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Swing Dancing represtents a broad umbrella of styles of dance. At Bees’ Knees Dance, we specialize particularly in Lindy Hop which is the original form of Swing Dancing that evolved out of the Charleston era and was popular until WWII. When most people think of Swing Dancing, they might not know the name but they usually have Lindy Hop in mind.
But what are all of these other styles of dance?
Rock n’ Roll, Boogie Woogie, Jitterbug, Jive, East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, etc. What’s the difference?
Ultimately, it’s all just dancing. The titles don’t *really* matter. The defining factor for each style of dance is the music. People should dance to the type of music that they enjoy, and when you connect with the music your dancing will shape itself appropriately.
First came straight Charleston which was danced to the very specific Charleston music of the 1920s. Afterward, Lindy Hop (which also integrates the earlier Charleston steps) is best danced to the swinging jazz of the late 1920s through to the mid-1940s. But even by the 1940s big bands, the music was changing and so was the dancing. Some of the very orchestrated sounds of the big bands is more suitable for ballroom dances like Fox Trot, where Lindy Hop is best danced to the hotter jazz that came earlier.
Jitterbug was the white name for Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop was born in Harlem, New York but as it began to spread across North America, the same steps with a slightly different style might have been called Jitterbug, or just “Lindy” and on the West Coast many of the dancers were influenced by a dancer named Dean Collins and they named their own smoother style of Lindy Hop after him. Dean himself picked up his Lindy Hop back in New York at the Savoy and, like all of good dancers, had his own unique style, but when he moved out to California his smoother style of dancing rubbed off on the people around him, mainly white dancers, and that’s the style that you’ll see in most of the old Hollywood movies.
“East Coast Swing” was the Arthur Murry Dance Studios response to Lindy Hop. Everyone wanted to learn Lindy Hop and essentially the studio created a dance that would be easier for them to teach. They took the most basic Lindy Hop steps and simplified them in a standardized way so that they could instruct the masses. East Coast swing is strictly based on six-count patterns while Lindy Hop, which evolved organically as a street dance, is a mix of six-count, eight-count, Charleston, jig and other patterns. East Coast Swing can be danced to the music of the 30s and 40s but better suits early the Rock n’ Roll of the 1950s.
“West Coast Swing” is a dance that confuses many people who are looking for Lindy Hop but aren’t familiar with that name. West Coast Swing is a style of dance that did evolve out of Dean Collins’ smoother style of Lindy Hop, but it’s not danced to the same kind of music. It’s less of a traditional swing dance and more of a contemporary partnered dance that suits pop, soul, R&B, blues and hip-hop.
Just as Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong were defining musicians for the Jazz Era, Chuck Berry was one of the early defining forces in the Rock n’ Roll Era. He influenced the popular music of the time, and the music inspired changes to the dancing.
Rock n’ Roll dancing is danced to early Rock n’ Roll music. However, depending on where you are geographically, or what kind of community you dance with, you might call almost the same dance steps Boogie Woogie or Jive. Some communities would even still hang on to the earlier white name for Lindy Hop and call it Jitterbug. Essentially, these are all dances based on Lindy Hop, but they started to bounce more and become less horizontally stretchy than Lindy Hop; instead the dances of the 50s and early 60s tend to be more contained and while they still have some elastic, they connection is tighter and shorter and the posture is more vertical.
You might be most familiar with the name Jive; Rock n’ Roll is similar though more free than the Jive that is often associated with Ballroom studios and Ballroom culture. There are also more “street” interpretations of Jive that are basically what we call Rock n’ Roll, and the Rockabilly communities will even call it Rockabilly dancing though it’s the same dance simply put to rougher music.
Also, what we call Rock n’ Roll dancing in Canada is actually called Boogie Woogie in Europe as opposed to the very athletic performance dance that the Europeans call Rock n’ Roll. That EU version of Rock n’ Roll is primarily danced for competition and consists of very athletic acrobatics with very few actual dance steps in between. That is not our focus in St. Catharines. Rather, our dancing is based on a fun, care free and not overly complicated approach to social dancing.
There are many other regional dances, such as Shag that also popped up in little pockets throughout the Swing Era and Rock n’ Roll era. Ultimately though, most of these dances fizzled out once the Twist came along in the early 60s which put an end to partnered dancing as part of popular culture. While many communities did continue to dance, couples dancing was no longer mainstream and it wasn’t until the later part of the 80s that most of these dances started to become revived again after many years of falling out of popular interest.
What about the various dances associated with Lindy Hop?
Though a variety of other dances do catch some interest, Lindy Hoppers primarily tend to branch into various Solo Vernacular Jazz deances (authentic solo Jazz and Charleston steps), Balboa, and Blues dancing. These dances are closely tied with Lindy Hop, and the occasional spot of Shag. Mostly these dances are compatible with Lindy Hop because they can also be danced to the same kind of music, as can Tap. Other forms of dancing like Rock n’ Roll or West Coast Swing are technically related, but are better danced to music from other eras.
But really, it doesn’t matter what style of dance you do just as long as you have a good time. Get out there and enjoy!
Mandi Gould is Director & Head Dance Instructor for Bees’ Knees Dance in Toronto and St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada.