Migration and Evolution, Intelligently Designed: YouTube

Culture grows and spreads through environments organically. It evolves. When culture spreads via built environments, its evolution can be intelligently designed.

Consider this example: What I know of as Lindy Hop, that athletic, exuberant, acrobatic dance, was essentially invented at the Savoy Ballroom in 1935 by Frankie Manning.

Like so many things at the time, national interest in Lindy was piqued thanks to footage from a Lindy Hop competition getting included in Paramount, Pathe, and Universal movie newsreels. We’re talking a reach way bigger than YouTube. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After Frankie’s career of dancing and choreographing his touring troupe’s routines ended, and the cultural phenomenon of Lindy Hop faded down from the roar of the war years to a slight murmur, Frankie found something else to do.

Cut to 1983. A few Swedes including Lennart Westerlund came across some old footage of a Frankie Manning dance sequence from the film version of the Broadway show, Hellzapoppin.’

The Swedes were flabbergasted and made a pilgrimage to Harlem to find the stars. A few were still there. Since 1983, Lennart Westerlund has acted as a sort of Lindy Hop missionary – spreading the dance to Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania.

Since 1983, and throughout resurgence of Lindy that has continued for two decades, Frankie has grown into a hero for a several new generations of dancers. After 30 years of working in a Harlem post office, suddenly he found himself flown around the world by this community, a celebrity again – “The Dean of Lindy Hop.” Each year, his birthday is celebrated worldwide as a holiday by the dancers in a growing list of countries re-discovering Lindy.

Like what the newsreel did for Lindy the first time around, the shot of mainstream attention in the mid-nineties that put it back on the map was a GAP commercial featuring Khaki’d Swing kids and cool “bullet time” camera work. The zeal was cultivated, and lifestyle identification was supported, by the several decentralized dance communities where the reborn love of Lindy had been simmering — including some more recent communities since those Swedish pilgrims.

Tapes – footage of dance routines and steps, whether they are of competition or of performance, are a primary building block for the development of the art. Not only do copies of the tapes spread, but among innovative dancers and choreographers, they are studied and the routines are improved upon.

The next major International Swing Dance event is going to also be the very first large swing event in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Frankie Manning is, of course, the guest of honor. Why suddenly South America? Not Lennart or another ambassador’s evangelizing – no, YouTube is the reason.

Yes, dance tapes on YouTube were discovered and poured over by Tango dancers in Buenos Aires. Like the Swedes, they tried to learn and copy from the old and newer footage of Lindy. They organized this international event, and now they are “part of the scene”.

There are many lessons organizations and politicians can learn from this example. The first lesson has two sides: 1) A blast of mainstream attention must have the 2) infrastructure support such as local familial communities who will keep interest alive with greater care. This works better than, say, a flash in the pan like Crystal Pepsi.

The second lesson would be that of course, a talented ambassador like Lennart can spread knowledge and even inspire self-identification in a lifestyle – whether Environmentalist, Democrat, or Swing Dancer…

But thirdly, it doesn’t take much insight to identify that the proud home of Argentine and Nuevo Tango would have been fertile ground for emailed links to something that would blow their minds – something they would surely love. This joy is something nobody had to fly 6,000 miles to convey.

This is evolution, intelligently designed.