The Lindy Hop was christened at the Savoy dance hall in Harlem, New York; it was named after aviator Charles Lindbergh's "hop" across the Atlantic (in May 1927) by the dancer "Shorty" George Snowden.

Although the name of the dance was new in 1927, the dance itself was not a completely new invention. Its styles and forms had evolved from a number of previously existing dances. The most well-known of these influences is the Charleston (the evolution from the Charleston Basic to the Back Charleston move in Lindy Hop is obvious), but other possible influences include the Two-Step (which shares an eight-beat even-odd-even-odd rhythm pattern with Lindy Hop), the Cakewalk, Black Bottom and the Texas Tommy.

An unusual (for the time) feature of the dance was the inclusion of sections where the dancers would move apart from each other, and perform individual steps (known as the "breakaway"). Another unique feature that was introduced in these early days were the first airsteps. These daring manoeuvres were exciting for the audiences to watch, and were soon a staple of organized Lindy Hop performances.

Indeed, Lindy Hop was so exciting to watch that troupes like Whitey's Lindy Hoppers found themselves in demand for movie scenes, most famously in "Hellzapoppin'" and the Marx Brothers' "Day at the Races". These films were to prove important in the renaissance of Lindy Hop nearly fifty years later.

Evolution of Swing Dance

Over the next few decades, popular music changed, moving away from the big band sound of swing to styles like rhythm and blues and then rock and roll. Due to this and other factors, the Lindy Hop evolved and mutated into a number of different styles.

The first variant was known as the Jitterbug; some consider this just to be an alternative name for the Lindy Hop, but some claim that it was distinguished by a prevalence of six-beat moves and a bouncier feel to the dance. Further evolution in this direction led to the Jive and Rock'n'Roll styles, which dropped all eight-beat and most Charleston-derived moves.

The Jive styles of swing dance were introduced to Europe by American servicemen during the second World War. They quickly took off and were adapted in different ways across different countries. In mainland Europe the Boogie-Woogie style developed, and the airsteps from the original Lindy Hop were taken to their logical extreme in competitive acrobatic Rock'n'Roll. In the UK the Jive was adopted into the canon of ballroom dance forms, with Ballroom Jive becoming one of the ten standard dances—in a suitably codified and restricted form, of course.

Meanwhile, back in the US, swing dance was evolving in a different direction. On the west coast, the Lindy Hop evolved into a more upright dance, with tighter footwork and fewer Charleston-derived moves (a style often now described as "Hollywood style", with the original style known as "Savoy style"). In large part, this evolution was guided by Dean Collins, a dancer who moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1936. He was a prolific choreographer for television and film, and taught swing dance in Los Angeles for nearly fifty years.

During this period, to reduce the problems of overcrowded ballrooms, it became common practice for the follower to always move along an imaginary line on the floor, known as a "slot". This allowed the slots for many couples to be lined up, reducing the chances of collisions. The end result of this evolution was known as West Coast Swing.

Back in Europe, there was one further important step in the development of swing dance. Apart from the small community of ballroom dancers, partner dancing had almost completely disappeared from the UK by the 1970's, dancing being dominated by individual disco dancing. This was to change from the early 1980's, when a simplified version of Rock'n'Roll dancing was re-imported from France. The first version of this style was known as Ceroc™, but its huge popularity soon resulted in a range of different organizations and names—now commonly described by the term Modern Jive.

Swing dance family tree
Swing dance family tree

Modern Renaissance

In the 1980's, by a strange coincidence a collection of different dancers around the world independently decided that they wanted to rediscover the roots of swing dance—from the US, Steven Mitchell and Erin Stevens; from Sweden, the Rhythm Hot Shots; from the UK, the Jiving Lindy Hoppers. Inspired by the classic movie dance scenes from the 1930's and 1940's, these (re-)discoverers converged on New York City.

In New York they discovered several of the Lindy Hoppers from the original days in the Savoy ballroom—Al Minns, Norma Miller, and Frankie Manning. To their surprise, they also discovered that Lindy Hop wasn't just about the frenetic, airstepping choreographies of the film sequences; the original dancers explaining that Lindy Hop could be danced to slower music, as a social dance without airsteps or prearranged choreography.

These meetings in New York led to a diaspora of Lindy Hop knowledge around the world, where the enthusiasm of the teachers and the attractions of the style led to a resurgence in popularity of the original swing dance form. The key factor in this resurgence was Frankie Manning; in 1986 (at the age of 72) he emerged from retirement to start teaching around the world, providing a vital bridge between the history of the dance and its future.