Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Swing Dancing

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It was finally time for graduation from the eighth grade and middle school, in celebration the principle was holding a dance for the graduating eight graders. We were extremely excited, since we had never had a dance before; they even told us that some of the teachers would be teaching us different types of dance. We would be allowed to get out of our 6th hour class the Thursday and Friday of the week leading up to the dance. I chose to go the swing dance lessons. It sounded fun, and was supposed to be easy, which for me was a must as I had “two left feet”. I went to the class and they made us partner up with someone of the opposite sex. The teacher told us that the guy was to lead every move. For two days we learned the basic steps, and a few turns, simply the bear minimum. I thought I was a dancing queen.

My mom and I went out shopping; we found me a skirt that would twirl, and a new shirt. The day of the dance had finally arrived and I was ready. The dance lasted from 7pm till 10pm, and I danced every song using my new swing steps.

The next day we graduated and where done with middle school. During the summer a group of us “planned” to get together to practice our “cool” swing steps, so we wouldn’t forget. As with any groups of friends, getting together during the busy summer months was a problem. We only got together three times. We did make a small routine and entered a talent show, and even winning. However, that would be the end of my swing dancing. When I entered high school I found out that swing dance was not popular, thus I never mentioned it again. Other than a few days of practice and the knowledge of a small routine, I really have no knowledge of swing dancing. Before I started researching, I had no idea of the history or any other routines practiced in the real world of Swing Dancing.

Stern, a Jazz Dance teacher from New York and a graduate from Princeton University wrote in his article, “The History of Swing”, that swing “was developed and defined in the United States by African-Americans.” (Stern, 1) This style of dance was accompanied by Jazz music which was played by the big bands of the era. Swing dance “was done primarily by black dancers…” (Yelland, 7) and was soon to become the dance craze of the entire United States.

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The hop, jitterbug, lindy, charleston, lindy hop, and swing where all different names for the same style of dance, which began during the early 10’s in Harlem, New York. Swing dance is a style which typically uses “patterns that often broke down into sets of six or eight beats with kicks and footwork that were only limited by the dancer’s imagination and willingness to practice.” (Pener, 7) While swing may have been in full effect in Harlem the rest of the world had no idea such a style of dance even existed. This style of dance, full of “fancy-footwork”, would soon enough spread across the United States like “wild fire”.

It was first discovered in the late 10’s to early 10’s by people outside of Harlem. Swing was considered the first “American” created dance, although it does come from a conglomeration of many different cultures and styles of dance. These different styles were combined to create this one “fast-footed” dance, which amazed many. As Allen talks about in his book “Quick start to Swing”, “Swing is a combination of an African-American dance known as the Cakewalk”…along with “the stiff upper body movements of European social dance.” (Allen, 1) Swing really gained it’s momentum in the 140’s when the men were returning from the war and social events were soaring.

Another reason for the take off of swing dance was the closeness that it allowed between the partners. When a swing song would come on, “many people moved aside so that these young people could show their stuff.” (Allen, ) Dance halls which taught the newest steps and each had their own special unique and trademarked style. While the younger generation enjoyed the closeness that swing dance allowed them, their parents and grandparents weren’t happy about it. The physical closeness appeared to the older generation “to perpetuate a growing (and undesirable) familiarity between men and woman.” (Theirs, ) They did “tricks where the man pulled the woman through his legs, spun her so her skirt flew up in the air, lifted her up so she straddled his waist, and (worse yet!) threw the woman about while she clasped her arms about his waist, her head level to his navel.” (Pener, 4) The older generations saw these tricks and flips as being “dangerously sexual…” and “…a threat to the moral fiber of our nation…” (Pener, 5) The clothes also caused the older generations to “raise an eyebrow”.

The typical dance clothes of this era were the two tone shoes for men and woman alike. The men dressed in Zoot Suits, and the woman in flapper dresses. The Zoot Suit was pants which were baggier near the top, a little tighter as they neared the bottom, and the design was typically pinstriped. The flapper dresses typically were form fitting down to the waist and became bigger at the skirt which ended mid-calf with extra fabric to allow for lots of movement and the “flying” up of the dress. This style of clothing stayed stylish till swing began to decline, and Elvis gained popularity.

For a short period of time swing dance entered a period of dormancy. This lasted from the mid-sixties through the mid-nineties. In the late nineties and the beginning of the new millennium swing dance made a come back, and is as strong as ever. New songs flutter the air waves; new steps, turns, twirls and twists are being created; and dance schools are becoming popular once again. This style of dance and the big band music have embraced this new generation, creating a common ground that has united the older generation of grandparents with their grandchildren.

Overall, I believe I learned a substantial amount of information about the life of swing dance, from the beginnings to its revival. I was able to see how it developed over time and how each generation added to it, making it their own. I feel that I learned a vast amount of knowledge, history, and interesting facts about swing dance. This research has renewed my love for swing dancing, and big band music, resulting in my decision to take up swing dance lessons again.

Works Cited

Allen, Jeff. Quick start to Swing An Easy to Follow Guide for Swing Dancing- Beginner through Expert. Cranston, RI. Qqs Publishing, May 1, 000.

Pener, Degen ; Morris, Scotty. The Swing Book. Back Bay Books, November


Stern, Jean & Marshall. “The History of Swing.” http//www.totalswing.com.

Thiers, Geneviene. “History of Swing Dance.” http//caca.essortment.com/swingdancehist_rkmh.htm.

Yelland, Wm. “The Zoot Suit Riots of 14.” http//www.withaswing.com.

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