The Lindy Hop & Jitterbug: See the hep swing dances from 1938-1945

The Lindy Hop and Jitterbug See the hep swing dances from 1938-1945

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


The Lindy Hop: A true national folk dance has been born in USA (1943)

From LIFE – August 23, 1943

One evening in 1927, after Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, some young Negro couples began improvising eccentric off-time steps in a corner of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. On the sidelines, a connoisseur of dancing named “Shorty George” Snowden watched critically, then muttered, “Look at them kids hoppin’ over there. I guess they’re doin’ the Lindy Hop.”

Today, after 16 years of evolution and accretion, the Lindy Hop has become America’s national dance. In content, the Lindy Hop encompasses hundreds of individual steps, breaks and mutations originated by Americans inspired by American music. With the exception of the tap dance, it is this country’s only native and original dance form. All others, “square” or “round,” are importations and derivations from European prototypes.

American dancers, however, have always been gifted with an aptitude for improvisation. And American jazz imperatively demands more exuberant responses than traditional dance steps can provide. Out of American impatience with the restrictions of conventional forms, the buoyant choreography of the Lindy Hop was born.

To elders, the gyrations of jitterbugs may appear disordered and vulgar. It is true that as recently as three years ago, a jitterbug was anyone who bounced, wiggled and jumped in time to hot music without any particular knowledge of what he was doing.

But the accomplished jitterbug of the present does the Lindy Hop, a dance still in a phase of transition and growth, but whose basic steps have crystallized into recognizable patterns. Of these, the most important and spectacular are shown on the following pages in high-speed action pictures taken by photographer Gjon Mili.

Dancing 1943 - Lindy Hop (3)

Lindy Hop: Floor steps

Although the Lindy Hop did not receive a name until 1927, elements of it were visible as early as 1924, in the Broadway and Harlem “mooch” and “sugar.”

In 1925, the Charleston revolutionized American dancing by freeing partners from the stylized vis-a-vis position of the fox trot and waltz. The Lindy Hop picked up where the Charleston left off, with the first swing-outs, break-aways and “shine steps” added to a basic off-beat two-step.

The Twist dance fad: Almost everyone was doing it, from Chubby Checker to Ann-Margret - but some wanted it banned

In its early days, the Lindy flourished only in lower strata of society. Negroes were its creators and principal exponents, and Arthur Murray would no more have taught the Lindy Hop than Rachmaninoff would have given lessons in boogie-woogie.

But with the renaissance of swing, the Lindy climbed the social scale. New steps like Suzy-Q, Trucking and Jig-Walk were invented and absorbed into its expanding framework. And as they spread across the land, invading colleges and dance schools, the Lindy Hop attained respectability as a truly national dance.

On these pages, Gjon Mili’s camera records sonic of its mast characteristic floor steps as demonstrated by Stanley Catron and Kaye Popp, both 17, both of the Broadway musical, Something for the Boys.

LIndy Hop dancing floor steps from 1943

Lindy Hop: Air steps

In ballrooms and night clubs Lindy Hoppers, for the most part, keep their feet on the ground. But professionals and competitors in Lindy contests distinguish between “floor steps” (as shown on the preceding pages) and “air steps” like those demonstrated here.

It was during the late 1930s that the Lindy. Hop took to the air. In entering new realms of creative invention, it is following the evolutionary cycle of all dances since the beginning of recorded time: first the rhythmic, primitive folk dance, sprung from the spontaneous responses of humble people to musical inspiration; then the social dance, popular with all classes and defined by fixed and basic patterns; and finally the classic form, far removed from proletarian origins and ornamented with complex flowery figures attainable only by those who spend years in their practice.

The Lindy Hop is now in the second phase. But while its accepted ballroom characteristics are still unfolding, its greatest exponents advance into new domains. It may he that the Lindy Hop 9.; years from now will be as intricate and stylized as the ballet.

On these pages, its most florid evolutions are interpreted by Leon James and Willa Mae Ricker, superlative performers who have exhibited their art throughout the world.

How to do disco dance moves from the '70s: The Hustle, Bump, Walk, Foxy Trot and more

LIndy Hop dancing air steps from 1943

Dancing 1943 - Lindy Hop (4)

Dancing 1943 - Lindy Hop (4)-001

Dancing 1943 - Lindy Hop (1)

Dancing 1943 - Lindy Hop (1)-001

Rock 'n' roll music: The new teenage dance craze (1955)

Jitterbug dance contests (around 1938-1942)

Jitterbug dance couple c1939

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (1)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (2)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (3)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (4)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (5)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (6)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (7)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (8)

Vintage Jitterbug dancing from around 1939 - Via NYPL (9)

Lindy Hop comic strip from 1944

Favorite fifties funnies: Popular comic strips from 1954

Eastern “Hep Cats” foremost among fighting jive experts

By Ernest Foster – The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah) January 2, 1943

Brooklyn and New York servicemen are the most original jitterbugs. And Hollywood’s jive experts in the Army and Navy rank at the bottom of the list. That’s according “to Eleanor Counts, Hollywood actress and youthful rug cutter, who does a featured jitterbug dance with Glenn Ford In Columbia’s “Destroyer.”

Eleanor should know. She devotes three of her evenings each week to the Hollywood canteen and has danced with thousands of marines, sailors and soldiers from every section of the country.

jitterbug-dancing (1)

The hep cats of the eastern seaboard lead the field, Eleanor says, with Brooklyn ahead in the jitterbug technique. Here’s the way she rates the country’s fighting “jits”:

1. Brooklyn, New York and the East.
2. Texas.
3. Chicago and the Midwest.
4. The old South.
5. California and the Pacific Northwest.

“Those Brooklyn and New York boys come up with more new and tricky steps,” Miss Counts said. “They feature the Lindy with their own individual trick interpolations. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to follow them.

“Texas boys are partial to the 1-2-1-2-3 step and are nearly on & par with the Brooklyn and New York men, but they stick pretty much to a uniform routine.

“You can tell a Chicago and Midwest jitterbug after the first eight bars of music. He goes into the hop routine and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and the old South seem to have retained their characteristic conservatism even in jitterbugging. Theirs is a smooth, easy jitter, and it comes as s welcome relief at times. Virginians combine their jitterbug with a college step.

“The jitterbug originated in the east, so it is natural that the far west should be the last to take up the craze and be the least proficient. California and the northwest have their own ideas about what a jive should be, and it crops out as a combination of them all. Much as I hate to, I’ve got to put Callfornians at the bottom of the jitterbug heap.”

Ninety-five per cent of the service boys Miss Counts has danced with some sort of a jitter. She rarely runs into a smooth dancer at the canteen. “But when I do, it’s a welcome experience,” she added. “After all, it’s pretty nice to have a strong shoulder to lean on.”

Story from the Salt Lake Tribune – January 2, 1943

LIFE May 10, 1943 Jitterbug dancing

LIFE Sep 15, 1941 Lindy Hop dancers

LIFE Sep 15, 1941 Lindy Hop dancing

Jazz music has a remarkable history (1919)

LIFE Sep 26, 1938 Jitterbug dancing

Virginia jitterbugs (1943)

Jitterbugs at the bi-weekly Saturday night “open house” dance at Idaho Hall, Arlington Farms, Virginia — a residence for women who work in the government for the duration of the war. (Photograph by Esther Bubley)

Virginia jitterbugs (1943)

Jitterbugging in Detroit (1942)

Jitterbug dancing as part of the entertainment at a scrap salvage rally sponsored by the Work Projects Administration (WPA) at the state fairgrounds in Detroit, Michigan (Fall 1942)

Jitterbugging in Detroit - Dancing from 1942 (2)

Jitterbugging in Detroit - Dancing from 1942 (1)

Jitterbugging at an Elk’s Club

Jitterbugs at an Elk’s Club dance in Washington DC, the “cleanest dance in town” – April 1943


Jitterbugging at an Elk's Club

Dancing Jitterbugging at an Elk's Club

See Fred Astaire Puttin' On The Ritz in the Irving Berlin 1946 musical movie 'Blue Skies'

Watching the dancers (1938)

Large group, mostly men, surrounds couples jitterbug dancing on a dance floor, with a photographer in the foreground and the audience in raised seating on the left — probably in New York. (Photo by Alan Fisher)

Watching the dancers (1938)

Jitterbugging, Texas-style (1942)

Jitterbugs at the Charro Days Fiesta at El Rancho Grande in Brownsville, Texas

Jitterbugging, Texas-style (1942)

Jitterbugs in Memphis (1939)

Jitterbugging in juke joint in Memphis, Tennessee – November 1939

Jitterbugging in juke joint in Memphis, Tennessee - November 1939

Jitterbugging in juke joint in Memphis, Tennessee - November 1939

Sailor dancing at the Senior Prom (1942)

A sailor jitterbugging at the senior prom in Greenbelt, Maryland

A sailor jitterbugging at the senior prom in Greenbelt, Maryland 1942

Comic strip from 1944

Photos courtesy the US Library of Congress & The New York Public Libary, among other sources

In 1984, everybody was gettin' Footloose at the movies, dancing along with a young Kevin Bacon

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.