August 21, 2007

The Lizardy Hop

Hatched by Dafydd

Sachi and I have been taking ballroom and swing dance lessons for a couple of months now; we're always looking for different ways to exercise (I also fence -- also badly).

The most recent swing dance we've been learning is the Lindy Hop. This is a black jazz dance (all the best jazz dances originated in the black community) that started in the 1920s, according to Wikipedia (and if you can't believe that impeccable source, who can you believe?) Although Lindy Hop is technically a branch of swing dancing, Lindy is to regular East Coast Swing what Little Richard is to Pat Boone.

It was originally performed with both dancers keeping all four footsies on the floor, à la "Shorty" George Snowden, one of the originators in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem; but in the 1930s, dancers such as Frankie "Musclehead" Manning introduced what I call the aerials, or what is properly called the "air step," where one or both dancers leap into the air -- the girl often flipping or being spun around by her male partner.

Here is probably the best swing dance ever fillmed, from the movie Hellzapoppin' (a 1941 Ole Olsen and Chick Johnson vehicle); this is the long (5:03) version, which includes the boogie-woogie music bit at the beginning before the Lindy Hopping begins... work-safe, unless your boss doesn't like you to be wasting your time watching sixty-year old dance routines. The dancers are the Harlem Congaroos, assembled and chroeographed by Frankie Manning:

The unverified story of the name of the dance is that "Shorty" George and "Big" Bea were dancing it in 1926 at the Savoy, and a reporter asked Shorty what it was called. That being the day Charles "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh landed in Paris, the newspapers carried the banner headline "Lindy Hops the Atlantic." So Snowden answered -- ad-libbing a name -- "I'm dancing the Lindy Hop." Make of it what you will.

The Lindy is an 8-count dance, meaning a full count of one complete cycle of the basic step is eight beats: one, two, three-and-four, five, six, seven-and-eight, where the single numbers are single steps and the hyphenated numbers are triple-steps... so it's left, right, left-right-left, right, left, right-left-right, and you're ready to begin again (each triple-step takes the same time as one single step).

Other than just tapping your feet in that rhythm, the most basic Lindy step is the throwout. Starting with partners facing each other, the man's left hand holding the woman's right, the man leads her in; the woman motivates very quickly to the man, turning clockwise somewhat; the man catches the woman, then he spins around (also clockwise), flinging her back out. He lets go his right-hand hold from her shoulder but maintains the left-hand grip, and they're back where they started. This takes one Lindy cycle.

In the video above (and below), you can see the dancers doing the pull-in and throwout to establish a base dance rhythm and sort of rev themselves up for the more extreme tricks -- which I'd love to be able to tell you Sachi and I do, but, ahem, truth in advertising. Maybe someday...

Here's the Lindy scene from the extended (about eleven minutes) all-black dance routine (plus Harpo) in the 1937 Marx Brothers move A Day at the Races (one of the Brothers' best movies, by the way, with the "tootsie frootsie ice-a cream" horse-betting routine and many others). I've always loved the way many mainstream, white movie stars would open their movies to phenomenal black musicians and dancers who otherwise were stuck in black cinema; this is probably the widest audience these singers and dancers ever had in their careers.

The dancers here are from the troupe Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, the first Lindy Hopping ensemble, organized in 1935 by Herbert White from the "Kat's Korner" of the Savoy Ballroom -- a piece of floor reserved for the best swingers -- and chroeographed by Frankie Manning himself. The clip is 2:04 long, and the Lindy starts about 30 seconds in:

Sadly, the dance died out in the 1950s, as rock'n'roll "dancing" took over the dance floors. Rock dances like the Twist or the Mashed Potato require no skill except the ability to more or less keep the beat -- hence were more universal.

During the seventies, disco ruled; disco is at least an interesting dance genre, which can be as blah as the Ronco TV advert for the Hustle -- or as spectacular as some of the wild disco dances in Saturday Night Fever or on So You Think You Can Dance. But right around the peak of disco in 1980, somebody unearthed the Lindy Hop from movies like Hellzapoppin' and A Day at the Races, and the race to deconstruct and reconstruct it was on.

Imagine if all you had to work with was a pair of movies with true experts dancing the dance at the breakneck speed you see above. Fortunately, some of the original Lindy Hoppers from the twenties and thirties were still sucking air half a century later, including Frankie Manning, and the dance was successfully revived.

In fact, Manning is still alive today at age 93, probably because he dances swing. He even won a Tony for best choreographer -- in 1989, when he was 75; he collaborated with, among others, Faynard Nicholas... who, with his brother Harold, formed the famous Nicholas Brothers dance team.

Notice in both the preceding clips the classic "headcutting" style common in a lot of black dance, singing, and rap competitions: Each contestant or pair of contestants comes out on the floor and has 15 seconds or so to wow the audience (and judges); then they vacate the floor and let the next pair hop in. After a while, contestants can cycle back.

There is no long wait between dances, as in the later stages of ballroom competitions, where one couple dances a single choreographed dance all the way through; then everything is on hold while the judges confer... then the next pair get their chance. The dynamic is totally different.

To see how successful the Lindy Hop reconstruction is, check this 7:22 clip from the 2006 finals of one of the many competitions. You'll see many of the exact, same moves from the movies of 60-70 years ago:

Notice that this competition retains the headcutting aspect (others might not; I don't know)... but now the Lindy has become a dance more associated with white swing dancers than black jitterbuggers, back in the days of Cab Calloway. Still, B-Boying is a natural evolution of Lindy Hopping (headcutting and all), though it still needs partnering to become as interesting as the older dances. But I'll bet anyone who is a good breaker can learn to do the Lindy or the Balboa.

Even middle-aged Celtic and Japanese Americans can learn to dance it... well, a considerably slower and more sedate version; there are Lindy clubs all over the world. It's great exercise, it gets you out of the house, it's something you can do with your spouse -- and it's a heck of a lot of fun. (Google is your friend.)

Give it a whirl... literally!

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 21, 2007, at the time of 2:28 AM

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The following hissed in response by: k2aggie07

Dancing is a very enjoyable pastime. I've found the more styles you learn the more you find out there to try.

My fiance and I really enjoy dancing a two-step or polka "western swing" which involves a lot of the same moves. If the music is fast enough that slides into a western jitterbug which is based mostly on boxcars and throws or aerials of some sort.

If you ever make it to Texas let me know -- we'll take you and Sachi to a honky tonk and show you the ropes.

The above hissed in response by: k2aggie07 [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 21, 2007 7:03 AM

The following hissed in response by: lindybill

Excellent article, Dafydd. I got involved in '95 in LA. The revival of Rockabilly had brought back swing in clubs, and there was a pool of Lindy hoppers in LA because of Erin and Tami Stevens in Pasadena teaching it.

I danced the Derby almost every night. The movie, "Swingers" was shot there in 95 and when it came out the scene went nuts for several years. Some of the Dancers had found the old movies featuring Dean Collins, and his style became big by 99.

I live in the Islands now, and dance several times a week at "Coconut Willys" in Waikiki.

The above hissed in response by: lindybill [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 21, 2007 10:41 AM

The following hissed in response by: BarbaraS

I'm not familiar with the Lindy Hop. This was before my time but it looks remarkably like the jitterbug which was prevalent in the 50s along with ball room dancing. BTW, I thought ball room dancing was a lost art.

If exercise is your object you will get a lot of it doing this dance. Better than aerobics.

The above hissed in response by: BarbaraS [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 21, 2007 2:34 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dave Schuler

I also fence -- also badly
It's been more than 20 years for me but I can dust off my mask and foil and give it a try.

May I recommend kendo? Japanese fencing. It's the greatest bar none. I guarantee you'll get plenty of exercise. If you survive.

The above hissed in response by: Dave Schuler [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 21, 2007 2:38 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh

Dave Schuler:

May I recommend kendo? Japanese fencing. It's the greatest bar none. I guarantee you'll get plenty of exercise. If you survive.

Oh, perhaps someday; but at the moment, I'll stick to épée!


The above hissed in response by: Dafydd ab Hugh [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 21, 2007 5:21 PM

The following hissed in response by: Fritz

Good heavens, I had no idea that my favorite lizard was a wannabe Zorro. Thinking of that brings back many fond memories from my childhood and an old black and white TV.
Those memories also include movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers among others. So Dafydd, you continually amaze me with your talents and interests.

The above hissed in response by: Fritz [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 21, 2007 7:26 PM

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