WHAT IS "SWING"?

This is a question that many dancers have asked me over the years:

What does it mean when you say the music "swings"?

Well, of course, like most ways to describe art, the word "swing" can mean a lot of stuff. Someone might mean the swing era, when the big bands reigned. Someone else might use it to mean that music is exciting and worth dancing to. But, when we are talking about a rhythm that works well for swing DANCING, "swing" can also have a rather specific meaning.

 

In this context, we are talking about a particular quality of the rhythm, regardless of what instruments are being played, or what era the music is from, or what genre of music it is.

 

It can be hard to describe but put very simplistically it is sorta like a pulse, a bounce, or a lilt that keeps the rhythm moving forward, like there is a little bit of lag on some beats and some beats are a little quick.  Of course these descriptions are pretty unhelpful and can be used to describe a lot of music that doesn't really swing, and the more talking about it one does and the more technical one gets, the further away from a real understanding and felt sense of swing you get.  So rather than annoy the music theorists out there who really know their stuff, we'll just take a listen, with dancing in mind.

 

Here are 6 examples, 2 songs per artist - one song with a beat that swings and one song with a beat that doesn't swing.  Listen to these songs and imagine doing triple-steps to the beat (or really do em!) and the difference is pretty easy to feel, especially if you try moving to it.  If your triple-step sounds like a latin "cha-cha-cha", straight and even, with equal time and emphasis on each step, then it doesn't swing.  If, on the other hand, your triple-steps have the feeling of "TRIP-le-step" with more time and emphasis on the "trip" that on the "-le-step" then you've got a swinging rhythm on your hands.

 

We'll start with some soul music by Sam & Dave.  First up, their version of an old Sam Cooke classic, "Soothe Me" and then their signature tune, "Soul Man" - take a listen:

SAM & DAVE
"Soothe Me"
SAM & DAVE
"Soul Man"

Both great songs, both great to dance to, but the first has that "swing" rhythm whereas the second has a "straight" beat. 

 

Next up, here are a couple songs by blues guitarist, Freddie King:

FREDDY KING
"I'm Tore Down"
FREDDY KING
"Going Down"

Both about, going/being down.  Both bad-ass songs in their own right to be sure.  Again though, "I'm Tore Down" has that relaxed swinging feeling to the rhythm, even as he kicks the crap out of the guitar while on "Going Down" the beat is hard and straight.

 

Even in a genre like hip-hop, which is a little further down the road from old big band jazz/swing music than soul or blues, you can hear the difference when a beat swings and when it doesn't.  Here are a couple songs from Outkast to compare:

OUTKAST
"The Whole World"
OUTKAST
"So Fresh, So Clean"

So this time we have two hip hop songs, no big bands involved, and yet, "The Whole Word" swings, it's beat just rolling and lilting forward while "So Fresh, So Clean" is as straight as can be.

 

If it still isn't super clear, I am gonna give you one more example, this one by a master of many genres, Ray Charles.  It is perhaps no coincidence that this man who could play jazz, blues, gospel, soul, and Latin music, and who in many ways made Rock & Roll possible, has a song where you can clearly hear both a straight rhythm and a swing rhythm side by side.  This is by no means the only example of this, but just try some triple-steps to this song and see if your dancing doesn't change distinctly at about 1 min into the track.  Check it:

RAY CHARLES
"You Are My Sunshine"

The track starts out as straight as can be with a bit of a Latin flavor, and then at about 1 minute the whole thing switches up and the whole beat shifts around and settles into this big heavy swing rhythm, only to return from whence it came 30 seconds later.

 

Most of the song doesn't swing but that hasn't stopped tons of swing DJs from playing it all over the place.

Now regardless of whether it swings or not, you can swing dance to whatever music you want, and don't let anybody tell you any different.  But, at the same time, don't let anybody tell you that dancing to a rhythm that swings will end up the same as dancing to a rhythm that is straight, even if you are going for the same dance.  If you are doing the Lindy Hop, it will likely work more easily with a song that swings.  Old jazz music from the Swing era is really the architecture of swing dancing and Lindy Hop in particular, and the new rhythm that was blowing everyone's minds back then was the swing rhythm.  It had a force and a momentum to it that bled directly into the dance.

 

There are dances now that work great to music that has a straight beat, dances like Chicago Steppin', Hand Dancing, DFW Swingout, or Salsa, or West Coast Swing (which can "swing" but doesn't have to) and you can certainly take the partnering skills you learn from Lindy Hop and apply them to whatever rhythm you want.  But while you are learning, take a moment to try out and enjoy the momentum and flight that the swing rhythm lends to your dancing.

 

And if you are DJing for Lindy Hoppers, take some care to keep things swinging, no matter how eclectic you might like to get because swing is the heartbeat of jazz and Lindy Hop was born out of swinging jazz music and it shows - all the way down to our triple-steps.

GOOD MUSIC FOR SWING DANCING: