I love to dance. Evidence of this goes back pretty far, the proof of which is a 22-year-old VHS tape of a three-year-old me whirling around our family’s living room rocking out to “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. As a wee lass I did “creative movement,” but didn’t really do any formal dance classes until university, when I joined the ballroom dance team. Blame Disney for that one, too; I had always loved the idea of knowing how to waltz like Cinderella, and my Cuban roots instilled in me a love of Latin music, which is written specifically for hip-shaking.

From back in my ballroom days at a comp in Vegas…

Then, in 2006, I learned how to lindy hop. It kind of changed my life.

From the Tucson Lindy Bomb 2007, I think.

To be very basic, lindy hop falls under the umbrella of swing dance, which also encompasses dances like charleston and balboa. It evolved with the jazz music of the 1920’s & ’30’s in Harlem. At the time, the Savoy Ballroom was one of the few places dancers of all colors could tear up the floor together, and they sure did.  Like the dances I first learned as a ballroomer, it is a partner dance, is based hugely on partner connection and therefore there is a lot of playfulness and improvisation within the dance.

Here are a couple examples of lindy hop; one is footage of arguably the most famous routine, “Hellzapoppin.'” This was choreographed for a film, and the folks it features are the pioneers of lindy; Frankie Manning, the inventor of the ‘air-step’ is a main dancer here.
Here’s another example of lindy, un-choreographed. These people are just dancing for the love of it, their movements are derived from the lead-follow connection, their own styling and interpretation of the music. They’re doing a heck of a job, don’t you think?
I love swing dance for many reasons. But here are the main ones. I promise this will all eventually be relevant to my travels…

The music
I think to love dance, you have to be inspired by what you dance to. After all, it’s music that makes you tap your feet, not silence. The syncopation and rhythm of that classic jazz is irresistible for me. Horn sections, and songs with totally goofy lyrics about potato chips and chickens speak to my own goofiness, and as a dancer I get to interpret all of that in the movement itself.

Along that same vein…

The playfulness & improvisation
I always think of that Baz Luhrmann movie, Strictly Ballroom, when I consider the difference between ballroom dance and swing. Although I had a blast dancing cha-cha, felt sultry with tango and smooth with foxtrot, the dances themselves have a pretty set vocabulary of moves. There’s little room for individuality, which is what the protagonist of the aforementioned film rebels against. Lindy hop, at its core, is about that individuality and musicality. Of course there are steps, and the basic swingout is actually the most complex basic of any partner dance I learned. But within the dance itself, there is so much room to explore.

This skirt is clearly optimal for turning in swing dance, considering the fact that it’s in so many dance photos…

A lot of this hearkens back to the music itself. When the original lindy hoppers were dancing in the Savoy, they weren’t only listening to the bands for inspiration, the bands were listening to them, too! In fact, the first time Frankie Manning completed the first ever airstep, he tells of how the band hit his partner’s landing, rather than the other way around! It’s not necessarily that cooperative of an exchange anymore between musician and dancer, but the idea remains the same. Guess what? Ella Fitzgerald got her start singing with Chick Webb and his band at the Savoy (click for an example).

Also, a lot of the lyrics to jazz songs are a bit kooky. Multiple songs were written about chickens–my favorite being “Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” whose lyrics include lines like We chicken’s tryin’ to sleep/And you butt in/And hobble, hobble hobble hobble/It’s a sin–and random ones about food ( “Potato Chips,” from the early 1950’s ) and one really fun one called “Mumbles,” where the lyrics are literally incoherent. So yes, if you want to impersonate a chicken on the dance floor, that is cool. Or a potato chip. Also cool. And I love that.

The people
Of course it’d be folly to generalize and say every lindy hopper is the coolest person ever. False. Dancers are people, too, and many of them have egos or are just plain poopyheads. BUT! But. In my experience dancing in the US and parts of Europe, lindy hoppers tend to be some of the hippest cats out there. Or heppest, as the case may be. (BadumCHING! Virtual high five for all the lindy hoppers right now reading this and groaning at my terribly nerdy swing pun.) They are passionate about music and dance and somehow that lends itself to people I really enjoy passing my time with, both on the dance floor and off.

And with that comes…

The community
Now I can start relating this to my travels. In another post coming soon I’ll go into more detail as to my specific experiences recently dancing in the Galway Lindy Hop Championships, but for now I’ll stick to my generalizations. Lindy hop communities of all sizes are just that: communities. Just like at the Savoy, how it didn’t matter what color you were, it just mattered whether you could dance, in a lindy hop community it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what level you are, if you’re excited about dancing you will find a group of people who will likely become your friends.

As a solo traveler, this is entirely relevant. I can basically go to any city or town with a swing dance community, find out what’s going on that week, and show up. I automatically have a social scene I can plug into, an activity I know I enjoy participating in, and people who I’ll most likely really like hanging out with. A few summers ago I was hanging out in New York City, and although I was living with family, they had important things to do like go to work and school. Going to the weekly Frim Fram Jam just a few blocks away from my midtown home base was a perfect way to meet new people and get some quality swing time in.

And when I arrived in Ireland–the first country where I knew literally  nobody living here–I immediately connected with the crew in Cork for the Jazz Festival. I made friends, and even as I made my way through Kilkenny and Dublin and ended up in Galway, I met more people and kept seeing familiar faces on the dance floor. By the time I got to the Galway Lindy Hop Championships, I had already met a ton of my fellow dancers and it was great to hang out with them again.

I’ll leave Ireland with loads of new buddies, more reasons to come back to visit, and hopefully I’ll be able to show some of these folks the same good craic they showed me.