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February is Black History Month! This month holds special importance for us Swing dancers, as we participate in a rich legacy of Black art every time we dance. In this issue, we're reflecting on and honoring the origins of Lindy Hop and other African American vernacular dances. We believe that the more we connect with history, the more vibrant our dancing will be today.

CLASSES

This month's classes have a special history focus. Come discover the origins of the dance as you hone your skills!

Join us at 7 pm each week to learn historical vocabulary in the partnered progressive class, or the Tranky Doo in the solo progressive class. In these three week long series, you'll gain a deeper understanding of the history of the dance while learning classic moves.

Then, in the 8 pm Lightning Lessons, you'll get half an hour of teaching on a bite-sized topic. Each Lightning Lesson is independent, so if you miss a week, jump in for the next one.

We're extra excited for February 24: at 7 pm, we're hosting a panel discussion on Race and Cultural Appropriation in Lindy Hop.

You won't want to miss this conversation about what the history we're remembering means for us as dancers today. Plus, this discussion is completely free!

Explore Classes
BLACK VERNACULAR DANCE AESTHETICS
THE AESTHETIC OF COOL

by Shelby Johnson

The Lindy Hop community has been striving to acknowledge this art form is a product of African American culture, and to continue teaching dancers the history of this dance. Committing to the characteristics, values, and aesthetics of this art form can help move this tradition forward.

Before I go on, I need to acknowledge and thank Damon and Kelsy Stone, LaTasha Barnes, Chester Whitmore, Ujima Blues Foundation, the Frankie Manning Foundation, and the Queen of Swing herself, Norma Miller, for teaching me nuggets of information via classes and conversations, or exposing me to these ideas I’m about to expand on.

Lindy Hop, Blues, Tap dancing, Breaking, House dancing, Chicago Steppin’, DC Hand dancing, and DFW Swing out all have absolutely different looks to them, but share core characteristics. These commonalities present differently in each dance, but weave a common thread throughout, linking them all together.

That linking thread is Black Vernacular Dance Aesthetics, also referred to in many pieces of literature as African American vernacular dance aesthetics or characteristics.

Jacqui Malone, author of Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance, identifies African American Vernacular Dance as having six definitive characteristics: rhythm, improvisation, control, angularity, asymmetry and dynamism. As scene leaders and teachers, we must be aware of these values, know what they are, and teach in a manner that our scene sees and develops them.

Coolness isn’t included in Malone’s list, but she speaks about how all these characteristics help achieve it. Personal coolness is a hallmark of good style.

Malone on the "aesthetic of the cool"

Coolness depends on control. Historian Robert Francis Thompson coined the phrase “aesthetic of cool,” which Malone defined as “control, transcendental balance and directing one’s energy with a clear purpose in mind.” Controlled dancers focus on doing things with intentionality as opposed to aiming for correctness, yielding a truer sense of improvisation.

Coolness depends on improvisation. Malone discusses black dancers and musicians rejecting the rigidity of European dance manuals, feeling these manuals limited creativity. Instead, these artists valued the additive process of improvisation. Individuality is of the highest priority even when choreographed numbers are performed.

Coolness depends on rhythm. African American vernacular dance is characterized by propulsive rhythm. Norma Miller would always talk about “the Beat” when reminiscing about what made her dance. To discuss control we must talk about coolness. 

Coolness depends on dynamism. African American Vernacular Dances encourages audiences to express their likes and dislikes. This feedback encourages dynamism or dynamic invention and virtuosity, and discourages the performer from delivering static reproductions or imitations of someone else’s style.

Malone on the importance of angularity in coolness

A huge aspect of Lindy Hop is its African American roots. To keep Lindy tied to its roots, scene leaders and instructors need to strive to learn about these characteristics from the many sources that are available. Study how they’re displayed in this dance and other dances that evolved from Lindy Hop.

That way we not only preserve the past and enrich our present, but are able to evolve this tradition into the future.

Further reading: Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance by Jacqui Malone

* * *

Shelby Johnson is a Lindy Hop instructor based in Dallas, TX. He’s been teaching since 2013, and ever since becoming a Frankie Manning Ambassador to Herräng Dance Camp in 2016, has dedicated himself to learning the culture and history behind these dances.

DANCING WITH THE GOOD STUFF

by Terrace Ellis

Terrace dancing in 2019

When people ask me how long I’ve been dancing, they seem surprised when they realize I did my first swingout over twenty years ago. My Swing journey started during the Swing revival of the late 1990’s.

The revival was a fun time. The floor was filled with 6-Count Swing, pretzels, and loads of arm turns and gimmicks. Needless to say, I was decent but not great at it. I wanted to be a better dancer.

After hanging around the dance long enough I came to learn that something was missing. Something very important.

Terrace dancing in 2007

THE HISTORY

As a young, black college kid from the South, my view of Swing dancing was very commercial, produced, and fictionalized. Swing dancing for me was the 1998 GAP “Swing” commercial or whatever Hollywood cliché version I caught on television.

As a person of color, I didn’t see my likeness very much when I started dancing. It never bothered me, but I was at least self-aware.

Then I discovered the Hellzapoppin’ clip.

For the uninformed, it was an atomic explosion. A history bomb. A performance by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in a 1941 film changed my understanding of Swing dancing forever.

William Downes and Frances “Mickey” Jones. Norma Miller and Billy Ricker. Al Minns and Willa Mae Ricker, and of course, Ann Johnson and Frankie Manning. All black, all dancing with a level of mastery that can only be seen as authentic, original.

How did I miss this? How did I not know about these people? This was a very personal revelation for me.

For many like myself, Hellzapoppin’ and other vintage footage were the gateway into learning the history of the dance. I wanted to move that way. I wanted that aesthetic, that spirit, that authenticity. I wanted to meet those people.

Luckily, I got to. And with many of my Swing dance peers I listened, I learned, and I got better at dancing.

Terrace dancing in 2008

THE MUSIC

Any Lindy Hopper that ventures into improving their dancing will discover that the music plays a vital role. My improvement as a dancer correlated with my increased knowledge of the music.

Not the 1990’s Neo-Swing stuff. The classic stuff. The music heard in the room when Frankie Manning and others were creating this dance for us.

Chick Webb, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and others became as synonymous with great dancing as Frankie Manning and Norma Miller.

Fittingly, this is the most direct explanation for the creation of Hot Jam. We needed an outlet to get closer to this music. DJ’s were historians. Every Monday night became a music history lesson.

And I got better at dancing.

FEED YOUR JOURNEY

Luckily for me, I get to witness people of all walks of life start their Swing journey. I only hope they take the time to feed their journey with the good stuff.

Learn the names, hear their stories, listen to the music and appreciate the culture. You will develop a more sincere and authentic connection to the dance, as I did. Trust me, it's a much more wholesome experience.

The great Frankie Manning danced until his mid-80’s. Let’s do the same and beyond with a little more of the good stuff.

Watch Hellzapoppin'
UPCOMING EVENTS

February 3, 10, 17, 24: Hot Jam

February 24: Race and Cultural Appropriation in Lindy Hop
Free panel discussion at Hot Jam

February 2, 9, 16, 23: Triple Step Studios

February 22: Georgia Tech Swing Dance
Dance to the Sentimental Journey Orchestra

SONG OF THE MONTH

by Jesse Gearhart

Chick Webb, image via drummerworld.com

Lindy Hopper's Delight
Chick Webb

Black History Month is a special opportunity for Lindy Hoppers. The music and dance we have chosen is rooted in rich black history, so it's a great time to appreciate and learn the history of the music, artists, and dancers alike. 

But it's my job to pick a song of the month. As such, there are simply too many artists and too many songs to choose from when picking a "song of the month."

In order to narrow the choices down, I'd like to focus on the history of where the dance we so love originated, both regionally and musically.

As dancers, we've learned that the Savoy ballroom is the birthplace of Lindy Hop. While so many bands passed through the Savoy, there was always a house band. That band was headed by Chick Webb and then Ella Fitzgerald after his passing, both hugely important figures in black history, and indeed Swing history.

The band was a favorite of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers, and had a special connection with the dancers as well.

I can think of no better song for the song of the month than the tribute to Lindy Hoppers the band created, called "Lindy Hopper's Delight."

There are many alternate versions of this song, including this one by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and this performance by the Jonathan Stout Orchestra at DCLX (with a jam circle!). But above all, don't forget to check out the original by Chick Webb himself.

Listen

What would you like to see in future issues of the newsletter? Hit reply and let us know.

That's all for February. See you at Hot Jam on Monday!

Hot Jam

585 Wells St SW, Atlanta
GA 30312 United States

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