Swingin’ Ain’t Easy: Notes from the Swing Dance Underground

This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on January 16, 2014.

It’s 4:30 AM on Jan. 1st, 2014, and I am spinning on the dance floor to the tune of 1930s jazz. I’m at one of the last late night dances for Lindy Focus XII, a weeklong swing dance camp held in Asheville, N.C. The DJs’ constant flow of big band jazz, augmented with soul, blues, and fluttery “balboa” numbers (for the nimble, kick-oriented balboa dance), drives the spirited swing dancers, or “Lindy Hoppers,” to maintain their energy levels for just a little longer. The New Year’s Eve bash, which began at 8 PM on Dec. 31, will continue well past sunrise on the 1st, with the last survivors stumbling back to their rooms around 11:30 a.m. (I will only make it to 6 a.m.)

“Rapper’s Delight,” a surprising change from the strains of Cab Calloway and the Dorsey Brothers, comes through the speakers. The dancers form two parallel lines and then, in pairs and trios, strut between the lines, showing off their best moves. I slide into the line and do my best, although I am hopelessly out of my league when compared to some of these dancers, who are professionals and dance teachers. But I feel ridiculously happy, and as I slide to the end of the line, I wonder, Why don’t more people learn these dances?

Some background would probably be useful.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Lindy Hop and other variants of swing dance evolved in Harlem. Local social dancers, such as Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, “Shorty” George Snowden and many, many more, invented a new style that eschewed the fixed line of dance and rigid body postures seen in classical ballroom dancing. Swing, especially the Lindy Hop, was fluid, flexible and took up less room on a dance floor than, say, a waltz or tango.

In the 1930s and 1940s, white and black swing dancers alike found paid work as entertainers. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a team from the Savoy Ballroom featuring noted dancers like Manning, Miller and Al Minns, toured widely with some of the foremost big bands and even appeared in a few movies, such as A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’. Minns partnered with Leon James in a successful, decades-spanning solo act. Around this time, swing dance and swing jazz ceased being primarily an African American tradition and crossed over to white audiences on a national scale, thanks partly to the celebrated radio broadcasts of Benny Goodman’s swing orchestra. By the start of the Second World War, millions of Americans of all races were doing the Lindy Hop, or the “Jitterbug,” the more vertical, jumpy variant developed by white dancers. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers performed a stylized version of the dance in films like Swing Time. Several notable African American films, including Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather, also spotlighted swing.

After the war, swing dance as a national pastime peaked and fell into fast decline. New forms of popular music like jump blues, rockabilly, electric blues, early soul and rock and roll took over the airwaves. People could dance to rock songs, but not in the way they once danced to Duke Ellington. The rise of easy listening vocal music popularized by Frank Sinatra and other big-name singers also helped to push danceable jazz music off the charts. Finally, the rise of bebop, modal jazz, and cool jazz, popularized by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and other experimental musicians, replaced swing as the predominant jazz style. This is not to say that bebop was bad music; rather, bebop, with its rapidly changing time signatures and rhythms, was not danceable. As such, the Lindy Hop fell into obscurity, save for a few professional troupes.

However, in the 1980s, a younger generation of professional dancers and dance teachers became interested in the style of swing that Frankie Manning and Norma Miller once performed. By watching old movies, these new swing dancers created something that approximated the Lindy Hop. Quite a few of these dancers, including Steven Mitchell and Erin Stevens (both of whom still teach swing today), traveled to New York City and interviewed retired swing dancers like Al Minns, Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, seeking to learn the nuances of classic Lindy Hop. As the 1980s progressed, swing began to be taught again in New York and other cities, as Manning, Miller and others came out of retirement, and as the swing dancers gained a greater repertoire of dance moves. British and Swedish dancers also made pilgrimages to America, studying with the old greats of the dance, and then returning to their home countries.

The 1990s saw the swing revival attain a higher profile, with Lindy Hop appearing in Broadway shows, dance classes and camps around the world, and motion pictures like Malcolm X,Stompin’ at the Savoy, Swing Kids, and Swingers. By 2000, this movement had lost some of its momentum, yet a sizeable subculture of devoted teachers and Lindy Hoppers kept the swing revival alive. Indeed, the number of swing dance camps grew markedly in the early 2000s, even as casual dancers among the general populace lost their interest in the resurrected dance. Younger teachers in the late ‘90s and early 2000s learned from the dancers who’d worked with Manning, Miller, et. al., proving that the swing revival had the potential to endure for multiple generations.

Although the swing revival has shrunk in scope, it has increased in passion and geographic range. The Internet has been a great tool in the last decade, enabling dancers to study videos from around the world, although this technological familiarity does pose the risk of distinct swing and Lindy variations becoming identical. Meanwhile, there has been a traditional jazz revival in the last few years. The swing and “trad jazz” movements are distinct from each other, yet they often overlap, for Lindy Hoppers typically dance to the music of Dixieland and big band jazz, which the trad jazz revivalists perform.[i]

Today, many colleges, along with cities of both medium and major size, in both the United States and other nations have vibrant swing dance scenes. Rochester, New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Asheville, the District of Columbia, Cincinnati, Toronto, London, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg – they all have social swing dancing. Lincoln Center in New York has sponsored an outdoor festival called A Midsummer Night’s Swing for several years now. But the biggest American Lindy Hop events annually are probably the Beantown Camp, Swing Out New Hampshire, the International Lindy Hop Championships, and Lindy Focus.

Which is where I come into this story. I was one of more than a thousand dancers to attend Lindy Focus XII, held from Dec. 26, 2013 to Jan. 1, 2014 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Asheville. From my conversations with other dancers, I learned that Lindy Focus used to be a fairly small, regional dance camp, but has grown tremendously in the last few years to become one of the paramount dance camps in this country. Some of the best swing teachers attend the camp, and the live entertainment is always of a high caliber, particularly given the opportunity to throw a gala ball for New Year’s Eve.

I started swing dancing when I was a sophomore in college, having encountered the Lindy Hop at school dances and at an American Bandstand tribute concert staged on campus. By the summer of 2013, I’d attended many weekly and monthly dances, and I’d even gone to two dance camps, or “Lindy Exchanges” – the annual Steven Mitchell & Virginie Jensen workshop weekend and Stompology – hosted in Rochester, NY. By this point, I’d made many good friends in my local Lindy Hop scene and had met interesting dancers from all over the world, so I registered for Lindy Focus XII, thinking that it’d be a fun capstone to my college years of social dancing.

When I arrived in Asheville on December 26th, I was struck immediately by the diversity of the dancers staying at the hotel. Although a large percentage of the dancers were in their twenties or thirties, the range of professions and points of view was staggering. I met dancers from every major religion, as well as atheists, agnostics, and people who didn’t have any opinion on the subject. I met diehard socialists and devoted libertarians. Finally, I encountered people with a staggering range of careers – graduate students, tax fraud investigators, an ILM animator, computer programmers, gym teachers, college professors, artists, photographers, ASL interpreters, engineers, architects, professional musicians, and even a polymathic kidney surgeon from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Pretty much everyone with whom I personally interacted seemed genuinely curious about what I do for a living (which was a welcome change, I must admit, from people mocking me for being a historian). And I was curious about the people I met.

I describe this diverse crowd so that readers might appreciate the pluralistic ethos of Lindy Focus and, by extension, the swing revival. The people who attend these dance camps hail from every walk of life, every income bracket, and all ends of the ideological spectrum. Even so, the prevailing attitudes are those of acceptance – not merely tolerance, but rather genuine acceptance of people who are different – and interest in meeting new people. Such an ethos creates a tremendously positive and welcoming environment. It may sound strange, but the Lindy Hop scene presents a very compassionate way to approach life in modern America: Be open and honest.

The days at Lindy Focus all shared the same basic pattern – auditions, contest prelims and classes in the daytime; formal-dress dances and contest finals at night; and finally business-casual late night dances (that often went until 4 or 5 a.m.). After auditioning on the first day, we were assigned into various course tracks. Tracks 2-8 were Lindy Hop, and then there were blues, balboa and music performance tracks. I wound up in Track 3 Lindy Hop, which disappointed me a bit because I’d hoped for something a little more advanced, and I also felt a bit sheepish because most of my friends had wound up in Track 8. Still, I decided to make the most of Track 3, which turned out to be a good thing, because I discovered I had many problems with technique, balance, and weight distribution that I’d never noticed before. If there is a benefit to attending a Lindy Hop dance camp, it is that you learn to hone in on small details and explore them fully. A great dance camp can provide tremendous opportunities for honing self-discipline and for independent study; Lindy Focus is such a camp.

In the classes and on the dance floor, only three prevailing things seemed to matter:

(1) Were you a kind person?

(2) Were you an enthusiastic and conscientious dancer? (Notice that I didn’t say, Are you a gooddancer?)

(3) Were you willing to watch where you’re stepping, so that you didn’t crash into or kick other dancers?

These overriding concepts further added to the generally positive and welcoming atmosphere of the camp.

Did I mention the stellar live entertainment offered at Lindy Focus, in addition to the social dancing and coursework? The bands were comprised of top-notch jazz musicians; the New Year’s Eve Ball even featured a fifteen-person orchestra, which was truly magnificent. Every night, various instructors and guest performers would give short performances, and a longerpastiche of old jazz movie storylines was performed on New Year’s Eve. (My favorite of these spotlight performances was when four instructors dressed up in animal costumes and performed a wild routine to “I Wanna Be Like You” from The Jungle Book.) The partner-dancing and choreography contests provided spectacular aerial stunts and highly expressive movement, showing that amateur dancers can rival the pros. And the jam circles – a small arena where one or two couples show off while surrounded by their peers – that formed during the last songs of each night were hilarious and rousing to watch. The shows and contests at Lindy Focus were distinctive in their blend of dance competition, slapstick comedy, gymnastics, and theatre.

Still, there were some drawbacks to Lindy Focus. I point these out not to bash the swing scene – I had a great time overall – but rather to paint a realistic picture of what it’s like to attend an intensive dance camp. Due to the multiple class tracks within Lindy Focus, I saw my friends less often, although I did have the chance to meet many new people within Track 3 and at the evening dances. Still, Lindy Focus had so many people in attendance that the camp, especially during the first three days, felt overwhelming in scale. I must also admit that sometimes I felt a bit inadequate in comparison to professional dancers and the people in the higher tracks. It’s hard work keeping up during these classes (especially when you’re short on sleep from multiple late night dances), it’s tricky as a leader to keep thinking several steps ahead of what you’re currently doing, and it can be downright nerve-wracking to ask a more experienced person to dance when you’re still a beginner or intermediate Lindy Hopper. So there definitely can be stressful elements at a camp like Lindy Focus. Dancing is fun, but it’s not easy.

Perhaps the planners of Lindy Focus had these things in mind when they wrote the introduction to the week’s guidebook. The planners conceded that yes, there are ways to be the textbook-perfect dancer, yet the planners encouraged us to simply do our best and find our own ways to be expressive, even if that didn’t turn us into the dancers who’d win the big contests. In the end, style and attitude matter more than the number of moves you know. Now, with that said, the planners still encouraged us to learn new steps and techniques, but the encouragement to chill out was clear, and most welcome.

When I did start to feel stressed from time to time – How am I, as a leader, going to keep this dance from getting boring for the follower? How will I master this swing-out variation? Oh God, this song’s way too fast to dance to; I’m going to die, I’m going to die! – I tried to remember those words from the guidebook. Dance to be joyful, not perfect. And that is a powerful message.

All of this begs the question, why don’t more people do the Lindy Hop today? I’m perfectly realistic about pop music today; I don’t anticipate jazz returning to the top of the charts, given the dominance of alternative, rock, hip-hop/rap, and EDM. Additionally, I realize that too many swing dancers might weaken the pluralistic and accepting tone of contemporary Lindy Hop culture. Still, why is it that only about 10,000 devoted Lindy Hoppers exist in modern America? Why not 20,000, or even 100,000 Lindy Hoppers? It takes a considerable amount of capital to host these Lindy Exchanges, and it can’t be easy being a professional musician on the swing circuit (admittedly a niche market), so more dancers would likely help to bolster the swing revival’s long-term viability. Besides, the music of the trad jazz revival is readily available via the Internet, and there is no shortage of dance camps, classes, retreats, and festivals to attend nationwide (and worldwide). As a commodity, the Lindy Hop is in good supply.

Perhaps the Lindy Hop, blues, balboa, and other strains of swing dance are too eclectic and too old-fashioned for many modern Americans. Maybe jazz seems too close to classical music, which is popularly regarded as elitist and boring (although if you’ve been to a swing dance, you know that it’s the farthest thing imaginable from a symphony concert). Then again, perhaps the intricacy of the footwork and floor etiquette is off-putting for young people seeking a new hobby.

Nonetheless, the swing revival deserves many more acolytes, given the positive environment and opportunities for travel, socializing, and studious self-improvement offered by Lindy Hop classes. I left Lindy Focus sore and deeply exhausted, but profoundly happy, and with a number of new friends, to boot. Other people should have such an optimistic experience as that.

The swing revival is almost thirty years old. With the added force of the trad jazz revival, it seems likely that the movement will continue for the foreseeable future (after all, I saw flyers for at least thirty other Lindy Exchanges posted at Lindy Focus). I am a very tiny part of that movement, and I have much improvement to do as a dancer – I’m going to get into Track 4 or beyond one of these years. But I look forward to remaining a part of the Lindy Hop community, and I hope that it can continue to grow in the years to come. Swing dance is too much fun, and too important to the history of American and global culture, to be allowed to die.

You can learn more about Lindy Focus by going to its official website and YouTube channel. Several books on Lindy Hop and swing are listed below. Learn more about modern American swing dance here.


[i] Historical References and Sources:

Christian Batchelor, This Thing Called Swing: A Study of Swing Music and the Lindy Hop: The Original Swing Dance (London: Original Lindy Hop Collection, 1997);

Paul Burgett, History of Jazz, 1900-1960 (College Course), Fall 2012, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY;

Robert P. Crease, afterword to Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996);

Ryan Francois, “Planet Swing – The Real Harlem Globetrotters: Ryan Francois at TEDxAlbertopolis,” September 2013, YouTube, last modified October 2, 2013, accessed January 9, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W2A_qifVpU;

Will Friedwald, “How a Swath of 20-Somethings Have Tuned In to 1920s Pop,” Vanity Fair(August 1, 2013), accessed January 9, 2014, http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2013/08/hot-jazz-new-york;

Dan Gorman, informal conversations with Lindy Hoppers in Rochester, NY (December 2011 – Present) and at Lindy Focus XII (December 26, 2013 – January 1, 2014);

Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011);

“Lindy Hop” (Three-Part Historical Essay), KC Lindy Hop.org, last modified 2013, accessed January 8-9, 2014, http://www.kclindyhop.org/introduction.htm;

Frankie Manning, with Cynthia Millman, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008);

Norma Miller, with Evette Jensen, Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996);

Manu Smith, Mike Thibault, Steven Mitchell, Virginie Jensen, and Kevin Minns, Panel Discussion on Al Minns and Swing Dance History, hosted at the 15th Annual Groove Juice Swing Steven & Virginie Workshop Weekend, October 6, 2012, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, NY;

Ernie Smith, preface to Swingin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).

The cover photo is archived from the original web layout. Source:

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One thought on “Swingin’ Ain’t Easy: Notes from the Swing Dance Underground

  1. Interesting that you wrote that people outside of dancing mock you for being a historian (I did read the rest of your article, too!). Oddly, as a history teacher amongst a group of only partially employed or unemployed dancers in my area, that aspect of my life is pretty much ignored, and there’s very little appreciation for the history of the music and musicians, either. It’s outside of swing dancing that I get props for being a history teacher. I think I need to meet with some of those Lindy Focus dancers, because a part-time existence is not something that I was brought up to admire–unlike it is in my area, apparently(same state in which you are pursuing your M.A.). Cheers!

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