Cover photo: Glenn Miller
During the Second World War over 1,5 million American servicemen came to Europe, mostly to England, and among them were many great jazz musicians. Glenn Miller believed that music helps win wars. In the year 1944 the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band engaged in over 800 performances while touring the United Kingdom, of which a few hundred were broadcasted and heard by millions. Swing mania conquered Europe, and dance halls were packed with dancers eager to learn how to dance to this "American rhythm".
Swing is not only a type of music, but most of all a way of performing, which Afro-Americans had in their blood, and Americans got it first-hand in their own country, but it was at first very challenging to comprehend for European musicians. Yet, the desire to learn to play swing from Americans was enormous. When the music was not properly played, Americans would comment: "Don't hand me that jive!". In Afro-American slang that would mean don't play in a deceptive way, different from the true one. The dance which evolved from Jitterbug eventually adopted the name Jive, although in the technique book, written by Margot Sampson in 1948, it was still called American rhythm.
European musicians and dancers needed time to catch the "swing feeling", a sense for syncopation, dynamic accents placed on the second and the fourth beat of the bar, space between beats and improvisation. As the Swing groove is unique, perception of its timing requires your punctuality in combination with a slightly laid back attitude.
It challenges us up to the present day, as many dancers still dance "out of music", rushing and over-energising all the way through. That can be changed and improved by giving attention to the characteristic Jive timing, body actions, dynamics and the structure of your choreography. It can also be very helpful if you practice on different tempos of Jive and other genres of Swing music. Even when the tempo is slow, you can still find the acceleration in the swing action. When the music is fast, you can still find time on the second and on the fourth beat. A good dancer has speed control when the music is slow and enough time when the music is fast.
English style of Jive
In the late 1940s experts and top dancers in England developed their unique style of Jive, quite different from the wild and acrobatic American Jitterbug. In order to fit into the ballroom style of dancing, the craze was taken out and replaced with an unaffected style. Figures consisted of chasses in different directions in combination with the rock, danced with relaxed knees in order to produce soft bounce action.
Continuous inspiration from America
It took some decades before Europe began seeing Jive as a "body dance", thanks to East and West Coast Swing which started to burst as new dances in the USA in the 1950s. Especially West Coast Swing influenced Jive and still does today. It is closer to mother Africa, feels authentic in being heavier, indulging body weight down to earth, using pelvic swing, playing with leaning, overbalancing. Swing is smooth and flexible and not jumpy.
But in Europe we like to jump, so with Rock'n'Roll coming on the scene in the early 1950s, various forms of kicks and flicks were added to the dance. Today, there are still such extremes as some couple kicking side by side most of their choreography and thinking they are dancing Jive. Elvis Presley contributed a great deal towards the liberation of young dancers around the globe with his moves, which were at first considered vulgar. Dancing became more free and bodily expressed.
In order to develop the right character of your Jive you need to create a balanced fusion of ballroom Jive using chasses, layered with movement values of West Coast Swing and Rock'n'Roll. This will give you a sense of variety, you will have a greater contrast between light and heavy, free and sustained, direct and flexible, fast and slow movements. You have to blend the refined and the roar perfectly. Mind that even when you use inspiration from East and West coast Swing or Rock'n'Roll, you still need to apply characteristic Jive timing, which is unique and stands on its own.
Sensing the body weight transportation rather than just making a step and staying grounded will establish the flow that you are looking for. There is no point in wasting your energy by pushing one way – changes of speed and appropriately chosen actions will help you direct your energy more effectively. This is how your Jive will be felt and it will look intense and not merely physical.
Pay attention to the detail
Intensity relates also to your determination to dance your actions and movements with great precision.
Timing of the Jive chasse is 3/4,1/4,1 – three very different actions merging into a sense of chasse motion. You can also explore the jazz triplet, using 2/3,1/3,1 time division over the chasse. This timing will give you a softer and smoother feeling when needed. Due to the down and up swing of your pelvis (speed acceleration and deceleration during the swing action), the speed is the highest when entering the third step of the chasse. Mind that beats two and four are not danced stronger because of the dynamic accent in the music, but they are definitely danced longer in time. The third step of the chasse is the quickest to arrive and the longest in duration in order to complete all necessary actions – straightening the knee, lowering the heel and changing the direction of the movement. Poise in ballroom Jive is maintained over the ball of the feet to enable springy foot usage. Using the inside edge of the ball of the foot will help you to change the direction of the movement fast and maintain the hip swing in chasses under your head. Sadly, not all dancers maintain the hip swing action in the back rock.
Starting the side chasse with the inside edge of the foot and knee compressed will place your hip in the opposite direction, ready for the down swing. This kind of foot and leg work will help you not to attack the first beat in the bar but rather speed up at the end of beat one, just before entering the second beat. The third step of the chasse on beat 2 or 4 will then feel like a deceleration with an up swing (like off-beat on 2 and 4 in music), ready for new adventure. Practice Jive timing also when you are dancing flicks and kicks, focus more on actions during beats 2 and 4. This way you can make a movement dialogue with a Swing groove.
Perception of your own body weight and sharing it with your partner is essential in every dance. Due to the possibility to lean or overbalance, Jive offers unique sensations, impossible to put in words; it's simply cool, there is trust, surrendering...
I sometimes wonder why Jive is overloaded with mimics and pointless gesturing. You can find fun and humour in timing choices and the way you move, rather than acting it out artificially. Most probably the reason for compensations is that this dance is not practised to the same extent as other dances. Your foot and leg articulation in Jive could be as beautiful as in Rumba if you would pay enough attention to it together with beautiful posture and correct poise.
Bryan Watson and Carmen contrebuted enormously to preserve the character of the Jive.
The Swing thing
Rhythm is the first thing that you associate with the word Jazz and Swing evolved from Jazz. Swing is the way of playing the rhythm, and Louis Armstrong was one of the first to show the way.
There is a long chronological line of different musical genres and movement styles that belong to the Swing complex: Lindy Hop 1928, Jitterbug 1934, Boogie Woogie 1935, Jive 1945, Jump Blues, Bebop, Shag 1948, Rock’n’Roll 1950, West and East Coast Swing 1951.
Swing is about people, a beautiful fusion of African, Latin and European traditions. It exploded as a youth culture in the middle of the American depression in the 1930s and remained the longest lived popular music and dance. Why? Because it is about us, feeling included and being a part of something bigger.
When you sense and share the Swing feeling, it becomes your creative life force. It's fun, complex and expresses core values like freedom, risk-taking, innovation, acceptance of cultural diversity, collaboration... Everybody gets a voice by getting along and interacting. Swing is the feeling of becoming a living part of the whole.