Ina cramped basement in central London, two-dozen couples glide, bop and leap around a parquet floor. A few of the men have thin moustaches, waistcoasts and two-tone shoes, while some of the women have polka-dot dresses that billow out as they twirl around their partners in a tuck-turn, flat spin or a Texas Tommy. In the background, scratchy records play out trumpets, saxophones and horns in a combination of six-step jazz, blues and swing.
The idea of couples dancing the Lindy Hop seems so dated that you would think this must be a revival night — a once-in-a-while nostalgic hark-back to the 1920s, when Lindy Hop was emerging from the shadow of the mighty Charleston as the dance for the young. But you’d be wrong. Lindy Hop (also known as swing, jive and jitterbug) has been gathering a steady following in the UK for more than a decade, spurred on by the popularity of TV dance shows. All over the country, there are day courses in Lindy Hop, holidays, drop-in classes, club nights, competitions and even a trade in the associated paraphernalia — for men, retro panama hats, suits and spats; and 1940s prom dresses for women.
“When you go out swing dancing, you actually go dancing,” says Simon Selmon of the London Swing Dance Society — a Lindy Hopper of more than 20 years. When he first started teaching in the early 1990s, Selmon dreamed of getting 20 people in the class. “Now, we are busier than ever — we’re running more events and classes. We’re doing more corporate events and we’re getting requests from schools, partly because of the health aspects. Teachers also tell me it’s good communication between people and there’s teamwork involved.”
I started taking Selmon’s classes partly out of curiosity, but also because, with seven weddings to attend this year, I thought it would be useful to finally learn how to couple dance. I joined 150 or so beginners for his most popular class, Wild Times, on a Tuesday night. The lesson began with a stroll, which felt a bit like a jazzed-up line dance (I learned later that you should never call it a line dance in front of a Lindy Hopper). Ten minutes later, I was working through the basic footwork: a slow-slow, quick-quick on a six-step count. Then we headed downstairs, where more advanced dancers showed us how to do things properly.
I also tried out a smaller, more intimate class. The 52nd Street Jump, a club based in south London but named after the New York street that’s home to such jazz venues as Famous Door and Three Juices, runs 10-week foundation courses to give shy beginners the chance to screw up in front of a smaller bunch of fellow newbies. I asked instructor Steve Mason: what type of person goes along? “One minute you could be talking to a bank manager, then you’d be talking to a policeman, then you could be talking to a plasterer. How many other things in society are there where we hang around in groups of people like us? I’ve always liked the fact it’s such a mixture.”
Lindy Hop dates back to 1927, when George “Shorty” Snowden was tearing up the dance halls of Harlem. He took jazz steps from the Charleston, introduced fast break-outs (in which the woman is thrown out to the side, and then snapped back in) and won every competition and dance marathon going. After a win at the Manhattan Casino, a reporter asked what Shorty called the moves he was using. Shorty glanced over at a newspaper carrying a front-page report of the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s successful solo flight in the Spirit of St Louis from Long Island to Paris, which bore the headline: “Lucky Lindy Hops the Atlantic.” He shot the reporter back a name: the Lindy Hop.