Bob E. Thomas specializes in American vernacular dance of 1920-1960. With his wife Idy, he directs The Kamikaze Jitterbugs and performsThe Roots of American Dance: the African-European Synthesis, 1860-1940 an acclaimed program combining exciting historically accurate dance with narrative that has toured North America.
Bob teaches at Roger Williams University and Milton Academy, and has taught master classes at Harvard University, Boston University, MIT, University of New Hampshire, and the American College Dance Festival (ACDF). "Bob Thomas offers the most dance value for the buck." -- The Boston Globe.
Bob can be found with lots of dance and historical information at www.bobethomas.com.
Swing is Back! Featuring aerials from the Old Days! People everywhere are trying swing acrobatics and tricks! In the past few years literally millions of people have seen the Swing Kids movie and the Gap commercial, and, as a result, there has been a resurgence of interest among social dancers with aerial or acrobatic moves.
In the ensuing paragraphs I will explore the use, teaching and history of swing/lindy aerials and provide, hopefully, some ideas and insights on how to go about learning them. My own personal experience with aerials includes over twenty years of teaching and performing aerials, including work with Lindy, swing, jitterbug, ballet, ballroom, and disco aerials.
First the History...
There are essentially three periods of social dance aerials. To my knowledge, the first aerials in lindy/swing came out of the Savoy Ballroom in the 1920's and 30's. The aerials developed by the Harlem dancers were different from-- though perhaps inspired by-- those used by vaudeville and circus performers of the 1800s.
The best known and most skilled of the remarkably innovative
and talented Savoy Ballroom dancers were collectively known as
Whiteys Lindy Hoppers. These talented teenagers included
Frankie Manning, Al Minns, Norma Miller, and Leon James, all of
whom spent hours upon days upon months upon years practicing,
dancing and performing at the Savoy. These aerials were high energy
with transparent technique, that is, they exhibited
a raw energy and casual style, appearing to be unstudied, daring
and dangerous. Please note from the outset that transparent
technique only SEEMS to be casual and unstudied. However
simple and natural the dance styling and aerials are, in practice
they can be very tricky and dangerous. (See the movie clip from
According to accounts Ive read in several books (see Jazz Dance by Marshall Stearns), dancers who developed aerials and tricks in the 1930s were accorded considerable respect. And according to at least one account of Harlem in that period, if other dancers used another dancers tricks and moves, he could be severely beaten if not killed!
The second period of aerials was the 1950s-60s... Jitterbug!!!
Rock-and-roll aerials were very similar to those of the previous decades, although the influences of Broadway and Hollywood musical dancing are very evident. In the 1950s, aerials became more sophisticated looking, often including straight knees, pointed feet and a gymnasitc quality. (See movie clips from Rock Around the Clock and Dont Knock the Rock.)
The third aerial period was in the late 1970s and early 80s... Disco!!!
By the time disco came around in the mid 1970s, aerials had a clear gymnastic bent. Disco fever used spectacular aerial and acrobatic moves, some new, but also many aerials and dance acrobatics from preceding decades. These aerials were the most sophisticated looking of the century, with influences that extend from lindy to ballroom dancing to ice dancing. Also, it was during the 1970s in France, Germany and elsewhere in Britain, Europe and Canada that Rock Acrobatique an art form that falls somewhere between gymnastics than dancemade great gains in popularity.
The original Lindy Hop aerials are again quite popular, and, when done by dancers who have not spent hours and months working out their aerials (hopefully with the help of an experienced professional), are indeed raw and dangerous. Should you find yourself near dancers using aerials on a social dance floor, at the least: stay clear; at the most: if you have the courage and a rare sense of social responsibility, ask them to stop using aerials on a public dance floor. People out dancing for the evening have the right to be safe and secure from others recklessness and ill-applied energies.
If I Learned Aerials, Where Would I Use Them?
Aerials have several assets: They are flashy and attract attention;
they impress people; and theyre exciting and fun.
Aerials have several drawbacks: They take a lot of space; they can easily go awry (through your fault, your partners fault or because of bad kharma); they can easily injure you and/or innocent bystanders; and people frightened or injured by your aerial attempts on the dance floor could hate you (and speak your name with particular venom) for life.
Many dance halls do not allow aerials except under prescribed circumstances such as dance circles or swing jams, both of which have a circle of spectators surrounding the dancers so that innocent people wont wander into the path of a throw, flip or aerial trick.
Even in a hall explicitly allows aerials (and you should do some checking before trying anything), the basic rule of aerials should be that no one should feel threatened or endangered by your dancing. Which is to say, if people around you look worried or are anxious because of what youre doing, you shouldnt be doing it... So stop!!
Please, it is not your decision whether others are in danger. Other dancers on the floor have the right to dance without worrying whether you or your partner is going to come down on their head or take them out at the knees. If youre not absolutely sure (of anything respecting your aerials or local customs), DONT!
And if you do, the best place is in the center of a circle of people stopped and watching. Second best is backed into a corner facing into the room, so that passersby cant walk behind you when you least expect it. That means you only have to watch like a hawk on two or three sides (the sides facing out onto the dance floor) for people who might wander into your path as you or your partner hurtle down from the sky, one hundred plus pounds accelerating to impact on someones body with several hundred pounds of force!
"Transparent Technique" in Swing and Lindy and Aerials
Swing/lindy uses what I call transparent technique. Because the dancers who developed the swing and lindy aerials in the 1920s and 30s had little or no formal dance training (ballet was pretty new and jazz and modern in their infancy), one of the qualities of their dancing is a deceptive casualness and a remarkable physicality. Big Apple, Charleston, period Tap Dancetheyre the same. The best dancers out there appear to be having the time of their lives, hardly working. Dont be fooled. Although lindy/swing dancing and the aerials appear (as in deceptive, as in false) easy and natural, to do these dances well you have to practice for hours, months and even years... until youve perfected the artifice of looking totally easy and natural.
Lets Talk About INJURIES
With swing aerials some tricks are difficult, some easy. Some dangerous-looking tricks are not, and some simple-looking tricks are dangerous. How can YOU tell? You cant, so go to a professional and save yourself some injuries and perhaps even a lawsuit or two.
In the filming of Swing Kids, the dancers who performed in the movie rehearsed for hours daily over several weeks with the help of professionals. By the time the film was shot, so, too, were many of the dancers. Even with the help of professional coaching and the incentive of being in a movie, many of the dancers were unable to be in the movie due to the injuries acquired in rehearsal while learning aerials (see the clip shown on E! about the making of Swing Kids).
In teaching aerials I have some up with several rules. First, if youre not certain what youre doing, injuries become a matter of when rather than if. Second, any trick where one partners feet leave the floor even for a moment require a hands-on spotter (hands-on is essential to my thinking since most aerials crash to the floor too quickly for someone to intervene as it happens). Not sure how to spot the aerial? You shouldnt be doing it! Third, the supporting person (often the man) must put the safety of his partner above his own. If the airborne person has any doubt about the supporting person, they will not go freely into the air and the aerial immediately becomes difficult if not impossible to successfully complete. The supporting person must do whatever necessary to keep the airborne person from an injurious landing.
Anatomy of an Aerial
Fundamentally, in the course of an aerial, one partner (typically a woman) relinquishes contact with the floor to go airborne. This requires three stage: a preparation, the execution of the aerial, and the landing.
It is quite easy for things to go awry during any one or several of these stages. An off-balance or mis-coordinated preparation (one partner anticipates the other or does a poor preparation) means the aerial is out of control and can cause injury to the supporting person (typically a man) as well as the airborne person hitting the floor in an off-balance landing. Please note that an aerial can have a good preparation and a good airborne execution and still end with an off-balance injurious landing.
In my experience, the most common injuries for the airborne person are fractures from bad landingsmost often fractured or broken bones in the foot, damaged ankles, knees, elbows, chins and/or foreheads. Also, it has happened that the airborne person has finished a rehearsal feeling tired but otherwise well, only to notice hours later that one foot feels sore and tender, and a few days later discovers a stress fracture or worse in the foot or an injury to the ankle, calf or knee. Some tricks can also pull muscles in the shoulder or back of the airborne individual.
For the supporting person most injuries seem to be spasmed/stretched muscles and/or stretched/torn tendons and ligaments in the shoulder, trapezious and lower back area. Again, it is not uncommon to finish a rehearsal feeling fit only to wake the next morning, lean over to put on your socks and experience sudden, excruciating, and unrelenting back pain. Pain that goes from the inner center of the shoulder blade up into the neck are also common.
Over the years my wife Idy and I (now working as The Kamikaze Jitterbugs) have developed our own teaching and practicing techniques for aerials (1930's-1980's), including extensive use of hands-on spotting. Other professional lindy hop dancers in England, Sweden, and Germany have their own very effective and safe methods of rehearsing and teaching aerials as well. However, even with experience, many dancers have experienced injuries working with aerials. Doing aerials is not to be taken lightly.
Suggestions on how to start...
First, you need to decide what type of aerials you want to learn. Do you want to do Rock Acrobatique? Or Hollywood/Disney aerials? Or 1950s jitterbug aerials? Or old-fashioned 1930s and 40s Lindy aerials?
The aerials of the 1930-40's, 1950-60's and 1970-80's are very different from each other, and to save time and money, you should first determine which style(s) suit your style of dance and your personality. Many of the aerials used in contemporary social and ballroom dance in the US are less traditional/authentic and more balletic/gymnastic or Broadway/Hollywood. Do some research using old movies to find out what style and period of aerials youre interested in before wasting time and money as well as risking life and limb learning a style of aerials that doesnt fit your dancing or that you wont enjoy doing.
If you dance competitively make sure that the aerials youre learning are stylistically consistent with your dance style and that the competition rules permit the aerials youre learning. Note: if youre dancing in anything but a Lindy-specific competition, avoid the older tricks. Many lindy dancers have danced in non-lindy-specific swing competitions only to have points taken off because the older tricks appear to have mistakes built into them (as I said earlier, their technique is to appear to be loose and without techniquedance judges dont appreciate this distinction... in fact, most dancers dont appreciate this distinction).
Selecting a Teacher...
Be cautious when selecting a teacher. If someone is teaching you aerials, watch them teach a class before signing up. I have seen many (and heard of many more) occasions where an over-optimistic dance teacher with limited or no aerial experience worked with students at workshops, leaving students suffering small to large injuries (rather than the muscle aches and pains of a hard days work). My favorites are the times workshop providers had teachers take students out on the beach to practice. Sand is softer than concrete, but it provides an uneven shifting base. Also, falling on your head hurts your neck even on sand. The end result of these workshops was a great variety of injuries and no one able to do anything they had learned.
I personally believe that nearly every one of the aerials can be taught with hands-on spotting. Most lindy/swing aerials take place too quickly and too close to the ground for anyone to successfully spot from a distance. If the person(s) spotting is(are) not there with supporting hands as you work, should your trick go awry they will not do you much good as you hurtle to the ground headfirst.
Bob E. Thomas' homepage with links to more articles and information...
March 7, 1999
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