Swing Dance: The Complete Beginner’s Guide
Swing dancing has been around for a while.
In fact, 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 and popular styles of music.
It is precisely for this reason that there are so many styles of swing.
However, although eras have come and gone, the dance managed to stay current and relatable.
What is Swing Dancing?
- Let’s start out with some quick facts:
- Swing Dancing is a group of lively social dances that spawned from different eras.
- The term “swing” is a term used to represent a broad umbrella of styles in this form of dance.
- Swing styles differ based on the logistics of the footwork, timing and technique.
- However, at the end of the day, the defining factor of these styles is the music.
Through the decades, there has been a vast amount of interpretation when it comes to dance styles, what they are and what they look like.
Hence, only a handful of swings styles from the 1920’s to the 1950’s survived:
These swing dances are looser and more free form. Posture is more athletic:
These dances are more contained with a tighter and more elastic connection. 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 a basic intro to the swing era with dance sequences and informative narration:
What Sets the Different Swing Styles Apart?
As languages come in different accents and dialects, swing dancing comes in a variety of styles as well.
Swing has shaped its expression of movement based on the music played in a particular venue and period in time.
Naturally, as the times and musical styles evolved, so did the dance, creating many offshoots stemming from the same nucleus of “swing” dance.
The main technicalities that set the swing styles apart:
Type of Music
Brief History of Swing
Swing has its origins dating as early as the 1800’s, inspired by African Americans.
What brought popularity to swing dancing was the initial “swing style” era of jazz music between 1920 and 1940.
This was when swing became popular at its peak with Lindy Hop.
Soon after, new swing styles emerged inspired by big musicians of the time.
The dance spread to both coasts of the U.S. in no time, and shortly made its way into Europe.
Quick Guide to the Different Kinds of Swing
Each swing style is unique and captivating to both watch and dance, so learning how to dance any style will work.
However, it is better to learn what is either most practical for your personal goals or what is popular in your area.
LINDY HOP – Considered to be the original form of swing
CHARLESTON – Danced to specific Charleston music from the 1920’s
JITTERBUG – Jerky actions make dancers look like bugs as they bounce around
EAST COAST SWING – Developed so that the masses could finally dance a simpler swing
JIVE – Fast yet controlled, and defined by its kicks, flicks and knee pumping actions
CAROLINA SHAG – Smooth, laid back beach dance originated from the south
WEST COAST SWING – Slinky and sleek, with lots of improvisation
This Video illustrates the Different Swing Styles:
7 Different Styles of Swing
1.) Lindy Hop
Known as “Jitterbug”, “Swing” and “True American Folk Dance”
Lindy Hop Characteristics
Spontaneous, fast paced and full of personality, the Lindy hop flows with style.
It is horizontal and stretchy, and instead of dancing upright, the posture of Lindy dancers has more of an athletic stance.
The dance demands extreme precision, athleticism, finesse and ability.
Lindy Hop dancers use intricate steps and coordinate their dynamic moves perfectly in sync with the music.
Depending on the music, the dance evokes a frenzied energy filled with kicks, or a more sophisticated calm, refined with smoother body actions.
Check out some of the best Lindy Hop dancers of today.
Why People Like Lindy Hop
- Lindy Hop is spirited, wild and considered to be a joyful dance.
- It is both playful dance that gives plenty of leeway for improvisation.
- There are a whole array of tricks to learn including flips, twirls, aerials and other jazz steps.
- It’s creative, and allows dancers to freely express themselves and the music.
- There is a basic structure, but within that structure there is opportunity for improvisation for adding your own style and interpretation.
How to Lindy Hop
The dance is made up of a mix of 6 and 8 count steps to more easily sync and express the hits in the music.
It 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 and originated in African American communities in 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 and spread the dance by teaching and performing the dance:
Lindy Hop Music and Timing
Lindy Hop is traditionally danced to Swinging Jazz of the 1920’s-40’s.
It has a syncopated rhythm, leaving 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
Now-a-days, the types of music acceptable for dancing Lindy Hop are wider in range and include Jazz, Blues, Country and Rock.
Curious about what Lindy Hop music sounds like? Here is a Lindy Hop Playlist.
One of the most iconic Lindy Hop clip in history is this one below, performed by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe. (choreography by Frankie Manning) from the film “Helzapoppin”:
The Charleston is energetic, animated, 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 exhibits uninhibited movement on the dance floor, complete with kicking legs and swinging arms, allowing dancers “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, walking around like birdlike creatures and further popularizing the trend.
Since the basic is rather simple, the sky’s the limit for incorporating playful variation to its syncopation.
“Don’t Knock the Rock” movie clip, with 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 an iconic dance symbolizing a newfound liberation and “letting lose” after World War I.
- Charleston was considered to be a boisterous dance and banned from dance halls in the 1920’s, making it that much more enticing.
- The Jazz Music of this time was all that rage and totally fun to dance to.
- Charleston can 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 articulation by turning toes in and out.
- BASIC FOOTWORK:
- Step Forward with the Right Foot and then do a forward tap/ touch with the Left Toe.
- Step back with the Left Foot and then do a back tap/ touch with the Right Toe.
Video Tutorial of the Charleston Basic:
Where Did the Charleston Originate?
The Charleston was danced as early as 1903 on a small island near Charleston, S.C.
It later made its way to Harlem in 1913.
By 1923 it became a pop culture phenomenon thanks to the Broadway show 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 “Dixielandish” feel
Tempo: 200-300 bpm
Curious to hear some Charleston? Here is a playlist of Charleston music.
Check out these Modern Day Charleston Dancers at the Championships:
Known as “Single Time Swing”
The Jitterbug looks like your common swing dance with energetic twirls and acrobatics that come about on the fly.
The upper body is mobile and legwork is quick, including improvisational movements.
Bounces, hops, and sharp, jerking movements made dancers look like bugs, hence the term “Jitterbug”.
However, the dance toned a bit down as music evolved into sounding smoother and more sophisticated.
Fun Vintage instructional video on the Jitterbug, “Groovie Movie”:
Why People Like Jitterbug
- It is meant to be a more fun and easier version of previous swings, with less structure.
- In the 30s and 40s, 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 danced in 6 count time and omits triple steps.
Video Tutorial of a fun Jitterbug move called the “Cuddle”:
Where did the Jitterbug Originate?
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, omitting the well known triple step of swing.
This made Jitterbug easier to execute, and grasped a wider audience.
Famous Jitterbug Champions, Gi Gi Brown and Gary K. Lewis in 1961:
4.) EAST COAST SWING
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, engaging the whole body with twists and turns.
Personal style is welcomed, however, there is little time for thinking.
Although it may look like the dance bounces all around, 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, as it is easier compared to the others.
- The variety of music is extremely varied, and for that reason the dance is timeless.
How to Dance East Coast Swing
East Coast Swing is a 6 beat dance and 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 as an offshoot of Lindy Hop and Foxtrot.
This dance was invented by Arthur Murray specifically to make swing dancing tangible for 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.
Including a wide variety of styles and tempos, this type of Jazz music was soon to be called Swing music as well.
Rhythm: Triple Step, Triple Step, Rock Step
Tempo: 136-144 bpm
Although traditionally danced to big band music with energy and bounce, the East Coast Swing blends in well with a variety of genres, as long as it “swings”:
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:
Known as “Swing”, Boogie, Boogie-Woogie and Jitterbug
The Jive is yet another dance that is happy and boppy.
It is one of the more energetic and liveliest of the Swings, incorporating heightened kicks and flicks filled with exuberance.
Even though this dance embodies a free spirited demeanor, the Jive is so fast that there is no time for musical interpretation.
The stamina required for this dance is extremely high as is the precision.
Knees lift in a pumping action, hips rock, and the dance retains its control by keeping 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.
Video Tutorial on how to do Basic Jive:
Where Did the Jive Originate?
The Jive originally began in 1930’s in the United States as a mashup of the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug.
However, when American soldiers brought these two dance to Europe in the 1940’s, a strong following quickly developed.
The dances evolved into a combination, 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
Fun Fact: “Jive” was the term used by musicians of the 1930-1940 Swing era to denote “Foolish Talk”.
Get familiarized with this Jive music playlist.
6.) CAROLINA SHAG
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 deceptively easy.
It is a smooth swing dance connected to the feel of the music as partners mirror each other, in sync with their movements.
Here is a great demonstration of what Carolina Shag looks like:
Feet kick and slide around with minimum amount of upper body movement.
The emphasis is on fancy footwork with few spins, mostly done by the leader.
Why People Like the Carolina Shag
- 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, laid back rhythm and the music has a relaxing mood.
- What can be better than dancing on the beach to great music?
Where did the Shag Originate?
Originated in the 40’s along the beaches of North Carolina and South Carolina, the Carolina Shag was an extremely social “beach dance” especially among the youth.
At first, it was not known to be particularly classy as a 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 slotted East Coast Swing though it 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
Known as “Western Swing”
West Coast Swing Characteristics
Defined by its sleek and slinky style, West Coast Swing is one of the most unique and improvisational dances.
It is the most recent Swing style and is characterized by its smoothness and emphasis on musicality and connection.
This type of Swing has an elastic look resulting from a partner connection that uses an extension-compression technique.
West Coast Swing is danced in a long and thin slot about 8-9 feet long and has a different feel from other swings.
It has evolved through the times with its music, and is still quite relevant to the dance scene today.
Dancers stay in rectangular area called a “slot” and stay grounded.
The emphasis is on core movement and stretch through the use of “in and out” patterns.
Why People Like West Coast Swing
- Less traditional of the swings and more contemporary.
- Can be danced to pop, hip-hop, R&B, blues, etc.
- Improvisation is a large part of this dance, with freedom of expression in the moves.
- Partners are allowed to work off of each other, creating a dialogue between themselves, by using a lot of leg and syncopated footwork.
How to Dance West Coast Swing
WCS uses walks instead of rocks, with tap-like steps and push pull interactions.
The poise is slightly backward-leaning at the full extent of what’s called a negative connection, where dancers typically use an anchor step as a common ending pattern.
The basic entails 2 walks and two triples steps danced in a 6 count.
The following video includes a series of “moves and grooves” from West Coast Swing, taught by Ben Morris, West Coast Swing Champion:
Where did West Coast Swing Originate?
West Coast Swing is the official State Dance of California and is believed to have originated in the 1940’s in Los Angeles.
Its roots go back to the Savoy Style Lindy Era.
There is a feature of West Coast Swing in the movie “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 including 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
Great video of West Coast Swing Champions improvising and expressing the music marvelously:
As you can see, there is a lot of fun to be had by learning to dance swing.
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, developing 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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