Five Seventeen on Swing’s Past and Future

When Swing Kids came out in 1993, I gave it a miss. I was 19 years old and I had no interest in a movie about kids swing dancing in Nazi Germany. By the late ’90s, “neo-swing” was winding down and I had only an Esquivel reissue and an album by Combustible Edison to show for it.

Recently, a series of events has led me to swing dancing (specifically, the lindy hop): the increasing need to exercise now that I’m in my mid-30s; Sammy Davis Jr. and Buddy Rich’s Sound of ’66 album, which led me to sign up for a tap class; the sets of local Vancouver DJ That African; YouTube clips; and a few curious friends wanting to take a swing class.

As a book designer, Five Seventeen spends his days moving around other people’s words. His spare time is spent developing obsessions that last for days or months. The list includes lindy hop, noir films, pulp novels and chess. Follow him @fivepicapica

1. The evolution of lindy hop

This page covers just about every awesome thing about swing dancing (specifically the style lindy hop, which originated in Harlem nightclubs in the 1930s) and video clips of the most visible swing moments of the past 20 years. Like any music that originated in clubs, swing music is meant to be danced to, and lindy hop has the added advantage of counterbalance and momentum created by partner dancing, which also allows the addition of jumps and flips that are impossible to do on your own. (Also worth reading is Ben Yau’s post, referenced here, on the historical significance of each part of the dance.)

2. Frankie Manning

The words “lindy hop” and “Frankie Manning” are inseparable. From 1935 to 1955, Manning was to swing dancing what Ella Fitzgerald is to swing music. If you ever take a lindy hop class, his name, moves and dances are everywhere. He retired in the ’50s but returned to dancing in the ’80s as swing began a revival. He danced until April 27, 2009: one month before his 95th birthday.

3. Electroswing

Electroswing has been around since the mid-’90s, though compilations featuring artists such as Caravan Palace, Waldeck and G-Swing have come out only in recent years. Clubs in London, Brighton and Paris complement the burlesque revival and the steampunk movement. The White Mink: Black Cotton compilation is the best introduction to swing music old and new.

4. Swing fashionista

You need to dress comfortably on the dance floor and, while you don’t need to dress the part, Swing Fashionista will steer you in the right direction for the overall look. Women in their 20s and early 30s tend to embrace the rockabilly look: full skirts (they spin like nothing else) and pin-up sensibilities. For the fellas, it isn’t unusual to see vintage suits complete with braces, vests, and bow ties. And undershirts. There’s a good reason for undershirts.

5. The physics of swing

“A 14 second loop made from [Ray Charles’ version of “Fever”] could play endlessly and after more than an hour, it still sounded incredibly fresh. A sample which becomes perceptually tedious after only a few repetitions almost certainly does not Swing.Acoustics Today, July 2007 (emphasis in the original)

Swing music is structured for dancing. It is based around triplets (three beats in the time of two) and swung notes, the downbeat is emphasized and notes are often played milliseconds off time to give a swing feel. This article gives a more in-depth explanation.