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What is Swing Dancing?

Swing dancing is done to the soulful, upbeat sounds of jazz.
Vintage microphones are associated with the swing music aesthetic.
Swing dancers often wear period-inspired clothing.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 02 August 2014
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Swing dancing represents a variety of dance forms that are tied with the development of jazz music in the early 20th century. The first variant of swing dancing, the Texas Tommy, was thought to have originated in San Francisco. It resembles better-known swing dancing forms in that the woman swung out from her partner in a combination of acrobatic moves.

The popularity of music associated with the Charleston in the 1920s originated on the East Coast of the US among African Americans. The Charleston had the unique advantage of being a dance that did not require a partner, though partnering could certainly be accomplished. Charleston moves like the step-kick, and the knee-cross soon became popular through the US, though some found the dance scandalous at first, as it was associated with “loose women” and morals.

The next development in swing dancing was the emergence of the Lindy Hop in the 30s, which incorporated many of the Charleston moves. It is considered to be the first “true” representation of swing dancing, as it would develop in the next few decades. The steps were usually simple to learn, though one had to think on one’s feet, as the Lindy Hop called for improvisation throughout the dance.

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Jazz music to blues chords, and emerging Rock and Roll developed the Lindy Hop into the Boogie Woogie or East Coast swing. A terrific example of East Coast swing dancing is seen in the movie version of the play, Grease. Though this music was adapted to more traditional mid-50s rock, it is still essentially swing, with elements of the Lindy Hop and the Charleston mixed in.

West Coast swing developed in the 50s, and was less energetic in nature, involving not as much footwork, but more partner spins. With the Lindy Hop, and East Coast Swing, the West Coast variety is representative of the modern swing dancing repertoire. A variant, Western Swing, is sometimes danced to Country music.

Both the East Coast and West Coast swing are now performed in professional ballroom dancing competitions. Initially, dance professionals did not find the swing appealing, and some thought all variants of swing vulgar. Dance competitions did not officially include any type of swing dancing until the late 1950s.

The very basic swing steps are more easily understood if visualized. A step is taken to the left, then to the right followed by three short steps. This is repeated with three steps in the opposite direction. Basic footwork can be easy to master, and there are a number of good DVDs that can teach the basic steps.

Swing dancing is best known for its lifts and spins, which can be quite complicated to learn and require a greater degree of physical fitness. Swing regained popularity in the 1990s and is still going strong. There are now a number of swing clubs in big cities, and small dance schools in suburban and rural areas, which meet faithfully for swing dancing nights, and for teaching the more advanced steps.

Swing dancing is vigorous, as is any aerobic exercise, so one might want to consult a doctor before beginning a swing dancing course. In general, learning the steps and practicing is a terrific way to increase fitness. A night of swing dancing can burn over 500 calories in a way most find a great deal more pleasant than more traditional aerobic types of workouts.

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