Swing dancers come to find their passion through many means. For Dawn and I, we started by learning ballroom dancing for our wedding and though this discovered a love for swing. While pursuing our passion, we found that there is a lot of misinformation about swing (in particular, the history of swing dancing) amongst the ballroom community. Over the years, this has motivated us to educate people in the history of swing as well as the dance as we teach classes and workshops. Why care about some misinformation floating around? Because swing is a rich part of our cultural history. Until the swing scene boomed, ballroom studios were most people’s source for information about the dance. Given those stats, the history of swing dancing was almost rewritten with misinformation. In fact, when Dawn and I first started to pursue our love of swing, it was actually difficult to find good information about the dance’s history.
Now before I go any further, let me say that this is by no means a slam on the ballroom community. Nowadays, this “one off” history is being passed along through no malice. It’s simply people relaying the information they were told from what they felt was a reliable source. Fortunately, as the swing scene boomed and many others found a love for the history and culture of the dance, this misinformation has become more the exception. It’s now easy to find good information about the roots of swing dancing and many ballroom dancers have embraced it’s rich history. However, there are still pockets who have not been enlightened.
So what is this misinformation that I am talking about? We’ve heard all kinds of stuff over the years. When we first started dancing, our instructor told us several interesting factoids including “Arthur Murray invented swing” and “the name ‘swing’ comes from the swinging of the hips”. Both statements are clearly false. Other statements include swing being a “modified Foxtrot” and/or a “modified box step”. Knowing the true history of swing (more specifically, Lindy Hop) proves that both are again false.
So what’s the big cover up? What’s the source of this inaccurate information? Well, just recently a good friend shared a website with us that sheds light on this. On this ballroom dance site was a “misleading” (at best) history of swing dancing. Having a hunch that this information was probably copied from a studio syllabus or publication, I did some searching and found that this description appeared almost word-for-word on multiple ballroom sites. This says that it was clearly a copy/paste job. It’s not my goal to single anyone out, so I will simply link to Google results so you can view the source. Since one site references the swing era as “about 35 years ago”, we can assume that this is from a studio publication that has been passed down over the years. The wording has either been changed by some when put online, or the document evolved over time. In fact, I’ve seen some of this wording that has been mixed in with more factual swing histories.
What’s particularly interesting about this is that you can see some of the roots of the years of misinformation. Look past the facts and look at the writing. Certain phrases stick out:
“For many years now the better establishments have frowned upon the wilder forms of the Swing”
“It is possible, however, to do a fine Swing… providing the dancers are better than average…”
“There is no question that the dance is here to stay”
“…originally called the Lindy Hop, was born in the South of the U.S.A.”
To really understand the meaning behind these phrases, you have to put them in context. Swing is a street dance. During the swing era, the ballroom community and studios rejected it as an improper dance. It was viewed as a passing fad that would soon go away. In their eyes, no respectable person would do the Lindy Hop. What was the motivation behind this? Some say that it was because during the time the dance was popular amongst the youth of America and was viewed as wild and rebellious. Others say that race came into play. At the time, ballroom catered to upper class white clientele while swing was created by blacks in Harlem. Personally, I think it was a heaping helping of both.
Regardless, sometime in the 1940’s and into the 50’s, the ballroom community came to accept swing, however, not in its entirety. After years of the dance being wildly popular, it was clear to them that “the dance is here to stay”. At that point, studios looked to capitalize on the trend. However, due to their previous bias, they felt the dance must be repackaged to be more acceptable to their clientele. In marketing material and internal publications, the history of the dance was obscured. Instead of acknowledging the black roots of the dance in Harlem, it was instead claimed that the dance came from the south. While possibly true seeing Lindy Hop evolved from Charleston (a dance with some roots in the south), the statement is misleading at best. To further cover the roots, the steps were likened to basic ballroom steps like the box step. This gives the impression that swing came from a more “proper dance” and not an evolution of jazz steps. To add on, studios implied that with proper training it is possible for someone to dance a “fine swing” and not be frowned upon when visiting “better establishments”. This was an early form of what we would now call marketing spin.
Here we are many decades later and these old inaccurate, misleading publications are still making appearances on modern web sites. It’s a sad reminder that a part of our cultural heritage was almost obscured. This isn’t due to any conspiracy on the part of any modern ballroom studios or instructors. They are just relaying what they were taught and what they have always assumed as accurate information. However, this is a good warning that marketing spin can often rewrite history and obscure the real facts… often destroying culture in the process.