Flash, Smooth, and Comic

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.

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5 Comments

Filed under Aesthetics, C-Jam, History, lindy hop

5 responses to “Flash, Smooth, and Comic

  1. Colleen

    Great post, Craig! I think that you are right on point; and would like to add that it is important to realize that swing is still a “living” art form. We definitely should embrace the roots of the dance based in the popular music of the past, but shouldn’t balk at letting the dance grow with the music of today. This is the reason I really enjoy dancing with YOU!

    • craigsparks

      I do agree that the aesthetics of the dance changes when danced with different types of music. I think what gets tricky is the multiple definitions people have of the terminology around the dance. Some people use Lindy Hop to refer to the aesthetic of swing dancing to 30s and 40s big band music. Some use it to refer to the basic vocabulary and technique. I see value and drawbacks to both approaches, so personally, I try to keep the semantic differences clear and distinct because its primarily when the meanings get conflated that arguments break out. And at the end of the day, I always remember that dancing isn’t about what we think or what we say. Its about who we are, and setting that loose to the music.

  2. My solution to this is to just avoid the videos and the teachers. I don’t go to classes and I don’t watch videos. What I do is, I go out and dance and try to have fun. Usually I succeed.

  3. Robert

    What we do now seems so much more polished than what I see in the old clips.

  4. David L

    You pose some interesting questions. I think in many ways our scene is similar to the one described by Frankie. In Frankie’s time there was a comp every week at the Savoy. In LA, there were also many comps, but mostly they were doing ” LA swing” not just lindy hop. Today with a worldwide scene there is a comp most every weekend in all sorts of dances from lindy to balboa to blues. Many of these dances are availble for viewing on youtube. So if a dancer pulls out an airstep at Camp Jitterbug in May, then they better be prepared for something new at Camp Hollywood in July, because the viewing public has seen it.

    The top dancers have pushed themselves to continue to develop into their own dancers. Frankie roughly divided folks into smooth, comic and acrobatic. Well I can definitelty see those three types and many more amongst all the top dancers.

    Point granted that alot of the intermediate to advanced dancers can look like carbon copies of one or another of the masters. Frankie tried to emulate Shorty George until he developed his own laid out style. Back in the day you could pick up the basics from parents or watching socially and it might take years to become even competent. Now we don’t have the same social structure to learn to dance from an earlier age, so most people learn through teachers. Teachers can only get you so far though. Eventually anyone who is going to become their own dancer has to take their own dance education into their own hands. So in many ways we are in the same boat as those in the Savoy. If you want to be in Cat’s Corner, you have to work hard by yourself or in a group of peers.

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