What is Swing Dancing?

by Roger Weiss

There seems to be a lot of controversy over what swing dancing is. I don’t believe in getting all caught up in the semantics of what each style has to be called, it’s just not that important to me. But, for new people (and some experienced ones I know), I’d like to offer my perspective on the different swing dance terms being tossed around. Swing Dancing is a general term which at the very least, means dancing to swing music. Swing music can be from the swing era (thirties-forties) all the way to current day. The main characteristic of swing music is that it swings. How can you tell if a song swings? Tough question. Some things can’t be put into words, it’s all in the feel. All I know is, when the music’s swinging, I can’t stand still!

There are several types of dances that can be done to swing music.

Lindy (a.k.a. Lindy Hop) – started in the late 1920’s in Harlem, NY. This is the original style (derived from The Charleston) that spawned all the others. It’s characterized by an eight-count basic step (the Swing-out), and consists of eight and six count steps. There are many styles of Lindy, however, I think that they can all be broken down into two categories; Performance and Social (or street dancing). The first can be seen in the old film clips from the 1930’s dance contests. It often consists of aerial steps and all configurations of Charleston kicks performed at fast tempos. The social style is a smooth, lead-follow dance done at all dance tempos. Lindy (performance style) is what is currently being seen in the Gap commercials.

East Coast Swing (a.k.a. Jitterbug) – The first time I heard the term “East Coast Swing” was when I lived in San Francisco, and they seemed to use it to differentiate it from West Coast Swing. Whatever, this is the 6-count variant that came out of the original Lindy style in the 1950’s. The eight-count steps were pretty much dropped, and the 6-count steps kept, and it bounced more to fit to the fifties rock and roll music.

Jitterbug- this term was coined (by Cab Calloway, I believe) in the 1930’s, so initially referred to Lindy dancers. But, somehow, it’s now used to refer to East Coast Swing.

Balboa – This is sometimes called cartoon dancing, because its done to very fast music (over 200 beats per minute). The feet move quickly while the upper body stays pretty still. The dance was started in California in the 1930’s (I think). Jonathan Bixby and Sylvia Sykes are the leading teachers of this style and are great to watch.

Retro Swing – I have no idea what this means, but it sure is popular. I’ve been told it refers to a style of music, not dance. Go figure!

West Coast “Swing” – When it was first danced (1940’s thru 1980’s), it was danced to swing music. However, nowadays, it’s danced to R&B, Hustle and Disco, so I no longer list it in the swing dance category, since this contradicts my basic definition of swing dancing (see above).

Carolina Shag – I like the look of this dance started along the beaches in the Carolinas, but, since it’s not done to swing music, I’ve got to eliminate this one too.

St. Louis Shag – Very bouncy and kicky dance done mainly to 50’s rock and roll music.

Jive – The ballroom competition style of swing dance. Very bouncy and erect. I think the term came from England.

If you can think of any other swing dances, please fill me in, as I’m not the final authority on this by any means.

Copyright Roger Weiss, © 1998. All rights reserved by the author. Duplication or use in any other medium, including but not limited to print publication, another web site, or downloading to a storage medium on CD, floppy disk, hard drive, zip drive, or tape, without the written permission of the author is prohibited.

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