From Ragtime to Swing

A look at the development of Swing from its early roots in Ragtime and through the Charleston and other dances.

By Brigitt Mayer


Before we can go into the Swing we need to look a bit further back and just briefly check out the rag/ragtime since a lot changed with that music style!

“The Entertainer”

Ragtime was composed for solo piano. A lot of inspiration was taken from marches and other European musical forms; It’s basically a derivative of dance music of the 1890s, such as the cakewalk (so named because the best dancers would win a cake) and owed its building blocks and “oom-pah” bass figures to European music like the mazurka and polka. Ragtime influenced later the growth of the stride and boogie piano styles, but ragtime itself was not yet jazz. It is a musical genre which main trait is its “ragged” i.e. syncopated rhythms. It supposedly has its origin in the red-light districts of New Orleans and St Louis area and is a distinctly American musical style. It has European influences from the popular music over there at the time and fused it with rhythms from the African-Americans. Above is one piece that we probably all know from Scott Joplin (1868-1917) “The Entertainer” from 1902.

Before the rag, Paris/Europe had the biggest influence on dancing, but from then on until after the First World War, New York was the leading authority. I am not talking about our ballroom dancing now, but western partner dancing in general.

Ragtime merges into Charleston with the “roaring 20s” (USA)

The 1920s are often referred to as “The Jazz Age”, and considered the first truly modern decade. Everything was seemingly done to excess The first dances coming from out of this time period with new rhythms i.e. syncopations, were the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot, Bunny Hop and then the One-Step.

Out of this ragtime-jazz period also the Charleston established. Although the origins of the dance are obscure, the dance has been traced back to African-Americans who lived on an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina (which is why the dance is called “Charleston”) and was originally a solo dance.

The Charleston dance had been performed in black communities since 1903, but did not become internationally popular until the debut of James P. Johnsons Broadway musical Runnin’ Wild in 1923. (In this clip here you can see movements that resemble movements of the Lindy-Hop from the later swing period.)

It’s all a quite intriguing, complex development; a lot was going on in that period world-wide on a political and social level. In America a new woman was born in the 20’; she smoked, drank danced and voted. She cut her hair, wore make-up, went to parties was giddy and took risks. She was a flapper! The term “flapper” first appeared in Great Britain after World War I. It described young girls, still awkward in movement, who had not yet entered womanhood.

Merging into the Swing period

By the end of the 1920s and the dawn of the 1930s, a new musical sound was on the horizon, and the Swing Era was eventually ushered in. There is a whole huge musical excursion possible in order to explore jazz, but that’s not the place here. I will just go into a short stroll of the swing era and the related dances that emerged.

The term “swing” is a very general term and can describe several different things.

Among these, swing can refer to:

  1. a syncopated rhythm that is a common characteristic of jazz music
  2. a style of jazz music known as “swing jazz,” and often incorrectly termed as “big band” music
  3. a related variety of dances which includes Lindy Hop, West Coast Swing, and Smooth Lindy
  4. a few varieties of music that it is very common to swing dance to

Jazz music was a style of American music most popular in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Swing jazz features the syncopated timing associated with African American and West African music and dance – a combination of quarter notes and eighth notes (crotchets and quavers) that the swing dancers interpret as ‘triple steps’ and ‘steps’ – yet also introduces changes in the way these rhythms were played – a distinct delay or ‘relaxed’ approach to timing.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Just a small glimpse into the musical aspect here:

What Duke Ellington was referring to with the words of his popular song was the rhythm of the music. This is where syncopation comes in. A simple idea of syncopation is the thought of a ‘rhythmic surprise’. This can be done by accenting certain notes or by unevenly timing the beats. Both jazz and ragtime make use of syncopation; the name of ragtime music itself comes from its uneven or “ragged timing” as mentioned above.

When music is played as it is written on the page, musicians refer to it as being played “straight”, or “unswung”. Meaning if what is written on the page of music are 8th notes, and you play those notes as perfectly timed 8th notes — each having the same duration of time — then you are playing the music “straight”.

When it comes to swing, music and syncopation, swing refers to the creation of the feel of a forward momentum, by dividing each beat into a pair of 8th notes, but playing the first slightly longer than an 8th and then playing the second slightly shorter than an 8th, or vice versa. It is described often as the first note “stealing” some of the second note’s time so that they are of unequal duration: swing timing. Another way the music is “swung” is by playing just a fraction of a beat ahead of the actual beat thus giving the music as a whole a feel of this before mentioned forward momentum. On the other hand, playing just behind or slightly after the beat can give the music a relaxed feel.

The dances

Swing jazz music conquered the American social world and there was no country club, ballroom, night club or movie, which was not filled with it. The softer, sweeter tunes were used to foxtrot to and the faster hot ones were used for Lindy Hop.

Lindy Hop is considered to be the first official swing dance; a bold and joyful social dance, with a style that reflects the music. Partners are connected gently to each other, while relating to the music in feeling, improvisation and phrasing. The tempo of the dance can range anywhere from a slow 60 beats per minute, to a frantic 450 beats.

Just as Jazz combines European and African musical origins, the Lindy Hop incorporates African rhythms and styling, European partnering elements, and a wholly American-created partner breakaway to create a unique American dance form done to American music: Hot Jazz, Swing Jazz and Jump Blues. It is a mostly 8 count dance which evolved along side with the new Swing Jazz music, and was based on a mixing of earlier dances such as the Breakaway (the precursor to Lindy Hop) and the Charleston.

The Lindy Hop developed in Harlem, New York, whenever people were partying… But only after the opening of the Savoy Ballroom the Lindy Hop got its name and found a home.

The Savoy Ballroom

Excerpts from the PBS homepage on the Savoy Ballroom:

 “The Savoy Ballroom was opened on March 12, 1926 by Moe Gale (Moses Galewski), Charles Galewski, and a Harlem real estate businessman called Charles Buchanan, who functioned as the ballroom’s manager. The Savoy was billed as the world’s most beautiful ballroom; it occupied the second floor of a building that extended along the whole block between 140th and 141st streets, and featured a large dance floor (200 feet by 50 feet), two bandstands, and a retractable stage. It swiftly became the most popular dance venue in Harlem, and many of the jazz dance crazes of the 1920s and 1930s originated there; it enjoyed a long and glittering career that lasted well into the 1950s, before a decline in its fortunes set in.

On its opening night the Savoy featured Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra, the Charleston Bearcats, fronted by Leon Abbey, and, as a guest band, Fletcher Henderson’s Roseland Orchestra; the Charleston Bearcats formed a lasting connection with the venue and later changed its name to the Savoy Bearcats. Except on special occasions, the ballroom engaged two bands, which played alternate sets, and this policy led to its becoming a famous venue for battles of bands. Elaborate events of this kind were also organized by the management: on May 15, 1927 the Savoy presented a “Battle of Jazz,” which featured King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators, a band led by Williams, Chick Webb’s Harlem Stompers, and Henderson’s Roseland Orchestra; other battles were fought between bands led by Lloyd Scott, Webb, Alex Johnson, Charlie Johnson, Williams, and Henderson (May 6, 1928) and between Cab Calloway’s Missourians and groups led by Duke Ellington, Henderson, Cecil Scott, Lockwood Lewis, and Webb (May 14, 1930).”

1928 Savoy Ballroom dance star “Shorty” George Snowden coined the name Lindy Hop during a dance marathon. Quote: “A spontaneous throw-out breakaway, and a flash footwork improv, captured media attention.”What are you doing with your feet?” asked the Fox Movie Tone News interviewer. “The Lindy Hop,” replied Shorty George — Charles A. Lindbergh (aka “Lindy”) had recently “hopped” the Atlantic, landing on May 21, 1927. From Shorty George’s ad hoc reply, the Lindy Hop was officially given a name.

“’Jitter’ was the Jazz culture slang for alcohol, and thus a ‘Jitterbug’ was a term for those who drank a lot of alcohol. However, in the mid 1930’s, the Lindy Hop started to be called the Jitterbug when the band leader Cab Calloway introduced a bouncy six beat tune in 1934 entitled ‘Jitterbug.’”

Probably the most famous exponent of the Lindy Hop were Frankie Manning He became a member of the White’s Lindy Hoppers in the mid 30’. The troupe was named after the Savoy’s head bouncer Herbert White and they were featured dancers in the movies: “A Day at the Races” (1937 a Marx Brothers movie), “Hellzapoppin” (1941), “Sugar Hill Masquarade (1942)and “Killer Diller” (1948). When Frankie “Muscelhead” Manning created the first air step (aerial) in 1935, the Lindy Hop really “took of”. It became a worldwide craze as the Jitterbug and branched into West Coast Swing, Rock’n Roll and Boogie Woogie. But still today the authentic style is the Savoy Style from Harlem, New York.

It is often said that Lindy is a strict 8 count dance, but Frankie Manning, who died 2009 age 94 has indicated many times that Lindy is a mixture of various 8, 6, 4 and ten count moves and that “it’s not the timing of the movements that’s important; it’s the feel that counts.”

When we look at the development here we cannot leave the subject of racism and segregation out. The music and the dances came from African Americans and again its complex. Racism and segregation were present. Due to this phenomenon found in many states, clubs throughout the country were often segregated. Just a few bands were racially mixed, of which Benny Goodman’s was possibly the first.

Quote: “Hollywood films handled the race issue by including the African-American swing jazz band performances in films in such a way that these sections could be easily removed from the movie reels that were to be distributed to Southern states without disturbing the storyline. In these movies, scenes that featured black swing dancers — such as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, or the Congoroos — would be completely cut out when they were distributed for Southern audiences. This also had the advantage in that these sections could also be viewed separately from the movie, presenting them as short subject films.”

Today in many scenes outside the United States the term “Swing dancing” is used generically to refer to one or all of the following swing era dances: Lindy Hop, Charleston, Shag, and Balboa. This group is often extended to include West Coast Swing, East Coast Swing, Hand Dancing, Jive, Rock and Roll, Modern Jive, and other dances that developed in the 1940s and later.

© Brigitt Mayer

  1. Nice article!

    Smooth Lindy isn’t really a separate dance form from Lindy Hop. Some dancers are more smooth, or more bouncy, or more staccato — it’s a matter of style. It’s still Lindy Hop.

    Nobody dances at 450bpm. I’m not sure jazz syncopation is even audible at that tempo. I recall reading an article somewhere about the maximum tempo at which individual beats and syncopation can be perceived in the brain but unfortunately do not have a cite. “Social” Lindy ranges probably from around 100bpm to around 180bpm, or more like 240bpm at larger events with better dancers. Performances, competitions, and the occasional social dance can and have gone up to about 320bpm, possibly(?) higher, but not by much.

  2. I have just learnt that my father Tom Slater was ‘Jive Champion of Great Britain”. (?)
    This would have been around 1948 and I do not think any later than 1952/3. Have you any suggestions as to where I can glean some information about this. Archives etc. Can’t find anything on Google. My half sister told me this very recently and I wold like to know if my mother was his partner.
    Thank you for your time and attention.
    J Feona Kinf
    Tennessee, USA

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