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This article is a companion piece for the Rough Translation episode “May We Have This Dance.” Listen to the story about how a dance traveled from Harlem to Sweden, and how Black dancers are reclaiming it as a living tradition.
When she thinks about being a tradition-bearer through dance, LaTasha Barnes goes back to her family.
Growing up, Barnes spent summers at her family home in Winterpock, Va. Her great-grandmother, Elizabeth Harris, was one of the few Black cooks to run her own kitchen in the city of Richmond. At home, she’d often cook to the sounds of Louis Armstrong.
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The way Barnes remembers her childhood, there was always music and dancing in the multigenerational household. Cousins came to visit Richmond from Washington, D.C. and New York, bringing the latest dance trends. Barnes grew up watching her parents rehearse their entrances to the social clubs, where they would enter dance contests.
One Sunday afternoon, when she was about 4 years old, her great-grandmother took her hand and led her into a swing out. Barnes still remembers the feeling of being pushed and pulled by her great-grandmother’s hand. It was the same “in and out motion” that she saw in the dancing that her aunts and uncles did at parties.
“It was a baseline groove that everybody had. And then I felt like I could see it in their individual movements as well,” she said.
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She now realizes that afternoon with her great-grandmother was the first time she danced Lindy Hop.
Lindy Hop is a jazz dance that originated in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s and has since gained a following across the world, with large communities in Sweden and South Korea. It’s an African American social dance. To Barnes and her great-grandmother, it was just called “fast dancing.”
By the time she was 31 years old, Barnes had become a world champion in House, a dance style that surfaced out of underground music clubs in Chicago and New York. As she developed her dance practice, she felt a growing need to understand the jazz roots of the street dances for which she was becoming well-known.
“When I first re-encountered Lindy Hop, it was presented as this thing that white people do at weddings,” Barnes says. “It wasn’t presented as a Black cultural art form.”
Barnes wanted to go beyond this perception. She went to the Library of Congress to watch reel-to-reel archival films and worked closely with knowledgeable Lindy Hoppers. This was the beginning of her journey to reconnect with the sense of movement she had experienced while dancing with her great-grandmother.
Her research and dedication led her to the originators of Lindy Hop. In 2016, she was invited to perform with the luminaries–affectionately called the “elders”–of Lindy Hop. Chester Whitmore, Barbara Billups, Sugar Sullivan, and Norma Miller, known as the “Queen of Swing,” were all there. Barnes recalls a moment between dances when it suddenly seemed as if all the white dancers had left the room.
“And I became a magnet somehow. I was just sitting on the couch next to Miss Norma,” she said. “And I looked up and she made a gesture. And all of them descended upon me.”
It felt like a sign. There was a moment of recognition. And laughter.
“And Chester leaned over to me [and said], “Are you ready? ‘Cause you know this is on you now,” she said. “And from then on the level of responsibility absolutely shifted.”
Barnes remembers this as the night she was declared a tradition-bearer of Lindy Hop by some of the dance’s most important practitioners.
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This past fall, Barnes joined the faculty of Arizona State University’s School of Music, Dance and Theatre, where she mentors young dancers and teaches courses on Black American dance forms and what she calls “the jazz continuum.”
When Barnes teaches and performs Lindy Hop today, she says she’s reaching for the joy she felt dancing with her great-grandmother. It is in this spirit that she carries the responsibility of being a tradition-bearer of a nearly 100 year-old dance. That’s what she brings to the dance floor, whether she’s improvising with friends in the studio or performing onstage.
“Each time you make a connection and you make a move happen, just off the basis of being together, it ignites joy,” she said. “And just this exchange of energy gives you something to hold onto and something to celebrate.”
Above, LaTasha Barnes dances the Lindy Hop with fellow ASU professor Christi Jay Wells.
- Learn more about the Black Lindy Hoppers Fund and Collective Voices For Change, organizations that were founded in 2020 to support and promote Black dancers while educating the international jazz dance community on the African American history of Lindy Hop and other Black social dances.
- Guardian Baltimore is a community-based organization founded by Breai Mason-Campbell that aims to pass on African American history and culture through dance.
- The Frankie Manning Foundation seeks to carry on the work and spirit of Frankie Manning. They administer the Frankie Manning Ambassador Scholarship.
- Learn more about the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program.
- Watch the spectacular Lindy Hop sequence in the 1941 film Hellzapoppin.
- Watch Frankie Manning talk in 2006 about his life and career.
- Watch LaTasha and Felix Berghäll dance at the 2019 International Lindy Hop Championships.
- Listen to Snatch & Grab It, by Julia Lee.
- And here are some of LaTasha’s favorite songs to dance to!
- Chicken An’ Dumplings (Live), by Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers
- Lavender Coffin, by Lionel Hampton
- Wailing Interval, by Duke Ellington
- Sister Sadie, by Horace Silver
- Harlem, Harlem, Harlem, by Charles Turner & Uptown Swing
- You Can’t Pull the Wool Over My Eyes, by Catherine Russell
- Jersey Bounce, by Ella Fitzgerald
- Pickin’ the Cabbage, by Cab Calloway