lindy hop racism seggregation

Lindy Hop. Connecting Different Races at the Time of Segregation?

12 minutes to read
Article
Simona Rimkutė
19/09/2018

Lindy Hop can nowadays be described as a mixture of modern culture and last century trends. The hot jazzy dance is not only a combination of unique movements, but also has heritage that dates back to the mid-20th century and deals with discrimination. Lindy Hop is an example of how human connections can thrive regardless of social differences.

Lindy Hop: Breaking Racial Barriers

Although the US were in the midst of segregation during the first half of the 20th centruy, Lindy Hop played a significant part in getting people from various ethnical backgrounds together. The dance is even considered to be a cultural phenomenon, breaking the racial barrier.

To understand the relation between Lindy Hop and segregation, it is important to identify racial prejudices in early 20th century North America. The first signs of inequality could be perceived from the social restrictions African Americans had to face in the Southern States of the US: being forbidden to use most public places as well as attend city-sponsored events, relatively high rents, racial discrimination when it comes to finding a job and being hired for mostly underpaid work positions.

It was obvious that African Americans held a visible second-class citizenship status in this region.

Attempting to give all citizens of the United States equal rights, the constitution was amended in 1866, so that it now stated that every citizen of the United States of America must have equal civil and political rights. Despite the new law’s intention to include African Americans in society by guaranteeing equal rights for black people. However, in the Southern States, the law only gave them freedom and discrimination and inequality still remained. Black children were, for example, not allowed to attende the same schools as white children, making segregation something that begins in early childhood. Moreover, there was certainly a lack of equality; living standards for black people were extremely poor and most of them were facing poverty. It was obvious that African Americans held a visible second-class citizenship status in this region (Kenneth, n.d.). These rough living conditions also applied to the professional Lindy Hop dancers that will be discussed later on and are discussed in Norma Miller's autobiography (Miller, 1996):

 “Mama, being a black woman, was unable to get a steady job ... Blacks were last to be hired, and first to be fired. Mama would got to the corners to be hired for daily domestic work, but competition for any income was stiff, and often she would take a days work for 10 cents an hour.”

Regardless of all the hardships, black people had to face during the time of segregation, this period can be distinguished as the golden age of Lindy Hop. By breaking racial barriers, Lindy has shown that dance has the power to connect people of different races.

Swinging in Harlem

Harlem was the area above New York’s Central Park where black neighborhoods were located; it was home to many black intellectuals and artists. In the 1930’s, Harlem became a place where new swing sounds were gaining popularity. These sounds, that had originated from the hot jazz of the 1920’s, shared a steady, rolling thunder beat, making it impossible not to dance to the music.

The new rhythm had an energetic and constant rhythmic “8-count” pulse that gave a feeling of hopping to the music (Renzland, n.d.). Due to its fast-moving pace, for some Lindy Hop might have been associated with achaos. However, in reality, Lindy was much more sophisticated. Its upbeat moves were always in synch with the music and the correlation between the steps and the rhythm relied only on the right timing and the perfect weight distribution on a certain foot. As far as chaos goes, Lindy Hop could only be called a marvelous chaos, in the sense of how unbelievably smoothly the dancers could move on the fast rhythm of the music.  

At the time, nothing could stop Harlem from swinging, not even the high rates of poverty caused by the early 1930s’ Great Depression. Dancing to the rhythm of joyful and rhythmical swing music was an escape from many exhausting problems black people had to face every day in the early 20th century.

As many social dances in the time, Lindy Hop “grew up” in the streets.

As many social dances in the time, Lindy Hop “grew up” in the streets. People would gather and socialize whilst enjoying the music. By smiling, shouting and allowing themselves to express their inner creativity through dance improvisations, they would spread positive vibes to one another. It didn't take long before the dance became a new form of social interaction. With its rhythmical movements, Lindy Hop connected people and created communities even through the rough times of segregation.

However, it took a while for Lindy to finally start appearing in the ballrooms. Likewise, as is the case for every dance that originated in the streets, it is impossible to name the exact date that Lindy Hop was born. Thus, it is only certain that Harlem’s streets were the place where most of the first developments surrounding Lindy occurred.

The King of Swing

Back in the early 20th century, many ballrooms dominated New York. However, it was this one particular dance hall the Savoy, that turned into a cultural phenomenon that brought blacks and whites together in the time of segregation. It was located in Harlem and shortly after its the grand opening in 1926, it became a significant cultural institution, attracting not only locals, but even tourists from outside the city.

A huge place filled with rhythmical jazz music, the Savoy was to become the King of Swing. In a period where many cultural institutions in New York were still racially segregated, the Savoy stood out because it was open to interracial dancing and entertaining. With live jazz bands playing, dancers shared their best moves, creating fascinating improvisations and making the Savoy “The Home of Happy Feet”. As an original member of a troupe called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Norma Miller said “The Savoy opened the doors for all people being together. ... we were the first people in the world who were integrated. We didn’t have segregation at the Savoy.”

In this ballroom, segregation stopped existing by the time people would start dancing.

Quickly, the Savoy became a place where Lindy Hop and swing music evolved in parallel. Famous jazz artists as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ella Fitzgerald supplied the tunes to which the most capturing Lindy Hop choreography was made. The Savoy was a cultural place where people of various racial backgrounds created this social dance together, realizing each idea in spontaneous and wild Lindy Hop improvisations. In this ballroom, segregation stopped existing by the time people would start dancing. It was the Savoy ballroom where a cultural phenomenon, the Lindy Hop dance, took place and broke the barrier of racial segregation.

Laying the Foundations of Lindy Hop

20th century Lindy Hop is often classified in two generations. The first one being the beginning of the dance, with the father of Lindy – George Snowden, also known as Shorty George due to his height (or lack thereof). He was the greatest Breakaway and partnered Charleston dancer in Harlem.

The harmony of teamwork and individualism began to reflect in Lindy Hop, likewise, it was in the heart of jazz music itself.

During Lindy Hop’s communal birth, dancers shared many ideas and invented new movements. Without a doubt, Snowden was by far the greatest early Lindy Hopper. In fact, with Shorty George’s help, Lindy Hop was becoming not only a social dance but an entertaining performance.

In “After Seben” (1929, S. Jay Kaufman, USA) – a movie also known as the birth of Lindy Hop on film - a Swingout was performed for the first time ever – letting partner stretch away, thus leaving them both connected by only one or two arms (White, 2013) – a move that was soon to become the foundation of Lindy Hop. As a matter of fact, Swingout finally allowed partners to express themselves individually, a closed dance position (standing in front of the partner whilst holding each other) was no longer the main aspect of the dance. The harmony of teamwork and individualism began to reflect in Lindy Hop, likewise, it was in the heart of jazz music itself (White, 2013).

 

Head bouncer at the Savoy ballroom, Herbert White’s or simple "Whitey’s" new troupe called "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers" consisted of members of the second Lindy Hoppers generation. Frankie Manning, Willa Mae Ricker, Leon James, Al Minns, Ann Johnson, and Norma Miller – young men and women, mostly Black teenagers, who were living under poor conditions in the time of the Great Depression. Regardless of their low living standards, as any other teens, these young dancers were still relatively careless and full of life, performing rather spectacular acts and quickly becoming more proficient in dancing.

Nevertheless, one dancer specifically distinguished himself from the others with his original ideas and competence. It was Frankie Manning, who introduced his unique choreography to the audience. In the mid-1930s he entered a competition against the famous Lindy Hopper Shorty George. The day of the competition is famous for being the day when the air step was introduced by Frankie Manning and his partner. Immediately after the event, Lindy Hop had a rise in popularity, followed by many invitations to competitions and appearances in movies.

Gaining Popularity: Film Industry

While Lindy Hop was gaining its popularity, the film industry became interested in this new dynamic dance style. It didn't take long before movie directors started inviting one of the most famous professional dance troupes “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers” to perform in their screenings. Up until this day, the most fascinating performance was captured in the movie “Hellzapoppin” (1941, H.C. Potter, USA). The choreography, danced at an incredible speed, still makes one question whether the recording was accelerated or not. Unfortunately, the context in which the dancers were presented did not depict the black community in the most respectful manner.

 

During this time, black people were presented by white producers and directors under very particular circumstances to the white audience. Wild, always happy, not very smart, musical – characteristics that portrayed black people in ways that would make the white audience feel more comfortable. In fact, dancers in these films would usually not be connected to the plot at all.

These old dancing clips are not a pure manifestation of Lindy Hop, but rather a manifestation of a dance infused by racism.

Performers would wear service outfits and be present only in short scenes. Important to realize that these short acts were due to the fact that movie studios would later edit these parts and cut them out of the movies, in order to display them in the Southern states, where segregation was still common. These old dancing clips from the movies as “Hellzapoppin” or “Day at The Races” (1937, Sam Wood, USA) are therefore not a pure manifestation of Lindy Hop, but rather a manifestation of a dance infused by racism (Wade, 2009). To clarify, the performances that these dancers are emulating were a product coming from beliefs about black people that white people had.

 

Dance Connected to Racism

Taking into account the relationship between Lindy and segregation, one might wonder if Lindy Hop can be seen as a bad thing, since it shares a history of racism. Generally speaking, can a form of art be negative since it is considered to have relations with discrimination or abuse? To this day, we don't want to be associated with negative events of the past. Monuments built during the communist era are being removed from public places, for example, and social realism, a form of art, still carries the stigma of past events.

They hope to be able to recreate the same atmosphere that once made Lindy Hop recognized and to have the same carefree spirit – the most authentic feature of the dance.

Considering Lindy Hop, many old clips of the dance are idolized to this day, without taking into account the racism they manifest. Contemporary Lindy Hoppers often attempt to emulate the classic moves by imitating the same energy and facial expressions that performers from the past had. New dancers try to keep the dance authentic; they hope to be able to recreate the same atmosphere that once made Lindy Hop recognized and to have the same carefree spirit – the most authentic feature of the dance. On the one hand, this is the “shaped” side of Lindy Hope (the one that was created in the movies to cater to the white audience) that dancers try to copy these days. On the other hand, regarding the attempts to mimic the old style of Lindy Hop, it is still one of the most successful approaches to keep the dance authentic.

Another key point in understanding Lindy Hop’s history is an example of a culturescape – a concept developed by Arjun Appadurai in Modernity at Large (1996). A phenomenon that was once a local culture, in this case, Lindy Hop back in the 20th century, is now spreading across the globe and is becoming a global phenomenon. Lindy Hop came from the margins of society, but has become a global phenomenon due to the the influence of media and globalization. A dance that was once a manifestation of racism can now be seen as a way of understanding 20th century American society.

A Worldwide Phenomenon

Today, Lindy Hop is known all around the globe, and there are dance clubs that cater to this specific style on each continent. Even though Lindy was just a dance performed by locals nearly a century ago, it is a worldwide phenomenon today, intriguing a variety of people from different age groups and backgrounds. With its considerable historical background and charming clips from old movies, this dance quickly catches one’s attention. However, to truly understand Lindy Hop and to master its techniques, one must understand the circumstances old dancers had to face back then. It is the power of Lindy Hop that it was able to connect many creative souls and that it created a community that broke the barriers of segregation.

References

Appadurai, A. (1996). Modernity Al Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. University of Minnesota Press.

Armstrong, M. (n.d.). Lindy Hop. Swing Dance.

Fernandez, M. (2006). Where Feet Flew and the Lindy Hopped. The New York Times.

History of Lindy Hop. Easy Swing.

Kenneth, D. (n.d.). Oppression of African Americans in the First Half of the 20th Century. Classroom.

Miller, N. (1996). Swingin' at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer. Temple University Press.

Renzland, P. (n.d.). What is Lindy Hop? . Dancing.Org.

Smith, S. (n.d.). Lindy Hop History. The Lindy Circle.

Wade, L. (2009). Race, Entertainment, And Historical Borrowing: The Case Of Lindy Hop. The Society Pages.

White, B. (2013). Swing History 101: The Birth of Lindy Hop (Early 1900s – 1929). Swungover*.

White, B. (2017). Swing History 101: The Golden Age of Harlem Lindy Hop (1935-1942)Swungover*.