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If you’ve been a part of this community for any length of time, you’ll have heard people say, “That’s not lindy hop.” Often it’s just an observation. If someone mistakes polka for lindy hop, we gently correct them.

But sometimes that line is meant to marginalize the dancing being evaluated. When a dancer attempts to do lindy hop and you tell them, “That’s not lindy hop,” what have you accomplished? Besides hurting their feelings.

Since no one person holds the key to lindy hop, perhaps you could try saying, “That’s not quite lindy hop.”

See the difference? The addition of one extra word turns your affect from arrogance into thoughtfulness. It implies you’ve actually wrestled deeply with what lindy hop could be, instead of spouting a dismissive, knee-jerk reaction.

What is lindy hop? Here’s a framework for grappling with that question in a productive, non-knee-jerky way:

“More Like” and “Less Like”

Dancers are never going to agree perfectly what “is” and “is not” lindy hop.

Instead of creating a barbed wire fence around lindy hop, take a more nuanced approach. You may find it more helpful to discuss what “is more like” and “is less like” lindy hop.

To illustrate this concept, think of a series of concentric circles.

Screen Shot 2013-08-01 at 12.17.30 PM

(Click image to enlarge for printing.)

Closer to the center are things that are more like lindy hop. Farther from the center are things that are less like lindy hop. Outside the circle are things that are not lindy hop.

In the center is the lindy hop core, things that are essential to the dance. Without these core things, an average lindy hopper would be able to instantly identify a dance as “not lindy hop.” If you want a more persuasive definition of lindy hop, put only the most essential things at the core.

In the circle closest to the core are basic lindy hop elements we expect every dance to have. A dance could be missing one or two of these and still be considered lindy hop.

As we move further out, each circle is progressively less essential, or less identifiable as lindy hop.

This can be fun! Try filling out the circles for yourself, and see how your “sphere of lindy hop” takes shape.

Here’s an quick, incomplete sketch of what it might look like:

sphere-of-lindy-hop

If you can’t read my handwriting, here’s what it says.

Lindy hop core:

  • 2 people
  • movement
  • physical connection
  • collaboration

Basic lindy hop elements:

  • triple steps
  • rock step
  • pulse
  • swing rhythm
  • stretch connection

Definitely lindy hop:

  • swing out & swing out variations
  • tuck turns
  • swivels

Frequently done in lindy hop:

  • partnered 30’s Charleston moves
  • partnered solo jazz steps
  • aerials & lifts

Done less often: Body rolls, hip wiggles

Borrowed from closely related dances: Peabody, shag

Not lindy hop (outside the circle): One person dancing alone, polka

Prescriptive vs Descriptive

Look again at your sphere of lindy hop. Are you describing the way people actually dance lindy hop, or the way you think people should dance lindy hop?

Prescriptivism is fine in teaching. But when trying to define something, being prescriptive has major limitations.

When you are too prescriptive, your definitions may be unnecessarily alienating. For example, a man recently told me that if the follow is contributing too much to the dance, it’s not lindy hop. Yes, you read that correctly. He puts “lead is in charge” in the lindy hop core. Meaning, if I am contributing more than 50% of the dance the follow, then my partner and I are dancing outside the circle.

Ouch, right? Don’t be That Guy.

You can alienate beginners by putting something in the core most of them won’t achieve for several months. You can alienate lindy hoppers in scenes who mainly play contemporary music by listing “swing music” as a core essential.

Consider whether you are alienating anyone. Is it really that important to exclude those people from the family of lindy hop?

Of course it’s impossible to be purely descriptive without doing a massive survey of lindy hop social and performance dancing. I certainly haven’t done that. I’m sure you can pick out my biases from my incompletely filled-out circles.

See Descriptive vs. Prescriptive on this grammar blog for more interesting reading.

Thought-Provoking Questions

  • Can no-touch dancing be considered lindy hop if looks like lindy hop?
  • Some elements that were borrowed from another dance have made their way more into mainstream lindy hop. The sugar push, for example. How close to the center would you put the sugar push and other “borrowed” moves?
  • How important is swing music?
  • If you see some not-quite-lindy-hop dancing, refer to your diagram. What exactly makes it seem less like lindy hop?
  • What aspects of your sphere are you most attached to? If someone doesn’t agree with them, how upset will you be? Why would this upset you?

I ask that last one because sometimes ego really gets in the way. You’ve invested in this certain “theory” of lindy hop, and not everyone agrees! It’s so obvious, how could they not??

Please keep this in mind if you feel the urge to enter any “What Is Lindy Hop” battles in the future: You’re not the gatekeeper of lindy hop. No one is important enough to have that role. Anyways, lindy hop is like a super-sized barge. It takes a long time to move it in a new direction. Keep it in perspective.

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More Fun Ways to Use Your Chart!

Besides evaluating other people’s dancing, what else can you do? You could:

  • Pin in on the refrigerator.
  • Use it to figure out what to practice most.
  • Contemplate how dancers of the past might have defined lindy hop.
  • Discuss it with your more thoughtful friends.
  • Send it through the shredder so the feds don’t find out the meaning of lindy hop.
  • Put it somewhere safe, then completely rethink it in a year.

Lindy hop is not static. Is is a living dance, and your understanding of it will change over time.

Celebrate that truth! It means lindy hop has a chance of surviving (and perhaps growing) for the next 100 years or longer. Ballet has persevered for centuries through growth and change. We can do it, too.

Leave a comment with your thoughts!*

*Keep it civil so I don’t have to babysit the comments all day. Cool? Cool.

Photo credit: Tico_24 (barbed wire), rosmary (shredded paper)