Swinging the Machine: Modernity, Technology, and African American Culture between the World Wars

By Joel Dinerstein | Go to book overview

7
AMERICA'S NATIONAL
FOLK DANCE
THE LINDY HOP

In 1930 the writer, photographer, and dance critic Carl Van Vechten observed that every decade or so, an anonymous black dancer creates a new step that so excites the African American dancing public that “it spreads like water over blotting paper” and quickly becomes observable at levees, jook joints, urban dance halls and even on street corners. After two years or so, a Euro-American dancer or dance director, witness to the excitement generated by the new dance believes he or she can cross it over for “white consumption” and “introduces it, frequently with the announcement that he has invented it.” As this was the history of “the Cake-Walk, the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot, the Charleston, and the Black Bottom, ” Van Vechten predicted “it will probably be the history of the Lindy Hop.” 1 He was right on all counts.

Then only three years old, the lindy hop had already been approved as a must-see “Harlem” dance by New York City's theatrical critics and gossip columnists, and the dance helped make the Savoy Ballroom a major tourist attraction. Throughout the 1930s, white tourists flocked to the Savoy; in 1935 the Savoy's best dancers, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, thrilled a sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd in sweeping the lindy division of the first annual Harvest Moon Ball. Sixteen years after its creation, the lindy hop reached a certain pinnacle of mainstream recognition. On the cover of the August 23, 1943, issue of Life, a teenaged white couple leaned against each other with bizarre lascivious looks on their faces along the bottom edge of the cover ran the words “The Lindy Hop.” A twelvepage photo spread was half devoted to the young white couple and half to a pair of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. The headline inside the issue read simply: “A True National Folk Dance Has Been Born in the U.S.A.” 2

-250-

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