DANCE HISTORY: A Look Into the Beginning of the Swing Era, 1920-1940

The swing era developed throughout the 1920’s and into the 1940’s as the style of jazz music evolved. Swing actually refers to the music which inspired the dance. Jitterbug is an umbrella term to describe all forms of swing dancing, often East Coast Swing, which is a 6-count derivative of Lindy Hop. Lindy Hop is the most common and well-known swing dance which originated in the 1930’s in Harlem.



Most popular in the 30’s and 40’s, swing moves have evolved with music into many other forms of dance styles including disco, country line dancing, and hip hop.

Judging for competition is based on the three “T’s” (below) as well as showmanship (unless the contest in question designates the audience as the deciding factor). The three “T’s” consist of:

  1. Timing – Related to tempo & rhythm of the music.
  2. Teamwork – How well a leader and follower dance together and lead/follow dance variations.
  3. Technique – How clean and precise the cooperative dancing is executed.

Showmanship consists of presentation, creativity, costumes, and difficulty.


In 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote, which led to an influx of women in the workforce as they became financially independent. Also in the 1920’s, F Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises. Henry Ford perfected the assembly-line and invented the Model T Ford. The Jazz age introduced the Flapper; the short-haired, independent thinker who lived life in the fast lane.

The “Roaring 20’s” saw rapid change, artistic innovation, and high-society antics. Business profits booms and higher wages allowed for more Americans to purchase a wide range of consumer goods. With the modernization of America’s “second Industrial Revolution”, electricity and more advanced machinery nearly doubled the efficiency of a number of factories that had been using steam power since the 1800’s. Americans were soon afforded prosperity, which gave way for more time for literature, film and music.


The 1920’s and 30’s saw a boom in the automotive industries as well as the aviation industry. Skyscrapers began taking over the cities as people from all over had more access to cars, planes and trains. As electricity became more readily available, most houses had access to radio and advertisements, which was able to bring jazz into everyone’s living room.

This, of course, all came to a screeching halt as the stock market crashed in 1929. American’s dumped their stocks and took their money out of the banks. American’s couldn’t get jobs in factories, and couldn’t afford what the factories were providing.


Throughout the 30’s, Jazz and Swing became the soundtrack of the decade. By 1939, record sales reached 50 million (having only sold 10 million in 1932). Dance contests for cash prizes were popular in dance halls and became popular for teens and young adults. Hollywood began using swing and jazz as the soundtrack to many light hearted films which were often flocked to by depression weary audiences. Swing dances became all the rage as people could dance away their worries and became a staple of the Great Depression and a symbol for hope.

steph segler