The Origins of Lindy Hop

Here’s a transcript of the video, in case you prefer to read…

Today we are going to be looking into the origin story of lindy hop, how it came to be, what other dance styles inspired it and where it got it’s name. Let’s dive in shall we?

Before lindy hop there were many different partnered dance styles which evolved into the dance we know and love today. There was the two-step, the hop, the collegiate, breakaway, charleston and Texas Tommy. Today we are going to closely examine the final three, breakaway charleston and texas tommy. 

The Charleston is possibly the most famous pre-swing dance, both as a dance that we still remember and know of today and also in it’s time. It had already been established as a popular dance before being featured in the all black broadway show Runnin’ Wild. It was in this production where it was danced to the famous tune The Charleston by composer and  pianist James P Johnson. An article titled “Shake your feet” by  Gilbert Seldes, an American writer and cultural critic, in the New Republic on the 4th of Nov 1925 has a fantastic description of how the Charleston was received at the time. 

“The characteristic negro freedom of movement, frank and engaging; the patting which companies the blues was varied to slapping and the hand fell on any portion of the body, in a frenzy. As if excited by the dance to the point where they did not care whether they were graceful or not, the chorus assumed the most awkward postures – knock-knees, legs “akimbo,” toes turned in until they met, squatting, comic little leaps sidewise. And then the visual high point of the dance, these seemingly grotesque elements were actually woven, in the rhythm of the dance, into a pattern which was full of grace and significance, which was gay and orgiastic and wild.” 

The Charleston swept the nation, everyone could do the basic step whether they be black, white rich or poor. It was a “mainstream infatuation” to borrow a phrase from Bobby White. And it’s still a relatively well known dance today. Most people have at least heard of the Charleston and it often pops up in unexpected places, like video games.

The Texas Tommy was one of the first rag dances which appeared in mainstream American culture. There is a swing out variation in lindy hop we call the Texas tommy, after this dance style. And there are elements where you can see why we borrowed the name, but here is what the original Texas tommy looked like:
Ethel Williams, who helped to popularize the dance in New York in 1913, described it as a “kick and a hop three times on each foot followed by a slide.” The basic steps are followed by a breakaway, an open position that allowed for acrobatics, antics, improvisations, and showing off. 

SIDE NOTE: Ethel Williams the dancer is not to be confused with Ethel Waters the singer and actor. But they did know each other, met at the Alhambra Theater in Harlem and fell in love. The two had a relationship in the 1920s and lived in Harlem together, they toured together,  they even did a little bit about being “partners” that winked at queer audience members while refusing mainstream identification.

Anyways, back to the Texas Tommy. It was danced to Ragtime music which was in vogue at the time. It’s characterised by it’s lively and syncopated rhythm and upbeat tempo.

“the Texas Tommy evolved from popular black vernacular dance forms that spread from regional black communities to mainstream America, taking root in the metropolitan centers.“

The Texas Tommy, Its History, Controversies, and Influence on American Vernacular Dance. Strickland, Rebecca R. 

Finally let’s discuss the Breakaway, the classic example of this is of course from the 1923 film After Seben where we see Shorty George Snowden and Mattie Purnell doing some classic breakaway.  

Some things to bear in mind as we watch this clip, the MC, James Barton appears in blackface. Moreover we can assume that the follow dancing with Snowden is Mattie Purnell but sadly as none of the dancers were correctly credited we cannot be sure.

The name comes from the partners breaking away from closed connection into what we would now call open position for a few counts. This was not a particularly common occurrence in partner dancing at the time.

Now we know a little bit about the dances that inspired the lindy hop, let’s turn to the name itself. 

The story we often hear about the name “lindy hop” is when a reporter asked Shorty George what he was doing and he quipped that he was doing “the lindy” after reading it off a nearby newspaper. 

In an interview in 1959 with Marshall and Jean Stearns for Jazz Dance, George Snowden said: “We used to call the basic step the Hop long before Lindbergh did his hop across the Atlantic. It had been around a long time and some people began to call it the Lindbergh Hop after 1927, although it didn’t last.”

Snowden also talks about a dance marathon he competed in at the Manhattan Casino on June 17th 1928. Fox Movietone News covered the marathon and took a close-up of Shorty’s feet. He was asked “What are you doing with your feet,” and replied, “The Lindy”.

Clearly it is a reference to Charles Lindbergh, who did the first successful nonstop transatlantic flight specifically between New York City and Paris on May 20th 1927.  Winning him the Orteig Prize, a $25,000 award put up by French-born New York hotelier Raymond Orteig prompted by the Aero Club of America. 

When I tell you that this made headlines everywhere, I mean it was everywhere, constantly for weeks. Lindenbergh was a relatively unknown aviator prior to this flight, he barely managed to scrape the money together for his attempt. But after he landed he became an international celebrity overnight. Everyone, everywhere was talking about him. 

Newspapers often called him “Lucky Lindy” and referred to his flight as the “hop over the Atlantic” his name and his story were very much in the cultural zeitgeist of 1927. This makes Snowden’s story a bit odd. Whilst it is possible that some newspapers were still talking about the Lindbergh flight in June 1928, it has been over a year since he “hopped” the atlantic. What I think is more likely to have happened, is that many dance styles and fads which were popular at the time were given the nickname “Lindy Hop” and our dance just stood the test of time. 

The first time it appeared in print was in the Pittsburgh Gazette Times on May 25, 1927, just four days after Lindbergh’s flight. The article reads: 

Are they talking about Lindy Hop as we know it? Or another dance fad from the time, there isn’t actually that much information given about the dance style in question. 

To quote the fantastic Bobby White

The reason we don’t know is because Lindy Hop was a dance invented and evolved by many people over multiple years, and not rigorously historically documented at the time of its birth. What we do have are stories, and not a lot of proof to confirm or deny them.”  

What we know for sure is that the dance was already being danced before Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, when he did everyone was talking about it and the phrase “Lindy Hop” was definitely in the cultural zeitgeist, but we don’t actually know who was the first person to put this dance and this word together.