Around 1850, Slaves of Florida combined their dance style with a coupled dance performed by native Seminole Indians. This dance, known as the Chalk Line Walk, was the origin of the Cakewalk. Both were replaced by Blacks around World War I—the Jazz Era—with the Charleston (fast footwork and kick outs) and the Jazz/Tap patterns of the Black Bottom but with a couple dancing without holding each other, and each improvising and “doing their own thing.” They showed a total body nature of African tribal dancing—with movement of the entire body to syncopated rhythms checkered with asymmetrical fluidity; angular bending of the arms, legs, and torso; shoulder and hip movement; scuffing, stamping, and hopping; a free spirit of improvisation; bent knees, crouched torsos, and hip and pelvic movements and an orientation into the earth [as opposed to on top of a dance floor]- described in a Congolese proverb as: “Dance with your knees bent, lest you be taken for a corpse.”
Then came the Lindy Hop in 1925 which brought back contact between the dancers but of a very acrobatic and individualistic kind. Its break-away movements later gave birth to modern swing dancing.
The star attraction of Harlem’s Savoy ballroom was Frankie Manning (1914-2009) whose nickname “Muscle-head” developed from the chants of dancers—“Go, Muscle-head, go!-- as they watched his strong and closely cropped head glisten with sweat as he kicked and spun himself and his partner into human propellers. He learned dancing by watching his mother—a laundress in Harlem—and her friends dance at rent parties and social gatherings to help friends or neighbors raise rent money. Somehow they knew about forms of African tribal dancing brought in by the Slaves and perhaps this came from watching dances at the Savoy. The Savoy, an epicenter of elegant swing, was a racially integrated dance hall, and with music of such big bands as Count Basie, Chick Webb, and Cab Calloway in rhythmic duels.
Manning’s marquee innovation was the “Air Step” in which a female partner is tossed in the air and lands in time with the music.
Modifications have included partners flinging each other around, over, and between various limbs.
Manning joined Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers—a dance performance team that appeared in Hollywood movies (e.g. “Hellza-popin’ ” in 1941). As part of the team, he was the opening act for singers like Billie Holiday and once performed before King George VI of England in 1937. When he returned from World War II Army service he started his own troupe but by this time the music scene had changed radically.
For example, there was the rise of Bebop jazz (which was largely undanceable) and then the advent of Rock ’N’ Roll. With a family to support Manning spent 30 years as a postal clerk until a popular swing re-awakened him and the Lindy Hop
in the 1980s, after which he won a tony. The name “Lindy” was short for the airplane pilot Lindbergh who had just made the first transatlantic flight. The name Lindy Hop has been attributed to Shorty George Snowden. When paired with his most well known partner, Big Bea (who towered over his 5 foot frame), what resulted were dance steps and patterns that were both wildly entertaining and technically brilliant. The Lindy Hop remains popular.
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