History of Swing 2
Home Up History of Swing 3



Rick Archer,  SSQQ,   January, 1998

World War II was the major reason that Swing dancing became an American sensation.

The radio had already made Swing music enormously popular but the spread of the dancing lagged far behind. Back in the 30's there was no television to spread images of the dancing around the country quickly. However by the start of the war, all of the large cities had become Jitterbug hotbeds. When GIs, sailors, and flyers enlisted to fight for our country, they were sent to major ports for a temporary stay before departure. These service men & women headed straight for the USO dance halls since dancing was by far the major form of recreation. As the 40s began, many GIs from all parts of the country now saw the Lindy/Jitterbug for the first time. Once they saw it however, they  didn't waste any time learning how since dancing was the quickest way to break the ice in an age when time was very precious. Swing dancing had arrived !

Europe already knew something about Swing dancing. The 1993 cult movie "Swing Kids" makes it clear that little pockets of Swing dancing existed in Germany in the 30s. However Great Britain saw Swing dancing explode in popularity when the GIs brought the dancing with them during the long duration of pre D-Day staging. Spending every spare minute courting the English women, once again the GIs used Swing dancing in the clubs as a way to work off a lot of nervous energy. (There is an excellent Lindy dance scene in the 1979 Richard Gere movie "Yanks" which describes this period perfectly. Not only was Swing music played in all the clubs, Swing dancing was everywhere plus frequent brawls between the GI‘s and the English over competition for the women.)

The Lindy also acquired yet another name, "Jive", the British slang word for "Jazz". Although its impact on England was the strongest, as one country after another was liberated, the Lindy appeared in France, Italy, the Philippines, Japan, and yes, Germany. American culture had found a very peculiar way to make its Swing Dance international !

West Coast Swing is born in California.
The Whip is born in Texas.

It was during the 1940s War Era that the WEST COAST SWING originated in California. This state orchestrated much of the Pacific Theater war effort. Not only was there an enormous military industry and many military bases, the important Pacific ports like San Francisco and San Diego were temporary homes to many thousands of GIs who awaited departure into the Pacific.

By now Hollywood had caught on to the dancing, further popularizing the spread of Swing dancing. Many Lindy dance scenes were included in wartime movies and filmed press releases. Film clips from this era indicate that dancing absolutely sizzled on the West Coast. Can you imagine how crowded the USO dance halls were ? Unfortunately Lindy dancing took up a lot of room. West Coast Swing developed out of the sheer necessity to find a way to squeeze more people on the crowded dance floors.

The West Coast Swing is a dance where the partners face each other in a straight line. The lady presses against the man with her left hand, pushes off, goes to the end of her arm, then returns back to him (generally in the most provocative way she can think of !). The man pretty much stays in place holding his ground. The West Coast Swing's straight line (also known at the "Slot") became only way to Swing dance on crowded floors since couples were able to dance side by side without bumping into one another quite as much.

Interestingly, GI's returning home to Texas from fighting in the Pacific brought back with them the rudiments of this primitive West Coast Swing. However the switch from the fast Swing music to the much slower Texas Blues completely changed the feel of the dance. With extra time on their hands,  Texas girls playing with the dance discovered a sensual bump and grind that fit the sound like a tight skirt to a well-curved woman. An offshoot of the California dance developed right here in Houston and other parts of the state that came to be known as the Whip ! (For further information on the history of the Whip, click here)

The End of the Swing Era

The SWING ERA lasted from the early 30s to the end of World War II. By comparison the Disco era (75-81) & two Country-Western eras (80-83, 92-95) were much shorter. The Great War's end saw many changes in the music industry. For one thing, World War II took away one of Swing's great leaders with the loss of Glen Miller in a tragic plane accident. In a less well-known development,  Music union leader James "Boss" Petrillo fought labor battles with mixed results. Though musicians now received royalties for their recordings, many artists were put out of work by his actions. In a move that broke countless hearts, Frank Sinatra's departure from the Tommy Dorsey Band  had important symbolic overtones as well. For twenty years the Big Band leaders and the musicians had been the stars. Now the Crooners and the Singers were taking over, pushing the band to the background.

Besides, people were ready for something new and perhaps their nerves needed a rest.  All the tension of the war years had taken quite a toll. The most popular songs from 1945-1955 were sentimental ballads like Doris Day's "Que Sera, Sera" & Bing Crosby's "White Christmas". As the Swing music faded, so did the Lindy. Nevertheless, it had been a great ride ! Music historians note that Swing music was "an explosion of genius, a spontaneous musical event to rival the era of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms." That is high praise indeed for this fabulous music born of Southern cotton field despair & Northern ghetto poverty. And yet it suddenly went virtually dormant for 50 years ! What brought it back ? Read on as the story of Swing music and dancing continues to unfold.

The Blues are coming!

For every Dinah Shore lullaby heard on the radio, in the ghetto a musical locomotive was gaining steam by the minute ! Called the Blues, this guitar-accompanied sound had lingered behind Swing music in the background for 30 years. The Blues began to emerge in the late 40s with singers like Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughn, and Ella Fitzgerald belting out  their soulful tunes.  Enticing lyrics, flashy guitar riffs, & lots of bop (a bounce in the music as opposed to the smoother Swing sound), the 50s would soon see the Blues acquire a more famous name !

Rock'n Roll Sweeps America !

"Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley is the song given credit for starting the R&R  craze in 1955. This crossover hit combined catchy blues-style lyrics with an electric guitar-driven beat. Recorded by a white artist as opening music for a movie about high school in the black ghetto (just as rap music introduces many of today's ethnic movies), the song created an enormous sensation.

The Blues had been suppressed for years as "race music" due to its anger & bold sexual themes. Too raw in this original form to appeal to a wider audience, Bill Haley succeeded in modifying the Blues to a new sound that white listeners (i.e. "teenagers") could relate to. 

Taken as a sign that mainstream America's resistance to the black culture was weakening, the record industry was encouraged to publish more of this so-called "new music". Not only did many black singers get their big break, but white singers began to "borrow" their sound. Just as white musicians had copied the Swing Sound in the 30’s, now white singers began to rerecord black songs that had never received airplay on mainstream radio stations. For example, when Little Richard first recorded "Tutti Frutti" the song went nowhere only to suddenly become a smash hit when Pat Boone re-recorded it (to Little Richard's quite understandable frustration). For that matter, Elvis Presley's musical background included gospel singing. His overtly sexual style of performing closely mimicked black singers he had grown up with.

Even the new name had black origins. The word "Roll" was ghetto slang for "Necking". Nor does it  take much of an imagination to guess what "Rock'n Roll" meant.

Indeed, this new sound was sexy and so were the early stars like Elvis, Chuck Berry, & Jerry Lee Lewis. Rock'n Roll was here to stay ! Once the sound caught on, it was impossible to stop. Totally ignorant that the Blues had risen from the despair of slavery, 50s teenagers embraced the themes of rebellion, restlessness, and heartbreak as deeply personal. Feeling totally misunderstood, teenagers across America swarmed to the music stores to buy now classic songs like "Why Do Fools Fall in Love", "Johnny B Goode", and "Great Balls of Fire".  Parents everywhere shook their heads in disgust.

Happy Days in the Fifties!

In 1956 Elvis debuted with the Blues-inspired "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Hound Dog".  It was clear the crossover of Blues into mainstream popular music was complete. The era that gave us "Grease", "American Graffiti", & "Happy Days" was now in full Swing (and the world would never be the same !).

Jitterbug dancing was big in the 1950s, but underwent changes. As the smooth Swing sound faded, the equally smooth 8-beat Lindy/Jitterbug patterns were no longer used. However the quicker 6-beat patterns thrived in the 50s because they fit the feel of the new music better (the Jitterbug we teach today at SSQQ with its Triple Step footwork closely resembles the 50s version).

In addition the Jitterbug acquired new names. In 1957 Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" introduced "Rock'n Roll Dancing" to TV. Unlike the 30's when the dancing spread slowly due to the lack of TV, "American Bandstand" changed all that. Kids across the country tuned in, saw the new style of dancing, and started to copy it immediately. They would clear the furniture in the living room and dance right along with the TV show !

Rock'n Roll had quite a few different names - Bop, Boogie-Woogie, Stomp - but one nickname in particular seemed to stick out. In 1958 Danny & the Jrs released a hit song "Let's Go to the Hop". A phrase passed forward from the 20s, the "Hop" now referred to the popular dance parties in the late 50s. Using the no-shoes-allowed gyms, "Sock Hops" were huge fun with the Stroll, dance contests, Rock'n Roll bands, Greasers, Poodle Skirts, & Top 40 music.  If you were a kid, the 50's were fun times to be alive !

Trouble looms ahead for Swing Dancing.

Swing dancing was headed for big trouble in the 60s. Chubby Checker's early 60s hit "The Twist" is credited with paving the way for the 1960s FREESTYLE DANCING. Simultaneously R&R Swing dancing lost popularity. When I began high school in the 60s,  Swing dancing had sunk to the level of "Street Swing". There was little footwork, jerking leads, end of the arm snapbacks, and lots of Pretzels. In other words, after 40 years, Swing Dancing was more or less back to Square One. Just as Charleston ruled in the 20's, now Freestyle took over as one dance craze after another appeared : the Cool Jerk, the Fly, the Swim, the Frug, the Hully-Gully, the Monkey, Watusi, Mashed Potato, Cold Sweat, & the Hand Jive.  Great Motown Soul music, Go-Go dancers writhing in cages high above the floor, and ugly clothes far scarier than Halloween costumes are my enduring memories of the 60s dance scene. 

The 60s also marked an increasing departure from the rhythmic Rock'n Roll music to highly a-rhythmic, undanceable Rock and Folk music. As music reflected war protest and drug experiences, the end of the 60s marked a 50-year low point in Swing dancing. We are fortunate the traditions of Swing dancing were quietly continued inside the dance studios like Fred Astaire & Arthur Murray during this period as part their Ballroom curriculum. Dormant for now, fortunately Swing dancing would live to rise again !

The Disco Era!

Acid Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Folk Rock, Woodstock, & Hard Rock dominated the radio in the early 70s. The music that got America dancing again was hip, jazzy, & black (i.e. the Isaac Hayes theme from "Shaft",  plus snappy dance music from the Isley Brothers,  Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown). This new sound broke from the Motown Blues traditions to add more instrumental work, frequently blending in powerful Latin rhythms until it eventually turned into Disco music. The vocalists lost some of their importance for a while as the "Disco Beat" reverberated in every dance club. Even computers turned out a few hits.

Disco Dancing actually started around 1973 as part-Freestyle, part line dances with little partner dancing other than a silly dance called "the Bump". There were many dance clubs here in Houston, but almost no partner dancing. Disco line dance classes were taught in several adult education programs (and who do you suppose signed up for every one of them ?).

The first big Disco dance hit was "The Hustle" ('76), the most successful singer was Donna Summer, and "Saturday Night Fever" (late 77) was the movie that took Disco to its peak. Famous for John Travolta's solo dance scenes, the picture featured great Disco partner dancing as well. Quickly partner dancing became more important than Freestyle. Now for the first time since the 50s Partner Dancing was popular again.

Today's Swing dancers might be surprised to find that the major 70's Disco partner dance, the LATIN HUSTLE, was a direct clone of 4-step Swing footwork. Many of today's Swing moves are mirror images of the Disco moves from the 70's. The clothes are definitely different, the music is quite different, but the many of the patterns are similar.  The Hustle was characterized by it's gracefulness and use of lovely Latin hip motion. Today's Swing has the jump style with the kicking backsteps.  The moves may be the same, but definitely the Look is quite different. Cheer up, no Swingers will ever be accused of doing Disco.

The Latin Hustle became my favorite partner dance, so fluid & graceful. However dance history was about to repeat itself. Just as the Lindy died when the Swing music lost popularity, the Latin Hustle simply vanished as people grew tired of Disco music. Here in Houston people from time to time ask about the Hustle, but it will just have to await its moment.  However if it ever does regain its popularity, the Swingers will find learning it a cinch due to its near step for step reflection of Swing footwork.

Urban Cowboy, Western Swing, Whip, and Achy Breaky Heart.

The Disco era ended two years earlier in Houston than in other parts of the country. In 1979 John Travolta filmed "Urban Cowboy" right here in the Bayou City (My own jazz teacher Patsy Swayze, Patrick's Mom, choreographed the dancing !). This aptly-named movie included many C&W dance scenes while it glamorized a Western lifestyle set in a big city. In retrospect the film was ho-hum, but the story line was an uncanny fit for many Houstonians. Here in the Bayou City the movie's impact was enormous. Two months before the film was released in June, 1980, one Disco after another suddenly closed only to reopen the next day as a Western club. As fast as they could hang the sign & faster than you can say "Slow Slow Quick Quick" Houston's dancers traded in their polyester shirts & Disco dresses for boots & tight-fittin' jeans. Urban cowboys ruled Houston !

Interestingly, since Disco died such a sudden death, soon after all the clubs turned Country, a new dance emerged that combined TwoStep/Polka timing with Disco-style Double Turns. A new dance had been spawned from the ashes of the now forgotten Disco : Western Swing. A dance that basically originated right here in Houston, Western Swing became so popular that to this day it is a fixture in every Houston Western club. Although the Urban Cowboy Western era only lasted perhaps a year nationally, here in Houston it took interest in Western dancing to a new level that has never died. Even as Swing rules in the late 90’s, Houston’s love affair with Western dancing continues unabated. (I have an excellent writeup on the history of Western Swing. If anyone is interested, email me with some encouragement and I will take the time to update it and put in on my web site !)

The mid to late 80s were the Golden Era of Whip dancing here in Houston. Just as many Disco Dancers flowed right into Western dancing after Urban Cowboy, by the mid 80's many people were looking for more dance challenges. They certainly could not have found a bigger challenge than Whip (for more on the History of Whip, click here).

The music certainly helped. Great dance music by Michael Jackson, Madonna, Billy Ocean, Tina Turner, and Paula Abdul provided one super Whip song after another for inspiration. MTV hit the airways and tripled the power of the music industry. Even the Rock music was danceable with the Rolling Stones, Inxs, Don Henley, and Eric Clapton putting out music perfect for Whip. Plus there were dance clubs everywhere to practice the Whip. There were Whip contests with flashy costumes, break dancing, and stunning acrobatics. Then something terrible happened : the music dried up. The black artists turned to rap. The rock musicians took their cue from Seattle Grunge and Kurt Cocaine, oops, Cobain.  Whip took a huge nosedive.

Western pays the rent. Line Dancing takes off.

The 90s marked the emergence of great Western music. Never much of a country music fan myself, I must say the songs got a whole lot more fun to listen to as the decade began. George Strait, Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Randy Travis, and Reba McEntire led the way. During the Whip era, Western dancing was always strong in Houston, but with the newer country music sounding more sophisticated than ever before, Western dancing heated up here in Houston like a supernova. Then a funny thing happened.  A unknown artist named Billy Ray Cyrus hit it big with a silly song called "Achy Breaky Heart". What set the song apart from the rest is that someone had actually choreographed a line dance to the song. Just as silly as the Macarena craze, everybody wanted to learn the Achy Breaky Line Dance. Then they had to learn   the Boot Scoot Boogie Line Dance. Then the cable station TNN (Nashville Network) decided to make line dancing part of its daily programming. Line Dancing swept the nation!

But oddly enough, it never took hold in Houston. Our hometown's love affair with the Texas Twostep, the Western Swing, and partner dancing in general  was so strong that it literally froze out the Line Dances. Houston was the only city in the Country that was Western Dancing before the new Western Line Dance craze came along. The SSQQ Western Swing classes grew bigger and bigger, but Line Dance classes never attracted more than 10 people at a time. Throughout most of the 90's, Western Swing ruled.

Chapter Three details the Rise of 90's Swing and the Resurrection of the ancient Lindy Hop !

 Chapter Three

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