There are many, many websites out there with information about the various dances generally considered to be “swing” dances. Most of these pages all repeat the same information over and over verbatim, because they have all copied from one another. See the bottom of this page for links to some of these pages, which do generally contain excellent information.
This page here contains brief descriptions of each dance, a snippet of its history, and other relevant information. It is all written by me (Sarah). Our content comes from various sources – some written, some oral. I have had the privilege of listening to and speaking with some of the well-known swing historians, many of whom had the opportunity to speak directly with some of the original dancers from back in the day. I have also had the opportunity to chat with (and dance with) Frankie Manning on several occasions, but he is the only old-time dancer I have spoken with personally.
I have tried to include a brief description of the basic step of each dance, but it’s very difficult to describe a dance verbally. My best advice is to go to Google or YouTube and do a search for a video.
What is Swing Dancing?
Swing Dancing is an umbrella term for many dances that were popular in this country in the 1920s-1950s.
A reporter went to the Savoy and asked a nearby dancer, who happened to be “Shorty” George Snowden, what the dance was. Shorty made up a name on the spot, taken from a headline that had appeared in that day’s paper “Lindy Hops the Atlantic” and said it was the lindy hop. And that’s how Lindy got its name, right? Well, probably not. That’s the legend, but very few of the dancers from back in the day agree that that’s how it happened. However, it seems that nobody really knows!
Lindy evolved from an old dance called the Texas Tommy, and developed during the Charleston Craze of the 1920s. Charleston dancers would do a move called the “breakaway” which looks a lot like a wildly kicking version of what we now know as the lindy basic. Lindy gained popularity throughout the 1930s and 1940s. It is the true original “swing” dance.
Lindy is an 8-count dance, with the feet generally following this pattern: step, step, triple step, step, step, triple step. Today, there are two main variations of lindy – Savoy style and Hollywood or Smooth Style. Savoy style is based on the dancing of the early dancers at the Savoy. It is more circular, with the dancers either standing straight up (common among modern dancers) or bent over at the waist, and with the leader pulling the follower in on count one. Followers generally do a “twist, twist” step for counts one and two. Hollywood or Smooth style is based more on the dancing of Dean Collins and the other Hollywood dancers of the late 30s and 40s. It is more slotted and smooth, with the dancers in a piked position, like they’re about to sit down.
This is one of my favorite dances, as far as the history goes. See, back in the day, the ballroom dance teachers looked down their noses at lindy, dismissing it as a silly trend that would quickly fade. They had to eat their words years later when lindy was more popular than ever. When they were finally forced to recognize lindy as an actual dance, they felt that the moves and motions associated with lindy were too, um, ethnic for the upstanding, well-to-do, white dancers who took ballroom lessons. They “refined” lindy by cutting it down to 6 counts, basing the timing and footwork on the foxtrot, and basically removing all of its soul. But they still called it the Lindy or “Jitterbug.” (It was not called “East Coast Swing” until the late 50s. (It was also called “rock & roll dancing” in the 50s.) But it should be noted the East Coast is an “invented” dance, not a folk dance, as is lindy.
The good news is that East Coast is really easy to learn. The bad news is that it is lacking, for lack of a better word, heart.
There are actually three variations on East Coast Swing. Triple, Double, and Single. In the single step basic, the man steps on his left foot for counts 1,2, then on his right foot for counts 3,4. On counts 5 and 6, he completes a rock step, stepping his left foot slightly backwards, then rocking back onto his right foot. The lady completes the same footwork, but starting with her right foot. (The verbal counting is “slow, slow, quick quick.”) In the double step, the feet instead go “touch step, touch step, rock step,” and in the triple step, the feet go “triple step, triple step, rock step.”
The term “jitterbug” is used to refer to both East Coast Swing and to Lindy. It was also a (not so flattering) term used to describe dancers back in the day. For more information about this term, visit Street Swing.
West Coast Swing is a derivation of lindy. Today, there is a lot of controversy over exactly where the dividing line was/is. Some say that the swing we see danced in Dean Collins‘ films and in the rock and roll films of the 1950s (like Don’t Knock the Rock) is actually West Coast Swing, while others (including myself) just consider it to be lindy. Regardless, it seems clear that Dean Collins, who was originally a New Yorker, moved to California and began teaching the smoother style of lindy that he danced to people in California, who apparently considered it to be a completely different dance from the swing they were already doing. Over some period of time, the dance evolved and became what we now call West Coast Swing.
West Coast Swing, in reality, is a lot lot like lindy. Many lindy dancers kind of frown upon West Coast Swing (and WCS bashing is a favorite pastime of lindy hoppers), but the two have much in common. There are two main differences between West Coast and Lindy as far as the actual footwork and moves. First, West Coast is strictly slotted – the man stays in place and the woman moves along a slot. (Some of you may be thinking “but, hey, parts of lindy are like that, too!” And you’re right.) Second, West Coast tends to emphasize six-count moves (in fact, the basic is 6 counts), while Lindy emphasizes eight-count moves.
And, in the words of one fellow dancer who dances both lindy and west coast avidly (and has won awards in both). “What’s the difference between West Coast and Lindy? West Coast is danced to rock music while wearing ruffles and sequins.” And he was only half joking.
The basic step of West Coast involves the man doing “step step triple step triple step” in place while leading what is very similar to lindy’s sugar push. The woman also does “step step triple step triple step,” but she’s moving back and forth. The man leads her towards him on 1, 2. On 3&4, the partners push against each other with their hands, and on 5&6, the lady moves back on to her starting position. That’s slightly oversimplified!
Here’s a bit if interesting trivia: West Coast Swing is the official state dance of California.
Collegiate Shag was popular in the late 1920s among, you guessed it, college students. If you’ve ever seen Collegiate Shag, you will know why! Only college students have that kind of stamina!
Shag is usually danced close to your partner, though it can also be danced in an open position. It is usually danced to faster music and is actually quite simple to learn. Double Shag, which is the most common form, is very similar to the single step form of East Coast Swing. The counting sounds like “slow, slow, quick, quick.” In East Coast, that translates to “step, step, rock step,” but in Shag, the dancers are hopping. The man will hop on to his left foot on count 1, then bounce there for count 2. On 3,4 he will hop over to his right foot and bounce. For the 5,6 or “quick quick,” he will hop left, right. What is important to bear in mind is that, as in all swing dancing, the bulk of the movement needs to come from below the waist. The dancer’s head should stay largely in the same place, while his lower body is moving around. You’re not leaping like you’re trying to jump over a log!
Other forms of shag are triple shag and single shag.
Like so many dances, it’s hard to pin down a solid history of Balboa. It was danced back in the 1920s and 1930s and likely evolved from the other popular dances of the time. Willie Desatof, one of the original Balboa dancers, has said that he thought it evolved from the Rhumba, while others maintain that it evolved from foxtrot. Whatever the origins of the dance, we do know that the name came from Balboa Peninsula at Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles, CA, where Balboa was danced.
There are two main forms of Balboa: Pure Bal, and Bal-Swing. Back in the day, they were called simply “Balboa” and “swing,” respectively. Pure Bal is the original form. Dancers are very close to one another (the dance features a body lead, meaning the two dancers have their bodies touching enough that the follower can feel the leader’s movements) and there are no breakaways. All of the steps in Pure Balboa are just variations on the basic footwork, with the dancers remaining essentially plastered together at the chest. The footwork can be furiously intricate, or it can be simple. It can be danced to very fast music, or to more mid-tempo music. Far from being boring, some dancers find pure Balboa to be an exciting challenge.
It is said that Balboa became popular because of the crowded dance floors of the time. There was not room to do much moving around, and some ballrooms even forbade couples from separating from one another so that they could pack in the maximum number of dancers.
Bal-Swing was just called “swing” by the balboa dancers of the 30s. It started when they began incorporating moves from lindy into balboa – turns, dips, even flips. Anything goes in Bal-Swing, as long as the footwork remains primarily Balboa.
Balboa has a unique body positioning. The dancers actually lean into one another slightly, touching from belly to chest. The footwork sounds like “step step hold step step step hold step.” The man steps backward with his left for count 1, and backward again with his right for count 2. Count 3 is a hold, with no stepping. Counts 4, 5, and 6, he steps forward right, left, right. Count 7 is another hold, and count 8, he steps back with his right. All of the steps are very small. The follower does the exact opposite, starting out moving forward with her right foot.
Balboa, when danced well, is very smooth, with the dancers’ heads barely moving, and their feet going wild beneath them. For more information about Balboa, please see Balboa Nation.
Back in the day, of course, this was just called “Charleston,” but many people find it easier to call this “20s Charleston” nowadays to differentiate it from the rock-step-kick-step-kick-and-kick-step Charleston that is generally done within the confines of Lindy. Charleston might date back to the 1800s, but it was established as its own dance in the ragtime jazz age of the early 1900s. By the twenties, it had caught on as a fad, with women who did the Charleston being called “flappers” because of the way they flapped their arms while dancing.
As most people know, the Charleston and “flappers” were considered by many to be the cause of the moral ills of the day, such as drinking and smoking. The Charleston was, at the time, really just a fad dance, and was replaced almost entirely by the Black Bottom in the mid-20s. For whatever reason, the Black Bottom came and went, though, while the Charleston came and went and comes back again and again.
One thing I like about Charleston is that there is a lot of flexibility in body position. Partners can be in closed position or open position, close together or with a comfortable distance. The entire dance can be danced sans partner, as well. The basic step is quite simple – step, touch, step, touch. Both partners are doing the same thing, except the man starts with his left foot and the lady with her right. If I were a man, I would step forward with my left foot, then swing my right foot around to touch it to the floor in front of my left foot. I then swing my right foot back around to the back and step it down behind my left foot, and swing the left foot around to touch it to the floor behind my right foot. And then repeat. Ladies do the same movement, but start by stepping back with the right.
Most people I’ve known over the years call this just “Charleston” or “lindy Charleston” to differentiate it from what we now call 20s Charleston. Lately, it’s been trendy to call it “Thirties Charleston,” though the name doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. In reality, the “20s Charleston” and the “Lindy Charleston” are the same dance. In Des Moines, we called them all “Charleston,” not really thinking much about it being confusing, until a class at the Ballroom Dance Studio wanted a clearer definition of what we were teaching them. So we started calling it “Lindy Charleston” because we were teaching it within a lindy class, and the name’s stuck here now.
This variation of Charleston is usually danced with partners side by side or with one partner directly in front of the other (both facing the same direction, called “back” Charleston). It can also be danced solo.
The basic step, from the man’s POV, is this: 1,2: Rock step with your left foot as always. 3: kick the left foot forward. 4: step the left foot down. 5: kick the right foot forward. 6: “hitch” your right leg, bending it at the knee. 7: kick the right foot backward. 8: Step the right foot down. Start over. Be sure you’re not imitating a rockette by keeping your kicks low and from the knee. (Ladies, do the same movement but with the opposite feet if you’re dancing side by side. If you’re dancing back Charleston, you do the same footwork as the man.)
The Black Bottom is another fad dance from the 1920s. It is truly one of the most bizarre dances I’ve seen. Some sources say that it is derived from an imitation of a cow’s legs stuck in the mud; others say it’s an imitation of negro (as they were called) slaves trying to dance in thick mud. The stage play Dinah introduced the dance to the general public in 1924.
The Black Bottom is a solo dance, is usually danced on the offbeat, and was quite sexually provocative for its day. To quote Street Swing, “The Dance featured the slapping of the backside while hopping forward and backward, stamping the feet and gyrations of the torso and pelvis/Hips like the Grind, while occasionally making arm movements to music with an occasional ‘Heel-Toe Scoop’ which was very erotic in those days. The dance eventually got refined and entered the ballroom with ballroom couples doing the dance.”
I can do the Black Bottom, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a good way to describe the basic step in any manner that will give the reader a true picture.
The Big Apple is a group participation dance, much like the Shim Sham. It did not actually originate in the Big Apple, but rather in South Carolina, back in the 1930s. Betty Wood, one of the dancers back in the day, has said that “It all began at an abandoned synagogue that had been turned into a Juke Joint.”
The Big Apple was originally a call-and-response dance, kind of like a square dance, with one person (or several people) calling out moves, and the dancers performing them as they were called. I have also heard a few people state that sometimes the caller would call out “Shine!” which would prompt one couple to head to the center of the circle for a few phrases of dancing while the other dancers clapped to the music, sort of like today’s jam circle. (At least one person with whom I have spoken suggested that this was a variation called the “little Apple.”)
The movie Keep Punchin‘ features the Big Apple (called a “contest” in the movie) as choreographed by Frankie Manning and Herbert “Whitey” White and performed by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. This choreographed version is what most dancers today do when they get together for the Big Apple.
There are numerous stories about the Shim Sham’s history and origins. Some say it was a vaudeville dance that everyone in the vaudeville circuit knew, others claim that it was a series of warm-up steps that eventually got formalized into a routine at the Savoy, some say that Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant (two tap dancers) invented it, etc. I personally find the Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant story to be the most likely. You can read more about the history of this dance here.
The Shim Sham starts on count 8, and has quite a lot of repetition. In my experience, a room of 6th graders can be taught to do the Shim Sham reasonably well in about an hour, and most adults can learn it in about 30-45 minutes. (More time is required to actually remember it, which requires getting the steps into your muscle memory through repetition.) The dance ends with everyone grabbing the nearest partner and dancing the lindy hop, occasionally interrupted by the bandleader or DJ hollering out for the crowd to “freeze” or “slow” (freeze until told to dance, or dance at half tempo).
I’m going to quote Jean Denney, as quoted at JitterBuzz, about the Shim Sham:
The whole Shim Sham sequence starts on count eight, creating what tap dancers and musicians call phasing. The dance steps are one beat off or ahead of the rhythm pattern of the music, but are the same musical length as those in the tune. Additionally, the Shim Sham shifts as it goes picking up accents at the quarter, eighth, and sixteenth division of the beat, while continuing in its pattern of phasing. It’s quite sophisticated for social dancers, but very routine for tap dancers and musicians. Often a group of swing dancer’s looses the phasing aspect of the rhythm while performing Tack Annie. The group inevitably returns to dancing on the down beat, or count 1. Learning and practicing the Shim Sham correctly is good practice for jazz/tap rhythm, and ultimately improves a dancer’s ability to hear more in the music and improvise.
Many people, when they think of swing dancing, think of aerials. To some, swing wouldn’t be swing without the wild flips and tricks. (Of course, dancing without ever having your feet leave the ground is completely fine fine, too!)
An aerial, also known as an airstep, trick, or flip, is a move that involves one partner being propelled into the air. While many aerials give the illusion that the leader is throwing the follower around, the fact is that, in most cases, the follower actually provides most of her own momentum, with her direction and additional lift provided by the leader. (Otherwise, the swing dance world would be filled with men with incredibly bad backs!)
Frankie Manning and his partner Freda Washington performed the first lindy aerial at the Savoy Ballroom in 1935. You can read the bland and boring just-the-facts-ma’am story here. But I have the opportunity to hear Frankie himself tell the story on two separate occasions, which was quite a treat. The Savoy Ballroom had weekly dance contests, with each couple trying to out-perform the others each week. “Shorty” George Snowden (who really was short) and his partner Big Bea (who really was big) were currently reigning with their flashy move – Big Bea would pick Shorty up on her back and carry him off the dance floor with his legs kicking.
Frankie naturally wanted to outdo Big Bea and Shorty, so he convinced Freda to flip over his back. They practiced in her apartment, with all the mattresses on the floor. (Insert joke about good thing their parents didn’t walk in on them.) Freda thought Frankie was crazy, but did it anyway, and they completed the move without injuring themselves. When they busted it out at the next dance contest, the crowd went wild and history was made.
There are other dances that are sometimes included as “swing” dances that I have not included here because they are not very popular in the midwest. Carolina Shag & St. Louis Shag, for example. I’ve also left out many of the earlier dances that swing evolved from and many of the later dances that evolved from swing. Street Swing contains a lot of information on many of these dances.
Content this page copyright Sarah Reid, 2001, 2007