A Rose by Any Other Name

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.

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14 Comments

Filed under Big Band, Dixieland, Jazz, lindy hop, Music, Pop

14 responses to “A Rose by Any Other Name

  1. christina

    I often quite enjoy dancing to pop music, especially the contingent of pop music that swings, like Mike Posner’s “Cooler than me,” which is totally a lindy song.

    But then you have songs like “Teenage Dream,” which, while lots of fun to dance to, does not swing at all. I think I agree that dancing to music that doesn’t swing is probably not lindy anymore.

    • craigsparks

      What you’re referring to is straight eighth notes which are all the same length of time, or swung eighth notes that go “long-short long-short.” (Just in case anyone wasn’t sure. What’s interesting to me is listening to the transition of music from having a heavy swing to the straighter eighths that happened in the transition to rock and roll in the very early 50’s.

      I’m working on a post for later this week with some of my favorite danceable pop songs. =)

      • christina

        I’m sure that will be a fun list. 🙂

        Oh, and to clarify my comment above, because the internet is made for porn misunderstandings: I don’t think it’s inappropriate or whatever to play the occasional non-swing pop music at swing events, just because it’s not taxonomically lindy hop. (I have had some really fun dances to the aforementioned Katy Perry, as well as Lady Gaga, Viva la Vida, ect, and I am generally pretty game.) I think this goes double for any venue where the music is a mix of lindy and blues, and the crowd has thus already demonstrated a willingness to partner dance to music that’s not vintage swing.

      • Ah Christina, the link to that Avenue Q song is fantastic.

  2. Colleen

    That is one of the reasons I stray to the Westie scene so often — I can dance to my favorite jams without anyone looking down their nose at me, and the dance style is meant to fit the different feel of the music. I love both! I would have a hard time deciding which is my favorite because it changes from day to day.

  3. Roy Gothie

    Interesting question…
    Music is not like water in that it doesn’t fit itself to the form of every container and thus I cannot do Lindy to the Rob Roy Overture. I imagine every dance is a container or perhaps a conduit through which the music flows; music with big pointy bits may not fit through a narrow conduit designed for a limited volume/size/specific purpose. That said, I do enjoy the challenge of finding the Lindy in different styles of music…

    • craigsparks

      Both music and dance have a great capacity to bend. I’ve loved pushing myself to use lindy to a waltz or to Brubeck’s “Take 5.” Even something like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” Its not something I’d ever do publicly, but its a fun exercise that always challenges me to grow and think/move in new ways. So between music and dance, I’m not really sure which is the container and which is the contained. Generally, I find myself restraining myself as a DJ because I often find stuff to be very danceable that other dancers do not. That’s the bi-product of pushing myself and of years of dancing. So I think those boundaries of danceability are malleable depending on skill level and experience.

  4. Roy Gothie

    Oh, the first clip…priceless!!

  5. Ellie Lynne

    I personally have no problem with dancing lindy to modern music….just as long as there is a definite lindy beat. It’s quite difficult now to find songs that definitely will fit the style of dance. But it’s possible, quite possible. (Jason Mraz, “I’m Yours”) There have been modern songs played that I find quite hard to dance to (finding the correct beat), but, then again, there have been vintage songs that I have had the same problem.

    I personally think that a lot of us have gotten stuck in the rut of performing the perfect move instead of getting loose like it was like back when lindy hop was just getting started. Watch old B&W versions of when lindy was new (like Whiteys dancers) and see how FUN they have verses the competitions and stuff we have now. Not that we don’t have loads of fun now, but back then it was wild abandon and FEELING the music verses performing perfect feet. Just a thought.

    So, it’s a personal preference. No one should judge someone who likes either or, just enjoy the dance…that’s what it was created for anyway.

  6. Peter

    I had a conversation with a fairly new swing dancer about this topic a couple of days ago and he was a strong proponent of the use of popular music for swing dancing. I think a mix of “true” swing songs that have a strong pulse and pop songs that are more familiar to our generation is best (as Craig DJ’s). Some beginners prefer the pure swing songs that have a more detectable beat, while others may prefer songs they recognize. I personally like the mix so that it’s easier to keep each dance fresh and creative, the more distinct each song is, the more distinct each dance is.

  7. Ceste

    I prefer dancing to WW2 era music….it lights me up inside the most…sadly at the DH, most of the bands are rockability and I hardly ever get to experience the pureness of RKO, Eric Felton, Blue Sky 5, & TCO (I don’t go to GE & CCB for personal reasons)…I DO enjoy rockability, its just not my all time pinnacle fav….I miss going to Nick’s each week cuz Dabe would always pick the most interesting music/theme etc. I’d always get stuck asking him now who is this? or is this early Ella etc? I had soooo much fun at my b-day at Nick’s bcuz he somehow remembered all the convos and comments that I had made to him and he played mostly all the stuff that I loved including Danny Kaye w/ the Andrew Sisters and lots & lots of Sinatra & even some Bingo…I have a really hard time w/ Agulera (sp?)’s version of Boogie Woogie Bugle boy…I honestly think the Andrew Sisters would roll in their graves if they heard it….but then again I think, but maybe this is the only exposure to WW2 music that this new generation will ever hear. When I was subbing for music teachers in Fairfax County, I would send a mass e-mail to all the teachers letting them know that I had my degree in music ed and NOT to leave me vids & I had a special place in my heart for jazz. Well, I got to sub 2-3x where specifically the topic being covered was jazz….Many, many times bcuz of the stupid way it was being presented, the kids would audibly sigh & whine & say, “Jazz is old ppl’s music.” And that would just make me sooo mad. Of course, they’d think it was old ppl’s music cuz the lesson on jazz would only use grainy photos & scratchy, un-restored lp transferred to cd recordings. Wynton Marsalis has done some fine vids for kids called Marsalis on Music & one of my favs is where he has his jazz band juxtaposed w/ the Tangledwood orch…another time when I was subbing, I actually chucked the teacher’s lesson plans on jazz & just started teaching the 5th graders Charleston. They LOVED it! The boys kept exclaiming, “We get to kick? Cool!”

  8. Pingback: Vintage Jazz Buffet (1 of 5) | All the Cats Join In

  9. Pingback: Musical Subjectivity « Dancing Past The Godzilla Threshold

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