Lindy Hop has no soul. It never did. It never will.
That's how I started a response to a reddit thread earlier this year talking about how Lindy Hop Hop lost its soul. I wanted to expand on that post a bit.
I've seen this criticism quite regularly in my virtual travels over the years. I stumbled onto a discussion on the old clevelandswings.org discussion board about the topic in 2000. There was a similar discussion on Windyhop.org, the Chicago board, not long after. Another on the San Francisco board a few years later. Jenn and Justin, the mentors to many of the dancers in the influential 2002 Mad Dog dog routine, declared on Jive Junction, before the php discussion board version closed shop in 2004ish, that they were done with the dance because they weren't seeing anything new or interesting. The Yehoodi archives are littered with these sorts of threads. Allen Hall just started one earlier this year just before they finally closed the discussion board component of the site.
I could probably do a short history just about people talking about Lindy Hop losing its soul and how to get it back. You can even read my own entry on my website. I find it ironic that I wrote that thing with the mindset that the scene was getting pretty stale back in 2007, while the OP of the reddit thread was actually romanticizing that same time period as the highlight of Lindy Hop.
Somehow, the Lindy Hop community is one that is perpetually losing its soul. Yet, if you go back far enough, it's hard to find a time when people actually agreed that it had it in the first place.
I tend to find these sorts of analyses to be superficial, including my own in retrospect. A couple of years ago, the problem was YouTube. Before that it was Facebook or blogs. Before that it was exchanges. Before that was the proliferation of VHS tapes.
Pepsi Bethel, one of the Spirit Moves dancers, once noted about modern dancers: "They're looking for too much too quick. They want everything like instant coffee. Nothing works like that, not your mind, not your body, nothing." Bethel died in in 2002. That quote was from the 1980s.
Keep going back. There are many stories of the Southern Californian old timers being very critical not just of dancers throughout modern times but also of their contemporaries back in the day. Have you heard Frankie Manning's famous story about the first aerial in Lindy Hop in the 1930s? The premise of that contest was that the older generation of Lindy Hoppers led by Shorty George didn't think very much of the newer dancers like Frankie at the time.
According to that reddit thread, one of the main problems is events being held in hotels. Full disclosure: I also act as an event manager for International Lindy Hop Championships. That being said, pointing at hotels as being a problem is kind of weird because I can count the number of Lindy Hop events that take place every year in them on my one hand. In the entire world. For the record: ILHC, Camp Hollywood, Snowball, Canadian Swing Championships, Lindy Focus. Maybe All Balboa Weekend if you want to stretch out into Balboa.
The logic seems to be that since an event like ILHC gets the most exposure, then it must be the problem. My unbiased initial reaction: Damn right. A lot of people bust their asses to make it such a great event that thousands of dancers from around the world want to attend and watch it every year.
Having seen and participated in many of these discussions, I think it's fairly common for people who have been in the dance for awhile to become disenchanted with it over time. They don't see it that way though. It's much easier to try to point at something specific and say that is what's wrong, and say "WE SHOULD FIX THAT THING!"
But the fact is that people get older, and new people keep coming in bringing a whole other set of experiences. After awhile, people find it hard to keep adjusting.
Those veterans have two options. The first is just leave. It's much easier to be reinvigorated by something new and shiny in the same way they were when they first found us bunch of weirdos. This actually happens very naturally over time simply because this is a leiure activity for most, and when people get serious about their lives, Lindy Hop rightfully drops down the list of priorities.
The other is to do something about it. Lindy Hop isn't just a topic of discussion. It is a shared interest. I've often struggled with using the words "scene" or "community to describe this international rag tag group of social rebels. The test comes when you discover that you may not have much in common with them outside of that interest. A community is formed when you make the choice to work with others because or despite those differences. I have to emphasize the word "work" because people love jumping and flailing, but they can't do that unless other people are committed to creating an environment for that to happen.
Interestingly enough, hotel events have been woven into the fabric of the scene for quite some time. Amy Johnson started the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown in response to them. She had just graduated from college, didn't have much money, but started ULHS in the Minneapolis in 2002. I find it thoroughly amusing that many people don't realize that the modern "bad ass" attitude that they idealize about lindy hop was born on the tiled floors of the Mall of America.
There's no one stopping anyone from starting their own event. I've been waiting for a counter event to ILHC for years now. It's been a cycle in our short history. ILHC was started in 2008 because those organizers thought there were things that ULHS, ALHC, and other events were lacking. I'd like to think that an anti-ILHC hasn't appeared is because the owners of the event, Tena Morales, Nina Gilkenson, and Sylvia Sykes have been pretty responsive to people's criticisms of the event and its competitions. In the past, events have died because people plowed forward with their own narrow vision. The ones that continue and thrive pay attention to the people that attend to make sure they come back. ULHS is now the New Orleans Swing Dance Festival. I know Hilary Alexander is always open to feedback about Camp Hollywood and part of the reason that Lindy Focus is the biggest dog out there is because Michael and Jaya Gamble have always made changes to the event based on what people tell them about it. Same with the Mattsons and Norbelies who run Snowball. And it's not limited to people who run hotel events.
Look around at events that span different approaches and focuses. Stompology has become a destination every June because they saw a need for people to work on their solo dancing when it wasn't a thing over 10 years ago. Montreal Swing Riot is known for its Invitational Battle between vintage and modern dancers, but the competition isn't the point of the event. It's a way for different kinds of dancers to be able to share what they do with another group of passionate dancers. The Nevermore Jazz Ball & St. Louis Swing Dance Festival goes to extraordinary lengths to incorporate and feature the businesses that surround the Casa Loma Ballroom. Before the event, Cherokee Street was a fairly isolated part of the city, but it is now a vibrant cultural, social, and economic hub of music, bars and restaurants.
That's really the key to the success of those events and the growth and development of the scene as a whole: To not treat this scene like a monolithic "thing." It's actually a collection of people with a diverse array of backgrounds, and whose motivations and goals are always changing. If you subscribe to the concept of soul, then you know only living, breathing people have souls. Most successful people involved in Lindy Hop understand that. Lindy Hop itself is just an amalgamation of those people's ideas and values.
With that in mind, I'll share one final dirty secret about ILHC. In many ways is tailor made for these kids.
They go to school at the New Song Academy in Baltimore. That's in the same neighborhood where Freddie Gray used to hang out before his arrest in the Spring of 2015 that ended in his death and triggered a wave of civil unrest across the city. In that same city, in that same neighborhood, those kids learn dance in addition to their academic studies. Different kinds of dances that also happen to include Lindy Hop with some help from the staff and volunteers of Mobtown Ballroom. Mobtown was partially run by Nina Gilkenson, who is also a co-director for ILHC.
The other is Tena Morales. I won't tell you what Tena does for a living, but she has seen a lot of terrible things happen to young people. She is well aware of the racial and economic disparities within Lindy Hop, so a lot of what she does in the Lindy Hop has that in mind. Many veteran dancers from Houston have memories of going in and out of Tena's house while they were growing up because she wanted to give them a place to go to stay out of trouble.
Tena has always been adamant on having a juniors division in ILHC even though it takes up a lot of time, money and resources. That's because the juniors program also includes a class component. It's actually a significant expense for ILHC that generates no revenue; and there isn't much profit in the event overall as some people like to theorize. The teachers and staff that are hired for ILHC are also selected with an eye towards the kind of role models ILHC wants to expose the kids to in those classes. We build the schedule to maximize their participation. That is why their division happens towards the weekend, so they have something to build towards at the end of the event. And in that division, those kids perform in front of hundreds of cheering people and thousands more on the internet live stream. That's an incredible of an experience, especially for some of those kids who have never stepped outside of their own neighborhoods before coming down to DC for ILHC.
I don't offer this up as the end all be all justification for the existence of ILHC. I just want to point out that discovering that this community has a lot of flaws is not a new thing. However, many people over the years have been doing their best to make things better, or at least more interesting. However, you don't hear about this sort of stuff because its not sexy. It's flashy dancers and big name musicians that draw all the fame and blame. But this community is a big organism with a lot of moving parts, now in lot of different languages. The physical language is the one we have in common, but it shouldn't be seen as the only one. Creativity in this scene is not limited to the dance floor. With that in mind, if you see people deprived of something, then figure out a way for them to find it. Don't shove it down their throats, or complain on the internet. Organize an event. Teach classes. Design a website. Pass out some fliers. Volunteer to clean up after a dance. Or just dance with a person without the attitude that the way you did it is better than they ever could. I guarantee you, that will be way more productive and satisfying.
tl;dr If you think something lacks soul, then try giving it a piece of your own.