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Swing FAQ

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What is swing dancing?

All the dances in the ballroom had their roots in a foreign country, but the Lindy Hop was created in New York. In Harlem. At the Savoy. It was an American dance created by Americans. It had soul, and it had swing, which is what made it popular everywhere it was introduced. ~Norma Miller

Broadly speaking, swing dancing refers to all forms of dance that derive themselves primarily or significantly from the Lindy Hop. This includes East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Jive, Carolina Shag, and Balboa, among others. In practice, however, each of these dances contain elements of many other dances. Some influences--such as those of the Charleston or the Blues--are readily apparent, while many others are subtle, apparent only in one or two moves.

Swing dancing is a folk dance in the truest sense of the word. Each variant of swing dancing has influences that tie it to the time and place of its origin. To this day, swing dances such as the Lindy Hop are not a static canon, but rather an evolving style, incorporating measures of dances both old and new.
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What is Lindy Hop?

Lindy Hop as we know it is the result of a complicated fusion of dance styles and influences that were present throughout the early 20th century. Many of these dance styles are now only present in single moves that bear their name. However, a few of these moves have had particularly lasting impacts.

Partner dancing is primarily European in origin; we see it in many of the social dances that are now part of the ballroom repertoire. While African dance often involves group participation, the tradition does not include partner dance as we typically think of it. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the combination of European and African influences in music and dance on a variety of levels. The first distinctly American musical style, ragtime, began to incorporate African concepts of syncopation and rhythm into heavily European musical forms. Animal dances such as the Grizzly Bear and the Bunny Hug that drew heavily on African influences evolved into partner dances. These dances were eventually introduced to white audiences, sometimes in a ballroom setting.

As partner dances incorporated African and African-American concepts, norms of ballroom dancing began to change. The most significant of these changes was the concept of the breakaway. Most ballroom dances are done almost exclusively in closed position, with both arms connected to the partner either by grasping hands or by touching the shoulders or another part of the body. Most ballroom dances open up from this position sparingly, and only in the context of specific moves. In contrast, the breakaway allows both partners to improvise their movements within the context of the patterns of the dance. This concept of improvization was African, but in the breakaway, it found a home in the ballroom.

The Breakaway and the Texas Tommy are generally considered the first dances to incorporate the breakaway. The Lindy Hop incorporated more influences, and is therefore more complex than these dances, but its cornerstone remains the swingout, in which the follow is brought into closed position and then back into breakaway again. This allows the dancers to improvise to a regular, 8-count beat.

For more history, see our Links page.
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What is the difference between Lindy Hop, East Coast, or any other type of swing dance?

The main difference between the dances arises in the footwork. Many people will say that the footwork for Lindy Hop is more advanced than East Coast Swing, but there is a good reason for that. Lindy Hop originated in 1920's and 1930's through an evolution of Tap, Jazz, and Charleston. From, and along with Lindy Hop, a number of other dances evolved, including Carolina Shag, West Coast Swing, Jitterbug, and Balboa. Often different dance styles are suited to different styles or speeds of music.

  • Lindy Hop/Jitterbug - The primary form of dance we teach. This dance is the original swing dance. Lindy Hop is danced in 6 or 8 counts and its "basic" move is the swing out.
  • East Coast Swing - A popular form of swing dance that grew out of the Jitterbug in the post-war period. It is generally considered less complex than Lindy and can be danced to fast tempos without expending as much energy.
  • West Coast Swing - A very smooth, sultry dance that evolved from the Lindy Hop in crowded California dance halls. The state dance of California. West Coast is danced "in a slot" to a 6 count beat, making it suited to both jazz as well as more popular music.
  • Jive - A form of swing dance that evolved after GIs brought swing to Europe in WWII. Jive is part of the ballroom dance repertoire and involves fast kicks.
  • Carolina Shag - A dance that evolved in the Southern U.S. and is usually danced to 1950s-era rock and roll. Shag is well-designed for fast songs, allowing dancers to expend less energy than doing Lindy.
  • Balboa - A contemporary of the Lindy Hop that developed on Balboa Island, CA. Balboa dancers dance very close and take small, quick steps to fast-paced songs.

In addition, the Charleston, Blues Dancing, Texas Tommy, the Big Apple (a call and response dance popular in the 1930s), Jazz and African dance have all influenced swing dancing and are often part of many swing dancers' dance "vocabulary".
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What kinds of music is good for swing dancing?

Lindy Hop is a jazz dance. Although it can be danced to many different styles of music, it evolved from the big band jazz of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The movements, feeling, and energy of the dance all find themselves in those musical forms. Some of the major band leaders of the day include:

  • Charlie Barnet
  • Count Basie
  • Tommy Dorsey
  • Benny Goodman
  • Duke Ellington
  • Jimmie Lunceford
  • Chick Webb

You may also be familiar with swing-era vocalists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, or the Andrews Sisters. For more historical information on the bands, check SwingMusic.net or The Big Bands Database Plus. In addition to the original artists, there are many modern jazz bands who play music in the big band style. The following is a selection of some of the best Swing bands around today. These bands are all well-liked by dancers, and play some of the best and most authentic styles.

  • The Bill Elliot Swing Orchestra
  • The Boilermaker Jazz Band
  • George Gee and his Make-Believe Orchestra
  • Jonathan Stout and his Campus Five
  • Mora’s Modern Rhythmists
  • The New Orleans Jazz Vipers
  • The Wolverines Big Band - The Twin Cities’ own!

For more information on these bands and swing music, see the Links page.
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What kind of shoes should I wear?

In order to swing dance, you've got to be able to spin and slide on the dance floor, but still be able to maintain control so you don't fall over! One of the easiest ways to do this when dancing in the Weitz Dance Studio is to simply dance in your socks. However, the Weitz floor is not always the cleanest, and socks don't give your feet any padding against the hard wood floor. Also, if you want to dance anywhere that isn't the Weitz (or Cowling or the Rec), you're probably going to to want to be wearing shoes. You can either convert a pair of your existing shoes into dance shoes, or purchase a pair of dance shoes online or in a store.

You can make any pair of shoes into "dance" shoes by taping duct tape to the soles. Be sure to walk on the shoes before hitting the floor and give the tape some time to properly adhere, otherwise it will peel off when you start dancing. You will need to retape your shoes as the tape wears down from use.

A more durable and lasting option that's still easy on the pocket book is to have leather suede (aka chrome tanned leather) glued to the soles of your shoes. Any shoe repair shop should be able to do this for around $25-40 dollars. Otherwise, you can do it yourself by purchasing some scrap suede, contact cement, and a sharp pair of scissors.

If you would like to buy a pair of dance shoes, there are a variety of options available in a range of prices and styles. Dance shoes usually have a leather, raw leather, or suede sole to allow for a proper balance of spin and control. Ballroom dance, jazz, or character shoes can all be used for swing dancing. Several companies exclusively manufacture swing dance shoes--Aris Allen and Bleyers. Bleyers are imported from Europe and therefore tend to be more expensive ($80-$120) and are, not surprisingly, popular with European dancers, as well as with East Coast dancers. Bleyers feature the traditional black and white two-tone style and have a special synthetic sole that allows for spinning. Aris Allens tend to be less expensive, depending on the style ($35-$90, plus there are usually several styles on sale/clearance), and feature raw leather or suede soles. They are more popular in America and with Lindy Hoppers. There are people out there who swear by Aris Allens, while others swear just as adamantly by their Bleyers. If you're debating between the two, feel free to ask us about our personal experience with these shoes.
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What kind of clothes should I wear?

When practicing in the Weitz, your normal street clothes should be just fine, as long as you can comfortably move, stretch, and spin in them. Dancing is athletic, especially at fast speeds, so you should consider clothing that will keep you cool if you're planning to tear up the floor.

For more formal events on campus, such as Midwinter Ball or Spring Swing, you obviously want to wear your swankiest duds. However, keep a few things in mind. Guys, you are probably going to get hot in that suit jacket. Likewise, don't tie that tie too tight, and make sure those dress shoes are broken in or else the blisters can be killers. Ladies (this is the voice of bitter experience), don't wear sky high heels or anything that might fall down. Moderate heels and a dress with straps will work best. If you want to sport a strapless gown, make sure it has a boned corset and fits you very snugly. Also, a fuller skirt is highly recommended so you can adjust the size of your stride.

When dancing at clubs or cafes in the Twin Cities and beyond, street clothes or something slightly nicer (especially if there is a live band) tends to be the norm. Keep in mind that if you dance a lot, you will sweat a lot. While you should dress to keep cool, don't dress scantily. Many dancers bring an extra shirt to change into if they get too sweaty. Since swing dancing was born during the jazz age, some dancers like to dress in vintage or vintage-style clothing. Some popular styles include baggy pants for the guys, and knee-length skirts for the ladies. Super vintage accessories like fedora hats, suspenders, and curled hair with a silk flower are popular with some people, while others think this is cheesy. In general, most people don't dress to the nines unless it's for a very special event.
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Do I need a partner?

While Lindy Hop is a partnered dance, you do not need a partner by any means! Lessons will be taught "in rotation" so everyone has a chance to dance with everyone. Some forms of swing dance also allow for solo dancing without a partner, such as jazz movement, the Big Apple (a call and response dance), the Shim Sham (a line dance) or solo Charleston. During social dancing, either in the Weitz, at an organized dance, or another venue, you should feel free to ask anyone you like to dance. That means that girls can ask the guys and vice versa. If someone is a better dancer than you, try not to feel intimidated about asking them; chances are, you'll have a fun dance, and dancing with more advanced people will help make you a better dancer by exposing you to new moves and different styles. Finally, don't feel obliged to dance with someone if you don't want to, for whatever reason. You can always politely decline.
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Where can I go dancing outside of Carleton? How do I find dancing in my hometown?

For places to dance on the St. Olaf campus or in the Twin Cities, check out our Events page. The Twin Cities has several on-going dance events on Wednesday and Thursday nights. We will sometimes sponser trips up to go dance and will usually advertise these events through our mailing list.

If you live outside of Minnesota and would like to go dancing in your hometown, your best bet is to search the internet--you'll be surprised how many people dance, not just in the US but internationally. It's safe to say that any major metropolitian area has a sizable swing dance scene (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, etc). Your Rugcutters officers have danced in a number of locations in the US and abroad and may be able to provide some guidance. A number of local websites have good links to other cities' dance message boards or websites--check out TC Swing and Minnesota Lindy, particularly if you live in the Midwest. Also, Lindy Exchange lists past and upcoming lindy exchanges--any city that hosts an exchange has active dancers; however, just because a city does not have an exchange does not mean there is no dancing. Finally, when in doubt, Google.

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