It Don’t Mean One Thing

Penn Press intern and social dancer Hannah Ehlenfeldt shares her thoughts on swing dance fashions past and present. Styles from the 1930s and 40s were revived in the 1990s, then swirled up in ironic nostalgia in the 2010s.

“After listening to editors bemoan modern youth’s infatuation with jitterbug and swing, Orlando Suero, a seventeen-year-old office boy at the New York Times wrote an essay in ‘swinguage’ to explain the phenomenon: ‘You feel something come over you that cannot be controlled, your heart feels alive and gay, you jump with jive.’” – from Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style by Kathy Peiss

Orlando Suero says it well. Ever since I started swing dancing in my first few months at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, the lindy hop has been a growing passion for me, and I can tell you that there’s something really special about the energy, the playfulness, and the musicality of the dance. It makes you feel joyful and alive.

Yet another thing that I love about swing dancing is that it has such a rich history—a history that incorporates jazz musicians, performance groups, film appearances, and even styles of dress. When I learned that I would be working with Kathy Peiss’ book Zoot Suit: The Enigmatic Career of an Extreme Style for my Penn Press internship, I was especially excited because I knew that the style of dress known as a zoot suit had associations with swing and jitterbug.

I was a little bit familiar with the zoot suit before reading Peiss’ book—I had seen a few dramatic dressers wearing them at events, and I knew about the zoot suit riots—but Peiss’ book enabled me to delve much deeper into its rich, mysterious history. I learned that although zoot suits originated among African Americans, the style soon spread to Mexican Americans and even white youths across the country and across the globe. Zoot suits resonated with very different groups of people, and they had different meanings for each individual. While zoot suits were a symbol of resistance for some, for others they were simply an appealing aesthetic, a way to be hip instead of square. In the end, we cannot assign one clear-cut meaning to them.

What really amazes me, however, is how the zoot suit continues to take on new meanings. When I think of zoot suits, I think of the swing dance revival of the 1990s, and I picture silly dance moves like the pretzel and the egg beater. To illustrate, I’ll leave you with this clip of two of my favorite modern lindy hoppers: Andrew Thigpen and Karen Turman.

With this silly performance designed to poke fun at and celebrate the swing dance revival, they give you a little bit of an idea of how contemporary swing dancers might think of the zoot suit today.

 Hannah Ehlehfeldt is a senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Hopefully she knows that Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Back to the Future–the movies spoofed in the YouTube dance video– were released in the 1980s, not in the 1990s.

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