Reflections on Lindy hop, the Savoy, and Black History Month

Lindy hop and the Savoy Ballroom have a special place in American history. Besides their significant influence on American art and music, both were also important catalysts for cultural integration between black and white Americans.

During the 1920s in New York, a group of talented black dancers started combining elements of European ballroom dance with African vernacular dances and rhythms. By mixing partner dancing with flashy, athletic moves, they soon captivated people of all backgrounds.

The best of the best congregated at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, a place where people of varying ethnicities could congregate to dance and socialize. It’s hard to overstate what a rarity this was at the time, decades before the federal integration rulings of the 1950s and 60s. As Frankie Manning put it, at the Savoy, “Nobody cared what color you were—they were all looking at your feet!”

As the jazz craze swept the nation, black and white audiences alike enjoyed African American artistry on a previously unheard-of scale. Big band jazz gave birth to forms like bebop and experimental jazz, which in turn influenced the development of soul, rock, R&B, and hip hop. As a result, almost all American musical forms have some basis in jazz. Dance has followed a similar trajectory: just compare the moves in a swing vs. street dance battle.

By providing a space for people of different backgrounds to meet and appreciate each others' gifts, Lindy hop played a crucial role in starting to break down barriers of access and privilege.

That said, the history of swing dance is not utopian. There are plenty of examples of racial bias towards the dance community, from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers being costumed in serving uniforms to Ella Fitzgerald getting turned away from certain music halls until more famous white performers advocated for her. Josephine Baker, a dancer who became one of the most popular and highest-paid performers in Europe, was subjected to horrible taunts and racist reporting when she tried to return to her home country. Even now, media representation of the jazz era often glosses over black artists’ contributions: consider the predominantly white cast of movies like La La Land, The Artist, The Great Gatsby, or even Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and a distinct pattern emerges. And we would be remiss not to mention cultural appropriation by white entrepreneurs (discussed at greater length in our 2016 interview with Adam Brozowski).

The point of all this is that while swing gave black and white communities an important shared cultural touchstone, it didn’t exist in a vacuum. Like so many other aspects of American culture, it is the product of a convoluted mix of ingenuity, oppression and appropriation.

Here in Boulder, we are a majority-white community engaged with a historically black art form. Considering this, I believe we have certain responsibilities to uphold.

First and foremost, we should educate ourselves not only about the easier, more digestible sides of Lindy hop’s past—like the Savoy Ballroom’s status as one of the first integrated dance venues, or swing’s role in bringing black and white communities together—but also about its history of racial injustices.

We should also take care not to root all our discussions of African American achievements in the past. This one can be easy to fall prey to as swing dancers, I think, because so much of our culture is focused on a span of decades close to a century ago. The heyday of Lindy hop in the 1920s and 30s is both long enough ago to seem like ancient history—pre-World War II, pre-internet, pre-most markers of the modern era—and also recent enough that some of its first generation, like Norma Miller, are still alive to tell their stories today. But Lindy hop is a living art form, and examples of incredible contemporary dancers and musicians—both of vernacular jazz and the many genres that emerged from it—are innumerable.

And finally, we can all actively work to make the Boulder dance community more open, friendly and inclusive for people of all backgrounds. This can take many forms, from not automatically equating lead and follow to male and female, to openly valuing the contributions of new dancers, to befriending newcomers and practicing basic etiquette. And, of course, it also means speaking up if you witness harassment of any kind. If you don’t want to confront the person in question directly, speak to a teacher or organizer, and they’ll take care of it. (For Boulder Swing Dance’s Code of Conduct, go here.)

In the current political climate, we need spaces for joyous release now more than ever. Let’s learn from the African American dancers and musicians who first carved out such a space in the midst of racism and oppression. Let’s commit to telling their stories and to living up to their examples.

by Larisa Hohenboken