The Texas Tommy is hands-down (or, perhaps more accurately, hands-behind-the-back) an essential piece of Lindy Hop dance vocabulary. Among its many variations in Lindy Hop, one of its most common forms on the social dance floor is an 8-count pattern that looks like this:

[tubepress video=”AlYt2Aq72-Q”]

Breaking it down, it’s really little more than a swingout with follower’s outside turn that has been spruced up with a slightly challenging and impressive looking hand change behind the back. Most Lindy Hoppers are familiar with some variation of this fun and flashy move – if only because a poorly executed Texas Tommy tends to awkwardly wrench a follower’s arm behind them, perhaps making a lasting impression.

What  many swing dancers do not know is that before it was co-opted into Lindy Hop, the Texas Tommy was actually a whole dance craze unto itself which included a variety of distinguishing steps and movements in addition to the signature behind-the-back hand change. Also…the Texas Tommy originated right here in San Francisco!

The dance took root in the Barbary Coast section of San Francisco, which following the 1906 earthquake had shed some of its red-light district character and had become more of a popular tourist attraction. By 1910, the Texas Tommy Swing was a hit dance at Purcell’s, a black cabaret. The Fairmont Hotel, which was a major place for dancing at the time, had a house band that often played the titular song Texas Tommy Swing, and help to popularize and legitimize the dance from its street dance origins. Although it’s unknown who to credit with creating the dance, Johnny Peters and Ethel Williams were two top Texas Tommy dancers who took the dance from the Barbary Coast to New York where they incorporated it into their Broadway show Darktown Follies in 1913.

Vintage dance historian Richard Powers helped categorize some of the fundamental movements in the Texas Tommy Swing (although we’re using our own step names here):

Texas Tommy Basic: described by Ethel Williams as “a kick and a hop three times on each foot followed by a slide”, it was possible to dance this in an open position and to improvise a variety of turns and pretzel like figures

Sideways Travelling Step: stepping down with one foot, while flicking the other sideways and travelling across the floor in the direction of the flicking foot

Downward Step/Breaks: basically the same movement as the Sideways Travelling Step, with two repetitions of the movement on each foot then switching to the other side, and done mostly on the spot

Pivots & Breakaway: commonly seen danced in an almost bear-hug position, these might be done in the line of dance and lead into the breakaway and signature hand-change-behind-the-back

Here is one of the best known vintage clips of the Texas Tommy:

[tubepress video=”U_Q_BHIniAM”]

See if you can notice:

  1. Pivots and Breakaways: [0:57-1:05], [1:12-1:19], [1:25-1:32]
  2. Texas Tommy Basic: [1:05-1:12], [1:19-1:25]
And another:
[tubepress video=”Mx1_bghNJgc”]
See if you can identify these characteristic steps:
  1. Texas Tommy Basic: [0:00-0:16], [0:26-0:36],[0:49-1:00],[1:07-1:12]
  2. Downward Step: [0:16-0:18], [0:36-0:38],[1:12-1:14],[1:20-1:25]
  3. Sideways Travelling Step [0:18-0:20]
  4. Pivots & Breakaways: [0:20-0:26],[0:40-0:49],[1:00-1:07],[1:14-1:20]
You can also see Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers incorporating elements of the Texas Tommy (which they had probably observed as teenagers) in this dance clip where they portray the classic dance team Vernon and Irene Castle:
[tubepress video=”NK4A6EeRoAs”]
See if you can recognize some of the steps, albeit with some fancy embellishments and minor changes:
  1. Texas Tommy Basic: [0:36-0:43],[0:47-0:50]
  2. Pivots & Breakaways: [0:52-1:16]
  3. Sideways Travelling Step: [1:17-1:22] (notice they travel opposite the direction of the flicked foot)
You can catch some modern demonstrations of the Texas Tommy steps courtesy of Joel & Allison:
Texas Tommy Basic
[tubepress video=”4zXURUnko_o”]
[tubepress video=”A2u4Gnydh-M”]
Downward Step / Breaks:
[tubepress video=”Vq5uK9vMw5Y”]
[tubepress video=”gOtmi1Txc4c”]
Finally here’s an interesting note about dance nomenclature. One of my dance partners, Catrine Ljunggren, who studied extensively with legendary Lindy Hoppers Frankie Manning and Al Minns and who was in fact Frankie’s teaching partner for many of his workshops, always chastised me when I referred to these movements as the Texas Tommy.
According to Catrine, Frankie always insisted that he “never knew [any] Tommy from Texas” and that dancers of his era named steps exactly what they were. Accordingly, the movement that many modern Lindy Hoppers call the Texas Tommy should actually be called “swingout with hand change behind the back.”
That’s a bit of a mouthful to call out in class though. I have a feeling that the simpler “Texas Tommy” name is here to stay, even if its historical authenticity is called into question.
Texas Tommy was actually from San Francisco!