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The Lindy Hop: The Roots of Swing
Swing dance may be popular now, but the origins of styles like the Lindy Hop date back to the great jazz age. Hop back in time as Groupon explores the most famous swing move of all—the Lindy Hop.
As a big band plays hot and fast jazz from the bandstand, feet move in a flurry on the dance floor, a couple’s hands and arms loosely clasped in a casual take on a ballroom embrace. Suddenly the lead dancer drops his arm from his partner’s waist, and the two face the audience to kick and twist their feet in sync, hands still clasped, before returning to their original position. This move, called the swingout, forms the basis of the Lindy Hop, an upbeat partner dance that incorporates the footwork of the Charleston as well as jazz-inspired steps. The former’s wild, frenzied kicks are a signature of the Lindy Hop, as are acrobatic flips—particularly during exhibitions or performances that encourage a bit of showing off.
Now thought of as one of the original styles of swing, the Lindy Hop has a history as wild as its own fleet-footed moves. The dance was definitely born in Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in the mid-1920s, though no one knows for sure how the name came about; many credit dancer “Shorty” George Snowden with coining it as a reference to pilot Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 “hop” across the Atlantic. Regardless, Shorty George and his professional Lindy Hop troupe wowed the crowds at the Savoy—one of the first integrated dance clubs in New York City—to a live soundtrack of jazz greats such as Chuck Webb, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald. Decades before the Civil Rights Era, crowds of black and white Americans bridged the cultural divide as they cut loose with the unifying rapture of swing, which itself fused the decorum of European ballroom dancing with the improvisational glee of African-style dance.
A disciple of Shorty George, Frank Manning, changed the Lindy game in 1935 when he flipped partner Frieda Washington over his back on the floor of the Savoy. It was the first aerial step—the dance had finally come full circle from its alleged inspiration in Charles Lindbergh. Now famous for his antics, Manning traveled the world with the Savoy-based group Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, even appearing in Hollywood films such as the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races. But with the advent of rock and roll, swing’s popularity began to wane, and Manning faded into obscurity. Until, that is, the form enjoyed an international resurgence in the 1980s, and dancers in America and Sweden tracked down the surviving members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers hoping to learn the steps from the masters themselves. Now revered by a new generation, Manning emerged from retirement to teach and perform once again, traveling to Sweden to lead classes at the annual Herräng Dance Camp—one of the largest swing events in the world today.