The State of Jazz Dance

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

In the end of September 2013, The National Hand Dance Association organized one of the most important events in Washington D.C. The event included a panel discussion with Old Timers from The Savoy Ballroom era and with The Washington D.C. Hand Dance veterans, in addition to other panelists from the current Swing and Hand Dance scene. The event also had Hand Dance and Lindy Hop demonstrations with help of Old Timers from both the Hand Dance scene and The Savoy Ballroom.

Luckily, the event gathered a lot of audience, especially Hand Dancers, but unfortunately it gathered less from the current so-called Swing Dance scene which mostly stayed away.

The same phenomenon happened in the Harlem Swing Dance Society dance in October. The Columbia University Swing Dancers basically represented the downtown scene, but that was mostly it. Luckily, the event gathered a lot of Old Timers from different eras: The Savoy Ballroom era and the post-Savoy era, and a lot of Harlemites came in. So, for those who really wanted to meet people from the Harlem scene from different decades, that was the place.

At the same time, all kinds of workshops and dance camps take a lot of dancers. Also Old Timers are regularly represented in those events, but mostly for authenticating younger generations’ dancing by telling stories from the past. It sometimes looks like those younger dancers just wait for the stories have been told and then they can go to learn from younger generation dancers how the dance should really be done. It looks like these dancers ignore the fact that Old Timers still can teach and younger dancers can learn from them. Are these younger dancers really capable of replicating what older generations did? If you asked that from the late Terry Monaghan, a famous The Savoy Ballroom historian, his answer would have been a firm NO.

Monaghan states in his “theses” concerning The Savoy Ballroom and The Lindy Hop’s relation to it, that there possibly are some of “new dancers” who are thinking that they are superior to Elders. They may think, for example, that they have larger “step collections” than Elders, and thus they have better knowledge about the dance. These “new generation dancers” also use different nuances from old film clips for their teaching without really understanding and analyzing the idea behind those movements. Monaghan states that “new scene” has micro-analyzed Lindy Hop technique, which has led to confusing facts how The Lindy Hop should be learned and danced.

According to Monaghan, the original Savoy scene was consciously structured and modified over the years to integrate differing levels of expertise in a way that developed the dance form as a whole. Also the original scene respected social dancers more than today’s scene where to be kicked or to be collided is more likely than in the past. Nowadays dancers rather make exhibitions of themselves than really dance with their partners on the social dance floor. Monaghan thinks that the main departure from Savoy modes of organization is the replacement of a general awareness of the differences between performance, competition and social dancing. By categorizing dancers in ‘beginners’, ‘intermediates’ and ‘advanced’, the way to become an expert is to take more classes instead of the old ballroom test of successfully attracting congenial dance partners.

The old way to learn by individual observation and imitation is largely omitted from this world of dance classes. The categorizing also leads to standardization, as the goal is to reach ‘advanced’ level to be a good dancer. And even that is not the final goal as there is a level above ‘advanced’: ‘performance training’, which indicates that a logical goal to social dancers is to perform that they can be even better dancers than ‘advanced’. The top layer of the new scene of performance and competition dancers is sometimes called as ‘rock stars’ who have been the star attraction of the dance camps. They usually are the ones who define correct techniques which should be taught.

Thus, in effect, these ‘top layers’ of the new Lindy scene have replaced Old Timers as role models, where dancing is concerned. That also has led to a fact that to be able to increase amount of students in classes is achieved by winning competitions or by performing regularly in big enough events.

At the same time, when teaching is mostly “allowed” only to those who are “advanced” enough, also dance history information has been under “control” as there has been “collectors” who possibly have tried to use their information as “merchandise”. Certain people try to control the Jazz Dance-related information and think that they only are able to speak for Old Timers. Hiding information for their own use has led to the situation where Jazz Dance research has incidentally been slowed down, but hopefully only a bit as mostly this hidden information seems to be some random details which as such does not make a big picture, but probably can help in making the big picture.

Anyone, who really has researched history, knows how time consuming research really is. At the best it is a full time job and your life. You do not have much time for other activities. Thus, the easiness of “dance historians”, when they reveal their ‘revolutionary facts’ about Jazz Dance, reminds of the same micro-analysis than where the analysis of the dance is concerned. This “micro-analysis” of Jazz Dance has led to so-called ‘puzzle history’ where these “historians” are giving a piece of puzzle, but at the same time, they are hiding other pieces for the future use. This “information feeding” keeps their admirers “in check” as they are happy for even a small piece of information, although that piece did not mean much in the big picture.

Jazz Dance, and in it especially swing-related dances, and the Charleston have become a big business where you really can make big money if you can control information, and if you are able to convince others about your superiority in Jazz Dance. The acknowledgement of these facts as conditions for success has led some people to find “shortcuts” to these issues, and has created a new phenomenon at least in Finland, where certain people, who are calling themselves as “jazz dancers”, are trying to define what is correct in Jazz Dance. These people have masqueraded their operation in a form of ‘non-profit’ organization, but in reality they are probably taking a piece of the ‘big business’. Incredible, but true is that nobody has challenged them in any way. As local dance associations stay quiet in the case and are not willing to challenge these “jazz dancers”, the situation reminds old gangster films where streets were divided into different gang areas –in this case – of course – between different jazz gangs. Obviously everybody involved is happy about that they all can make money.

These people also control newspapers and information about them as you can see videos about them in YouTube, and all comments in these videos are disabled. You also cannot correct their misleading historical information in newspapers as those papers do not publish your comments obviously because their friends are responsible for those articles. They have their own dance events and classes and you cannot see them social dancing in other ballrooms (probably because they cannot social dance, although they claim to teach social dance), and definitely they are not going to be challenged in any public performances with real performers or in competitions. At the same time, they claim that they have superiority in Jazz Dance. That reminds a religion where reality is ruled out, and created a fictive world with details that match to their “religion”.

Also a question concerning authenticity comes up quite often. Who are authentic dancers? Can anybody teach someone else’s dance style authentically enough? To answer these: first of all, “authentic” is what you are doing. Everybody is “authentic” in his own thing. To be someone else authentically enough is not the easiest case: you can learn about someone else’s style even straight from the person, but you cannot get into his head, even if you were otherwise as good as possible. In other words you can’t replicate someone else’s mindset: You can teach only what you are.

This article quotes from the late Terry Monaghan and his ‘ ”Stompin’ At the Savoy” -Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom (Dancing At The Crossroads. African Diasporic Dances in Britain. Conference Proceedings 1-2 August 2002). Monaghan study is the study which everybody should read carefully.


About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and the former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Authentic Jazz Dance: all jazz dances from different eras of jazz. E.g. Cakewalk, the Charleston, Black Bottom, The Lindy Hop, Mambo, Rhythm Tap. Heinila researches jazz dance, in particular, in the context of Harlem, New York. His doctoral dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality - The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 is a groundbreaking study in the field of jazz dance and Harlem. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-7783-9010 .
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7 Responses to The State of Jazz Dance

  1. Steve Pastor says:

    Where can we find Terry’s paper? Thanks

  2. Hi Steve! You can find Terry’s paper at least in some bigger libraries. They should have the ‘Conference Proceedings’ also here:

  3. Peter White says:

    This seems to be a very cynical and one-sided view on Jazz dance. I can believe that there are some scenes where what you are discribing is actually the case. But there are scenes all over the world where people who have been dancing for a while start teaching because they enjoy dancing and want to share their experiences and in order to get more people involved in swing dancing.
    My bet is that most people dance because they have a good time at the local dances. And improving our techniques helps us enjoy the dance more. Good technique makes the dance more confortable and helps to express ourselves in ways that we couldn’t otherwise. The danger I see in the classes is more that it suppresses our individuality as dancers. But it is the responsability of every single dancer to keep his individuality alive even when learning the same moves, techniques, styles as everybody else.
    I do agree that we can still learn a lot from the old timers. But we can also learn from newer dancers and from beginner dancers. Because as you say so nicely: ‘“authentic” is what you are doing’. That also means that the old-timers do not have the copyright on the dance, the dance can still evolve, which it already did in the old times.

    • Hi Peter!

      You are correct that it is a “one-sided view”. It really is, because it comes from me, how I see what is going on. I use the late Terry Monaghan’s research as a basis for my analysis and give credit to Terry when deserved. The most of the ideas about the state of Jazz Dance seen in the article come from his research. Terry was the one of those who changed my views in so called ‘Swing Dance’ world, which he called Authentic Jazz Dance. The Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, Swing, Swing Dance, you name it, is only part of that enormous collection of Jazz music-related dances. My experience about working with Old Timers support those views. Terry had a lot of a longer background in working with Old Timers, so if you don’t believe me, you may believe him? Anyway the article may be cynical too, but to me it is a realistic description about the ‘Swing Dance’ world. You are right that all is not that bad. There is a good progression in the interest in “Old School ways” of dancing. It just should be realized until it is too late. When it comes to learning from newcomers etc. You can learn from everybody. Basically anybody can teach you steps. Anybody. Just take someone from streets and ask him or her show you some steps. He or she may not be able to teach you correct rhythm, but anybody who can move their feet can teach steps. And if you can’t move your feet, you can move your hands and your other body. Just make those steps to the rhythm of music and that is. When it comes to styles of dancing, in my opinion, anybody can’t teach so called Savoy Ballroom styles authentically. Only those who have been at The Savoy Ballroom can do that. Anybody else, although learned straight from a Savoy dancer, can’t teach those styles authentically enough. It is always your own interpretation, that means, what you have learned and mixed with your own ideas. It is a Savoy Ballroom style, when you come from The Savoy Ballroom. The question is how much you want to base your dancing on the old styles, and how much you want to base your dancing on something else. I try to find Old Timers with old styles and build my dancing on their ideas, and add my ideas to that, I mean to make it to my way of dancing, an individual style. You can choose a different route as who says what is a correct way to dance?

      It is you.

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