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On Cultural Appropriation, The Voice of the People, Part II

Updated: May 8, 2022

In which I talk a little about Frankie Manning, the history of Lindy Hop, and how to move forward from cultural appropriation. If you haven't read Part I yet, click here to go to Part I.

I was inspired to write about the cultural appropriation of Lindy Hop after reading a friend’s thesis on Aboriginal culture being shared with the rest of Australia. I saw many parallels between African-Americans and Australian Aborigines, and I was very impressed by the four types of cultural appropriation. Who doesn’t love a good list! And this blog will certainly have more lists!

In her thesis, my friend Stephanie researched how Indigenous wisdom can be included in outdoor programs in a way that doesn’t exploit the Aboriginal culture. Aboriginal elders guiding people through the Australian bush and explaining the importance of place was an authentic way of teaching and learning about Aboriginal culture and their relationship to the land. This gave Aboriginals the power of self-determination and was a true cultural exchange. It also encouraged understanding and healing between the Aboriginal and the mainstream cultures.

Based on Stephanie’s writings, I’ve written a list of four areas that Lindy Hop can focus on in order to avoid exploitation and create a true cultural exchange.

  • acknowledge Lindy Hop as part of African-American culture and tell the story

  • seek African-Americans to be part of the scene

  • allow African-Americans to profit from their culture

  • be engaged in reciprocity

For many dances it is common knowledge where they are from. For example, Argentinian Tango is from Argentina, Cuban Salsa is from … you guessed it! Cuba. Kizomba, a relatively new dance to the world is from Angola, and each dance comes with the culture that created it. Lindy Hop came from the African-Americans, and its culture included the music of jazz, the clothing, the language, and some of the traditions such as the jam circle. It is part of Lindy Hop to learn about where it came from, and its origins in the African-American culture in Harlem.

The second thing Lindy Hop can do is seek African-Americans to be part of the scene, and let their voices be heard as the equals they deserve to be in their own society. Before the revival in the 1980’s, both white people and African-Americans were still dancing the Lindy Hop. As the revivalists began to bring it back into the mainstream spotlight, they were extremely fortunate to find some of the original African-Americans who had been at the forefront of the dancing in the 1930’s and 40’s including Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, and Pepsi Bethyl.

Frankie Manning would become the revered figurehead of Lindy Hop. He was the ambassador of the dance, and a central figure in its creation in the 30’s and its development in the 80’s and 90’s. More important than that, he was also a representative of his own African-American culture. Frankie Manning loved to travel the world and teach everyone this happy dance. He wanted everyone to know it, and to fall in love with it as he did. And more than that, the very identity of Lindy Hop demanded that people of all differences and all cultures could and should dance together. These values of Lindy Hop were crucial in contrasting it to the wider mainstream culture of the 30’s which saw black and white people separated socially, economically, politically, and physically.

We can allow African-American’s to profit from their culture by hiring them as teachers and as musicians. Lindy Hop would mean nothing were it not for the music that gives it that swing thing. Despite the music of Lindy Hop being steeped in the old 30’s and 40’s recordings of Count Basie and Chick Webb, we still secretly love our live modern music!

Reciprocity can mean many things. In short it’s an exchange of symbols, privileges, ideas, rituals, or technologies between two cultures. It can also mean something as simple as, ‘I’m nice to you so that makes you more inclined to be nice to me.’

It would be great to be able to achieve these four things for Lindy Hop, so let's take a look at some of the barriers that might be encountered.

1) Ignorance: people don’t know about this issue, or they don’t know the history, or they don’t know that culture is important. The fix to this is to tell people, to tell the story of Lindy Hop and of the African-American people who created it.

2) Racism: by fostering understanding and relationships between cultures we can help heal the divide and may even reduce racism.

3) Disconnection: African-American’s are disconnected from the Lindy Hop community. In his book on Lindy Hop, Dr Black Hancock interviewed African-Americans to ask why there was so little interest in Lindy Hop. They answered that African-American’s have a lack of interest in their own history and their own dance history. Harri Heinila noted that even the Harlem Renaissance Movement saw Lindy Hop as a passing fad, or ‘low culture’, which may explain why African-Americans were more interested in modern dances.

4) Not Valuing African-American culture: as organisers, teachers, and as a community we can change people’s attitudes by telling the Lindy Hop story, and showing that we value this culture.

5) Not enough African-Americans to represent: Find the African-Americans who are there, from the teachers to the musicians, there are people out there who want to be found. We can take an active role in searching them out, much like every city would have given their first born to have Frankie Manning visit! (Perth had Frankie over three times! Amazing!)

6) Not enough time and money to invest: You don’t need to start big by spending big, just take the time to learn enough about the stories, and to tell your students. In the end money is one of the biggest ways to support, because it allows people to continue creating art and sharing it. Art is worth the money. Think of how many hours, weeks, and years Lindy Hop has been making you happy.

If we create a true cultural exchange wonderful things can happen …

1) The African-American culture is preserved. Think what would’ve happened if Lindy Hop had not been preserved …

2) Respectful understanding is increased which creates positive social change and recognition.

3) Lindy Hop is connected with its own history, creating a home for itself and for the dancers. And African-Americans hold onto a piece of their history.

4) It inspires people to work towards healing societal divides. This is very important as African-Americans continue to face prejudice and oppression in their own country.

Living in Perth, Australia, and living in a far away country this, topic is not something that’s in our everyday lives. That doesn’t mean we can’t do our bit, because the Lindy Hop is still our dance and it very much deepens our experience of the dance to connect with its American origins.

As the conversation within the world’s Lindy Hop community and within America continues, these are some of the small things that Swingtopia Dance attempts to do to keep the process of moving towards a true cultural exchange going.

1) Understand - in beginners classes we begin by explaining the origins of the dance, the oppression that African-Americans faced, and the awesome creativity they displayed so that people can understand. Every few lessons we’ll mention Frankie Manning and teach one of his moves (it’s hard not to mention him because so many of the moves are his!), along with other African-Americans who contributed to the dance and the music.

2) Respect - show respect for the people and the cultural significance of the dance.

3) Love the Lindy Hop - word!

4) More importantly, love the people - it shouldn’t be the case that, for example, an African-American should go to a country and feel that the dance is more accepted than they are. To use part of their culture, is to recognise them as individuals and as a culture as equals, with all rights and privileges the same. We welcome any and all African-Americans as dancers, teachers, and musicians, and would actively seek African-Americans to teach the dance, or to play the music.

As Lindy Hop embraces its full story and the people who created it, I’m sure it will not only live on and flourish, but it will come to know its full identity and its home in history, and then we will be able to truly say that we are Lindy Hoppers in the spirit of Frankie Manning.

Azza Gee

Black Hawk Hancock, “American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination.” (2013)

Emily Blatchford, “What Exactly Is Cultural Appropriation? Here's What You Need To Know.” (2017)

Harri Heinila, “The Racial Imagination of the Lindy Hop from the Historical Standpoint – Comments and Corrections” (2017)

Stephanie Palmer, “Indigenous wisdom in outdoor programs: An Australian case study.” (2018)

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