Savoy-style Lindy Hop
Savoy-style Lindy Hop was the form of Lindy Hop danced by African American dancers at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the 1930s and 1940s. This contrasted with 'Hollywood-style Lindy Hop' or 'Smooth-Style Lindy Hop', popularly associated with Dean Collins and his Lindy Hop choreography in Hollywood films. Savoy-style lindy hop is characterized by a high energy, circular, rotating style, in contrast with the smooth, slotted styling of Hollywood (Smooth).
The Savoy Ballroom was the end of the line for an ascending network of clubs, church socials, in New York and beyond. George Snowden, Frankie Manning and George Sullivan were all dismissed by prospective partners for having allegedly inadequate dance skills. With an unusually high preponderance of skilled social dancers there was an infinite variety of interpretations. As Frankie Manning put it, "Everyone at the Savoy had their [own] style." And there was no specific "Savoy style" of Lindy Hopping.
A more modern style of dance called "lindy hop" also occurs, characterized by slower music, more improvisation, and "groove" style. This usage evolved in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the late 90s to distinguish it from the "Hollywood" or "LA Style" that was becoming popular. The latter styles were typically done to faster music and with less room for improvisation, limited to what could be fit into existing patterns. The coinage was based on the erroneous idea that black dancers on the East Coast danced in a slow and 'groovy" manner with lots of improvisation not fitting within the typical patterns. This usage seems to be diminishing in usage and the term is often used today to describe faster lindy hop based on moves from Whitey's Lindy Hoppers and other dancers from the Savoy ballroom. However, as most dancers of this style do not possess the years of ingrained African American movement possessed by these early dancers, it is difficult to replicate, and it might be said that most modern dancers more closely resemble Dean Collins and his west coast contemporaries.
Savoy Ballroom dancers and the history of African American Lindy Hop
Savoy style Lindy Hop was most frequently associated with living dancers from the 1930s such as Frankie Manning, and with the Swedish dance troupe The Rhythm Hot Shots (now replaced by the Harlem Hot Shots).
The term 'Savoy-style Lindy Hop' applies a generic relationship between all African American Lindy Hoppers (and aficionados of their styles) which ignores the variety and diversity of Lindy Hop in the 1930s and 40s. Lindy Hop historians see clear differences between the Lindy Hop of the early years of its development (the late 1920s) and dancers such as "Shorty" George Snowden, dancers of the 1930s (such as Manning), and then between individual dancers during these periods. Lennart Westerlund - a key member of The Rhythm Hot Shots and authoritative Lindy Hop historian - described the differences in styles between Manning and Al Minns, the dancer he worked with in the earliest years of the Lindy Hop revival. Al Minns and Leon James are often considered authoritative figures in the academic discussion of Lindy Hop, in part for their work with Marshall and Jean Stearns (in their book Jazz Dance and documentary films). Lindy Hop historians also draw clear distinctions between the dancing styles of key female dancers such as Norma Miller and Ann Johnson. The most useful point to be made about this variation within a single community of dancers in one historical moment, is that vernacular African American dance, and Lindy Hop in particular, prioritised individual style and creative improvisation and musical interpretation within a particular dance style.
Exploring popular ideas about the common features of Savoy-style Lindy Hop
In describing Savoy style Lindy Hop, observers note that the follower is led out of the basic Swingout sideways as a default. This is not the case, however, as leading a follow out backwards or forwards is just as likely. Savoy style is also said to be characterized by a pronounced downwards 'bounce', which is again something of a misnomer, as different dancers employed varying degrees and types of 'bounce', and observers of Frankie Manning have noted changes in his own dancing style in this respect over the years. Despite these comments, it is important to note that the 'bounce' described is characteristic of many African American vernacular dance forms. One of the clearest distinctions between Hollywood and Smooth style Lindy Hop and Savoy style Lindy Hop is the open 'connection' and relative freedom of the follower to improvise within the structure of the Swingout in particular. Again, this technical difference varies between individual dancers, and between teachers today. Historians may also note that Hollywood style, while often characterized by a more intense connection (characterized at its extreme by counter balance), also featured extensive variations and individual improvisation within the swingout in other instances.
Savoy style Lindy Hop and African American identity
Perhaps the most useful employment of the term 'Savoy-style Lindy Hop' lies in the association of the Savoy Ballroom (and dancers who were associated with it, particularly those of the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers) and ethnicity. Despite the differences noted above, there are marked tropes in African American and African dances which are present in the Lindy Hop of these dancers in this period. These may include:
- clear angles at the ankle - between leg and foot - and often at the wrist and/or elbow
- wide-legged stances for both women and men, particularly in the follower's swivel
- Frankie Manning's characteristically 'athletic' stance - like a runner spread out in motion, parallel to the ground - echoes African dance
- particular 'variations' or jazz steps associated with Savoy-style date back to the African communities from which African American slaves were taken (and are discussed in the History of slavery in the United States article), including the move "the itch" which then moved on to white communities and across to the west coast of America with dancers like Dean Collins.
These associations between African American Lindy Hoppers and a particular dance style are important as Lindy Hop developed in a close relationship with jazz, in particular swing. Both are African American vernacular art forms.
- See Karen Hubbard and Terry Monaghan, "Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor: Social Dancing at the Savoy, " in Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader, ed. by Julie Malnig (2009: University of Illinois Press), page 138. ISBN 978-0-252-03363-6, ISBN 978-0-252-07565-0
- SavoyHop http://www.savoyhop.com/