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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Fortunato

Lindy Hop in Academia

By Brittney Stoneburg 

With its origins as a street dance, Lindy Hop might seem an odd choice for academic research, but its rich history and profound impact on those who participate in its community has led to a numerous fascinating research projects and studies. 

At Frankie100, a panel of dancers decided to tackle this very topic, and Lindy Hop is slowly beginning to garner more attention from the world of higher education.

The panel was fronted by Chris Wells, a New York dancer whose work in higher education is based in archives, ethnography, and the like. He staffed the panel with a variety of fellow dancers, from those in academia themselves to those who pursue their research independently.

Harri Henilia, a dancer and PH.D candidate at Helsinki University, has devoted his own academic research to the study of Lindy Hop with his dissertation, “Harlem and Jazz Dance.”

According to Henilia, “Lindy Hop research is still in its beginning phases among academics… the history of Lindy Hop is lagging years or even decades behind compared to almost any other field in (historical) research.”

Academic research is something that can greatly benefit Lindy Hop not only as a dance but as a culture and a community. Through it, Lindy Hop has “gain(ed) wide, diverse style…(and) people have embraced different elements,” according to dancer, instructor, and Frankie100 panelist Peter Loggins.

There are many other directions in which to take Lindy Hop research, however – other dances are examined for their cultural and historical contexts, their communities, and even their role in physics.

Some research focuses more on the birthplace of Lindy Hop and the original dancers who gave it life. Alexandre Abdoulaev’s dissertation “Savoy: Reassessing the Role of the ‘World’s Finest Ballroom in Music and Culture’, 1926-1958”, is one such work with this kind of focus.

According the paper’s abstract, “the objective of this dissertation is to examine the cultural, social, and musical contribution made by the Savoy Ballroom to the promotion of African-American culture.” Instead of focusing on the anatomy of the dance itself, it chooses to focus on the Savoy Ballroom and the influences of musicians and dancers such as Chick Webb and, of course, Frankie Manning, whose life and impact on the world of Lindy Hop could be a research topic by itself.

However, research into lindy hop, its context and its origins is not (and should not be) limited to those who work in higher education. This was a huge priority to Wells, who made sure to staff the Frankie100 panel with a mix of researchers both academic and non-academic.

“My goal for this panel was specifically NOT to make it about “lindy hop in academia” and to try and break down that ivory tower divide,” said Chris.

“A couple of us had PhDs and/or were in graduate school in different fields (musicology, sociology, and history), but the panel also included folks who I consider to be master researchers, who have made contributions that I can only aspire to someday get close to, but who have done so outside of a formal academic context.”

The “ivory tower divide” has been a debate raging in higher education for years – who should have access to the information obtained? Alexandre Abdoulaev, whose paper I referenced earlier, graciously made his doctoral thesis available to the lindy hop community at large, and was willing to allow me to quote portions of it for this blog post.

Many such papers, including those published by academic journals, are only available to those affiliated with universities or other such institutions. The work of those who aren’t affiliated with academia, then, play an even larger part in making sure the lindy hop community has access to the history of their dance.

The Frankie100 panel was a much needed contribution to the discussion of lindy hop as both an academic pursuit and as a historical, cultural entity. And the discussion can continue with the help of academics and non academics alike, united by their love of the dance, the culture, and the legacy of those like Frankie Manning.

“Some folks on the panel make documentary films, do historical research to inform their own practice as professional dancers, maintain websites, and a range of other things,” said Chris. “So, the panel was really about featuring the diversity of perspectives and practices that constitute lindy hop research, to discuss the different roles research plays in our daily lives, and to discuss the ways in which Frankie has impacted and inspired our work.”

There are multiple ways to contribute to the growing pool of resources available to lindy hoppers today. Researching the history of the dance in your area, for example, is one way to contribute to the larger body of work.

According to Peter Loggins, “As dance researcher(s), we celebrate all dances, all of which are valuable historically – some more than others socially, while others sensibly for performing. Each city, (each) decade in America, brought us dancing, styles, and people handing them down to be celebrated. But there is only one Frankie Manning.”

Additional Reading Material:

Savoy: Reassessing the Role of the ‘World’s Finest Ballroom in Music and Culture’, 1926-1958 by Alexandre Abdoulaev, PH.D

American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination by Black Hawk Hancock (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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Contributed by Brittney Stoneburg 


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