Bringing the Bounce, Bop and Twirl of Swing Dancing Back in Harlem

Tamisha Anthony and Craig Fuchs bounced, bopped and twirled across the tiled floor of the Lord & Taylor store on Fifth Avenue. The lively jazz booming through the sound system, and their bodies, parted in a signature Lindy Hop move called the swingout, were reminiscent of the 1920s, despite the onslaught of iPhone-toting New Yorkers visible through the revolving doors.

More onlookers approached, snapping pictures, clapping and tapping their feet.

For Ms. Anthony and Mr. Fuchs, the performance was about much more than wowing a crowd. It was about illuminating an often-overlooked fact about the Lindy Hop: it was founded just a few train stops north, on the mahogany floors of Harlem’s historic Savoy Ballroom. It’s something that many Harlemites don’t know, and these two dancers are part of an effort to change that.

Ms. Anthony and Mr. Fuchs are instructors at The Harlem Swing Dance Society, a group founded eight years ago by Barbara Jones. Ms. Jones’s group has two goals: Teach the dance to Harlem residents, and preserve its history.

Ms. Jones, who fell in love with swing dance at age 14, said she wants to see Harlem residents, young and old, enjoying the dance in parks, clubs and ballrooms throughout the neighborhood. She said it should be as celebrated as jazz, poetry and literature are in Harlem culture.

“Our goal is just to get the word out there and get Harlem to really appreciate what they have, and what they had, too,” she said. “It’s just not talked about.”

The Lindy, among the more iconic forms of swing dancing, was developed in Harlem in the 1920s and 30’s. Lore has it that the dance was named after Charles Lindbergh, because it arrived around the time he completed his pioneering flight – his hop – over the Atlantic.

The dance incorporates steps from various styles, like tap, and the Charleston, while also embracing improvised moves. Its popularity was revived in the 1980s and 90’s in New York City, and it is now a popular dance around the world; everywhere except Harlem.

“There’s always been a small group. There’s always been someone teaching,” Ms. Jones said. “But you learned, and then where did you have to go to dance? Downtown. So there was this void.”

Harlem Swing Dance Society students at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Center on West 134th Street. G-Jun Yam / NYT Institute

She started the Dance Society in 2008 “to wake people up,” but community support has been slow to come. The group meets at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Community Center on West 134th Street, and the few Harlemites who dance the Lindy Hop must commute downtown if they want to dance it in a social setting, she said.

The group hopes to work with schools to develop classes that get younger people involved, and is collaborating with the African-American Museum of Nassau County on Long Island to document swing’s history in Harlem, Ms. Jones said. They are also working to organize a monthly event in the neighborhood with live jazz bands, hoping to help build up the swing community.

“You just know that if there was something up here on a regular basis, people would gravitate,” Ms. Jones said. “But they have to see it again.”

Ms. Anthony and Mr. Fuchs, friends of Ms. Jones’s, teach classes on Tuesday nights. Although neither are originally from the area, they say it is a rare opportunity to teach a dance where it was born.

“People get excited about it,” Ms. Anthony said. “They take one lesson and it piques their interest.”

Betsy McCallum and Marvin Mitchell, who live a few blocks from where the lessons are held, are learning to swing dance in preparation for their wedding.

“I used to take swing dance classes a long time ago,” Mr. Mitchell said. His fiancée, he added, “saw the listing on Facebook and we thought, ‘Why not?’ We went to one class and thought it was really fun.”

Ms. Anthony said she appreciates the social aspect of swing and its ability to build a sense of community.

“It’s really for everybody,” she said, “whether they are young or old.”

Older Harlem residents are enthusiastic when they see the group perform a dance they know and love, Ms. Jones said, but younger generations can be more difficult to attract. She says she wants young Harlem residents to appreciate and interpret the Lindy Hop in their own ways.

“We want to see the kids develop their own dance style to today’s music,” she said. “We know that our children can really innovate off of this dance, but they really have to see it and get the basics. That’s what we foresee in the future.”