During the 1920s, Harlem was filled with African Americans who migrated from the rural south to the industrial north in search of a better life. Instead, they found that housing and jobs were scarce. Landlords charged high rents to people who earned low wages, and overcrowding was rampant. Racial discrimination was a fact of life. Social dance played an important role in Harlem life. For some, dance was a reprieve from the harsh economic realities and the drudgery of earning a living doing monotonous tasks. People often held "rent parties" filled with music and dance, where guests were charged an entry fee that was used to pay the monthly rent.

The Savoy Ballroom defined the essence of dance in Harlem. It was a place where race was irrelevant, "...whether you were black, green, yellow, or what. If you walked in the Savoy, the only thing we wanted to know is can you dance?" It was a place of elegant beauty, with a burnished maple dance floor, colored spotlights, and crystal cut chandeliers. It was a place where round tables were packed with people, root-de-toot root beer, and ginger ale sold for a nickel. The crescendo of the best big-band jazz in the world drove dancers to their feet as the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fess Williams, King Oliver, and Chick Webb filled the air. Saturday night dance contests at the Savoy featured such Lindy Hop dance greats as Herbert "Whitey" White, Leroy "Stretch" Jones, Frank "Musclehead" Manning, and "Shorty" George Snowden.

The Lindy Hop, an authentic Afro-Euro-American Swing dance that drew on African and European dance traditions, emerged as one of many popular dances during this time. It was influenced by the Charleston, jazz and tap steps, ballet, and complex movements from the Viennese Waltz. Dance partners separated in a breakaway move as they improvised, adding their own tempos, signature moves, and individualized acrobatics to the six- and eight-count step sequences. As the Lindy Hop grew in popularity, it evolved into many forms, such as West Coast Swing, Rock'n'Roll, Boogie Woogie, the Jitterbug, Jive, Bop, Shag, Balboa, and the Imperial. Lindy Hop dancers created new steps as the music inspired them, much as jazz musicians improvise. Some of the Lindy Hop steps are synchronized with the musical phrases, and other steps cross the rhythm of the music in the same fashion as polyrhythms found in jazz.

The Lindy Hop, and social dance in general, formed bridges between different art forms. Dancers practiced the Lindy Hop alongside bands booked at the Savoy Ballroom. Jazz great Duke Ellington wrote a song as a tribute to Florence Mills, a dancer, jazz singer and actress. Louis Armstrong composed a piece for dancer Shorty George, "King of the Savoy," who is often given credit for giving the Lindy Hop its name. Countee Cullen wrote about the joy of dance in his poem "She of the Dancing Feet Sings." Painter William H. Johnson's work, Street Life, was inspired by the stylish people he saw at the Savoy Ballroom. Jazz musicians and dancers are pictured in Palmer Hayden's painting, Jeunesse. Margaret Brassler Kane's sculpture, Harlem Dancers, depicts embracing dance partners. And so on.

Painter Aaron Douglas describes the Harlem Renaissance, highlighting the relationship between art and culture. "...Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black...let's bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let's sing it, dance it, write it, paint it." Social dance both reflected and was a reflection of the culture of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a way for people to celebrate, to escape, and to express their identity.


Print Resources
  • Chambers, V. The Harlem Renaissance. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
  • Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington. New York: MacMillan, 1991.
  • Hardy, P. Stephen & Hardy, Sheila Jackson. Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Groliers Press, 2000.
  • Rhynes, M.E. I, Too, Sing America: The Story of Langston Hughes. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishers, Inc., 2002.
  • Rumme, Jack. Langston Hughes. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
  • Snead, Howard. The Afro-Americans. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Internet Resources