Carl Van Vechten was a white writer and photographer who was passionate about Black culture during the Harlem Renaissance. He was keen to impress on the American public the complexity and richness of Black cultural life, comparing blues music to Beethoven, for example. Read this short piece he wrote for the Brooklyn Citizen in 1930 on the latest dance craze Lindy Hop.
“Lindy Hop Comes Into Its Own”
By Carl Van Vechten
Brooklyn Citizen 1930 [precise date unknown]
Every decade or so some Negro creates or discovers or stumbles upon a new dance step which so completely strikes the fancy of his race that it spreads like water poured on blotting paper. Such dances are usually performed at first inside and outside of lowly cabins, on levees, or, in the big cities, on street corners. Presently, quite automatically, they invade the more modest night clubs where they are observed with interest by visiting entertainers, who, sometimes with important modifications, carry them to a higher low world. This process may require a period of two years or longer for its development. At just about this point the director of a Broadway revue in rehearsal, a hoofer, or even a Negro who puts on “routines” in the big musical shows, deciding that the dance is ready for white consumption, introduces it, frequently with the announcement that he has invented it. Nearly all the dancing now to be seen in our musical shows is of Negro origin, but both critics and the public are so ignorant of this fact that they production of a new Negro revue is an excuse for the revival of the hoary old lament that it is a pity the Negro can’t create anything for himself, that he is obliged to imitate the white man’s revues. This, in brief, has been the history of the Cake-Walk, the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom. It will probably be the history of the Lindy Hop.
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The Lindy Hop made its first official appearance in Harlem at a Negro dance marathon staged at Manhattan Casino some time in 1928. Executed with brilliant virtuosity by a pair of competitors in this exhibition, it was considered at the time a little too difficult to stand much chance of achieving popular success. The dance grew rapidly in favour, however, until a year later it was possible to observe an entire ballroom filled with couples devoting themselves to its celebration.
The Lindy Hop consists in a certain dislocation of the rhythm of the fox-trot, followed by leaps and quivers, hops and jumps, eccentric flinging about of arms and legs, and contortions of the torso only fittingly to be described by the world epileptic.
After the fundamental steps of the dance have been published, the performers may consider themselves at liberty to improvise, embroidering the traditional measures with startling variations, as a coloratura singer of the early nineteen century would endow the score of a Bellini opera with roulades, runs and shakes.
To observe the Lindy Hop being performed at first induces gooseflesh, and second, intense excitement, akin to religious mania, for the dance is not of sexual derivation, not does it include its hierophants towards pleasures of the flesh. Rather it is the celebration of a right in which glorification of self plays the principal part, a kind of tersichorean megalomania. It is danced, to be sure, by couples, but the individuals who compose these couples barely touch each other during its performance, and each may dance alone, if he feels the urge. It is Dionysian, if you like, a dance to do honour to wine-drinking, but it is not erotic. Of all the dances yet originated by the American Negro, this the most nearly approaches the sensation of religious ecstacy. It could be danced, quite reasonably and without alteration of tempo, to many passages of the Sacre Printemps of Stravinsky, and the Lindy Hop would be as appropriate for the music, which depicts in tone the representation of certain pagan rites, as the music would be appropriate for the Lindy Hop.
There’s so much that’s notable about this short article even today. Van Vecthen describes what we call today “cultural appropriation” of Black art into mass American culture. He captures the improvisational nature of lindy hop, and that both partners have the freedom to dance as they wish. I have no idea whether or not you can dance lindy hop to Stravinsky, but we’d love to see someone try it! (I suppose if you can swing to the “Game of Thrones” theme song, it’s certainly possible.)
Carl Van Vechten was a fascinating and controversial figure himself. A closeted white gay man, he felt accepted and freer to be himself in Harlem. He was passionate about Black culture, creating integrated spaces in his home for artists, musicians, singers, and writers, like Bessie Smith and Langston Hughes.