Why Lindy and Blues

The celebration of a joint Lindy hop and Blues festival in Porto is not a random event. These dance forms are both deeply connected to their roots in African American culture, a shared history, values and aesthetics.  It is impossible to talk about the history of Lindy hop or blues without facing up to the history of racial oppression and resistance and affirmation that gave rise to these dances. Swing, jazz and blues are all part of this cultural tradition, music that was always principally dance music, its main purpose being to free us from the blues.

As Albert Murray has said more eloquently: “But as to the matter of dispersing gloom and spreading glee…Testimony that the dance-beat incantation and percussion of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong almost always worked as advertised is universal” (Stomping the Blues).

The Lindy hop is a popular partner jazz dance that was born in Harlem in the late 1920s, created by young urban African Americans in venues such as the Savoy Ballroom. While the attribution of the Lindy hop name has been disputed, the most widely accepted story is that it was named by “Shorty” George Snowden at a dance marathon in 1928, in reference to Lindbergh, who had recently completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic. Regardless of whether he named the dance, Snowden was one of Lindy hop’s earliest creators.

African American social dances, including Lindy hop and blues, developed in a context of racism in the US, which determined where people could be, dance and play music, among other limitations, which is why venues like the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem were so important in the Swing Era. The Savoy was the first integrated ballroom in Harlem and it provided a space of freedom and community for black patrons, where the best swing bands played non-stop, and where creative dialogue between dancers and musicians propelled musical and dance innovation.

The Lindy hop incorporated and transformed previous jazz and ballroom dances and went on to become the defining dance of the Swing Era. The Savoy dancers, among them Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, Leon James etc., under the management of Herbert White (Whitey), brought its joyful and subversive spirit from the ballroom to stages across the US, Hollywood and around the world, including Europe, Brazil and Australia. It is important to honour the people who created this dance from which we derive so much enjoyment, remembering it was also a social dance that is part of the living heritage of local communities.

Blues dancing, originally called slow drag, is one of the few black social dances that was not adapted for stage or codified for white dancers (until recently), and remained rooted in Black communities where it was danced at rent parties, honky-tonks, juke joints, dance halls and a whole range of black social spaces. Its origins lie in the South and it expanded throughout the US in the early 20th century along with the successive waves of migration of African Americans seeking to evade segregation and find greater freedom and opportunity in the North.

Lindy hop and blues belong to the jazz dance tradition and wider heritage of African diasporic dances that includes samba, rumba, rueda, kizomba, calypso etc. as different embodiments of joy and defiance.  Both dances share many Africanist aesthetic features while adopting the European partner hold, including, for example: rhythm and polyrhythm, community and individual expression, improvisation, groundedness, angularity, conflict, flexibility, call and response, play and coolness. While blues dancing is characterized by a closer partner hold and emphasis on hip and body isolations, Lindy hop developed into faster more dynamic expressions in line with the music. Lindy hop and blues never disappeared, but have constantly transformed and evolved into other genres.

Following in the steps of blues and jazz history takes us on a journey through New Orleans, Chicago, Harlem and across the Atlantic along different transatlantic routes from and to Africa, America and Europe. The circumstances of these routes and how these musical traditions came into contact are related to European history in ways we may prefer not to remember, such as the horrific transatlantic slave trade which brought African people to America in the first place, led by European colonial powers, or the waves of European emigration. In the 20th century, touring black dancers and musicians travelled from the US throughout Europe popularising jazz, blues and swing across the old continent (Portugal included). The recently renewed global interest in these dances has also created new networks and routes connecting European and US dance scenes across the Atlantic.

At this festival we will have the opportunity to explore the connections and history of these dances through lectures and other activities as well as on the dance floor.

On this bluest of Mondays, we come together to stomp, groove and swing the blues away in a spirit of respect and recognition for this African American cultural tradition.