“Swing dance” is most commonly known as a group of dances that developed with the swing style of jazz music in the 1920s-1950s, although the earliest of these dances predate “swing era” music. The best known of these dances is the Lindy Hop, a popular partner dance that originated in Harlem in 1927 and is still danced today. Lindy was a fusion of many dances that preceded it or were popular during its development but is mainly based on jazz, tap, breakaway and Charleston. While the majority of swing dances began in African American communities as vernacular African American dances, some swing era dances, such as the Foxtrot and the Balboa, developed in white communities. Swing dance was not always used as a general blanket term for a group of dances. Historically, the term Swing applied with no connection to the Swing era, or its Swing music. The Texas Tommy Swing dance first appeared in print in 1910 in San Francisco (Barbary Coast). Into the 1920s and 1930s every major city had their own way to dance, based on regional roots, and influences.
Los Angeles had its own form of what they called “Swing dance” which came from Charleston, Fox Trot, and Jig Trot influenced footwork. In Chicago and in the south they had their own style of Swing, which was more two-step based, and most of these regional swing dances gave way to various influences, such as other dance forms of dance but also the decline of dance bands and partner dancing after WW2.
Swing jazz features the syncopated timing associated with African American and West African music and dance — a combination of crotchets and quavers (quarter notes and eighth notes) that many swing dancers interpret as ‘triple steps’ and ‘steps’ — yet also introduces changes in the way these rhythms were played — as a distinct delay or ‘relaxed’ approach to timing.
Today there are swing-dance scenes in many countries. Lindy Hop is often the most popular, though each city and country prefers various dances to different degrees. Each local swing-dance community has a distinct local culture and defines “swing dance”, and the “appropriate” music to accompany it, in different ways.
Forms of Swing
In many scenes outside the United States, the term “swing dancing” is used to refer to one, or all, of the following swing era dances: Lindy Hop, Charleston, Shag, and Balboa. This group is often extended to include West Coast Swing, East Coast Swing, Hand Dancing, Jive, Rock and Roll, elden Jive, and other dances developed in the 1940s and later. A strong tradition of social and competitive boogie woogie and Rock ‘n’ Roll in Europe add these dances to their local swing dance cultures.
Early forms from the 1930s and 1940s
- Lindy Hop evolved in the late 1920s and early 1930s out of the Partnered Charleston. It is characterized by an 8-count circular basic or “swing out” and has an emphasis on improvisation and the ability to easily adapt to include other steps in 8-count and 6-count rhythms. It has been danced to many different styles of music with blues or jazz rhythm (with the exception of jazz waltzes), as well as non-traditional styles of music such as hip hop. Lindy Hop is characterized by tricks and high-flying aerial movements. Lindy Hop got its name in 1927 when a reporter visiting New York’s Savoy Ballroom asked a swing dancer what kind of dance they were doing. Because Charles Lindbergh had just made his news-making solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the dancer replied, “the Lindy Hop.” The name stuck.
- Balboa is an 8-count dance that emphasizes a strong partner connection and quick footwork. A product of Southern California’s crowded ballrooms and uncrowded ballrooms, Balboa (or “Bal”) is primarily danced in close embrace. A library of open figures, called Bal-Swing, evolved from LA Swing, which was another Southern California dance that was a contemporary of Balboa. While most dancers differentiate between pure Balboa and Bal-Swing, both are considered to be a part of the dance. Balboa is frequently danced to fast jazz (usually anything from 180 to 320 BPM beats per minute), though many like to Balboa to slower (170-190 BPM) tempi.
- Collegiate Shag typically refers to a kind of double shag that is believed to have originated in New York during the 1930s. To call the dance “collegiate shag” would not have been common during the swing era; the addition of the word “collegiate” was supposedly a marketing ploy to attract college-age dancers to certain studios and dance halls. The name Collegiate Shag later became somewhat standard in the latter part of the 20th century (see swing revival), to help distinguish it from other later contemporary dances that shared the “shag” designation (e.g., Carolina Shag). Collegiate Shag was accompanied by music that emphasized a 2-beat rhythm and was danced in the varieties of single, double, and triple shag. The variety of names describe the amount of slow (step, hop) steps executed before being followed by a single quick, quick rhythm. The most common form recognized as Collegiate Shag is double-shag rhythm.
- St. Louis Shag done in the “side-by-side” Charleston position. The steps are: two step, rock step, kick forward, step down, kick forward (other leg), stag, step, stomp (repeat). The “stag” is bringing the leg up with the knee bent. As a variation, when repeating, one can do two forward kicks (or “switch, switch”, referring to switching feet) in place of the rock step.
- Jitterbug is often associated with one form of swing dance, but is not in fact a general term for all swing dances and is more appropriately used to describe a swing dancer rather than a specific swing dance (i.e. a jitterbug can dance Lindy Hop, Shag, or any other swing dance). The term was famously associated with swing era dancers by band leader Cab Callowaybecause, as he put it, “They look like a bunch of jitterbugs out there on the floor” due to their fast, often bouncy movements.
Later forms from the 1940s, 1950s and later
- Lindy Hop continued into the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and is featured in many movies of the era featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers with Frankie Manning, Dean Collins (whose style would lead to the creation of West Coast Swing), and Hal Takier and the Ray Rand Dancers. Traditional Lindy Hop in its purest form is found in many US locations and in Sweden. Swedish Lindy Hoppers preserve much of the old-style technique which was passed on to them by Frankie Manning, through various visits in the 1980s and 1990s. Template:Pfeiffer, L. (2000). Swing King: The Legend Frankie Manning. American Visions, 15(5), 16.
- Lindy Charleston is essentially the 1930s and ’40s Partnered Charleston woven in and out of Lindy Hop moves. Lindy Charleston involves a number of positions, including side-by-side, hand-to-hand, and tandem Charleston. In “jockey position”, the closed position is opened out so that both partners may face forward, without breaking apart. In side-by-side Charleston, partners open the closed position entirely, so that their only points of connection are at their touching hips and arm contact, wherein the leader’s right hand and arm touch the follower’s back and the follower’s left hand and arm touch the leader’s shoulder and arm. Both partners then swing their free arms as they would in solo Charleston. In both jockey and side-by-side Charleston, the leader steps back onto his left foot, while the follower steps back onto her right. In tandem Charleston, one partner stands in front of the other (usually the follower, though the arrangement may vary), both face in the same direction to start, and both begin by stepping back onto the left foot. The partner behind holds the front partner’s hands at the latter’s hip height, and their joined arms swing backwards and forwards, as in the basic step.
- Eastern Swing is an evolution of Fox Trot.
- East Coast Swing is a simpler 6-count variation of Lindy Hop, that evolved with swing-band music of the 1940s and the work of the Arthur Murray dance studios in the 1940s. It is also known as Six-count Swing, Triple-Step Swing, or Single-Time Swing. East Coast Swing has very simple structure and footwork along with basic moves and styling. It is popular for its simple nature and is often danced to slow, medium, or fast tempo jazz, blues, or rock and roll. Occasionally, Rockabilly, aka Rock-a-billy, is mistaken for East Coast Swing, but Rockabilly is more closely related to Western Swing.
- West Coast Swing was developed in the 1940s, as a stylistic variation on Lindy Hop. It is a slotted and danced to a wide variety of music including: blues, rock and roll, country western, pop, hip hop, smooth and cool jazz.It is popular throughout the United States and Canada but was uncommon in Europe and much of Asia until the 21st Century. West-coast-swing communities are growing in Australia, Brazil, France, India, New Zealand, Ukraine, Romania, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. 
- Western Swing has long been the name for jazz-influenced western music of the 1940s and, by extension, two-step, line dancing or swing dance done to such music. Contemporary 21st century Country Swing or dancing or “Country Western Swing Dancing” (C/W Swing) has a distinct culture, with classes and instructional videos on YouTube and DVD teaching dips, lifts, aerials and flips. It adds variations from other country dances, swing styles, salsa and more. As the name suggests, it is most often danced to country and western music.
- Boogie-woogie developed originally in the 1940s, with the rise of boogie woogie music. It is popular today in Europe, and was considered by some to be the European counterpart to East Coast Swing, a 6-count dance standardized for the American ballroom industry. It is danced to rock music of various kinds, blues or boogie woogie music but usually not to jazz. As the dance has developed, it has also taken to 8-count variations and swing outs similar to Lindy Hop, while keeping the original boogie woogie footwork.
- Carolina Shag was danced along the strands between Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and Wilmington, North Carolina, during the 1940s but, during the 1990s and later, has expanded to many other places. It is most often associated with beach music, which refers to songs that are rhythm-and-blues-based and, according to Bo Bryan, a noted shag historian and resident of Beaufort County, is a term that was coined at Carolina Beach, North Carolina.
- Imperial Swing is a cross between East Coast and West Coast Swing as it is done in slot and in the round. It started at the Club Imperial in St Louis. George Edick, who owned the club, let teenagers dance on the lower level and the swing dancers of the time taught them what was learned from their trips to the east coast. As people traveled around, they added parts of west coast, bop and Carolina shag to complement the dance and make it distinctive. People can tell the difference between St. Louis dancers and dancers from other parts of the country. “The Imperial” has elements of “East Coast”, “West Coast”, “Carolina Shag” and “Bop”.
- Jive is a dance of International Style Ballroom dancing. It initially was based on Eastern swing taken to England by American Troops in World War II and evolved before becoming the now standardized form of today.
- Skip Jive is a British variant of the Jive, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, danced to trad jazz.
- Modern Jive (also known as LeRoc and Ceroc©) developed in the 1980s, reputedly from a French form of Jive. Modern Jive is not technically of the Jive family which typically use a 6-count pattern of various combinations of walking and triple steps (Ballroom Jive – back/replace triple-triple; Swing Jive – triple-triple back/replace), etc. It is pared down to a simple box step and concentrating on the simpler forms of couple dance styling, gauged to provide a social atmosphere rather than technical aptitude. There are debates about whether it is a form of swing dancing due to lack of syncopations, rhythmic footwork variations, a static partner dynamic, and lack of swinging music, amongst the swing community at large, but they do consider themselves a style of swing.
- Rock and Roll – Developing in the 1950s in response to rock and roll music, rock-and-roll is very popular in Australia and danced socially as well as competitively and in performances. The style has a long association with Lindy Hop in that country, as many of the earliest Lindy Hoppers in the early 1990s moved to Lindy Hop from a rock-and-roll tradition. There are ongoing debates about whether rock-and-roll constitutes swing dancing, particularly in reference to the music to which it is danced: there is some debate as to whether or not it swings. Despite these discussions, many of the older Lindy Hoppers are also keen rock-and-roll dancers, with rock-and-roll characterized by an older dancer (30s and older) than Lindy Hop (25 and under).
- Acrobatic Rock’n’Roll Popular in Europe, acrobatic rock’n’roll is popularly associated with Russian gymnasts who took up the dance, though it is popular throughout Europe today. It is a performance dance and sport rather than a social dance, though there are people who remove the acrobatic stunts to dance it on a social level.
- Washington Hand Dancing originated around Washington, DC in the mid-1950s, and a new generation of dancers started innovating and dancing to Motown music. From its very beginning, DC Hand-dance was referred to and called “DC Hand-Dance/Hand-Dancing”, “DC Swing”, “DC Style” (swing) and “fast dance” (meaning DC Hand-Dance). This is the first time a version of “swing” dance was termed “hand-dance/hand-dancing”. DC Hand-Dance is characterized by very smooth footwork and movements, and close-in and intricate hand-turns, danced to a 6-beat, 6-count dance rhythm. The more modern footwork consists of smooth and continuous floor contact, sliding and gliding-type steps versus hopping and jumping-type steps of the older style which stylistically still held elements of its Jitterbug/Lindy Hop roots, and there are no aerials.
- Push and Whip are Texas forms of swing dance developed in the 1940s and 1950s. They are slotted swing dances, danced to a wide variety of music including blues, pop, jazz, and rock and roll. Similar to West Coast Swing, they emphasize the closed position, double resistance/rock step, and lead-follow. Slow Whip is a variation on Whip/Push that is danced to slow blues music, typically 60 BPM or slower.
Traditionally, distinctions are made between “Ballroom Swing” and “Jazz Dance Swing” styles. East Coast Swing is a standardized dance in “American Style” Ballroom dancing, while Jive is a standardized dance in “International Style”; however both of these fall under the “Ballroom Swing” umbrella.
Jazz Dance forms (evolved in dance halls) versus ballroom forms (created for ballroom competition format) are different in appearance. Jazz Dance forms include Lindy Hop, Balboa, Collegiate Shag, and Charleston.
Types of Competition
Dance competitions specify which forms are to be judged, and are generally available in four different formats:
- Strictly: One couple competing together in various heats, to randomly selected music, where no pre-choreographed steps are allowed.
- Jack and Jill: Where leaders and followers are randomly matched for the competition. In initial rounds, leaders and followers usually compete individually, but in final rounds, scoring depends on the ability of the partner you draw and your ability to work with that partner. Some competitions hold a Jill-and-Jack division where leaders must be women and followers must be men.
- Showcase: One couple competing together for a single song which has been previously choreographed.
- Classic: Similar to Showcase but with restrictions on lifts, drops, moves where one partner supports the weight of the other partner, and moves where the partners are not in physical contact.
Each form of Swing Dance, and each organization within those forms, will have various rules, but those most often used are pulled and adapted from Ballroom usage.
Judging for competition is based on the three “T’s” (below) as well as showmanship (unless the contest in question designates the audience as the deciding factor). The three “T’s” consist of:
- Timing – Related to tempo & rhythm of the music.
- Teamwork – How well a leader and follower dance together and lead/follow dance variations.
- Technique – How clean and precise the cooperative dancing is executed.
Showmanship consists of presentation, creativity, costumes, and difficulty.
It should be noted that Lindy Hop’s most prestigious events have never used these criteria, usually having the simple judging value as who was the best/most-impressive Lindy Hop couple. The Harvest Moon Ball competition in New York City, The American Vernacular Jazz Institute’s Hellzapoppin’ Competition, and the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown all fall into this category.
Additionally a “Team Formation” division may also be specified at a competition. Under this category, a minimum of 3 to 5 couples (depending on individual competition rules) perform a pre-choreographed routine to a song of their choosing, where the group dances in synchronization and into different formations. This division is also judged using the three “T’s” and showmanship; however the criteria now apply to the team as a whole.
Social swing dancing
Many, if not most, of the swing dances listed above are popular as social dances, with vibrant local communities that hold dances with DJs and live bands that play music most appropriate for the preferred dance style. There are frequently active local clubs and associations, classes with independent or studio-/school-affiliated teachers and workshops with visiting or local teachers. Most of these dance styles — as with many other styles — also feature special events, such as camps or Lindy exchanges.
The historical development of particular swing dance styles was often in response to trends in popular music. For example, 1920s and solo Charleston was – and is – usually danced to 2/4 ragtime music or traditional jazz, Lindy Hop was danced to swing music (a kind of swinging jazz), and Lindy Charleston to either traditional or swing jazz. West Coast Swing is usually danced to Pop, R&B, Blues, or Funk. Western Swing and Push/Whip are usually danced to country and western or Blues music. There are local variations on these musical associations in each dance scene, often informed by local DJs, dance teachers and bands.
Modern swing dance bands active in the U.S. during the 1990s and 2000s include many contemporary jazz big bands, swing revival bands with a national presence such as Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers (based in San Francisco), and local/regional jazz bands that specialize in 1930s-1940s swing/Lindy dance music, such as The Swingout Big Band, White Heat Swing Orchestra, and Beantown Swing Orchestra (Boston), The Boilermaker Jazz Band (Pittsburgh), the Southside Aces (Minneapolis), Gordon Webster Septet (New York), Jonathan Stout and His Campus Five (Los Angeles) and The Jonathan Stout Orchestra featuring Hilary Alexander (Los Angeles), The Flat Cats (Chicago), Glenn Crytzer and his Syncopators (Seattle), the Solomon Douglas Swingtet (Seattle), The Gina Knight Orchestra (Chicago and Joliet, IL), the Solomon Douglas Swingtet and the Tom Cunningham Orchestra (Washington, D.C.), Sonoran Swing (Arizona), and The Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra (Los Angeles).