Recently, I’ve been nosing through Frankie Manning’s biography again, looking for a passage I recalled from my first reading. In it, Frankie talks about the three styles of Lindy Hop; flash, smooth and comic. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers was built with some of the best dancers in each of these styles. He also talks about how the generation of dancers before him, Shorty George Snowden, Freddy Lewis, and Leroy “Stretch” Jones, all danced upright. Frankie was the one to develop the bent over elongated style we think of today. He was changing the dance to match the changes he was hearing in the music. There’s also a passage about how the follows used to rock-step at the beginning of swing outs. Swivels came later, and Frankie attributes them to Twist Mouth George Ganaway and Edith Matthews.
There were no formal rules, then. All of the great dancers were experimenting, trying things out, seeing what felt good, and learning what looked good and impressed the crowds. Every week, there would be a competition on Saturday night. If a dancer pulled out a flashy move that won them the contest that week, by the next week at least four other dancers would have copied it. So if you wanted to stand a chance the next week, you needed something new. There weren’t any teachers to go take classes with, just other dancers sharing moves, talking to each other, and practicing together.
Today, our dance community is very different. There are hundreds of teachers offering structured group lessons and private lessons. We can go to dance workshops with renowned teachers on any given weekend. This increased access to training and information makes it easier to become a good dancer, and there are a lot more good dancers out there now. At the same time, I see more uniformity in lindy hop these days, and a much clearer notion of what good dancing is.
In the 1930’s, they had contests every week at their local ballrooms judged by crowd response; we have contests once a month or so for regional, national, or international dance communities with judges. I always look forward to ILHC where the best dancers always show off the amazing new moves they’ve been working on. Competition still pushes the limits of our dance, but now its more of a once a year thing than an every week thing. None of these changes are inherently good or bad, just different.
I wonder, though, if we’ve lost some ownership in the dance. Do we still have the same values around originality and personal style? Has Flash, Smooth, and Comic been conflated into “Lindy Hop?” Are we as flexible and willing to adapt the dance to ever changing music? Has our rate of innovation slowed down or sped up? Like any worthwhile question, there are no simple answers. I like to keep asking them, though, because it keeps us connected to our past, conscious of our present, and creating our future.