The Stakes of the Savoy: Black Women and the Lindy Hop

By Shaelyn Casey
Shaelyn is a first year MFA Dance student at Sarah Lawrence College.

As students of dance history, we are often asked to question and challenge the narratives that get written into history. Too often, we are only taught the canon of major figures in dance history that mostly constitute the individual contributions of choreographers. As with almost any type of history, this often leaves out the voices of women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and many others. In the graduate dance program at Sarah Lawrence College, we work towards the idea of destabilizing the canon by studying the figures that often get written out of history. I believe it is also just as important to look at the contributions of dancers and the influence of social dance and the collective. In this blog, I want to illustrate one example of how social dance served as an outlet for black women to express their creative freedom and reclaim ownership over their own bodies through the popular dance of the 1920s and 30s, the Lindy Hop.

The Harlem Renaissance was a time of questioning social norms, including those of gender, sexuality, labor politics, and racial limitations. Kendra Unruh writes in The Journal of Pan African Studies in 2011 about the liberation of black women during the Harlem Renaissance through the use of the Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop was a very popular social dance at the time that involved partnering, physically demanding lifts, and high-energy foot work. It was often performed at dance clubs in New York City, most famously, at the Savoy Ballroom. Located in Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom hosted a mix of black and white performers and dancers of mixed economic and social backgrounds. The Savoy Ballroom offered “Kitchen Mechanics’ Nights” on Thursdays, since that was the night that many black domestic workers, who worked all weekend, normally had off. On these nights, many black women came to dance, let loose, and maybe even participate in the dance contests the club held.

Though very popular with the young Harlem crowds, the Lindy Hop was considered problematic by both white elites and the older generation of African Americans. This generation, along with the black bourgeoisie, felt beholden to the strict terms of respectability politics, which encapsulated the idea that black people needed to act with extra social decorum in line with white social expectations in order to have a chance to have any social upward mobility. The energetic, potentially sexualized, social dancing undermined this ideal of a submissive, quiet, and reserved woman. White employers also thought that women gathering and dancing in their free time might open their ideas about what types of work they could be doing, and potentially begin rejecting the idea of working in white households.

By choosing what to do with their own leisure time, and choosing to dance, the women reclaimed an element of freedom over their own bodies and identities. They chose to express their sexuality in public and to be proud of their skills. They challenged notions of white femininity by redefining what it was for a woman to work and to be active in displaying their working bodies. They affirmed that their bodies were more than just for labor. They made their mark on one of the most popular dance forms of the Jazz Era.

As a hopeful future dance educator, I believe strongly in the importance of questioning and challenging the norms of what gets taught in dance history. By highlighting stories such as those of the women in Harlem dancing the Lindy Hop, I hope to continue to explore how to expand whose contributions we value in the ever-evolving art form of dance.

References

  1. Spring, Howard. “Swing and the Lindy Hop: Dance, Venue, Media, and Tradition.” American Music, vol. 15, no. 2, 1997, pp. 183–207. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3052731.
  2. Unruh, Kendra. “From Kitchen Mechanics to ‘Jubilant Spirits of Freedom’: Black, Working-Class Women Dancing the Lindy Hop.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 6, 2011.

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