Episode 7 - Teaching the Lindy Hop
In our longest episode yet, From the Top sits down with eight swing dance instructors at Lindy Shock University 2015 to talk shop. We ask what it's like to start out as a Lindy Hop teacher and look at some of the challenges presented by the job.
Contributors to this episode
Katja Završnik (Hrastar), Gaston Fernandez, Cat Foley, Felipe Braga, Remy Kouakou Kouame, Laura Keat, Alex Parker, Natalia Eristavi
A brief history of Lindy Hop teaching Marcus Nutzinger
When we are talking about the roots of the Lindy Hop, it is often emphasised that it is a “street dance”, that is to say that it grew outside of dance studios and there is therefore no official “guidebook” for it. If you wanted to dance the Lindy Hop in 1930s or 40s New York, for example in the Savoy Ballroom, there were two possible scenarios. In case you were already a good dancer who had been spotted by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers or another group, you had access to a special corner of the ballroom, which was known as Cat’s corner. Like many other nightclubs, the Savoy also catered for beginners by offering so-called hostesses that would teach you how to dance and hang out with you on the dance floor in exchange for buying a dance ticket (25 cents, about $4.20 in today’s money).
In contrast to ballroom dancing, there were no classes for the Lindy Hop in those days. Dancers would “steal” steps and moves from each other or else develop their dancing together as part of a commercial show troupe. Also, much more so than today, most top-level dancers had their very own “trademark step”, a step they would hone to perfection and pull out in competitions or situations like Cat’s corner.
It all changed when the Lindy Hop was revived in Sweden in the early 1980s. Those Swedish enthusiasts wanted to have reliable structures and patterns to learn from - and they got them. Their initial source was a ballroom dancer from the U.S. who taught them some form of Jitterbug with 6-count steps. His approach to the dance was somewhat too abstract: it was based on patterns and sequences, without any relation to the music. Later on, in the mid-1980s, the Swedes invited two true "old-timers" to instruct them: first Al Minns and then Frankie Manning. It was said that Al Minns, who was also teaching in a dance studio in New York at the time, was a horrible instructor because he had a hard time counting and would practically never show the same step twice. That was probably a bit too much for beginner dancers.
With the arrival of Frankie Manning, the Swing dance revival really got up steam and the man himself grew as a teacher as he worked with his students. That’s an adaptation Al Minns sadly didn’t have time for - he died in 1985, a couple of months after giving his first lessons in Stockholm. Unlike Minns, Frankie could and did count, but he also heavily relied on singing and humming the rhythms along with the students. Most importantly, however, he was among the first to bring back the joy into the dance class, a place that was initially solely focused on learning and evolving. With time, the “fun and feel” factor would gain even greater significance. "Frankie was an enormous success, he was the right person to pass on the Lindy Hop, he was full of inspiration and people really liked him," says Lennart Westerlund, one of Frankie's original students and co-founder of the world-famous Herräng Dance Camp, where Frankie first taught in 1989.
Nowadays the Lindy Hop is taught by very different people from very different places, and their background influences the way they see and teach the dance - very much so as it was with Frankie Manning and Al Minns, who came into their own in the 1940s but only started teaching four decades later. The Lindy Hop is still a “street dance”, and as such it is constantly on the move, always taking in new influences, perhaps also leaving some parts behind along the way - but never stopping.
Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. by Wintz, Cary D. and Finkelman, Paul. Routledge, 2005.
Manning, Frankie and Millman, Cynthia R. Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop. Temple University Press, 2007.
Miller, Norma and Jensen, Evette. Swingin' at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer. Temple University Press, 2001.
Stearns, Marshall Winslow and Stearns, Jean. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. Perseus Books Group, 1968.