Swing Dance or Jazz Dance – A Few Words About the Use of the Terms

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

Contemporary dancers have used the terms ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’ as the terms which have been interchangeable with the terms ‘the Lindy Hop’ and ‘lindy hopping’ for the last decades. When compared the use of the terms in newspapers and magazines between 1920 and 1943 to the use in newspapers and magazines between the beginning of the 1980s and 2015, it seems that ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’ have been used hugely more in the press since the 1980s than during the 1920s and the 1930s. When searched the New York Public Library database, there were only over 500 results on ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’ between 1920 and 1943. When the terms were searched similarly between 1980 and 1989, there were even 700 results. The search results between 1990 and 1999 were many times greater than any time before: almost 4,500 results. And that is not all: The years between 2000 and 2015 gave almost 14,000 results! It could really be said that ‘swing dance’ had the breakthrough between the 1990s and the 2010s. Partly, the bigger amount of results resulted from the more developed press, that means that the press coverage is likely bigger today than before, but the difference is so huge that it can be assumed that there have been fundamental changes in the use of the terms between different generations of dancers.

When sampling the terms from so-called African-American newspapers like The Afro-American, The Chicago Defender, and The New York Amsterdam News starting from 1999, it seems that the use of the terms ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’ has been minimal when compared to so-called mainstream (mainly white) press. It seems that when sampling the terms from The Afro-American, ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’ gave only 6 results between 2003 and 2014. Similarly, the terms gave only 9 results between 2000 and 2010 as far as The Chicago Defender is concerned. As to The New York Amsterdam News between 1999 and 2015, the terms gave even 17 results. Overall, these results are very minimal when compared to the results of the mainstream press. Thus, it seems that the boom of the terms ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’ between the 1990s and 2015 happened because white enthusiasts began to use these terms hugely more than never before. In fact, that is self-explanatory when considering the fact that the revival of the interest in the Lindy Hop since the beginning the 1980s included mainly white enthusiasts.

When sampling the terms from the African-American newspapers before 1944, it seems that the use of the terms ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’ was similarly minimal in the African-American newspapers. The Chicago Defender between 1921 and 1943 gave only 11 results, The Afro-American between 1921 and 1943 gave only 8 results, and The New York Amsterdam News between 1922 and 1943 gave only 6 results. Thus, these African-American newspapers used the terms only minimally when compared to the mainstream press.

The late Terry Monaghan, who researched Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, claimed that Harlemites considered a ‘swing dancer’ the dancer who could not lindy hop properly. This may partly explain why the terms did not succeed in the African-American newspapers. There is proof for Monaghan’s claim: The Apollo Theatre organized dance competitions for both white and African-American participants between 1934 and 1935. In the beginning, the white contests were called ‘Swing the Lindy Night’ competitions and the African-American competitions were called the ‘Lindy Hop Night’ competitions. Thus, there probably existed a distain for the term ‘swing dance’ among Harlemites. Indeed, these competitions were merged together in 1935, and they were called the Lindy Hop competitions. Maybe, this indicated the appreciation of the white Lindy Hoppers as time went by. The distain for ‘swing dance’ seemed to remain through the years when judging from the results of the African-American newspapers search.

Another question is how ‘jazz dance’ with its multiple prefixes like ‘authentic’, ‘original’ etc. were established in the mainstream press during the decades. This question is discussed in my doctoral thesis (An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943, published in 2015), where I explain the background of the terms. It seems that the terms ‘jazz dance’ and ‘jazz dancing’ without any prefixes survived from the 1910s until nowadays. From the 1950s, the term ‘jazz dance’ was transubstantiated to mean modern dance influenced ‘modern jazz dance’. There, however, still were jazz dancers who used the term in its original context; they used the term to mean jazz music-related dance forms. As the modern jazz dance emerged, this led to a large amount of variations of the term ‘jazz dance’. This also is discussed in my dissertation. Contemporary dancers, who relate themselves to the Lindy Hop, the Charleston etc. original jazz dances, have also begun to use ‘vernacular jazz’ and ‘vernacular jazz dance terms more and more during the last years. These two terms were not similarly established in the newspapers than the terms ‘jazz dance’ and ‘jazz dancing’ were established.

As I have searched different databases, newspapers, and magazines for these terms, it seems that the term ‘vernacular jazz’ was used for the first time in the study called The Annals of America – Great Issues in American Life in 1968. When it comes to the term ‘vernacular jazz dance’, it seemed to be used for the first time in 1981 (I claim in my dissertation that ‘vernacular jazz dance’ was used for the first time in Dance Magazine in 1982, but after further research it seems that the term was used for the first time in the study called Encyclopedia of Black America in 1981. In addition to that the term ‘vernacular jazz dancer’ was used in another study called Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942 in 1977). Thus, ‘vernacular jazz’ was used at the latest from 1968 and ‘vernacular jazz dance(r)’ at the latest from 1977/1981. Anyway, these terms were used only occasionally, and their use was not comparable to the use of the term ‘jazz dance’ which still had almost 3,000 results between 1970 and 1979 when searched the New York Public Library database. Needless to say, that the amount mostly resulted from the use of the term among ‘modern jazz dance’ enthusiasts.

It should be noted that all these results, including the results of the terms ‘swing dance’ and ‘swing dancing’, are only directional and relative. There can be problems with indexing in those databases, and that is why there can be more results. Anyway, this concerns all the searches, so basically the searches with similar search words are comparable in that sense. To be 100 % sure, all the hard copy versions of the newspapers should be searched. That would be a huge task. Anyway, there still are a lot of sources to go through until we can really be sure about the varied use of the variations of the terms. As I discuss in my dissertation, the term ‘jazz dance’ should be transubstantiated to mean “authentic” jazz dances like the Lindy Hop, the Charleston, Tap dance etc.. In that way, we can clearly avoid the mess of varied use of the terms. In my opinion, it is possible to sacrifice the term ‘modern jazz dance’ to the modern dance-influenced “jazz dancers”, but otherwise the term ‘jazz dance’ belongs to “authentic” jazz dancers, as it used to belong to.



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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5 Responses to Swing Dance or Jazz Dance – A Few Words About the Use of the Terms

  1. swiveltam says:

    That is fascinating and not entirely surprising. I would be interested to know the difference in the 1920s-50s searches of the term jitterbug in relationship to “swing dance” or “swing dancing.” My guess is also that because instructors since the resurgence in the 80s have taught a myriad of dances from Balboa, to Shag, to DC Hand Dancing to Lindy, etc. that “swing dance” became a catch-all for the umbrella of these dances which are lumped in a “swing” or “jazz” era?

    Another interesting comparison would be the use of “lindy”or “the lindy” vs. “lindy hop.” I had read some accounts that int he 30s and 40s the popular term was just “the lindy.” Have you statistics on this?

    Oh, and do you have stats on the difference in eras independently for example how many times jazz or swing appeared in 1920-1929, 1930-1939, 1940-1949, 1950-1959? That would would interesting as well. I wonder if you could kind of track the rise and fall in that way? The biggest problem I see it that “jazz” seemed to be used more broadly, encompassing dance and music, right?

    Cool stuff. Thanks for this. It may influence my historical fiction writing.

    ~ Tam Francis ~

    • Hi Tam Francis! Thank you for your comment. I wrote about five years ago an article where I explained how jitterbug, jive, lindy hop etc. terms were used in the past and differed from each other. I removed my article because it turned out to be incomplete during the years. I may bring it back after modifications. Let’s see… I’m pretty sure that jitterbug was still used widely when Old Timers like Al Minns were claimed to have brought back the term ‘lindy hop’ in the beginning of the 1980s. There certainly have been differences in the use of the terms between the West Coast of the U.S. and the East Coast of the U.S. According to the late Terry Monaghan, the New York enthusiasts in the 1980s borrowed the term ‘swing dance’ from the West Coast dance parlance. At the same time, they borrowed also other ideas from the West Coast, which led to the ‘swing dance’ competitions which were modelled on the West Coast dance contests, just to mention an example. That led to social dance interludes between competition rounds, jack and jill rounds etc., instead of copying the original Harvest Moon Ball which had various performance interludes etc.. What comes to the terms and their usage, I urge you to find out how they were used. It takes a lot of time to find that out. It may take a new dissertation to explain the usage. I may write later about the other terms. At this moment, I do not have time for that because I’m writing the part 2 following my doctoral dissertation, and that is very important because there still are Savoy Lindy Hoppers and Harlem dancers alive, especially from the 1950s and later periods, who deserve to be acknowledged, and they need exposure before it is too late. It is my main task now. In addition, I think that The Lindy and the Lindy Hop have been used both on the West Coast and on the East Coast. There should not be a difference in that between the coasts.

      And (I write these additions, sorry!) I have discussed the use of the term ‘jazz dance’ since the 1910s in my dissertation. The term ‘jazz dance’ is the most essential term there. Concerning the terms ‘swing’ and ‘jazz’, I would say that they have encompassed music, dance and even lifestyle. For example, swing/jazz culture etc.. What I did not write in this terminology article is how those terms should be used… I tried to avoid arguments in that sense. There are associations which were named by using ‘swing dance’ as part of their names. I remember that the late Terry Monaghan discussed the issue. He considered that ‘Swedish Swing Society’ was a correctly named association. We have different ‘swing societies’ also in Finland. I think that was because the term ‘swing’ has encompassed the mentioned different aspects (music, dance and lifestyle). It is, of course, correct to name your association with ‘swing dance’ phrase, but then there might be limitations on what ‘swing dance’ really means. When you use ‘swing’, you always can include those different aspects. Well, that still needs more research to find out different meanings of the term.

      • swiveltam says:

        I do find it fascinating and will be going back to finish my degree next year, and that could be a very interesting research project. At present, I use history and my love of jitterbug as a springboard for fiction writing, which is where my heart is. I try to be as accurate as possible in my narratives and direct people to dig deeper. I love reading your and Peter’s posts. Please keep ’em coming!

  2. Hi Swiveltam! Thank you! To me, it is the most important that there is a discussion. If the articles make you think, then they are worth writing. The terminology discussion is definitely important as well. My main task concerning the terms was found out how the term ‘jazz dance’ was used in the past, and that is discussed in my dissertation. The ‘swing dance’ term research was a by-product of the main research. I found it interesting enough for a discussion, but it definitely needs more research as the other terms need, too. I wish good luck to you in your endeavors in the case. I don’t say that I won’t write about the terms later. I may do when I have time for that. Anyway, more researchers in the case is a good thing because the task is enormous when properly executed.

  3. Pingback: In Defense of the Former Lincoln Theatre Building in Harlem | authenticjazzdance

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