The attempt of this blog is to bring a little clarity to the various naming conventions around dances of the swing era. Often when starting out, there’s confusion around the names of dances, which is understandable, since there are cross-pollinating influences in jazz dance, just as there is in music. What maybe be called one thing in their city is called something different in another city, or that dances are named differently by different teachers. There’s also a few very dated swing dance websites out there as well that don’t do much to alleviate this confusion. I will concentrate on dances which are done to the compositional form of swing, primarily 32 bar and AABA. Anything following the compositional form of 12-bar, or AAB type I will leave for another blog.
I may change this blog a bit from time to time as I gather better and better information, and by all means, if I’ve left something out or gotten something wrong, please leave me a comment.
Let’s start with the most contentious term in the Swing Dancer’s vocabulary, Jitterbug.
There are a few eras of the meaning of this term. Often it’s the context and the time period that define what this means. Interestingly, the oldest reference I have heard to the word Jitterbug is to refer to a one-stringed instrument, popular in the deep American south before 1910.
The term Jitterbug, as some have mentioned, originally comes from comedically or perhaps disparagingly comparing dancers to people with the “jitters” AKA the delirium tremens, a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. If you’ve watched the excellent Prohibition documentary by Ken Burns of the “Jazz” series fame, or read some fiction of the era (like Great Gatsby), they underscore that drinking to excess during that time was pretty common, and prohibition led to lots of homemade alcohol (mostly illegal in the US now, and then, for good reason), which if not done correctly can lead you to some episodes of hallucination, shaking, shivering, etc. It was mentioned in the Cab Calloway Jive Dictionary, a list of Harlem slang, probably used in and around the area of the Savoy Ballroom.
As the term got more widely adopted, it seems to make sense to me that people might have said something like “lots of Jitterbugs out tonight” instead of what we might say now, “lots of Lindy Hoppers here tonight”, the same way we might call someone a “b-boy” instead of a “hip-hop dancer” or a “milonguero” instead of a “tango dancer”. When Jazz music was the music of popular culture, lots of slang was used to describe the music and dancers, especially in an effort to separate street dancers from the more square Foxtrot crowd which outnumbered the Lindy Hop crowd at the time.
The term is mentioned in literature like Nabakov’s Lolita as “all she wanted from life was to one day be a strutting and prancing baton twirler or a Jitterbug”, which leads me to believe it was a fairly common word through the 1950s when the book was written. There’s some writing I’ve read that said that the more politically active dancers of the WWII era readopted “Jitterbug” as a way to distance themselves from Charles Lindberg, who was know to sympathize with Nazi causes. Norma Miller’s retelling also has it as a derogatory term, as in Jitterbugs were the bad dancers at the Savoy.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, much of post-war America moved away from Swing music because they were ready for something new, because it reminded them of lost family, because of musician’s strikes which made big bands harder to afford, and because of the inevitable invention of R&B and Roll. According to the tap dance history books, tap dancers increased skill/speed and drove the drummers to create bebop. According to bebop musicians, they got tired of playing standards and swing and created bebop. According to some history books, the musicians strike caused small groups with vocalists to be the only affordable way to have musicians and created the Rat Pack / vocal jazz era, other history books just see the cycle of appropriation as completed.
At the end of the bell-curve of partner dancing’s popularity, a group of dance teachers invented East Coast Swing out of Lindy Hop’s 6 count vocabulary. They did this to make it easy for the primarily monied, older clientele that wanted to learn simple steps quickly, often out of chain studios like Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire’s studio. Eventually the steps became codified into the syllabus and competitions, and being reworked by dancers with ballet/ballroom background, they lost touch with the Harlem roots of the dance, and often had very strict patterns to make them easy to remember, and easily judged in competitions. It was done with the dance ideals of Euro-centric dances, and the structure that dance schools brought is what their clients demanded (for instance learning lists of moves, and being rewarded with bronze, silver, gold status for mastering said list) .
During the revival of swing in the early 1990s, the venues that were most set up to host swing nights were ones with retro/rockabilly culture in place. For a lot of the people who were involved before the Brian Setzer / Gap commercial era, the scene was primarily about music, fashion and cars, though there was some dancing, primarily English Jive and what we would call 6 count swing (without triple steps) that matched the R&B and rockabilly music being played. In an effort to differentiate what they were doing as a 6 count dance from what the local ballroom studios were teaching, they adopted the name Jitterbug. (Speaking about venues I visited in the 1990s). Lindy Hop, as a dance didn’t make sense to the music of the early swing revival.
The biggest difference in what was called Jitterbug at that time vs East Coast Swing was posture, feel and moves. Keep in mind, the term took on a different meaning at this time than it had in the 1930s. Jitterbug as it was called in the 1990s had things like the Pretzel, the Banana split, lots of pulse and was meant to be easy, fun and not structured or with the ballroom feel. It could include tricks, dips, and other things that wouldn’t fall into the Arthur Murray Syllabus. I taught thousands of hours of “Jitterbug” classes and privates at the Mercury cafe over the 10 or so years I danced there, and it was easy for people to pick up. People who would never do Lindy Hop had a great time, people would come to the cafe on a date and be dancing in one evening. I’ve seen this triple-less, open form of dancing danced by anyone from teenagers to older, less athletic dancers from all walks of life. Even though it is primarily taught at ballroom schools and in intro classes, it seems to be the most common form of “swing” that I see out at live music venues, weddings, street fairs and the like.
Keep in mind this is the way I, and many others throughout the middle of the country and on the West Coast used these terms, but in a pre-internet era, there was no “wiki” or centralized rule book or governing body. It could be “advanced” in the sense that people who chose to dance 6 count only could learn all of about 125 moves I taught, but none of them were really all that difficult objectively, but were difficult for the people I was teaching them to. The swing dance community has, for good reason stayed away from codifying dances in an effort to keep artistry and innovation alive, and this extends to the naming of things.
Much in the same way we say Shag to mean Carolina, Collegiate, or St. Louis, regional variation and nomenclature was more a part of the dance in the 1990s than it is now. The internet and such has more or less normalized terms these days, at least more than it did 10 -20 years ago. I, and others have moved away from Jitterbug as a separate dance or term for a dance, mostly in an effort to merge the incoming students into Lindy Hop oriented tracks, which seems to allow them better assimilation into the scene as a whole.
And then of course there is Wham!’s definition. This has nothing to do with swing history, though sadly I do hear this song from time to time at dances
Nowadays, when I (and I think most others who use the term) think of it as being wild, inspired dancing, often from a virtuoso type person. Someone who is able to pull new influences into the dance, dance in an eccentric way or do a move in a surprising way that no one has though of before. People often refer to folks whose dancing moves fluidly between different dance forms, never breaks from a vintage aesthetic, and often invents really inspired, surprising moves on the fly. This to me, is the main use of “spirit of the jitterbug” in modern context. The other use is just that it’s a great kitchy word that looks great on a poster and evokes a feeling of the era. It’s not meant to be directly related to a set of moves or style of dance.
Signature moves: Loose limbs, mixing jazz steps and partnered steps in a unique way, flashy clothes.
East Coast Swing
Strictly speaking, East Coast swing is a dance unto itself – a simplification of Lindy Hop popularized by ballroom studios to make dancing easier to assimilate for beginners. But in the way that people do, they often use the term rather loosely, and sometimes people really mean 6 count Lindy, sometimes they mean true ballroom “East Coast” invented by the National Dance Council, sometimes they mean a mashup, which I often call “street swing”.
One thing to understand about the history of partner dancing is that it fell out of fashion for a time. After World War II a perfect storm of new music, musicians strikes, and new dance crazes left partner dancing as an afterthought. Even when no one was dancing swing, or pulling influences from old movies or even trying to give swing it’s own authentic aesthetic, ballroom dance schools were developing their own syllabus. There’s lots of Latin dance influence, lots of structured dance influence (like ballet, etc). From the perspective of a Lindy Hopper, it’s kinda square, but if you get into ballroom dance, you might find that it’s pretty much in line with their aesthetic.
When swing era dances started to catch the public fancy again, they were resurrected from a combination of memories, old footage, ballroom dance syllabi, Rockabilly dancers, and West Coast Swing, which I talk a little bit more about below, but it follows on as an offshoot of Lindy Hop, so there was some reverse engineering going on there.
So, when someone says “East Coast Swing”, sometimes they mean a mish-mash of country dancing, Lindy Hop, Rockabilly and so forth, sometimes they mean the 6 count part of Lindy Hop. Sometimes they mean a ballroom East Coast with a very strict syllabus, and sometimes they mean their own homegrown simplified version of swing (which I often refer to as _street swing_). For instance in Montana, there is a move called the Missoula roll. It’s taught up north and pretty much nowhere else as part of East Coast vocab. In the southern states, I see lots of influence from country swing (in the form of pulling the left hands to the hips and using that as a means to generate a lot of clockwise rotation, moves where hands are placed on the hips and one or both dancers bend almost 90 degrees at the waist and turn underneath, and long multiple turn patterns can be built (like pretzels, etc), and a lot of tricks that aren’t really “danced in and out of”, but rather called at rather random places in the music
Signature moves: The Pretzel, the Banana Split, having fun and being off-beat.
Don’t forget about country swing!
6-Count swing can refer to a lot of things, and it all really depends on who’s teaching, and what their goal is. It can include triple step, single steps or a mix of both. The primary pedagogical differences I see are that some schools teach 6 count swing classes as a preparation and prelude to Lindy Hop, while others teach it as an option for students who want a simpler experience.
In my opinion, the ideal situation is one where students gain a solid working vocabulary of 6-count moves with an understanding of lead-follow dynamics, and learn to “free dance”, or improvise an entire song, then they can apply those skills to Lindy Hop at some later date.
Peabody is essentially a Foxtrot variation invented by a fellow named Peabody who was a very politically powerful individual (Chief of Police, or Fire) in New York City. He had a giant belly and had to dance more offset than usual. Compared to Foxtrot, Peabody shares some moves, but Foxtrot is essentially just different ways of doing box steps, Peabody is a one-step variant, so it’s more rhythmically variant, and progresses around the floor more quickly.
Peabody mixes well with 20’s Charleston. Frankie and others tell the story of using Peabody when the songs were very fast, and they would race around the edge of the floor. They called the Savoy ballroom “The Track”. Interestingly, the Spanish word for dance floor and the Spanish word for track are both “pista”.
Peabody is still danced in some social circles of ragtime dancers.
Signature moves: Moving quickly, being extra offset, spinning while progressing down the line of dance. The Peabody Squirrel.
(1920s dance from a 50s movie)
Before the jazz craze first swept America, ballroom dancing was a thing mostly confined to the upper class, the rich folks who went to schools with cotillions and large formal balls. Interesting side note, The footwork of Charleston descends from African lineage, while the upper body frame was a imitation of the Foxtrotters and ballroom dancers. There’s a lovely story that gets told where some young kids were hanging out outside of the Savoy Ballroom, and imitating the shadows that fell on the sidewalk, and that’s how partnered Charleston was born.
Signature moves: Twisting feet, bunny hops.
Breakaway is an offshoot of 1920s Charleston. As the dancers got swept up in the wild energy of Jazz, they started rotating, and occasionally breaking apart. This laid the groundwork for Lindy Hop’s most defining characteristic, which is to be partnered some of the time, and doing individual styling for other times during the dance. The most popular version of this is the After Seben clip.
Breakaway has a rotating 8-count Charleston feel, can also switch very quickly with what has been called Jig Walks for a long time (in an effort to make swing dance more inclusive and to eliminate demeaning or racist words, some people use other terms for Jig Walk, but I include the term here to help you with internet searches).
It is also very close in style to Charleston Swing outs, so much so that a big breakaway step is nearly indistinguishable from a Charleston Swing out. The main difference being that a Charleston Swing out is (by my best estimation) a modern invention, and has solid connection points and structure throughout, and a breakaway step uses more fluidity and personal space at the ends, giving it an authentic, but less connected look.
Lindy Hop: A mix of 6,8 and Charleston rhythms that can be regrouped into any set of 2 count rhythms. When I think of Lindy Hop, I think of the early style danced at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem New York because that is both in fashion, and my preference of styles but “Lindy Hop” also encompasses the styles danced in 1940s on the West Coast, a well as modern offshoots that came from West Coast swing dancers teaching Lindy Hop, and a lot of DJs playing a lot of “soul Jazz” or 70’s era swinging’ jazz at dances, AKA Groove Lindy.
With dancing, you can mix and match styles, influences can overlap, movements can be borrowed. You cannot put everything into perfectly neat delineation, there are some gray area in how any one person interprets what thing belongs to what name. Because of Lindy Hop’s multiple rhythmic patterns, emphasis on personal style, and strong relationship to improvisation, you find that people dance Lindy Hop in as many ways as there are people who dance it.
In my opinion, the big stylistic differences can be summed up in the following ways:
1) Original, Harlem style Lindy Hop (“Lindy Hop”, Savoy Style)
2) Lindy Hop as it moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. (Hollywood Style, GI Style, Smooth Style
3) Modern Savoy Style (also called Savoy Style, Groove)
Lindy Hop is a derivative of Breakaway. The main difference is that when the music started to smooth out (Count Basie) and dancers started feeling space to triple step, they could do so. For more information on how 6 count, 8 count and Charleston all make up the parts of Lindy Hop, check out this blog article.
Not everyone danced Lindy Hop with bounce like we do now. Somewhere between Lindy Hop and West Coast there were a number of dancers who considered themselves “smooth”. The one I find of most note is a New York dancer called George Lloyd. He is featured in one of Margaret Batichiouk’s excellent video interviews and thesis pieces on Lindy Hop. Lots of people refer to the dances done on the West Coast in the 1940s and 50s (what I would call Hollywood Style) as “Smooth Style” as well, though I think there is a difference.
The birth of Smooth and Hollywood Style matches the progression of the music in both terms of geography (moving Westward) and culturally, as in it’s progression to mass acceptance. All music goes through a process of starting off as completely counter-culture, feared by the masses (the Devil’s music), to being popular with the hip and trendy, to a period of mass acceptance. We’ve observed this with Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, Soul, Hip Hop and really every genre of American music.
It’s also worth noting that almost all innovations in American music start in the African-American community and are adopted, appropriated and in some cases out and out stolen by white culture as they become mainstream and therefore profitable. For example, Big Momma Thornton, who wrote “Hound Dog” died penniless, while Elvis performed it and made millions. However, there were some great pioneering strides made by artists like Benny Goodman, who were the first ever to perform on-stage with an integrated group. This performance represents a shift in thought, brought about by jazz.
When this process of mainstreaming happened with Swing, bands like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman took the sounds west, smoothed it out, and made it what I like to call “1940s pop”. With the more relaxed, smoother, easier-for-the-masses-to-digest style, the way that one’s body would want to move to said music also changed. Kicks gave way to more triples, Charleston became less influential, the dance got “goofier”, the aerials got more controlled, and in some retellings of the past, the cameras wanted to see the dance from the side, and the slotted, whip style basics started to become more prevalent. This place where the dance started to become West Coast Swing, but the music still swung to some degree, so it took many more years for the dance to fully morph.
The term “Hollywood style” is actually a modern term to differentiate the style that Dean Collins and other Hollywood movie dancers were doing in the 1940’s. Before Erik and Sylvia coined the term, most people referred to it as Dean Collin’s Style, or G.I. Style. It is characterized by an anchored pike position and tend to refer to their basics as “whips”, because of the slightly more stationary position of the lead, and the distinct “pizza toss” motion of the left arm. Flashy routines and showmanship is the focus and you’l see more character moves.
Signature moves: Sugar pushes, piked body position, switches
Savoy Style (Original)
Original, Harlem style Lindy Hop (“Lindy Hop”, Savoy Style)
Swing outs. Big Air, Kicks and Twists, Big Arms
As most readers probably know, the Savoy Ballroom is the place where Lindy Hop was invented, and also the place where most of the movements and best dancers originated. There was a time when “Savoy” had dual meanings, in the early 1990s when swing was becoming repopularized. During the early Swing revival, a few emerging schools of thought originated:
1) The dancers who learned from those who were in movies and who danced at Golden Sails Sunday afternoons, who became the “Hollywood Style” crowd.
2) The dancers who learned from Al Minns at Sandra Cameron’s dance studio.
3) The dancers who learned from Frankie at PDBA. Most became “groove dancers”, some followed early Savoy roots.
3b) The dancers who learned from Frankie at Herrang. Some became “groove dancers”, most followed early Savoy roots.
For a few years, we got to enjoy something called “The Style Wars” which pitted Hollywood style against (Modern) Savoy Style for the one true Lindy hop. Much blood was shed over keyboards.
Savoy Style (Groove)
One sub-era of the modern swing revival is the “Groove” style. Fueled by a few prominent teachers, the music of this style is “soul jazz” or slower, swing adjacent music, with lots of improvisation, connection and “anything goes” sense of aesthetic.
It was quite popular for a long time, but has mostly fallen out of favor in the past years.
Signature moves: Wiggles, strange pants choices, t-rex arms and rounded out basics.
Primarily a piano style, but also a whole sub-genre of music from vocal styling, bass lines and rhythm, Boogie as a slang term (probably derived from a West African term meaning dance, “Bogi”) developed into a musical genre.
*Author’s note: I’m not a huge expert in Boogie Woogie history, but I will expand this section later.
West Coast Swing
Early on, what we would later come to know as West Coast Swing was called “Western Swing” in the dance manuals of the 1950s. It was also known as “Sophisticated Swing”, and even “California Swing” for some time. The name was probably changed to West Coast to distinguish it from Country Western dance, and is most often attributed to a very prominent dancer named Skippy Blair.
Dance schools needed to come up with a more canonized, stricter version of Lindy Hop that also reacted to the popular music of the time. West Coast Swing has a much more strict sense of things than Lindy Hop, from defining the triple step very clearly into two categories (anchor and coaster) to a very organized point system for advancing through levels of competition. While Lindy Hop has almost always been danced to swing era jazz (Except for the early 90s where it was danced to Neo-swing just as much), West Coast Swing has kept with the popular music of the era. West Coast Swing can be danced to almost anything with a strong, defined beat.
Though most cities have a defined West Coast Swing scene and a Lindy Hop scene, some places there is a mix and the DJ’s play for both crowds. Both Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing are complex enough dances that you could spend your whole life dancing either or both, and never cover all the ground that there is to cover. Which is to say, that if you are interested in West Coast Swing, there are whole entire blogs, websites, YouTube channels, and conventions dedicated to it. There is more to know about West Coast Swing than I could ever accurately cover herein.
Signature moves: One leg always straight, the other always bent, hair flips, sugar pushes, intricate turn patterns, and excellent connection.
“Shag” is another one of those words that have a lot of meanings and it can be confusing for people. Early on, it meant “fast dancing”. Some people even referred to early Savoy Lindy Hoppers as shaggers, though no one currently would use the term shagger to describe a Lindy Hop dancer. Will Brown also offers that the term “Shag” also once referred to a dance event, as in “We’re going down to the Shag tonight” or “Fraternity Shag tonight.”
Shag is much like Balboa in that the frame is very close to conserve floor space. It is also done to fairly fast music (except for Carolina Shag). Shag is unique because “trucking”, or breaking away from your partner and traveling all over the floor, is part of the dance along with crazy-legged footwork and other silly variations.
Carolina shag is a smooth, almost west coast swing-like dance that is done to “beach music”, and like Lindy Hop or West Coast swing, there is an active Carolina Shag circuit, especially in the South-east of the US. When I first heard of Carolina Shag, I was told that it’s a dance that you can dance while holding a drink in one hand. It’s smooth, low-to-zero-bounce, and features tons of fancy footwork. It has all the laid-back vibe of the beach, and it’s super fun to do.
Signature moves: Gliding, crossing feet, swivels, crossing legs, rolling triples.
Collegiate Shag is an umbrella term for a set of dances with lots of bounce and personality. Some people say Vintage Shag as well, but it is not a particularly helpful term, in my opinion, because it could refer to any or all of the variations. There are a few rhythm patterns, including Single Shag (SQQSQQ), Double Shag (the most common, and SSQQ) Triple (SQQSSSQQSSS), and one I just learned about recently thanks to Will Brown is the Long Double (SSQQQQSSQQ).
Most of the common variations are in Double Shag, thanks to a fantastic 4 video set done by Marcus and Baerbl that had dozens, if not hundreds of variations done with a “Slow, slow, quick quick” rhythm, but some also experiment with the Slow, quick quick, slow, quick quick rhythm. Also valid is slow, slow, slow, slow for some variations. Collegiate shag was supposedly big on college campuses of the 1930s, and still experiences spikes in popularity. It’s always a crowd favorite, and can be quite aerobic, as you will see in the videos below.
Signature moves: High arm, camel kicks, propellor legs, breakaways and general silliness
St. Louis Shag
St Louis was one place where the lineage of swing has a constant thread from the 30s until now. They developed some of their own styles that adapted to rock and roll and the music that was somewhere between rock and swing – the R&B big band. St. Louis had a number of dances, including the St. Louis Imperial which is still danced at the Club Imperial in St. Louis., and St. Louis Shag which is a variant of Imperial. To the untrained eye, St. Louis Shag can look a lot like Charleston, but it has some other syncopations and ideas that are totally unique.
Signature moves: Pulse, falling off the log, high knees and sliding doors
Wheel Shag, etc.
There are lots of other kinds of shag, most of which never caught on because they are too complex, too specific, or just really esoteric thought exercises. One interesting fad that’s existed since the 1400’s is the publishing of dance manuals, books that describe a dance, and in the 1930s and 40s, they would often be published with specific song for the dance. Different variations of the shagor other dances came out in these dance manuals. The written word is not an ideal medium for the translation of dances, so many of these are subject to interpretation. A few fantastic historians, notably Lance Beneshik, Forrest Outman and Terry Monaghan have resurrected some of these for fun, and to borrow moves into other dances.
Balboa and Bal Swing
Balboa originated in the crowded ballrooms of California in the 1930s. It is composed mainly of fast and flashy footwork, which gives the dance a very smooth look. Complicated footwork is stressed because the dance floors were too crowded for large movements. This dance is usually done to faster music, but there are emerging trends to open up the tempo spectrum for this dance.
Balboa and Bal-swing are terms used to differentiate staying in closed position the whole time (Balboa) and adding turns and spins to your Balboa (Bal-Swing). This differentiation is most applicable to competitions and classes. Often “Balboa” is just used as an umbrella term for conciseness. For instance “All Balboa Weekend” most certainly refers to both Balboa and Bal-Swing.
Balboa can be danced to any tempo, but because of it’s economy of movement, it’s often danced to uptempo songs. There’s an offshoot called “Laminu” which is a similar dance but danced to slower songs than Balboa.
Signature moves: Dressing fancy, shuffling, complex footwork, toss outs and lolly kicks.
Another one of the terms that’s confusing is Jive: There are a few meanings behind this term. which can refer to
- Rockabilly dancing.
- A form of ballroom dancing.
- A modern, West Coast Swing-like variant.
English Jive, also known as 50’s Jive, Rockabilly Jive, or Jive Rock and Roll, English Jive is a rarity, in the sense that it’s basic is typically 4 counts. It’s danced primarily in England, Los Angeles, a few pockets here and there, and at events like Viva Las Vegas.
Signature moves: A purposeful lack of jazz movement, bouncing arms, cool clothes.
Marked by a triple step with an almost latin hip action, ballroom dancing has a dance called “Jive”, and it’s very… ballroom. It’s one of the five International style latin dances, and borrows a lot of hip technique from there.
Almost like a simplified West Coast Swing, there are a few places where Modern Jive is very popular, and it’s danced to popular music. This dance is pretty far outside of the Jazz /Swing idiom, but worth mentioning since it comes up from time to time. I’ve also heard it called Ceroc in many circles.
I hope that you have found this little trip down the family tree of swing an educational one. If you have a question, a thought, a bit of trivia, feel free to leave a comment below.