality and a sense of improv and fun - these follows not only do their best at following his unexpected lead but also give something back of their own - they take the new direction and make it their own somehow, in turn giving him something new to jam from. It's a true non-physical conversation. Other follows seem a bit 'put out' if he leads something freeform, and will follow it to the best of their ability but the conversation ends there - they do not receive it, play with it, and give back. In fact, he's noted that some of them seem a bit pissed off about it all. He vastly prefers dancing with the former type of follow, and gets a great sense of satisfaction from the two-way flow of the dance.

Are the 'how dare you lead something non-defined' dancers really embracing the spirit of lindy hop? Is 'lindy hop' a defined set of movements or a sense of improvisation and invention within some loose base shapes, rhythms and lead/follow parameters? I suppose we can argue that one until the cows come home.

I also cringe when I hear of events where the music played is strictly limited to 'authentic' swing music only - i.e. original recordings from the 1930s and 40s only. While I love the original swing music I also think there is a place for lindy hopping to any post-1940s music that you feel like busting out to. The hepcats back in the day were dancing to the popular 'youth' music of their time - if we want to embody the real spirit of lindy hop I think we should be doing the same (as well as enjoying the old tracks).

I enjoyed your post immensely, and look forward to reading more.


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