History of Swing




There are at least three different types of shag dancing alive today: early-mid 1930's Shag (aka Collegiate Shag), Carolina Shag, and St. Louis Shag. All can be done with ease to fast music.


The 1930's Shag (a.k.a. Collegiate Shag)
This dance was extremely popular on the West Coast, where it was used in dance competitions such as The Harvest Moon Ball. The basic consist of a 6 count pattern: slow (2 counts), slow (2 counts), quick, quick (1 count each.) Today the dance has been taken to a new level by the addition of aerials and intricate footwork patterns. 


Carolina Shag
Born in the 1950's around the Myrtle Beach area, this style is still popular today in the Southeastern part of the U.S. In fact, it is South Carolina's State Dance. It consists of 6 and 8 count patterns. It has the appearance of someone doing West Coast Swing with rubber legs and tight footwork. 

St. Louis Shag (a.k.a Speed Shag)
Is an 8 beat style of Shag which can be done at very high speeds. The dance is most comfortable at a tempo of 200-300 beats per minute. It is an offshoot of the original Charleston dancing. The basic patterns are close together with no basic step patterns such as you see in West Coast Swing. 


Lindy Hop


Lindy Hop is an American social dance, more specifically originating in the late 1920s in New York City at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. It was danced to music (principally Swing) in fast duple meter ("8 to the bar") and was characterized especially by "breakaways" in which partners separated and improvised steps individually. It incorporated movements in which partners swung one another around and sometimes took on an acrobatic character.


It is said that a "downtown" reporter saw the dance being performed in 1927 and asked whether it had a name; "Shorty" George Snowden, a Lindy pioneer, saw an opportunity and said that the dancers were celebrating Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic with "Lindy's Hop."


Known from the 1930s as "Jitterbug", it was widely danced until the late 1950s when prevailing taste in music shifted to a six beat format (the "Motown" beat). The Lindy Hop owes much to Charleston, Jazz and Tap steps, Ballet, and complex movements from Viennese Waltz. Life Magazine characterized Lindy Hop as "America's National Folk Dance." As the dance spread from Harlem throughout the US, it mutated into variations that survive today including Jive, Bop, Shag, Balboa, and the Imperial.



Balboa (its original pure form)
Danced completely in closed position, pure Balboa evolved in conservative dance halls where space was limited. Some of these dance halls had strict rules or codes of conduct that prohibited the wild kicks of the Charleston and other exuberant dances. Pure Balboa is characterized by a fairly upright posture with both partners standing 'chest to chest' in close intimate contact. You never break away from your partner, there are no spins or turns, and you remain completely in contact through the chest at all times. This does not leave much scope for variations so pure Balboa is an intrinsically very simple dance. The only variations possible were changes in direction and a few step variations. These step variations generally play with the rhythm or change the look and feel (style) from below the knee downwards. If you part at the chest then you're not doing pure Balboa!


The dance's simplicity and economy of movement make it very well suited to fast tempo music. This fact has meant that Balboa is often mistakenly thought of as just a fast dance. Indeed many of the original dancers could dance at amazing speeds. However, they also liked to dance to slower music and the dance has always been done to music of all tempos including some improbably slow tunes. It's been said that pure Balboa was done by older dancers who just wanted to meet and dance with women!


Bal Swing

After a while some of the original Balboa dancers tired of doing just pure Balboa and started to introduce fancier variations which forced the 'chest to chest' connection to be broken. In this form anything goes; spins turns, dips, tricks, and even air steps! All these things are allowed provided the overall style, feeling, and framework remain true in spirit to the original dance. In explicit terms it might be said that these open patterns should be combined with recognizable Balboa footwork. There's some dispute over exactly when this form got its 'Bal Swing' name. It is clear, though, that for some time many people referred to it as just 'Swing' dancing. Other forms of swing dancing also existed around that time in different areas; these were clearly not derived from Balboa. So only real swing dancers in the immediate LA region might have been doing what we now know as Bal Swing.




The Charleston dance became popular after appearing along with the song, "The Charleston," by James P. Johnson in the Broadway musical Runnin' Wild in 1923.


Although the origins of the dance are obscure, the dance has been traced back to blacks who lived on an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina (which is why the dance is called "Charleston"). The Charleston dance had been performed in black communities since 1903, but did not become internationally popular until the musical debued in 1923.


The music for the Charleston is ragtime jazz, in quick 4/4 time with syncopated rhythms.  The dance uses both swaying arms and the fast movement of the feet. To begin the dance, (the solo version), one first moves the right foot back one step and then kicks backwards with the left foot while the right arm moves forward.


Then both feet and arms are replaced to the start position and the right foot kicks forwards while the right arm moves backwards. This is done with a little hop in between steps.


The Charleston dance became extremely popular in the 1920s, especially with Flappers. The dance could be done by oneself, with a partner, or in a group.


East Coast Swing


When the Lindy hop became popular in 1927, the " American Society of Teachers of Dancing " (A.S.T.D.) and the Dance Teachers Business Association (D.T.B.A.) denounced the Lindy as: "a fad and would not last out the winter, and its devotees were victims of economic instability.


"The East Coast Swing is an offshoot of the Foxtrot or Syncopated Two-Step. East Coast Swing is an "invented dance (a non folk dance)," modified from a prior original form (Lindy Hop) by the 'American Society of Teachers of Dancing' in 1942. They were already teaching this style to stock movie dancers well before 1942, but in 1942, it became official to the public as a dance, HOWEVER IT WAS NOT NAMED AS SUCH.


These two main dance associations kept up this way of thinking (mainly racial) and ignored the Lindy, refusing to add the dance to their curriculum for many years, (even today still not wanting to recognize it) with Lindy Hop later becoming known as the Jitterbug.

In the early days of ballroom dance these associations were formed to try to improve the dance scene. As time went on, if you were not a member of the associations mentioned, you could not use their name or logo. If you were a member, you could only teach their dance syllabus and nothing else. If you were a dance studio owner of the time, not being a member could prove fateful to your business (98% were members).


Finally in 1942, realizing they were losing a lot of money to the street teachers and independent dance studios teaching the Jitterbug/Lindy, the Associations got together (as they did every year) and announced the new dances and curriculum for that year. Stating (in writing) that:


" The Jitterbug, a direct descendant from the Lindy hop, could no longer be ignored ---- Its cavortings could be refined to suit a crowded dance floor. " And refine it, they did!


This, “refinement", is what gave birth to what we now call the East Coast Swing. The Association's refined the Lindy/Jitterbug. They took out all the laborious parts such as the 8 count steps and made it more racially permissible for "white America," and used a Foxtrot basis for the dance, so you could shift from one to the other. This left the dance much easier to teach and master, but the real gut of swing was eliminated, making it spiritless compared with its older brothers.





Shim Sham is the Lindy Line Dance. Here is the legend that surrounds it:


LEGEND: The Original Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom had a considerable background in Tap and jazz dance. They used to warm up for dancing by doing traditional jazz steps. Eventually, their warm-up became standardized and a group of them could be found on the floor warming up as the band was tuning up.


The rhythm of the feet was very distinctive and stuck in the mind of arranger Edgar Sampson, who was a close associate of drummer-bandleader Chick Webb. Sampson wrote a song called "Stompin' at the Savoy" based on the distinctive rhythm of the dancer's feet. The warm-up exercise became the Shim Sham dance (named after its first step) and the song became a tradition. Sampson sold the song to Benny Goodman for $100 during a period of particularly lean times in the Depression.


That is the Legend. It makes a great story, although it is disputed by many, most recently by Frankie Manning. Take a look at this segment from his recent interview on the Washington Post website:


  • Question: Were the Shim Sham or other line dances done at the Savoy?


  • Frankie Manning: Yes, but not like we do them now. The Shim Sham actually originated in a night club. We would take it to the Savoy, and we would just start doing it. It wasn't organized or anything.


It is undisputed that the Lindy revival of the late 1980s also brought back Shim Sham. People all over the world think that a Lindy event is not complete without a Shim Sham.

Big Apple


Despite its name the Big Apple did not actually originate in New York. It evolved and first became recognized as a dance form in Columbia, S. Carolina. Putting an exact date to the creation of a dance is always difficult. It seems most likely to have formed in the early 1930's with the dance slowly gaining popularity and spreading into other areas of S. Carolina through to the mid 1930's. At that time of racial segregation, the dance evolved solely in the African American community. However, as with many dances of the era, it was soon picked up by the whites and quickly gained popularity and became more widespread as a result.


Betty Wood, an original white Big Apple dancer said "It all began at an abandoned synagogue that had been turned into a Juke Joint". In 1930 she was aged sixteen and heard music coming from a juke joint when out driving with friends. They went in and were allowed onto a mezzanine reserved exclusively for whites. The racial segregation of the time meant there was no mixing of races (particularly in the deep South). The main floor and dance area were only for African-Americans with the whites confined to watching from the mezzanine above. They were inspired by watching the dancers doing lots of different jazz steps and improvisation on the floor below them. They recognized some of the steps as coming from other dances they already knew such as the Charleston, Black Bottom and the original 8-count Collegiate Shag.


They came away with the idea of a dance made up of individual jazz steps, performed in a circle, as called by a leader. The dance was an instantaneous hit in the white community with people coming to South Carolina from all over the country to see the new Big Apple dance they'd heard about. There are also accounts that after a while a new variation developed called the "Little Apple". This form involved fewer dancers and people would take it in turns to grab a partner and move to the center of the circle and dance for a while in styles similar to Lindy Hop, Shag, or other dances of the era.