Lindy Hop: Its Origins, Innovators, and Legacy

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Introduction

The history of Lindy Hop is incredibly complex, nuanced, and not without controversy. This page is an attempt to share information and resources on the history of this artform. It is by no means exhaustive, but it at the very a least a good starting point for anyone seeking to dive into the roots of this fantastic dance.

A History of Lindy Hop

The Roots

Lindy Hop was danced predominantly by Black dancers starting in the 1920s. Many of them lived in Harlem, where there were dance clubs such as the Savoy and Alhambra ballrooms.

Lindy Hop emerged as a defiant, joyous response to financial hardship caused by the Great Depression, harsh living conditions, and systemic racism.

The dance evolved out of several forms of social dance that preceded it, such as the Cakewalk, the Breakaway, and partnered Charleston. A uniquely American dance, Lindy Hop brought together the African traditions of social and circle dance and European partnered ballroom dancing.

A Lindy Hop Timeline

  • ???- 1920s - Precursors: DNA of many different forms of black dance appear in Lindy Hop. This includes forms of vernacular jazz dance, including tap, partnered Charleston, the cakewalk, and the Texas Tommy (a dance that originated in San Francisco!).

  • Mid-1920s - Lindy Hop and the “naming” of the dance: By the mid 1920s, the dance needed a name. A well-known myth states that “Shorty” George Snowden named the dance after seeing a headline about Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight that said “Lindy Hops the Atlantic,” but as the “hop” was already a term used to describe the dance, this is unlikely to be true.

  • 1929 - Lindy Hop appears on film: The breakaway, a close precursor to Lindy Hop, can be seen in footage from the film After Seben (1929). The dance, at this point, resembles a sort of Lindy Hop/Charleston hybrid.

  • 1930s - The Savoy Ballroom: The Savoy Ballroom is where up and coming dancers, like Frankie Manning, Al Minns, and Norma Miller would dance to live swing bands with leaders like Chick Webb and Count Basie.

  • 1930s-1940s - Lindy Hop in Hollywood: Dean Collins made a name for LA-style Lindy Hop, while Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a troupe formed at the Savoy, performed in films like A Day at the Races (1937) and Hellzapoppin (1941). The dancers were often filmed apart from the rest of the film, in the event that Southern audiences ask that scenes with the black dancers be cut.

  • 1940s and onward - Mainstream success and offshoots: While WWII took famous Lindy Hoppers and musicians to war, white dancers like Arthur Murray developed simplified versions, like the Jive and what we know as East Coast Swing. Meanwhile, black musicians moved jazz to bebop, and the dance evolved with it.

  • 1980s to today - Resurgence: A group of curious dancers see Lindy Hop on film, find the folks that used to do it, and humbly ask folks like Frankie Manning and Al Minns to show them how it’s done. International dance scenes and communities form. Meanwhile, black social dancers continue with Hip Hop, House dance, line dance, and other forms of social dance.

The Savoy

The Savoy Ballroom was Lindy Hop’s most famous home. Bands headed by Chick Webb, who was the resident band leader, as well as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman performed there.

World-class dancers like “Shorty” George Snowden, “Big Bea,” and second-generation dancers such as Frankie Manning and Norma Miller would throw down at the Savoy till the early morning hours.

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were also formed at the Savoy, when Savoy bouncer Herbert “Whitey” White brought some of the best dancers together and became their de facto agent. These dancers went on to be ambassadors of the dance on film, stage, and through worldwide tours.

Lindy Hop Today

A group of dancers see Lindy Hop on film, find the folks — including Frankie Manning and Al Minns— who pioneered it, and invited them to show the new generation how it’s done. International dance scenes form. Meanwhile, Black dancers develop new forms of social dance, such as Hip Hop, House, and Hand Dancing.

The Lindy Hop we dance today is very different from the Lindy Hop of the 1930s. It’s influenced by the original dancers, the dances that sprung up around and after it — Carolina Shag, West Coast Swing, Boogie Woogie, East Coast Swing, St. Louis Shag, Balboa and more — and by those who teach and dance it. While dancers of color remain important contributors to the dance, the international scene now looks a lot whiter and more affluent than where it began. It’s important that we honor the past while we continue to bring the dance into the future.

The spirit of Lindy Hop today is about inclusivity, creativity, and improvisation. Lindy Hop is now a flourishing community with tens of thousands of dancers worldwide — throughout the US and in countries like South Korea, Lithuania, and South Africa.

Lindy Hop History Brochure

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Yehoodi has produced a printable brochure on the history of lindy hop that anyone can use for their dances, studios, and venues.

We’ve designed the brochure to be easily printed, using a professional printer or a standard copy machine. We’ve even included a blank section in the back where you can include the name of your organization, web address, logo, and anything else you want to put there.

Links to the brochure:

We hope you find this educational resource helpful as you educate others about lindy hop. If you do use this brochure, please let us know by commenting on this post, via email, on our Facebook page, or via Twitter.

Credits

Production Team

  • Project Lead: Rik Panganiban

  • Copy Writer: Veronica Ramirez

  • Designer: Nina Elkin of Hourglass Studios

Image Citations

Fonts

  • QUOTES: Kepler Std Bold Italic Display 18pts

  • QUOTES - Name of Author: Univers 47 Condensed Light 14pts

  • TITLES / SUBTITLES: Univers 47 Condensed Light 18pts

  • TITLE (eg "Roots" "The Savoy" "1980s to Today"...): Univers-Black-Normal 12pts

  • MAIN PARAGRAPH FONT: Univers-Light-Normal 8pts

  • MAIN PARAGRAPH FONT - BOLD: Univers-Black-Normal 8pts

Colors (Hex Codes)

  • PINK: #db0c54

  • TEAL: #2a646f

  • LIGHT TEAL: #2a646f with 50% transparency

  • BLACK: #060305


Resources & Links

This section contains links to relevant research, articles, videos, and other background on lindy hop and swing dancing.

Where to Start

The Roots of Lindy Hop

The Savoy and the Golden Era of Lindy Hop

  • "The Spirit Moves": a ground-breaking video documentary of Black vernacular dance by Mura Dehn, including footage of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers and social dancing at the Savoy. A few clips are found online, others on the DVD set, and some can only be seen by visiting the US Library of Congress.

General Resources 

  • "The Swingin' Lindy: Origins of A Legacy" an essay by Brenda Dixon-Gottschild for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts

  • "Swing" : an essay on lindy hop history, structure and style by Carrie Stern (2012)

  • Swungover: a blog by Bobby White which covers many historical topics related to lindy hop.

  • “The Lindy”: Margaret Batiuchok’s masters research project on lindy hop (1988). More resources on her website danceMB.com.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. To suggested other resources, please contact us here.