Today, I watched clips from the 2011 Lone Star Championships. For the invitational jack and jill competition, competitors danced two songs together, one classic lindy hop selection and one that was “Sweet Soul Jam” or “Karaoke Grab Bag.” I got a big kick out of watching some of the best dancers of our day let loose during the second selection (Check out Peter Strom and Mia Goldsmith). It got me thinking about the role of popular music in our lindy hop scene.
Some dancers really enjoy dancing to non-traditional swing songs. Some dancers don’t enjoy it at all. For as long as I’ve been dancing, I’ve heard arguments, sometimes heated ones, about popular music and lindy hop. I’ve heard people argue that, because the aesthetic of the dance changes when danced to non-traditional swing songs, its no longer lindy hop. I’ve heard others argue that the lead/follow technique and the shared framework for creating the dance is the same in both, and so its a perfectly valid expression of lindy hop. Personally, I think there’s some truth in both perspectives.
Yes, the aesthetics of lindy hop changes when danced to different types of music. The dance clip from “After Seben” circa 1928 shows the early days of lindy hop, very upright, lots of bouncing and kicking, deeply rooted in Charleston. The clips of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers from the late 1930’s shows Frankie’s bent over stretched out style of dancing, much more fluid with less vertical pulse. The clips of Dean Collins in the 1940’s shows a heavier vertical bounce with less extension than Whitey’s crew. The music in each of these time periods was different and the danced changed with it. Some might call the early clips the “break-a-way”, the clips from the 1930s “lindy hop”, and the Dean Collins clips “jitterbug”. The differing terminology can be useful descriptors and also confusing jargon. In the end, knowing terminology isn’t necessarily as practical as actually knowing the dance itself, with the ability to distinguish the actual movements that differentiate each style and the capacity to execute them all with proficiency.
No matter what we call it, whether or not we personally enjoy it or disdain it, and how the dance changes, popular music has a place in our current community. Often, complete novices and beginner dancers come to dancing without any knowledge of jazz/swing/big band music, and without any personal relationship to the music either. These dancers often lack the same refinement around the aesthetics of the dance, and just want to have a good time. Playing popular music connects their daily life with this new activity. I don’t mean to suggest that every song needs to be modern and relevant to the novice, just that including it into the mix helps them connect with the dance. Popular music is a way to plug people into the swing community where we can teach them about this thing we love, its history, music and aesthetics.
I’m sure there are dancers out there who disagree with me; who might argue that there are other ways to connect people to swing dancing, or that if we are connecting them to this version of the dance to popular music then we are not really connecting them to lindy hop. I agree that there are other ways to plug people into our community. For example, I firmly believe that awesomeness begets awesomeness, and that if you give people the opportunity to join in something fantastic they most likely will. As for whether or not we are really connecting them to lindy hop, my rebuttal is that I honestly don’t know, but maybe that isn’t quite as important as connecting them with the larger picture of our dance community, of helping them have a good time, and making partner dancing accessible and relevant to their lives. If we do, they might just come back to discover the full richness swing dancing has offered many generations since the 1920s.