Monday, December 8, 2008

To smooth or not to smooth?

After spending a bit of time at the US Open Swing Dance Championships over Thanksgiving weekend, I kinda got fascinated with the differences between modern Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing. The two dances both evolved from similar roots, the West Coast and Jitterbug communities both inspired by dancers from the New York ballrooms of the 1930s.

There are plenty of places to find information on the evolving of styles, so I'm going to skip ahead to my short thoughts on the subject. It's a bit of a ramble, and probably going to be ongoing, but here's a beginning.

First a couple of examples of the dances as they are danced now:

West Coast Swing

Lindy Hop

There's an essential set of differences between the two dances. Lindy Hop is a primal dance, urban and boisterous. It follows the pounding of the bass and pulses like an animal. West Coast praises smoothness and sexiness; is rhythmic yet strives to defy the beat of the drum.

The comment I have heard most from West Coasters with regard to Lindy Hop is this: "we don't bounce." This follows the Southern California Lindy Hop tradition of smoothness. If we look to the old school swing dancers who were present at the birth of West Coast Swing, they praised smoothness above pretty much anything else.

The Dean Collins Lindy Hoppers - 1983

The central figure in the link between Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing was Dean Collins. Collins is credited with bringing Lindy Hop from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem to Los Angeles. Many of his proteges still dance and teach today. There's a longer conversation in this, but I think it's better saved for a later time.

Anyway, onto more comparisons. As I mentioned before Lindy Hop is an urban dance. I think by contrast it would be easy to suggest that some influences in West Coast would remove those urban influences. It seems to me that in addition to smoothness, West Coast loves prettiness. On the other side of the fence, Lindy Hop has a sense of humor and a deep connection to its roots.

I'd briefly bring up Ballet and Modern Dance as a contrary comparison. I think I'm going to have to save those thoughts for later.

Anyway, if you have thoughts on the subject, I'd love to read them.


Coach Christine Elowitt said...

As someone who is quite involved in both Lindy Hop and West Coast swing dancing, I have my own perception of the personalities of each of the dances. As a follower, one of the biggest differences I notice is that Lindy Hop tends to be a dance in which the leaders can show off, and West Coast Swing is one in which the followers can. In WCS, the followers have a much greater degree of freedom to add in their own musical interpretations and initiate moves.

An obvious difference is the style of movement. West Coast Swing is more slotted, rather than circular, and the torso is responsible for a greater part of the movement. As a follower, doing anchor steps rather than swivels dramatically changes the constant fluid motion of Lindy Hop into a more controlled, leveraged motion in West Coast Swing. At the higher competition levels, Lindy Hop is more focused on impressive acrobatic feats done in the air. At most West Coast Swing competitions (with the exception of the US Open which emphasizes routines), Champions level Jack and Jills are the most watched events. The chemistry of the lead and follow, spontaneity, the mixing of individual styles and, yes, humor are the components that keep the audiences (and sometimes the judges) captivated.

I would completely disagree that Lindy Hop is more tied to the beat of the music. Both dances use the beat of the music extensively. (Remember that to syncopate your movements, you must be completely in touch with the beat and always return to it; otherwise, you are just dancing off time.) Since the music they are danced to is quite different, the styles of the dance are therefore different as well. In West Coast Swing, evolution is constant. As DJ's are always on the search for newly released music to play at dances, the dance evolves with the popular music. That is why the West Coast Swing of the 1980's is dramatically different from the WCS today. In Lindy Hop, the dance evolves also, but there is more of a reverence for and learning from the past, and an emphasis on a certain era of the 20th century.

I am not sure what you mean by an "urban" dance, unless you are referring to Harlem giving birth to Savoy swing. Both dances are clearly "street" dances. By that I mean that they are at least as influenced by what people see and imitate on the social dance floor as by what is taught in lessons. If teachers don't keep up with the social dance scene and evolutions there, they are unlikely to remain popular teachers. Innovation happens on a spontaneous level rather than coming from the top down.

Personally, I believe that most people are drawn to one dance or the other based on the musical style they prefer.

I look forward to your discussion of ballet vs. modern dance. My love affair with dance began at age 5 with ballet. After 7 years I made a switch and did 5 years of modern dance. The dances are quite different, but I don't think the nature of their differences is analogous to the differences between Lindy and WCS.

Fad23 said...

Obviously, you can't leave Harlem out of the "urban dance" discussion. But I think that the word urban has a very rich definition. I mean it in the way that while both dances are so-called "street dances," at least some elements of the Lindy Hop community want to be influenced by the streets. One place where dance leaves the streets is in the studios, though there are plenty of exceptions.

I don't agree that the Lindy Hop focuses on the lead-shine. I think that some leads in the Lindy Hop community are showboats. Those are two separate statements. In fact, I think that a big problem with West Coast is how follow-centric it appears to be. I prefer an interactive dance, and seek out balance more than anything else when I hit the floor, most of the time.

As for your disagreement with my suggestions about rhythm, I'd say that I can see how West Coasters approach Rhythm and that it doesn't pound the way that Lindy Hop does. Obviously the ranges of musical tastes in each community are really different. I personally am uncomfortable the way that West Coasters use the word "syncopation." To me, syncopation is a Jazz term, and there isn't any Jazz in West Coast at all. That's not to suggest that there isn't creativity or beauty in it, but that appreciation of Jazz is completely alien to most West Coasters. Where West Coasters use the word "syncopate," I think they should use other words entirely - stretching and elongating rhythm, or counter-intuiting the rhythm.

The approach to rhythm in Lindy Hop, at least as I have seen it is incredibly intuitive. It appears to me to have an incredible elegance, while it retains a primal beat.

I don't really want to get into a discussion of musical tastes. It's important, but I find it tiresome at the moment.