In The Girl is Murder, Iris is indoctrinated into the world of swing dancing when she visits a Harlem dance club with her new friend Suze. There she is schooled on this type of dancing that is synonymous with jazz and other musical styles from the 1940s.
So what is swing dancing? It originates a lot earlier than World War II, earlier than even jazz of the 1920s. It began in African American communities and really flourished there, though it was adopted by all aspects of society. There are a lot of different named dances that are considered swing, the best known of which are the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug. When we think of swing dancing, we tend to think of the “swing out” – a move where whomever is leading the dance leaves a closed position with their partner and moves into an open position. It sounds simple and dainty, but swing has evolved this move so that often times the swing out involves feats of athleticism, daring gymnastics, and even what reads to an audience like brutality toward one’s partner (there’s definitely a sense that the dancers are often trying to top one another). Like Jazz, one of the key elements to swing is that it involves improvisation, even though there are a lot of key steps that are considered standard during the dances, and a relaxed sense of timing that gives the best performances a sense that they’re being done with a lot more ease than could be possible.
But the best way to understand swing, is to watch it. This is one of my favorite clips, from the 1941 film “Hellzapoppin,” in which the dancers are doing the Lindy Hop:
Keep in mind these folks were the best of the best; most average joe’s performed a much more staid version of this dance, as demonstrated in MGM’s short “Groovie Movie,” which attempts to demystify the jitterbug:
Music is of course key to swing dancing (and a subject for another day) but there is also a whole culture that springs up around it. As in The Girl is Murder, swing dancers, and jazz musicians, had their own lingo from which terms like “hep cat” gave rise, and they had their own fashion. Zoot suits became associated with swing, though their roots were elsewhere, and women donned dresses with bias cut skirts that could fan full out when they twirled, often revealing whatever they had on beneath it. The goal was to be fashionable, but able to maintain a full range of movement.
Just a reminder that the launch party for The Girl is Murder is tomorrow (Saturday!) at 2:00 at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, PA. I hope to see you there!