Lindy Hop: Its Origins, Innovators, and Legacy

whiteys lindy hoppers from NYPL collection.jpg

The Roots

Danced predominantly by lower and middle class Black (which includes African-American, Haitian, Dominican, and other nationalities) dancers starting in the 1920s, many of the original Lindy Hoppers lived in Harlem, where there were dance clubs such as the Savoy and Alhambra ballrooms. These dancers would move to live jazz bands headed by artists like Chick Webb and Count Basie. Like many social dances, it was not developed as a set of moves in a studio, but developed alongside the music it was danced to, by those who were dancing to it.

The dance evolved out of several different forms of social dance, including the cakewalk, the Breakaway, and partnered Charleston. A uniquely American dance, Lindy Hop brought together the African traditions of social/circle dance and European partnered ballroom dancing.

Lindy Hop emerged as a defiant, joyous response to financial hardship caused by the Great Depression, harsh living conditions, and the systemic racism that kept Black dancers out of white dance clubs.

While there is a mythology that the Savoy was a utopia of integration through dance, this is not the case. White people did come to Black dance halls to dance Lindy Hop, they were not the main practitioners. The practice of white dancers coming to black-only clubs to enjoy the music and dancing at this time was called “slumming.”

At its peak, there were Lindy Hop contests, battles of the bands, well-respected performance groups like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and appearances of the Lindy Hop on film.

An Incomplete 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 is the Lindy Hop’s most famous home. Bands headed by Chick Webb, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and any other band you’ve probably heard at a dance performed there, while world-class dancers like Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Norma Miller, “Shorty” George Snowden, Big Bea, and others would throw down their best moves.

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 and worldwide.

Lindy Hop Today

As Lindy Hoppers, we’re lucky to be able to get to know, or have known before their passing, dancers and performers like Al Minns, Frankie Manning, Dawn Hampton, and Norma Miller. It’s through their perspective that we know so much about the dance we continue to practice and love.

The Lindy Hop we dance today is very different from the Lindy Hop of the 1930s. It’s influenced not only by the original dancers, but by all the dances that sprung up around it — Carolina Shag, West Coast Swing, Boogie Woogie, East Coast Swing, St. Louis Shag, Balboa and more. It’s further influenced by those who teach and dance it.

The international scene now looks a lot whiter and a lot wealthier than where it began, it’s important that we keep an eye on the past while we continue to bring the dance into the present.

Lindy Hop History: 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 Batichiuk's masters research project on lindy hop (1988).

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