This is a very good question :-), but unfortunately one that required a bit of research on my part…so please bear with me as I give you guys a brief history/background of the swing dances.
First things first: all of the above dances are related, and evolved from one another, so that’s why they all look so similar to the naked eye. Even I often have a hard time discerning between them, especially within the context of DWTS, where I think sometimes even the pros themselves aren’t quite sure about some of these dances – especially the Jitterbug & Lindy Hop. The lines between them are very blurred, because there’s often a lot of overlap in terms of steps, timing, & styling.
Charleston was the earliest of the swing dances, originating in the speakeasies during the 1920’s, and is usually associated with the “flappers”, who danced it alone or with each other to mock the “drys” – people who supported Prohibition. At the time, it was considered to be a pretty provocative dance. It has a bouncy feel to it, and the basic step does have the backward rock-step characteristic to almost all of the swing dances. Here’s a good example of some other Charleston steps – note how it also has some twisting movements, high kicks, and very jazzy arm styling. The music was a swing beat, with perhaps a bit more of a ragtime feel than other swing styles to follow – think “Hot Honey Rag” from Chicago. These days, it more often lends steps to jive & quickstep, rather than being danced as its own, exclusive dance – my boyfriend’s studio doesn’t have an official Charleston syllabus (just not enough steps), but he does often incorporate Charleston steps into other dances. One example many of you may have noticed is that funky leg flick that the pros often add to their quickstep routines – Mark does it at about the :55 mark of he & Chelsea’s quickstep. Yep, Charleston moves fit Mark’s jimmie legs perfectly :-) Which is probably why he & Melissa’s Charleston in season 9 sticks out to me as the best representation of the dance on the show – it has the characteristic steps, and they stuck with the 1920’s flapper theme.
Out of the Charleston came the Lindy Hop, which had its heyday in the big band era of the late 1920’s-40’s. It was a product of the Harlem Renaissance, and was born in traditionally black clubs like The Savoy & Cotton Club in New York. Its footwork was similar to the Charleston, but it had elements of other vernacular/folk dances (such as the cakewalk and Texas Tommy) and also included a breakaway/throwaway step, which allowed the couples dancing it to do more open work than in the Charleston. It was also quite a bit more daring – when wealthy white patrons descended upon Harlem clubs to watch the black dancers, the dancers themselves upped the ante, and began doing increasingly more dangerous & eye-catching lifts, flips, and tricks (“air steps” or “aerials”) to entertain them. This often resulted in the dancers being hired to perform or teach Lindy Hop to the patrons. I would say it’s definitely the “showiest” of all the swing dances, due to all the tricks that have come to be standard fare in the Lindy – and with the pros on DWTS, nothing seems to scream “Lindy!” more than some crazy lifts. In terms of said lifts, I would say that Melissa & Tony’s Lindy in season 8 is the best example; but in terms of overall “feel” (and good use of basic steps), I’d say that Ty & Chelsie’s Lindy is the best example.
The history of the jitterbug is a bit more murky – since many early Lindy-hoppers (such as Shorty Snowden & Frankie Manning) referred to Lindy as “the jitterbug” before it was officially named the Lindy Hop in 1928, some argue that jitterbug & Lindy are one in the same. However, I’ve also heard it relayed that “jitterbug” refers to the early style of Lindy (which did not include aerials), that was more akin to a smoother, more fast-paced Charleston or East Coast Swing; yet another story I’ve heard is that when the Harlem Lindy-hoppers began to teach the dance to wide-eyed white patrons, they toned it down quite a bit and took out a lot of more intimidating steps to make it more “suburb-friendly”, and the result was the jitterbug. “Jitterbug” can also just refer to any of the swing dances in general. Are you confused yet? So am I :-) If I had to guess, I’d say that the jitterbug is most likely a watered-down version of the Lindy – at least within the context of DWTS. This is supposedly the basic step – looks a lot to me like single-time East Coast Swing, so this may be a case of “tomato, to-mah-to”: same dance, different names. In the few jitterbugs we’ve seen on DWTS, it seems to look a lot like Lindy, with perhaps a few less lifts, and a slightly slower tempo. Not different enough to necessitate including both dances, in my opinion; also not really fair to the pros – remember when Derek had to go Google “jitterbug” to help him choreograph he & Brooke’s routine? Yeah, my boyfriend did the same thing when I asked him to do some jitterbug – and he still didn’t really know what it was (I believe he just shrugged & said “I dunno, it’s probably just like Lindy!”) So, that said – since I don’t really know what a jitterbug looks like, I can’t really & truly say what a good example of one on the show is…and I’m gonna venture a guess that the judges don’t really know either, because they seemed to give rather vague critiques of all the jitterbugs done in seasons 7 & 9 (the only 2 seasons when it was performed). It was either “Yeah, that was good, great energy!” or “I didn’t really like it, it was messy.” No real reference to steps or technique – which further leads me to believe that the jitterbug is not a real dance, but just a general “feel” that can include any number of steps from the other swing-type dances. Brooke & Derek’s jitterbug and Cody & Julianne’s jitterbug in season 7 seem to be popular favorites.
The final dance to evolve from the swing family was the jive, which is the most structured of the swing dances on the show. When the swing dance craze swept the US and Europe after World War II, the ballroom community found the dance “ugly” and disorganized, so they created the jive as a more elegant, clean alternative, and it was adopted as the 5th and final International Latin dance in 1968. It mainly differs from the other, previous swing dances in that it is much more strictly regulated – since it was created by ballroom dancers themselves, rather than regular folks messing around on the dance floor (like the Lindy), there is a syllabus of acceptable steps, and it is less open to interpretation and improvisation. The characteristic bounce of it requires picking the knees up very high (which you typically don’t see in the other swing dances), and because the tempo is so fast, jive does not move around the floor as much as the Lindy, jitterbug, or Charleston – it’s danced more in-place because the dancers just don’t have the time to move around much. Granted, there are similiarities with the other swing dances from which it evolved – it has the same “triple step” swing rhythm structure as the other dances, and many of the figures are obviously inspired by moves from the other dances (i.e. the shadow stalking walk of the jive looks very similar to a step used in the Charleston). I’ve always said the best example of the jive that I’ve ever seen on the show is Nicole & Derek’s jive in season 10 – she has been the only contestant that I’ve seen nail the high knees, slightly bent-over posture, and compact, sharp leg flicks of the jive.
Since I seem to be hitting on all the swing dances, I may as well touch briefly on East Coast & West Coast swing – just in case those nutty producers ever decide to dredge those up again :-) The East Coast Swing is basically a slowed-down version of the jive, with more of a “downward” feel – the knees aren’t sky high, and since it’s not so fast, there’s a bit more movement side-to-side than in the jive. The basic step is essentially the same as the jive – rock step back, triple step right, triple step left – but with the technique tweaked slightly. Rumor was that they were supposed to add it to the repertoire in season 10 or 11 (I think), but that never materialized – and I’m kinda glad, because I don’t see the need for both the jive and ECS when the two look so similar to the uneducated eye. The West Coast Swing is probably the most different of the swing dances, because it’s “slotted” – meaning that it generally moves back and forth along one line, with the lady doing the moving and the man staying stationary (for the most part) slightly outside of the slot. It’s not entirely different from the Lindy Hop basic mentioned above, but is slower and not quite so haphazard. The word I most often hear used to describe it is “slinky” – there is almost no bounce to it, and the elastic “back and forth” movement of the lady lends itself well to swiveling of the hips, so it can be a very sexy dance. It’s also probably the most open to improvisation, of all the swing dances – the slow, sexy timing and basic walking action allow for a lot of creativity. The basic WCS step is often incorporated into the jive, so it’s yet another example of overlap between the swing dances. Lacey’s dad, Buddy Schwimmer, is often credited with popularizing the West Coast Swing style – he’s still referred to as the “King of Swing” in the ballroom community.
So now that you all have a Ph.D in the history of swing dance, let’s review the similarities & differences:
Charleston: silly, carefree dance from the 1920’s with wacky arms & legs
Lindy Hop: high-energy, fast swing dance with more open work and crazy lifts
Jitterbug: bouncy, fun dance with wacky arms & legs (and a few lifts) that’s open to interpretation
Jive: fast, compact, bouncy dance with high knees and sharp, precise leg flicks & kicks
East Coast Swing: slower, earthier cousin of the jive with less bounce and a more relaxed feel
West Coast Swing: even slower, sexier, slinkier cousin of the Lindy Hop that is very open to interpretation
Hopefully you guys have a bit better understanding of the various swing-type dances on the show now…so maybe you can educate the judges, pros, and powers that be ;-)