About two years ago, inspired by its liveliness and energetic dance movements, I started learning Lindy Hop, which is a partner dance with two positions, as “lead” and “follow”. As in most of the dance groups, there was a shortage of guys in the class. This necessitated women to take the role of the lead, mostly performed by men. And I was one of them, learning the lead steps as a female. Another good aspect of this dance class was that we didn’t have a fixed partner. In a round, with every song, we kept switching partners. This exercise really allowed us to change the energy of the room and connect to others in a way which no discursive language would make possible.
This personal anecdote is important in the sense that it points out something about the nature of Lindy Hop: its openness to gender equality as it allows for role switching of men and women. In this blog, I will start with the history of the Lindy Hop and Harlem Renaissance, the atmosphere in which it was born. Then, I will move on to discussing how Lindy Hop intersects with other social and cultural practises set on the body, based on race and gender.
“Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.”
Claude McKay- from “Harlem Shadows”
The revitalization of African Americans’ cultural expressions through art, dance and literature took place in Harlem in the 1910s New York. Known as the golden age in African American culture, the Harlem Renaissance lasted between the 1910s and 1930s. It was a period that abounded with novels, essays, and poetry. Langton Hughes, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Alain Locke were some of the most prominent authors of that time. Their works were published and reviewed in magazines and newspapers by the mainstream publishers dominated by the white. More, jazz was one of the most important elements along with the improvisation techniques which penetrated almost every discipline, such as dance and poetry. For instance, jazz poetry was more prominent, which exemplified improvisations in jazz music in the poems’ rhythmic structure.
In short, the Harlem Renaissance was the rebirth of African culture and enabled African identity to be built in a social and cultural context. Perhaps for the first time, African Americans were noted for their individual voices and their talents in various areas. To put it differently, the distinct identity and image of African society was finally manifesting itself through art, literature, music and dance in Harlem. The Lindy Hop was part of this movement.
How did Lindy Hop emerge?
As a Harlem Renaissance creation, the Lindy Hop emerged in the 1920s during the Jazz Age in an Afro-American community. It’s a swing dance married to lively, dynamic and syncopated jazz music. The predecessors of the Lindy Hop are actually quite a lot: turkey trot, the Texas mummy, ballin’ the jack, foxtrot, walkin’ the dog, the Shimmy, the Charleston and the black bottom. Though the Charleston is the major dance from which Lindy Hop is derived. Even though Lindy Hop started as a street dance, in time it got very popular, became a ballroom dance and performed at professional gigs.
The Lindy Hop gained a wider audience and recognition at the Savoy ballroom, which was founded in 1927. If you wanted to see a real performance of Lindy Hop, you had to make a visit to Savoy. It was open to everybody, both to the white and black communities, who came to Savoy to dance. In return, it allowed for racial integration during a time period when racial segregation was still very dominant.
The famous Lindy Hop dancers
George “Shorty” Snowden was one of the prominent figures and creators of “Lindy Hop”. Snowden was five feet tall, who turned his size into an advantage to create comic effects with his dancing. For instance, he used to bend his knees and walk, making himself even shorter and pointing at the floor with his hands. “Shorty” came from this signature dance move. With this move, he highlighted his five-feet-tall body as a form of self-mockery. Also, Snowden had his own dancing group and appeared in films such as After Seben (1929) and Ask Uncle Sol.
Another famous group of Swing dancers formed in the Savoy was led by Herbert “Whitey” White. Known as Whitey, he had a dancing group named after him: “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers”. Some of the members of this group were William Downes, Frances “Mickey” Jones, Norma Miller, Billy Ricker, Al Minns, and Willa Mae Ricker. This group also trained talented dancers for competitions and professional gigs.
In the nutshell, when we think of Lindy Hop, there are two major dancing groups coming to mind. Shorty’s and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, which enabled Lindy Hop to gain wide public recognition.
Main characteristics of Lindy Hop
The Lindy Hop involves acrobatic and aerial moves, which require certain athletic skills. Most importantly, the Lindy Hop is associated with freedom because it allows for personal expressions and improvisations. From time to time, the partners would separate and do their own solo dancing, based on their own improvisations. More, the theatrical gestures would accompany the dance movements, which reveal the soul of the dance.
1980’s: The revitalization of Lindy Hop
Even though Lindy Hop started as an African- American creation, since the 1980s it has started to be performed mostly by white people. However, these performances were far from reflecting the origin of the dance. On the contrary, they altered the Lindy Hop aesthetics to a great extent. Interviews with African Americans on Lindy Hop indicate that African people feel the need to go out there and dance Lindy Hop to remind the world of its origins and its African identity.
Lindy Hop’s historical and cultural aspects
As a non-discursive medium, the human body performs cultural and historical codes through dancing, especially if it is a dance like Lindy Hop, which emerged in a critical period like the African Renaissance. In the pre-history of the Harlem Renaissance, there is actually another story behind it, starting with ring shouts, which was a religious ritual dance by African slaves.
In time, the ring shouts evolved into Cakewalk, which became one of the earliest forms of Lindy Hop. Indeed, the cakewalk was more than a dance. It was a means of African resistance against the whites during their enslavement in America. This dance appeared as a mockery of the white men’s dancing. According to the Africans’ performance, the slaveowners would award them with cakes. That’s how the cakewalk got its name. But the main point is that the birthplace of the ring shouts and cakewalk was the plantations the African slaves used to work.
Grounded on these reasons, Lindy Hop inhabits a larger historical story. As B.H. Hancock states,“As a cultural form, Lindy Hop combined slave dances with jazz and tap steps”. Also, it embeds a racial identity. However, its engagement by different communities, either intentionally or non- intentionally, leads to some deformations in the “authenticity” of the performances.
Hancock’s “Embodied Ethnography and Racial Imagination”
“The racial imagination, the dominant racial categories through which we understand the world, illuminates how cultural practises such as music and dance are understood only after being refracted through the racial categories that come to define them” (159)- B. H. Hancock
Before starting to talk about Hancock’s arguments, I want to state that everyone’s experience with the Lindy Hop could be quite different. Hancock’s observations as an advanced Lindy Hop dancer in different settings allowed him to see how the dance circulates racial stereotypes and myths. Given that, Hancock’s article offers some perspectives which allow us to gain an insight into how Lindy Hop is practised by the white.
According to Hancock, cultural practises such as the Lindy Hop embody racial imagination as part of which the myth-making process occurs. To internalize what Lindy Hop is all about, Hancock learns how to dance Lindy Hop and to feel it as an embodied ethnography. Then, he starts to build more concrete theories on his observations during this stage. Afterwards, he begins teaching Lindy Hop himself in high schools with other instructors. This phase becomes very important for his research. Before explaining his on-field experiences, he mentions two practises he employs to reflect upon the white engagement of African cultural expressions. These are minstrelsy and whitewashing.
Minstrelsy refers to the practices of “white people intentionally performing the role of black people, drawing on historical stereotypes and mythologies of the black body as innately and essentially exotic, sexual, expressive and rhythmic.” One of the most prominent examples of this is blackface minstrel shows, which are American racist entertainments performed for white audiences. To be more explicit, white performers put on black make-up for their stage performance. For instance, Al Jolson, who was also the star of the film Jazz Singer (1927), was a well-known blackface artist.
As for whitewashing, whether intentional or unintentional, it refers to “the erasure or omission of the racial identity associated with the history of a particular practice or cultural form.” It can be thought of as a form of assimilation. Whitewashing occurs in two forms, according to Hancock. First, with the denial of historical origins of the dance; secondly, the inhibition of cultural expressions of the dance. For instance, the ad by the Gap company shot for the 1998 spring and summer collection, Khakis swing, misrepresented Lindy Hop. First of all, the ad only included white people on a white background. Behind the performances, you might accidently get a glimpse of people from different age groups and cultures. But in its biggest picture,the ad dehistoricizes Lindy Hop as it takes the dance away from African American origins.
Lindy Hop teachings and its problematics
Dancing requires corporeal intelligence and lots of practice to internalize the movements so that you can perform in a flow. It’s something you have to feel. To develop feelings, we might need some stories to get into the gist of the dance. Yet, sometimes these stories end up being racial myths. For instance, as Hancock states, one of the Lindy Hop instructors in a high school dance workshop introduces the dance as such: “I want all the guys to pay attention to me. Girls, you can relax for a moment. Okay, now I want the guys to do a ‘pimp walk.’ Do you guys know what a ‘pimp’ is? And do you know how a ‘pimp’ walks? I’ll show you.” In the rest of the introduction, she asks girls to stick their butt out and guys to check them out on their pretentious “pimp” walk.
Some other time, Hancock attends a Lindy Hop workshop in Sweden with the best dancers ( this time as a student in an advanced class). The instructor realizes the women dance by sticking their butt out, which she finds humiliating. Everybody in the class feels shocked because, throughout their training process, it was how they were taught to dance.
These two anecdotes point out that the way a dance is taught really matters. This kind of teaching doesn’t go far from stereotyping Africans. Rather, it leads to misperceptions of African culture, which includes stigmatization and imitation of Africans’ physical features with exaggerated movements.
Lindy Hop and rethinking gender roles
As I mentioned earlier from my own experience, Lindy Hop doesn’t have any strict gender codes for partnered dancing. It just requires cooperation and attention to the other’s body. It is divorced from hypermasculine and hyperfeminine characterization of dance movements. Most importantly, both the lead’s and the follow’s dance repertoire include dynamic movements. Thus, women don’t need to perform in a fragile, hesitant and softened manner. Neither are men expected to perform masculine aggression. As Lisa Wade states in her article, “In leading, for example, they[the male dancers] are told to refrain from using brute force in favor of weight shifts and they are taught to adopt many feminized body movements, including intricate footwork, spins, body, isolation, and extras like shimmies, hip movements, and flairs with their arms” (234). Lastly, in 1939 New York World’s Fair housed all female Lindy Hop dance performance.
Cultural Significance of Lindy Hop
Emerging as a Harlem Renaissance creation, Lindy Hop is the epitome of social and historical lived experience. Also, it played an important role in the establishment of an African image and identity. It endowed the Lindy Hop dancers with freedom through solo parts where they show their own improvisations and self-expressions. Last but not least, Lindy Hop appears at the end of a long journey, starting with ring shouts, cakewalks. Thus, it embeds history and culture in its veins.
Above all, Lindy Hop allows us to rethink racial factors that affect our cultural engagements consciously or unconsciously. As we see in the example of Hancock, the ethnographic approach highlights the importance of active participation. It also enables the researcher to see the biggest picture as much as possible. Proving itself as topography for ethnographic investigations, Lindy Hop allows us to reimagine race and gender.