Swing Dance: The Complete Beginner’s Guide
Swing dancing has been around for a while.
If you can believe it, swing dates to over 100 years ago!
One of the cool things about this dance is that it evolved with the times.
Popular styles of music tended to always influence this dance.
It is precisely for this reason that there are so many styles of swing.
Although eras have come and gone, swing dancing managed to stay current and relatable.
What is Swing Dancing?
Let’s start out with some quick facts:
+ The term “swing” is a term used to represent a broad range of dance styles.
+ These dances are from many different eras.
+ Swing dance styles differ from each other based on footwork, timing and technique.
+The defining factor of these styles is the music.
Through the decades, there have been many interpretations when it comes to dance styles.
There have been many opinions of what they are and what they look like.
Naturally, only a handful of swing dance styles from the 1920’s to the 1950’s survived.
These swing dances are loose and have a freer form. The posture is more athletic:
These dances are tighter and more contained, with an elastic connection. The posture is more vertical:
East Coast Swing
West Coast Swing
Boogie Woogie and a few others
Here is a great little video that will give you an introduction to the swing dance era. You will see many fun dance sequences:
What Sets the Different Swing Styles Apart?
Just like languages come in different accents, swing dancing comes in a variety of styles as well.
Swing is inspired by the music being played. It also is inspired by the particular venue and period in time.
As the times and musical styles evolved through history, so did the dance.
This created many offshoots off swing.
The main technicalities that set the swing dance styles apart are the following:
Type of Music
Brief History of Swing Dance
Swing dates back as early as the 1800’s. It was inspired by African Americans.
The initial “swing style” era came from the jazz music played between 1920-1940. The music is what brought popularity to the dance.
The most famous dance to popularize the swing craze was the Lindy hop.
Once the craze began, swing dance spread to both coasts of the U.S. rapidly.
Shortly thereafter, it made its way into Europe.
Soon after this era, new swing styles emerged. They were always inspired by big musicians of the time.
Quick Guide to the Different Kinds of Swing Dance
Each swing style is unique and captivating. It is fun to both watch and dance.
For that reason, learning how to dance any style of swing will work in your favor.
However, to get the most out of your dancing, it is best to keep your personal goals in mind.
Here is an quick list that defines each swing dance:
LINDY HOP – The Lindy is considered to be the original form of swing.
CHARLESTON – This style is danced to specific Charleston music from the 1920’s.
JITTERBUG – The bouncing actions of this swing dance make dancers look like bugs.
EAST COAST SWING – This dance was developed so that the masses could finally dance a simpler swing.
JIVE – This style is fast yet controlled. It is also defined by its kicks, flicks and knee pumping actions.
CAROLINA SHAG – The smooth and laid back style of this swing originated on the beaches from the south.
WEST COAST SWING – This particular swing is considered to be slinky and sleek. It includes a lot of improvisation.
This Video shows the Different Swing Dance Styles:
7 Different Styles of Swing Dance
1.) Lindy Hop
The Lindy Hop is also known as “Jitterbug”, “Swing” and “True American Folk Dance”
Lindy Hop Characteristics
The Lindy hop flows with style. It is spontaneous, fast paced and full of personality.
The posture of Lindy dancers has an athletic stance. It also has a horizontal and stretchy feeling.
In addition, Lindy demands extreme precision.
Advanced Lindy Hop dancers use complicated steps.
They also coordinate their moves to fit the music perfectly. It is important for them to be in sync with the music.
If the music is fast, the dance can express a lots of energy filled with many kicks.
However, if the music is slow, it can have more of a sophisticated calmness to it. Swing can be refined with smoother body actions as well.
Check out some of the best Lindy Hop dancers of today.
Why People Like Lindy Hop
- Lindy Hop is spirited and wild.
- It is considered to be a joyful dance.
- It is playful and leaves much room for improvisation.
- There are many tricks to learn.
- Flips, twirls and other jazz steps are included.
- It’s creative and interpretive.
- It allows dancers to freely express themselves and the music.
- There is a basic structure, but within that structure there is opportunity for adding your own style.
How to Lindy Hop
The dance is made up of a mix of 6 and 8 count steps.
Lindy Hop is considered to be one of the more difficult swings.
So, it might take some time to hone in your skills.
Where Did Lindy Hop Originate?
Lindy Hop is considered to be the original form of Swing.
It originated in African American communities of Harlem in the 1920’s.
However, Some of Lindy’s footwork is borrowed from the Charleston and tap dancing.
Frankie Manning is one of the founding fathers of the Lindy Hop. He helped popularize the dance by teaching and performing.
Lindy Hop Music and Timing
Lindy Hop is traditionally danced to the “Swinging Jazz” of the 1920’s-40’s.
It has a syncopated rhythm and leaves plenty of room for personality to shine through on the dance floor.
Rhythm: Slow Slow Triple Step, Slow Slow Triple Step
Tempo: 120-180 bpm
These days the types of music acceptable for dancing Lindy Hop are wider in range. They include Jazz, Blues, Country and Rock.
Are you curious about what Lindy Hop music sounds like? Here is a Lindy Hop Playlist.
One of the most famous Lindy Hop clips in history is this one below. It is performed by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe. The choreography is by Frankie Manning from the film “Helzapoppin”:
The Charleston is energetic, lively and loose. It made its mark in the Roaring Twenties by being controversial at first.
It is no wonder that the Charleston turned into an instant dance craze.
The Charleston shows free movement on the dance floor.
Kicking legs and swinging arms allow dancers to “let go”.
It became just as fashionable off the dance floor as it was on it.
Flappers started to “flap” their arms and legs around.
They walked around like birds and further popularized the trend.
Since the basic is rather simple, dancers get very creative with playful variations.
The movie clip from below is from “Don’t Knock the Rock”.
It has a good representation of what Charleston (and other popular dances of the era) looked like back in the day:
Why People Like Charleston
- It became a dance that symbolized “letting lose” after World War I.
- The Charleston was banned from dance halls in the 1920’s, which made it exciting.
- The Jazz Music of this time was extremely popular.
- The music was fun to dance to.
- The Charleston could be danced in a group, with a partner or even solo.
How to Do the Charleston
- There are a few technicalities to keep in mind when learning this dance:
- Up and down movements are made by bending and straightening the knees.
- Big arm movements swing in contra motion to kicking steps and twisting feet.
- Feet are stylized by turning toes in and out.
- BASIC FOOTWORK:
- Step Forward with the Right Foot and then do a forward tap with the Left Toe.
- Step back with the Left Foot and then do a back tap with the Right Toe.
Here is a Video Tutorial of the Charleston Basic:
Where Did the Charleston Originate?
The Charleston started in 1903 on a small island near Charleston, S.C.
It later made its way into Harlem in 1913.
By 1923 it became a pop culture phenomenon thanks to the Broadway show called Runnin’ Wild.
The Charleston went on to influence other styles of swing as swing evolved.
Its dance patterns can be traced in the Lindy Hop, East Coast Swing and Jitterbug.
Charleston Music and Timing
The Charleston is commonly danced to Ragtime Jazz and New Orleans/ Dixieland Jazz.
The rhythm was initially popularized by a song called “The Charleston”, written by James P. Johnson.
Rhythm: 2 Beat Rhythm with “Dixieland-ish” feel
Tempo: 200-300 bpm
Are you curious to hear some Charleston? Here is a playlist of Charleston music.
Check out these Modern Day Charleston Dancers at the Championships:
The Jitterbug is also known as “Single Time Swing”.
The Jitterbug looks like your common swing dance.
It includes energetic twirls and acrobatics that come about on the fly.
The upper body is mobile and the legwork is quick.
There are a lot of playful movements as well.
The bounces, hops, and sharp, jerking movements made dancers look like bugs. That is how they came up with the term “Jitterbug”.
However, the the Jitterbug toned a bit down through the ages. As music evolved into a smother and more sophisticated sound, so did the dance.
Here is an instructional video on the Jitterbug. It is called “Groovie Movie”:
Why People Like Jitterbug
- It is meant to be an easier version of previous swings.
- It has less structure.
- The Jitterbug brought people back into the ballrooms, which were closed during WWII.
- The dance is lighthearted and puts a smile on many faces.
How to Dance the Jitterbug
The Jitterbug has a 4 step basic. It is danced in 6 count time and does not include triple steps.
Here is a Video Tutorial of a fun Jitterbug move called the “Cuddle”:
Where did the Jitterbug Originate?
Jitterbug was popularized in 30’s by the song called “Call of the Jitterbug” by Cab Calloway.
The dance remained popular all the way into the 40’s after the war.
It is considered to be a simplified version of Lindy Hop.
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Jitterbug Music and Timing
Other musicians such as Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey also played their part in the music scene of the Jitterbug era.
Tempo: 140-184 bpm
Due to the speed of Jitterbug music, most of the dance basics span one and a half measures of music.
It made Jitterbug easier to dance by removing the triple step. In turn, it grasped a wider audience.
Here are the famous Jitterbug Champions, Gi Gi Brown and Gary K. Lewis in 1961:
4.) EAST COAST SWING
The East Coast Swing is also known as Jitterbug, Eastern Swing, American Swing, East Coast Lindy, and Triple Swing.
East Coast Swing Characteristics
This type of Swing is upbeat, fun, happy and social.
It is as versatile as it is energetic.
Personal style is welcomed, however, there is little time for thinking.
The dance makes use of the whole body with twists and turns.
Although it may look like the dance bounces all around, it does not!
Dancers maintain tight steps for control and dance in a circular fashion.
Hip movement is created through the “swinging” that happens from one side of the hip to the other.
Why People Like East Coast Swing
- This is the most common style of swing
- It is easier to dance compared to the others.
- The variety of music is extremely varied.
- The dance is timeless.
- It has a lot of energy and bounce.
How to Dance East Coast Swing
East Coast Swing is a 6 beat dance. It features three basic steps: triple-step, triple-step, rock step back.
Here is a Video Tutorial of the East Coast Swing Basic:
Where did East Coast Swing Originate?
The origin of East Coast Swing can be traced to the 40’s. It is an offshoot of Lindy Hop and Foxtrot.
This dance was invented by Arthur Murray specifically to make swing dancing available to the masses.
Lindy Hop and Jitterbug were not easy to learn.
Hence, a new and simplified version of Lindy Hop was created: East Coast Swing.
East Coast Swing Music and Timing
As a new Jazz Era of music emerged in the 1940’s, East Coast Swing burst onto the scene.
This new type of Jazz music was called Swing music .
It included a wide variety of styles and tempos.
Rhythm: Triple Step, Triple Step, Rock Step
Tempo: 136-144 bpm
The East Coast Swing is traditionally danced to big band music.
However, it also blends in well with a variety of other genres as long as it “swings”.
Some genre examples are: Big Band, Rock and Roll, Blues, Soul, Rockabilly, “Oldies”, (i.e. Elvis and Chuck Berry), Country, and Top 40.
Here is an example of what competitive East Coast Swing Looks Like:
The Jive is known as “Swing”, Boogie, Boogie-Woogie and Jitterbug.
The Jive is yet another dance that is happy and is filled with fun.
It is one of the most energetic and liveliest of the Swing dances.
Jive includes heightened kicks and flicks.
Even though this dance is free spirited, it still remains controlled.
The Jive is so fast that there is no time for thinking.
The stamina required for this dance is extremely high. The precision is also demanding.
Knees lift in a pumping action and hips rock. The dance retains its control by staying in one spot.
How to Dance the Jive
The basic patterns of Jive are similar to those of the East Coast Swing.
Like the East Coast Swing, the Jive consists of two Triple Steps and a Rock Step back.
Here is a Video Tutorial on how to do the Basic Jive:
Where Did the Jive Originate?
The Jive originally began in 1930’s in the United States.
It was initially a mix of the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug.
However, when American soldiers brought these two dances to Europe in the 1940’s, a strong following quickly developed.
The dances merged into a mix of dances. And the term “Jive” was used in the UK to describe this style of dance.
In 1968, Jive was adopted as one of five Latin Dances in the international competitive circuit.
Here is an example of what competitive Jive looks like:
Jive Music and Timing
Jive can be danced to Rock and Roll, Jump Blues, Boogie Woogie and Swing Music.
The drum line provides the beat and gives dancers a sense for the rhythm.
Rhythm: “1-2”, “3 and 4”, “5 and 6”
Tempo: 152-176 bpm
“Jive” was the term used by musicians of the 1930-1940 Swing era to mean “Foolish Talk”.
Get familiarized with this Jive music playlist.
6.) CAROLINA SHAG
The Carolina Shag is also known as the “Swing Dance of the South”, “Beach Swing” and “Beach Dancing”.
Carolina Shag Characteristics
The Carolina Shag is a laid back dance that looks easy, but isn’t.
It is a smooth swing dance connected to the feel of the music. Partners mirror each other and are in sync with their movements.
Here is a great demonstration of what Carolina Shag looks like:
As you can see, feet kick and slide around. There is a minimum amount of upper body movement.
The emphasis is on the fancy footwork. Only a few spins are done, and most of them are danced by the leader.
Why People Like the Carolina Shag
- The Carolina Shag is described as a “cold beer on a warm night with a hot date and no plans for tomorrow.”
- It has a happy and laid back rhythm.
- The music has a relaxing mood.
- What can be better than dancing on the beach to great music?
Where did the Shag Originate?
The Carolina Shag originated in the 40’s along the beaches of North Carolina and South Carolina.
It was an extremely social “beach dance”, especially among the youth.
At first, it was not known to be a particularly classy dance.
However, it became the official state dance of South Carolina in 1984 and continues to be a staple among locals.
How to Do the Shag
The Carolina Shag resembles a slottled East Coast Swing.
However, it only uses a one handed connection.
The basic includes both 6 and 8 count patterns.
This video will guide you through learning the Carolina Shag Basic:
Carolina Shag Music and Timing
Carolina Shag is danced to “Beach Music”. It is a mix of Rhythm and Blues and everything in between.
Rhythm: One-and-two, three-and-four, five, six
Tempo: 100-130 bpm
Listen to the following Carolina Shag playlist to get an idea for its rhythm.
7.) WEST COAST SWING
West Coast Swing is also known as “Western Swing”.
West Coast Swing Characteristics
West Coast Swing is defined by its sleek and slinky style.
It is one of the most unique and spur of the moment dances.
Out of all the other swings, it is the most recent one.
It emphasizes musicality, connection and smoothness.
This type of Swing has an elastic look. Dancers get this look by using an “extension-compression” technique.
It definitely has a different feel from other swings.
Furthermore, West Coast Swing is danced in a long and thin slot about 8-9 feet long.
West Coast Swing evolved through the times with its music. It is still quite relevant to the dance scene today.
The emphasis is on core movement. In addition, dancers use “in and out” patterns to emphasize stretch.
Dancers stay in rectangular area called a “slot” and stay grounded.
Why People Like West Coast Swing
- This dance is less traditional than other swings.
- It can be danced to pop, hip-hop, R&B, blues, etc.
- Improvisation is a large part of this dance.
- There is freedom of expression in the moves.
- Partners are allowed to work off of each other.
- Dancers create a dialogue between each other by using footwork.
How to Dance West Coast Swing
West Coast Swing uses walks instead of rocks. It has tap-like steps and push pull interactions.
The poise is slightly backward-leaning at the full extent. This is called a negative connection.
Dancers typically use an anchor step as a common ending pattern.
The basic step includes 2 walks and two triple steps. They are danced in a 6 count.
The following video includes a series of moves from West Coast Swing. It is taught by Ben Morris, a West Coast Swing Champion:
Where did West Coast Swing Originate?
West Coast Swing is the official State Dance of California.
People believe that it originated in the 1940’s in Los Angeles.
Its roots go back to the Savoy Style Lindy Era.
If you would like to see this dance in the movies, there is a feature of West Coast Swing in “Red Hot Gang” (1958).
West Coast Swing Music and Timing
West Coast Swing is danced to music ranging from very slow to fast.
It also can be danced to a wide range of medium tempo music. This type of music includes Rhythm and Blues, Jazz, Soul, Honky-tonk, Country Western, Disco, Funk, Rock and Pop.
Rhythm: Slow, Slow, Triple Step, Triple Step
Tempo: 112-128 bpm
Here is a great video of West Coast Swing Champions expressing the music:
As you can see, it would be a lot of fun to learn how to swing dance.
The benefits of dancing swing or any style are endless.
Start with the basic, simple steps. You will see how two partners will develop harmony dancing together.
Swing gives us a vibrant outlet for spending our free time. It develops new connection with others and ourselves.
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Leave a comment below and let me know your favorite style of swing and any questions you have.
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