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Archives of Early Lindy Hop
HISTORY OF SWING DANCING: AFRICAN INFLUENCES
Introduction: During the days of slavery in the United States, the African slaves entertained themselves,
and others, with musical and dance forms that contained elements they brought with them from Africa.
Some of the dances the slaves created went on to become national dance crazes for all Americans, such as
the Cakewalk, and later the Black Bottom and the Charleston. When the Lindy Hop emerged in Harlem in
the late 1920's it contained many of these African characteristics. However, it was danced in a rigid, upright
manner (as you can see on the Shorty George Snowden filmclip, After Seben). In the mid-thirties, Frank
Manning introduced the angular posture that soon swept the Savoy Ballroom. Manning had no idea that he
was bringing the dance closer to its African roots-- he says, "I thought it looked better that way, that's all."
What follows are a list of characteristics of African dance that are found in African-American dance forms.
Many of these characteristics are still very much a part of swing dancing. Some of these characteristics are
seen primarily in Savoy style Lindy Hop, and less in some of the other swing forms.
This list is reprinted with permission from a book called "When the Spirit Moves" which accompanied a
traveling exhibition of African-American dance art.
|African Movement Vocabulary. African dance moves all parts of the body, in contrast to many European forms that rely mostly on arm and leg movement. Angular bending of arms, legs and torso; shoulder and hip movement; scuffing, stamping, and hopping steps; asymmetrical use of the body; and fluid movement are all part of African dance.|
|Orientation Toward the Earth. The African dancer often bends slightly toward the earth and flattens the feet against it in a wide, solid stance. Compare this to traditional European ballet's upright posture, with arms lifted upward and feet raised up onto the toes.|
|Improvisation. Within the patterns and traditions of age-old dance forms, an African felt free to be creative. A dancer could make an individual statement or give a new interpretation to a familiar gesture.|
|Circle and Line Formations. Many African dances are performed by lines or circles of dancers. Traditional European dance also incorporated lines and circles, and this commonality may have been important in dance exchange.|
|Importance of the Community. Africans danced mainly with and for the community. Solo performers were supported and affirmed by the group through singin, hand clapping, and shouted encouragement.|
|Polyrhythms. African music included several rhythms at the same time, and Africans often danced to more than one beat at once. Dancers could move their shoulders to one beat, hips to another, and knees to another. This rhythmic complexity, with basic ground beat and counterbeats played against it, formed the basis for later music such as ragtime, jazz, and rock'n'roll.|
|Percussion. In much of Africa, percussion often dominates music and in many cases the drum is the leading instrument. In America, enslaved African created a broad range of percussive instruments. Hand clapping, foot tapping, and body patting were also important percussive sounds.|
|Pantomine. Many African dances reflect the motions of life. Dance movement may imitate animal behavior like the flight of the egret, enact human tasks like pounding rice, or express the power of spirits in whirling and strong forward steps.|
|Something in the Hand. African ritual dance makes use of special objects, including masks and costumes. In this country, Afgrican Americans continued to use sticks or staffs, cloth, and other objects in dance. Handkerchiefs, canes, and top hats became part of the dance, as did other objects in stage routines.|
|Competitive Dance. Competing through dance is a widespread custom in West and Central Africa. In America, this tradition continued in "cutting" contests, challenge dances, Cakewalk contests, Break Dance rivalries, Jitterbug competitions, Step Dance shows, and other events.|
[The list of characteristics and the illustrations are reprinted with permission from Glass, Barbara. "Introduction, The Africanization of American Movement" in When the Spirit Moves, 1999, National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center. Thank you very much!]