Charlie Meade – Around the World from Kingston to London and Ending Up in New York

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

Most of those who visited the Frankie95 event in New York in May 2009 likely remember various performers from the Norma Miller Dancers via the Swedish Harlem Hot Shots to the British Jiving Lindy Hoppers. To the author of the article, however, the highlight of the event was seeing Charlie Meade dancing on the social dance floor. This Be Bop / Hard Bop-influenced Jazz Dancer has aroused intensive interest in his dancing through his whole career since the 1950s. Charlie frequently performed and social danced until the pandemic, but there is no doubt that he keeps going on dancing after the dance floors are open again. This is his story.

Born in 1931 as Harold Meade to the family of three brothers and one sister, Charlie started dancing in Kingston, Jamaica when he was about 10 years old. At that age, he danced in school parties. He learned to Tap dance in the street by using bottle caps between his toes because he could not afford to buy Tap shoes. Charlie’s elder brother used to go dancing in Jamaican dance halls. The big bands in the dancehalls played mostly Calypsos and Swing. They did Quadrille, Ballroom dancing, Rumba, and also Jitterbug as the Lindy Hop was called at the time in Jamaica. Charlie admired a particular Jamaican Jitterbug dancer called Papa Jones who bounced and flew in the rhythm in such an unique and beautiful way that has been beyond comparison.

In August 1950, Charlie decided to move to London, England. There he went to dancing in places like Victory House and Hammersmith Palace. Those who saw Charlie encouraged him to be a professional dancer. In England, he worked in a factory as a presser. After an accident in the factory, in which he burned himself, Charlie rather tried a professional dancing career than worked in the factory. He met an African American dance legend, Buddy Bradley, who had settled in London as a Jazz dance choreographer and teacher at the beginning of the 1930s. 

Mr. Bradley asked Charlie to join one of his dance groups, which consisted of two men and three women. All of them, but Charlie, were white, British, and trained dancers. Mr. Bradley appreciated dancers with a natural rhythm. Charlie says that he was born with the rhythm. All of the other dancers in the group did not have a natural ability for rhythm, or at least for Jazz, as one of the female dancers, Chris Parry, who was originally a Ballet dancer, recalls that they listened Jazz with Mr. Bradley -without doing a step- just for understanding the music correctly. Famous Savoy Lindy Hoppers Al Minns and Sonny Allen have used a similar method for teaching their students.

The group did Modern dances, Jazz routines, Modern jazz, Tap dancing, and primitive dancing. Probably, they considered the primitive dancing as the “purest” form of dancing without anything “trained”, which was in contrast with the racist concept of ‘primitive’ as meaning African. Charlie did also African routines. They danced Jitterbug as well, which was known in England also as Jive, but they danced it only to relax after the shows.  

They toured all the American military service bases from Frankfurt to Paris, all over Europe, especially in Germany and France. In spite of President Harry S. Truman’s executive order in 1948, which demanded racial integration in the U.S. military, racism had not disappeared from it by the 1950s. After their agent had sent a picture of Charlie doing a split over one of the group’s female dancers’ head, an Army officer said to the agent that they would not allow Charlie to dance with a white female dancer. Somehow, they were able to dance as a group in the U.S. military camps. Probably, those in charge of entertainment in the U.S. military bases changed their minds or the female dancers of the group did not dance in a close position with Charlie. Especially, splits were his specialty he did a lot. 

Despite racism, they succeeded. Charlie remembers that their original four week stay in Panama Club in London was extended to nine months. Somewhere around 1956, he was Tap dancing in a hotel, in which Norma Miller was staying during her London visit. Norma saw Charlie doing Tap dancing and stated in her inimitable wryly way that “Oh, don’t you know you’re not supposed to be tapping your feet when Baby Lawrence is around.” ‘Baby’ Laurence Jackson, whom Charlie considers as the greatest of Tap dancers, stayed at the same hotel as Norma. Mr. Bradley introduced Charlie to Mr. Jackson, with whom Charlie became fast friends. He learned many Tap steps from Mr. Jackson. 

However, times changed and Charlie’s dance group was dissolved. He went to Rome, Italy to work with a new group around 1960. He had a contract for a month to work on the movie Cleopatra, in which he acted as a guardian and a witch doctor, in addition to dancing in it. His short stay in Rome was luckily prolonged at least by two years. During those years, Charlie performed in Italian films, TV programs and commercials, he cannot remember all of them anymore, but he participated in a two-part stage play called Shakespeare in Harlem / Mr. Jazz, which was performed in Milan, and probably also in Rome, in 1962. 

Although Shakespeare in Harlem was based on famous Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ writings about contemporary life in Harlem, the cast of the play was mostly comprised actors who worked in European cinema and television. Maybe, Archie Savage, one of the dance choreographers in the play, lent some authenticity to the MrJazz part which depicted music and dancing from an African drum to contemporary Jazz. He was famous Ethel Waters’ companion during her Savoy Ballroom visit, whom Norma Miller allegedly taught to dance and also danced with. He was also a dancer in the Jazz film called Jammin’ the Blues in 1944. Despite that, he became to be known as a Modern dance-based dancer. When it came to the dancers in the play, their relation to Harlem was probably more metaphorical than substantial: Even one of Charlie’s dancing partners in Italy and one of those who participated in the stage play, Roxy Young, was originally from West Virginia. 

While they spent the days in the theatrical productions, Charlie and his partners danced in clubs at night. At the beginning of the 1960s, in particular, the Twist reigned over the dance floors and was one of the “new” Rock ‘n’ Roll or Rhythm and Blues dances. You name it. Many of these dances were not actually new because they were based on old Jazz dances as Marshall and Jean Stearns argued in their groundbreaking Jazz Dance study, even if these “new” dances usually emphasized upper body movements more than older Jazz dances which focused on feet. Charlie with his partners performed the Twist all around Italy, and at some point, he became a Twist Champion.

In 1963, Charlie left Italy and moved to New York. There, he crossed paths a few times with his old friend from London, Mr. Jackson, but it seems that this did not lead to any significant dance collaboration between them. While Charlie’s life was earlier about dancing, eating and sleep as he has described his time in Europe, life in New York was different. Charlie danced only occasionally and he concentrated on his daily job as a bus driver, particularly in Queens. Unfortunately, ‘Baby Laurence’ Jackson had developed a bad drug habit, which possibly affected his untimely death in his early 50s in 1974, although cancer was reported as the reason for it. A few years prior to Mr. Jackson’s death, in 1972, also Buddy Bradley had passed away. Mr. Bradley had returned to New York at the end of 1960s, but whether Charlie met with him in New York is not clear. Charlie recalls that Mr. Jackson’s passing was the reason why he completely stopped dancing as something in him died with Mr. Jackson. Possibly, also Mr. Bradley’s passing affected Charlie?

But he was not through with dancing. The resurgence of interest in older authentic Jazz dances at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of 1980s, especially in the Lindy Hop in New York, and also in Swing on the West Coast, helped to bring Charlie back to the spotlight in a similar way to other Jazz dancers, particularly Savoy Lindy Hoppers and Jitterbugs, including Tap dancers who had been enjoying a renaissance of Tap since the last half of the 1970s. 

The catalyst for Charlie’s comeback was a young female dancer named Pat Porter whom he met in Norma Miller’s show at the Village Gate in downtown, Manhattan probably in 1984. Charlie had found out that Norma performed at the Village Gate and he decided to visit the event. At the event, Charlie asked Pat to dance with him during the social dance session. After praising Charlie’s dancing, she asked him to participate in her birthday party at the Gate next week. At the birthday party, Norma Miller introduced Charlie to Margaret Batiuchok. On Pat’s suggestion, Charlie and Margaret participated in the dance contest at the party, and they won it. Charlie considers that as the rebirth of his dancing, and he credits both Pat and Margaret for it. Charlie credits Margaret also for helping to rebuild his old choreographies and steps he had almost forgotten. 

This led to the long-time, still continuing, dancing partnership between Charlie and Margaret. Charlie started to frequent The New York Swing Dance Society (NYSDS) events in the late Cat’s Club on 13th Street in Manhattan and became a fixture in them. Charlie and Margaret have performed together numerous times inside and outside New York, and Charlie has performed also with many others. There have been quite a few of those videos available, which suggests his great success among dance enthusiasts. Those who have been in the NYSDS and Midsummer Night Swing events could not have by any means missed those performances.

Harri Heinilä, Margaret Batiuchok, and Charlie Meade in New York, September 2010.

As an endnote:

I am thankful to Charlie Meade and his wife Lynn for discussions regarding Charlie’s dancing career and his life. These discussions have been very essential for this article.

I am thankful to Margaret Batiuchok for her Lindy thesis (1988), in which she interviewed Charlie, and for Margaret’s article about Charlie called ‘The Great Charlie Meade’, Ballroom Review. June 18 – July 18, 1993. These have been very helpful for this article.

I am thankful to both Charlie and Margaret for showing what Charlie’s dancing has been about.

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The Beginning of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and the 400 Club

A correction on August 9, 2021: Herbert White asked Norma Miller to join his Savoy Ballroom-based dance group somewhere at the end of September and the beginning of October 1934. Norma Miller and her partner Sonny Ashby won the Apollo Theatre contest probably at the end of September. They performed for one week at the Apollo at the beginning of October 1934 after winning the contest. See endnote xxxi and the text before it.

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom at Lenox Avenue opened its doors 95 years ago on Friday, March 12, 1926. The late Savoy Ballroom historian Terry Monaghan argued that the “[e]arly press reports describe[d], or impl[ied],” that white businessmen Moe Gale and I. Jay Faggen “launch[ed]” the Savoy. African American Charles Buchanan was mentioned as its manager. Also Charles Galewski, Moe Gale’s cousin, and Larry Spier, a songwriter, were involved in the Savoy. The story of who created and owned the Savoy was rewritten through the years. At the very beginning, Faggen’s role in creating the Savoy Ballroom was emphasized in the press, but later his role in that regard was downplayed.[i] The reason for that could have been his resignation: Moe Gale and his family obviously bought Faggen out at some point because it was reported in 1939 that Faggen was coming back to Harlem with his Golden Gate Ballroom project, and already in August 1927 Variety reported that Faggen and Spier were “out of the Savoy”. In 1929, Faggen was mentioned in the past tense as a “former managing director” of Harlem’s Savoy.[ii]  

Charles Buchanan was referred to both as a co-owner and as an owner of the Savoy Ballroom starting at the latest from 1940. Much later, likely, at the end of the 1970s, Buchanan told that he owned 35 % of the corporation that owned the Savoy. Moe Gale and his father owned the rest of the corporation.[iii] Historian Russell Gold suggests that Buchanan got the 35 % share prior to the year 1943,[iv] which could mean the year 1940 as the starting point of Buchanan’s co-ownership. A co-ownership sounds more plausible than a full ownership considering the fact that both Moe Gale and Charles Buchanan were depicted in 1951 as the “founders” of the Savoy Ballroom, and when Gale died in 1964, he and Faggen were described as the “founders” of the ballroom. According to The New York Times, Gale “sold his interest” in the Savoy “to make a way for a housing project”, which could have taken place in 1953 when the Savoy Ballroom was sold to the City of New York. Probably, because of problems in financing the new housing project and problems in the relocation of the tenants who lived in the old buildings, the ballroom was kept open until 1958.[v] Most likely the changes in the ownership and ultimately Moe Gale’s death led into the changes in the “official” Savoy story.

The Savoy Ballroom announced in The New York Age in March 1926 that the ballroom was “dedicated exclusively to” African Americans.[vi] When Moe Gale passed away in 1964, Newsday reported that it was Jay Faggen who “wanted “a ballroom in Harlem for” ” African Americans.[vii] The Savoy Story booklet, which the Savoy management released in 1951 for the Savoy’s 25th birthday, stated that both Moe Gale and Charles Buchanan simultaneously had an idea of a luxury ballroom in Harlem, but it was Buchanan who “was going to give” it to Harlem. Both of them had “plans and ideas that were to cause a revolutionary trend in public ballrooms and in dance styles” also outside Harlem, and practically everywhere where there was dancing.[viii] The latter suggests that the ballroom was not originally only for Harlemites. The mention of Buchanan’s role in giving a ballroom to Harlem might have been included in the Savoy Story for assuring Harlemites that the ballroom still was theirs. That is especially when considering the ratio of African American and white patrons at the Savoy in the 1940s, which was 85 % African Americans and 15 % whites by 1946[ix].

Because the booklet and the article about Jay Faggen were published decades after the opening of the Savoy, they possibly do not resemble the original ideas. The previously mentioned New York Age announcement from March 1926 suggests that there existed at the very least an idea of relying on an African American customer base. Terry Monaghan proposed in his Savoy Ballroom thesis that it should be asked: “Did two white downtown [businessmen] [obviously Moe Gale and I. Jay Faggen] really decide to open the Savoy just out of the goodness of their hearts?”[x] Therefore, it could be asked how much the ballroom actually was for Harlemites and how much it was about making a profit by exploiting Harlemites financially? There have not been definite answers to those questions. However, it is likely that making a profit played an important role in the Savoy management’s actions because the ballroom was related to successful financial figures in 1928.[xi] Whatever were the original intentions, ultimately, the ballroom was not only for Harlemites because millions of customers from outside Harlem, both black and white, also visited the Savoy.[xii]

Terry Monaghan has suggested that the Savoy management was initially reluctant to advertise the Savoy’s dance forms because it was more interested to create a picture of a “high class” ballroom which was distinguished to some extent from ordinary Harlemites’ activities, and which could provide the kind of “social uplift” for African Americans. The idea of management’s distaste for “popular” dancing is reinforced by its attempt to restrict the Charleston and other “wild” dancing among the Savoy regulars at the time of the ballroom’s opening.[xiii] However, from the get-go, dancing became connected with the Savoy in the press reports. The New York Age in March 1926 reported that there were the Charleston contests at the Savoy during the opening week[xiv]. In June 1926, The Savoy advertised in The New York Amsterdam News that it had planned to organize the Charleston contests every Tuesday in July-August 1926, which simultaneously were going to be combined with the Bathing Beauty contests. There was also a Charleston performance at the Savoy in December 1926.[xv] Perhaps, the Charleston contests were intended to control the Charleston dancers at the Savoy? Combining the Charleston contests with the Bathing Beauty Contests could have been for reducing the interest in the Charleston. Anyway, the Charleston was surely allowed to some degree at the ballroom.

In March 1926, also Variety described the Savoy’s dancing by stating contradictorily that although African Americans took their dancing seriously, however, they were not “good dancers”. The magazine found an exception in an ambiguous “wicked stepper” who danced like “a hound”. Despite the criticism, the article stated positively that the ballroom is going to success in the future. This was not the first time when the US press criticized African American jazz dancing. The African American Broadway plays since the beginning of the 1920 had received quite mixed reviews. In those reviews, African American dancers were not unequivocally considered to possess “natural” dancing skills because they were referred to both as “trained” dancers and “untrained” dancers.[xvi]

Thus, at the very beginning, the Savoy’s dancing activities were not always respected by outsiders and the ballroom’s management. According to Monaghan, by fall 1929, the Savoy management had begun to see potential benefits which could be accrued from working with Savoy dancers. That was possibly first connected with the Corner for “skilled dancers” in 1927, and after that particularly with Harlem’s Lindy Hop dancing, which had become popular since the Harlem Lindy Hop’s inception in 1928. Monaghan claimed that the Lindy Hop became part of the Savoy’s 400 Club promotion in fall 1929.[xvii]

The Savoy Story mentions that the 400 Club was established in 1927, but in reality it could have been established in 1928 because newspapers probably started to report on the club in fall 1928 when the “rules” of the 400 Club were published in the Inter-State Tattler in September-October 1928. According to them, the club could have only 400 members from “both sexes between the ages of 16 and 116” who met once a week on Tuesday nights. The applicant filled a “standard club application” for the membership. After the applicant was accepted, an initiation followed, although it was explained that no examinations were needed. It seems that it was not so important to be serious because the club was for “fun and fraternalism” and happiness, as the first 400 Club articles emphasized. By October 1928, the club had already 350 members. The rule was broken or amended later because in 1951 the club had at least 17,234 members in total. The “initiation ceremony”, which was described in general to be “just too bad”, was taken care by a crew that consisted of otherwise unknown names, “Johnny Wright, “Sparky”, “Brown Suit” and Lewis”. However, one of the club members, George Ganaway, who became to be known as ‘Twistmouth George’, was praised in October 1928 as a prime example of dancing that could be seen in the club events and at the Savoy.[xviii]Ganaway worked with George ‘Shorty’ Snowden on Broadway plays and elsewhere between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, and nowadays he is known as the dancer who introduced a Savoy Lindy Hopper and Jazz Dancer Norma Miller to the Savoy Ballroom in 1932.[xix]

A few outsiders, who visited the Savoy at the beginning of the 1930s, have described briefly the 400 Club and its dancing. At the time, the club consisted of the best Lindy Hoppers who tried to outdance each other. The Lindy Hop was described as violent, but beautiful as British Nancy Cunard put it. The dancers swung “in and out dervish fashion with never a collision”, although, at the same time, dancers fought with each other when one of the dancers accidentally collided with another dancer. The observers paid attention to the basic principle of the Lindy Hop: the breakaway in which the partners of the couple separated for performing their individual steps and then came back together. They also noted that some of the couples were “dancing in unison, as if controlled by invisible wires”, and in spite of the amount of dancers, approximately five hundred, there “was no impression of separate couples”. All that was strongly connected with the orchestra that was playing for them because it looked “like one big heart beating for them”.[xx]

Frankie Manning claimed that he invented the ensemble dancing in unison in the Lindy Hop sometime in 1936 when he was part of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a Savoy Ballroom-based dance company.[xxi]Possibly, Manning’s statement is true in its individual context as to his choreographies for the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, but the ensemble dancing in the Lindy Hop at the Savoy and elsewhere was introduced before his “invention” as the aforementioned quotations and other evidence suggest: in the movie, Rufus Jones for President, from 1933, it can be seen two Lindy Hop couples swinging out simultaneously,[xxii] which clearly resembles dancing in unison.

The 400 Club initiation for new members comprised three parts at the beginning of the 1930s. First, the gorgeously dressed members of the club paraded on the dance floor while the audience around them watched. This was followed by the actual initiation process. In this process, “a small stick” was given to a female candidate who was “spun around” the stick by “three strong men”. She had to do approximately fifteen turns while the audience counted the turns. After completing the task she either crashed to the floor or staggered “across the floor to hand her stick to the M.C.” The male candidates had to “run” through the legs of “a long line” of the male members of the club who hit the candidates when they passed the members.[xxiii] Perhaps, the observer mistook the idea of the line of the members to some degree because the line was likely for a punishment of those who failed the initiation. Thus, it was not meant to all male candidates.[xxiv] The last part of the evening rituals was “the “floor show” “, in which, possibly, only the candidates performed, and which was judged by the audience who either approved or criticized it.[xxv]

Celebrities like Libby Holman, Clifton Webb, Johnny Weissmuller, and Carl Van Vechten, with musicians like Ted Lewis and Paul Whiteman, were watching the 400 Club events, and also offered “cash prizes for a Lindy Hop contest”.[xxvi] Also African American entertainers like Bill Robinson and Ethel Waters were in the audience. Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson “was even made an honorary [member] of” the club in 1940.[xxvii]Marshall and Jean Stearns depicted the club in their Jazz Dance study by explaining that there were no “crowds” and there was “plenty of floor space” in the Tuesday events. Their description probably did not exclude those who observed the dancers on the dance floor as the Stearnses also stated that there were “all the fine dancers to watch”.[xxviii] Musically, the members of the 400 Club inclined to Erskine Hawkins in 1947 as they chose Hawkins’ band as the “best swing band to dance to”.[xxix] Terry Monaghan claimed ambiguously that despite Harlemites’ love for Erskine Hawkins’ band, it “was not generally regarded as a “leading” band in the Swing canon.”[xxx] Did Monaghan refer to Harlemites with “the Swing canon” is unclear. Anyway, at that point, Hawkins’ orchestra was  the “leading” band among the club members. 

Norma Miller and Frankie Manning mentioned the 400 Club in their memoirs. Miller started frequent the Savoy after Herbert ‘Whitey’ White, the future manager of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, asked her to join his Savoy Ballroom-based dance group probably at the beginning of October 1934 when Miller with her partner Sonny Ashby won the Apollo Theatre Lindy Hop contest. Quite soon after Miller also Manning joined the group.[xxxi] The 400 Club did not seem to be a big deal to Miller and Manning because they mentioned the club only briefly in the memoirs. Manning basically downplayed the importance of the 400 club by stating that the club was not “open only to the best dancers” because anybody could join the club by filling the application.[xxxii] He was supported later by Leroy Griffin, a Savoy dancer, who recalled to have joined the 400 Club in a similar manner to Manning joined.[xxxiii] When it comes to Manning and Miller, the biggest thing in joining the club, in addition to the “reduced admission”, seemed to be the yellow and green 400 Club corduroy jacket, which the members could buy.[xxxiv]

Because Miller and Manning were the members of the famous Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers from the Savoy Ballroom, maybe that was a reason why they did not consider the 400 Club so important in the Savoy activities. Indeed, Norma Miller mentions that the club events on Tuesdays “became so popular” that the ballroom had a radio show “called The 400 Club” which a famous Savoy Ballroom MC and an orchestra leader Willie Bryant conducted.[xxxv] So far, there is no evidence of the program, but there were radio programs that were broadcast from the Savoy. In one of them the radio presenter praised Whitey’s dancers who were rehearsing “steps you never did see before”, and suggested listeners to come to the ballroom to see the group in action.[xxxvi] Terry Monaghan has stated that the 400 Club provided the Lindy Hoppers “opportunities to rehearse and practice” with its Tuesday night events.[xxxvii] As it has come out in this article, in those events, there were an audience that watched dancers and even gave prizes for contests. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that the dancers were performing to the audience. Rehearsing and practicing were more like by-products from their performances. 

Also magazines in the US noted the 400 Club. The “PIC” magazine had a several pages long report on the Savoy Ballroom in April 1938. Overall, the “PIC” article utilizes humorous and even disparaging expressions in its textual descriptions. A few pictures in the article depict one of the 400 Club meetings. The pictures first show members of the club who prepared for the “grand parade” led by a Savoy doorman ‘Big George’ Cailloux, then it is shown a membership test for male candidates, and at the last it is shown the punishment for rejected candidates. In the test, the male candidate stood on one foot. A female member of the club held his hand and tried to get him out of balance by whirling his hand. If the candidate failed, he was not considered a proper Lindy Hopper and he was punished by forcing him to crawl between the legs of the male members of the club who stood in a line.[xxxviii]

Jazz Dance historian and a Savoy Ballroom regular Mura Dehn described the 400 Club otherwise in a similar fashion to the “PIC” magazine article, but she did not utilize disparaging remarks, and she claimed that the parade consisted also of “ the “would-be-members” “. Her description supports the idea of the “hilarious” initiation rites. According to Dehn, the candidates had to exhibit “the current [dance] steps” which the “whole audience” judged. Those candidates who did not succeed were punished. While the male candidates crawled between the legs of “freshmen” who slapped the failed candidates on back or behind, the blindfolded female candidates spun as fast as they could and then they must walk steadily. She noted that the “examination” produced “very interesting” and fantastic variations of the dance steps.[xxxix]

In December 1940, The Music Makers of Stage – Screen – Radio magazine published an article about the Savoy’s dancing activities. While the article discussed dancing at the Savoy in general, the pictures and the label texts of them depicted the 400 Club. Racist epithets were utilized in the article: it mentioned “darkies” who were supposedly born for the Savoy because of their dancing and music skills, and it claimed misleadingly that the Charleston was born at the Savoy. Surprisingly, the pictures and their label texts depicted the Savoy dancing much more accurately. The label texts emphasized the dancers’ skills and expertise in dancing without a racial slur. The dancers did the Lindy Hop with air steps, an “interpretation of the “Big Apple” “, and other dances.[xl] The Big Apple had earlier become part of the Savoy’s performance and social dance activities.[xli]

In the pictures of both “The Music Makers” and the “PIC” articles, there can be seen also white people watching the dancers. According to Terry Monaghan, there were few white members in the 400 Club. The most known are Eva Zirker, Rudy Winter Sr., and ‘Killer Joe’ Piro. Monaghan considered them “a new type of white visitors” who went respectfully to Harlem to learn dancing instead of indulging in the Harlem entertainment in an arrogant way as “upper class socialites” did in the 1920s.[xlii] Whether the white watchers who can be seen in the pictures were members of the club cannot be concluded from the articles.

The 400 Club and its members drew accolades from The New York Times’ dance critic John Martin who in his articles reviewed analytically the Savoy Ballroom’s dancing. In his praise for the dancers (from January 1943), he refers particularly to the 400 Club dancers whose movements were controlled and dignified even in the “most violent figures”. Their dancing brought out improvisation and a “personal specialty mixed in with” more familiar Lindy Hop dancing. It was “full of temperament and quality” and parts of it were “superficially erotic”. To Martin, “[o]f all the ballroom dancing…this [was] unquestionably the finest”.[xliii]

The Savoy Ballroom dancing including the 400 Club was recognized in the mainstream press as a culturally remarkable activity by 1943. Overall, the positive acknowledgement of the Savoy Ballroom dancing increased through the years since the ballroom opened.[xliv] The 400 Club continued probably until the Savoy closed in July 1958.[xlv] As John Martin’s 1943 article suggests, the members of the Savoy 400 Club took their dancing seriously. This is reinforced by a comment from George Sullivan, one of the leading Savoy Lindy Hoppers in the 1950s, who has emphasized that the 400 Club jacket was only for those who really were able to dance.[xlvi] Overall, the 400 Club dancers seemed to take their dancing much more seriously than the articles about the 400 Club with humorous and even disparaging tones in the 1920s and later envisaged.   

Notes:


[i] Harri Heinilä. An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943. Helsinki, Finland: Unigrafia, 2015, pp. 115, 118, 124-125. Terry Monaghan, ” ”Stompin At the Savoy”: Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in Terry Monaghan and Eileen Feeney. Dancing at the Crossroads: African Diasporic Dances in Britain: Conference Proceedings. London: London Metropolitan University, Sir John Cass Dept. of Art, Media, and Design, 2002, pp. 38, 65. Monaghan’s thesis was updated in 2005. That is why I will use for his thesis the year 2005 instead of the year 2002. Karen Hubbard and Terry Monaghan. ”Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor,” in edited by Julie Malnig, Ballroom Boogie, Shimmy, Sham, Shake – A Social and Popular Dance Reader. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2009, p. 142. ”Charles Galewski, Realty Operator, 64.” The New York Times, August 12, 1942. ”Honors for Unusual Colored Band.” Variety, September 1, 1926. 

[ii] ”Classiest Ballroom Due Soon.” The New York Amsterdam News. October 21, 1939. Leonard Lyons. ”The New Yorker.” The Washington Post. September 12, 1939. ” ”St. Louis Blues” Radio Pictures.” Variety. September 4, 1929. ”Here and There.” Variety, August 31, 1927. ”Honors for Unusual Colored Band.” Variety, September 1, 1926.

[iii] Harri Heinilä. ”The End of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom – Observations and Explanations for Reasons.” Open Science Framework Preprints, 2018, https://osf.io/7w945/ , p. 3. See also: ”Gale-Buchanan Buy Golden Gate Opposish To Savoy Ballroom.” Variety. April 3, 1940. ”Group to Start Harlem Drive On Delinquents.” New York Herald Tribune. Oct 26, 1943. ”21st Anniversary For Harlem Savoy.” The Chicago Defender. March 22, 1947. ”O’Dwyer Mixes Campaign Staff.” The Afro-American. October 1, 1949. James Hicks. ”Big Town.” The Afro-American. February 1953. ”Wagner and Ten Get Civic Scrolls.” New York Herald Tribune. May 18, 1954. ”Roaming the Nation.” The Chicago Defender. March 8, 1958.

[iv] Russell Gold. ”Guilty of Syncopation, Joy, and Animation: The Closing of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.” in Studies in Dance History v.5, no.1, Spring 1994., p. 59.

[v] Monaghan 2005, s. 65. ”Moe Gale Dies; Impresario, 65.” The New York Times. September 3, 1964. ”Moe Gale, Musicians’ ’Angel’.” Newsday. September 3, 1964. ”Moe Gale, Was Versatile Mgr.” Variety. September 9, 1964. Heinilä 2018, pp. 8-12.

[vi] Heinilä 2015, pp. 115-116. ”Carry This Message To Your Friends.” The New York Age. March 27, 1926.

[vii] ”Moe Gale, Musicians’ ’Angel’.” Newsday. September 3, 1964.

[viii] ”This is Savoy! This is Harlem!” in The Savoy Story. Unknown publisher, 1951. There are no page numbers in the booklet. 

[ix] Heinilä 2015, p. 116.

[x] Monaghan 2005, p. 53.

[xi] Heinilä 2015, p. 119.

[xii] Ibid., pp. 130-131.  

[xiii] Monaghan 2005, pp. 38-39. Hubbard and Monaghan 2009, pp. 130-131. Terry Monaghan. ”The Chicago and Harlem Savoy Ballrooms – Different Cultures – Different fortunes.” in Society of Dance History Scholars Proceedings (Twenty-Eight Annual Conference Northwestern University – Evanston, Illinois 9-12 June 2005). Society of Dance History Scholars, 2005 (2005b), p. 155. Heinilä 2015, p. 117.

[xiv] ”Savoy Turns 2,000 Away On Opening Night-Crowds Pack Ball Room All Week.” The New York Age. March 20, 1926.

[xv] Heinilä 2015, pp. 102-103, 105. ”Unusual Holiday Program Planned for Local Popular Savoy Ballroom.” The New York Amsterdam News. June 30, 1926.

[xvi] Heinilä 2015, pp. 124-125, 258-268, 

[xvii] Hubbard and Monaghan 2009, pp. 132-134. Heinilä 2015, pp. 121-122. Monaghan 2005b, p. 157.

[xviii] ”Savoy-Topics.” Inter-State Tattler. September 21, 1928. ”Savoy-Topics.” Inter-State Tattler. October 19, 1928. ’This is Savoy! This is Harlem!’ in The Savoy Story, unknown publisher, 1951.

[xix] Terry Monaghan. ”Remembering ”Shorty”.” The Dancing Times. July 2004. Norma Miller and Evette Jensen, Swingin at The Savoy – The Memoir of A Jazz Dancer. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1996, pp. 37-40.

[xx] Nancy Cunard. ”Harlem Reviewed, ” and ”An Example of Success in Harlem.” in Collected and edited by Nancy Cunard – Edited and abridged, with an introduction by Hugh Ford. Negro – An Anthology. New York, NY: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984, pp. 49 and 205. Arnold L. Haskell. Balletomania – The Story of an Obsession. London, Great Britain: Victor Gollancz LTD, 1947, pp. 283-286. The observers did not mention the phrases ”the basic principle of the Lindy Hop” and ”the breakaway”. I have concluded those phrases. See also: Heinilä 2015, pp. 135 and 143. 

[xxi] Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman, Frankie Manning – Ambassador of Lindy Hop. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2007,, pp. 103-104, 116. Miller and Jensen 1996, p. 97.

[xxii] Rufus Jones For President, The Vitaphone Corporation/Warner Bros. Pictures, 1933. One of the male partners of the two Lindy Hop couples was possibly ’Twistmouth’ George Ganaway.

[xxiii] Haskell 1947, p. 285.

[xxiv] This comes out later in this article.

[xxv] Haskell 1947, p. 285.

[xxvi] ”An Example of Success in Harlem.” in Collected and edited by Nancy Cunard – Edited and abridged, with an introduction by Hugh Ford. Negro – An Anthology. New York, NY: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984, p. 205.

[xxvii] Isadora Smith. ”Crowds So Heavy That ’Rochester’ Comes Near Missing Own Premiere.” The Pittsburgh Courier. May 4, 1940.

[xxviii] Marshall and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance – The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1994, s. 322.

[xxix] ”It’s Official Now – Jitterbugs Pick Erskine Hawkins.” The Chicago Defender. August 16, 1947. ”Dancing Champions Pick Hawk’s Band.” The Afro-American. August 16, 1947.

[xxx] Monaghan 2005, p. 49.

[xxxi] Miller and Jensen 1996, pp. 44-49. Manning and Millman 2007, p. 77. Heinilä 2015, p. 123. ”Oriental Fantasy Makes Hot Cha at Apollo Theatre.” The New York Age. October 6, 1934.

[xxxii] Miller and Jensen 1996, pp. 109-110. Manning and Millman 2007, p. 66.

[xxxiii] Heinilä 2015, p. 123.

[xxxiv] Miller and Jensen 1996, p. 110.

[xxxv] Ibid., p. 110.

[xxxvi] Monaghan 2005, s. 41.

[xxxvii] Monaghan 2005b, p. 157.

[xxxviii] Dance-Drunk Harlem’, ”PIC”, Picpix, Inc., New York, New York, April 5, 1938. Heinilä 2015, p. 126. Although he was not mentioned by name, Cailloux can easily be recognized from the pictures of the magazine. His picture is in ”120 Employees Maintain Model Ballroom.” Ebony. October 1, 1946.”. Both the Ebony article and Frankie Manning confirm that he was a doorman at the Savoy. See: Millman and Manning 2007, p. 72.

[xxxix] ’Part III – Four Hundred Club – in Savoy’, folder 230, box 20, Papers on Afro-American social dance circa 1869-1987, Mura Dehn, 1902-1987, Jerome Robbins Dance Division. The New York Public Library. See also: Mura Dehn. ”Jazz Dance,” in Sounds and Fury Magazine, June 1966. Reprinted in Gus Giordano. Anthology of American Jazz Dance. Evanston, Illinois: Orion Publishing House, 1978.

[xl] mischalke04. ”Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Berlin Beatet Bestes. August 28, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2021 from https://mischalke04.wordpress.com/tag/four-hundred-club/ . Although the cover of the magazine says only ”DEC[ember]” without a year, it is likely from 1940, as it is mentioned in the article that includes photocopies of pages from the magazine, because the magazine was published only between May and December in 1940. See: ”Part Seven Periodicals – A. North America and Britain.” in Roman Iwaschkin. Popular Music – A Reference Guide. Routledge Library Editions: Popular Music, 2016.

[xli] Hubbard and Monaghan 2009, p. 136.

[xlii] Monaghan 2005, pp. 50 and 71. Heinilä 2015, s. 123. Stearns 1994, p. 322.

[xliii] Heinilä 2015, pp. 129-130.

[xliv] Ibid., s. 133.

[xlv] Hubbard and Monaghan 2009, p. 139. Heinilä 2018, p. 12. The 400 Club still was in action every Tuesday in 1946. See: ”Lindy Hop Was Born at Savoy.” Ebony. October 1, 1946.

[xlvi] George Sullivan interview in Myron Steves. ”DVD – George Sullivan – Savoy 80th Anniversary.”, undated. The DVD is likely from 2006 when there was the Savoy 80th Anniversary in New York. See: Manny Fernandez. ”Where Feet Flew And the Lindy Hopped.” The New York Times. March 12, 2006.

Sources

Archive Sources

Papers on Afro-American social dance circa 1869–1987, Mura Dehn, 1902–1987, Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library, New York, United States of America. 

Newspapers & Magazines

Afro-AmericanThe, Baltimore, Maryland, 1947, 1949, 1953.

Chicago DefenderThe, Chicago, Illinois, 1947, 1958.

Ebony, Chicago, Illinois, 1946.

Inter-State Tattler, New York, New York, 1928.

Newsday, Long Island, New York, 1964.

New York AgeThe, New York, New York, 1926, 1934.

New York Amsterdam NewsThe, New York, New York, 1926, 1939.

New York Herald Tribune, New York, New York, 1943, 1954.

New York TimesThe, New York, New York, 1964, 2006.

Pittsburgh CourierThe, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1940.

Variety, Los Angeles, California, 1926, 1927, 1929, 1940, 1964.

Washington PostThe, Washington D. C., 1939.

Audio & Video

Rufus Jones For President, The Vitaphone Corporation/Warner Bros. Pictures, 1933.

Literature

Cunard, Nancy, Collected and Edited by, – Edited and abridged, with an introduction by Hugh Ford. Negro – An Anthology. New York, NY: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co., 1984.

”Dance-Drunk Harlem.” ”PIC”, Picpix, Inc., New York, New York, April 5, 1938.

Giordano, Gus. Anthology of American Jazz Dance. Evanston, Illinois: Orion Publishing House, 1978.

Gold, Russell. ”Guilty of Syncopation, Joy, and Animation: The Closing of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.” in Studies in Dance History v.5, no.1, Spring 1994.

Haskell, Arnold L.. Balletomania – The Story of an Obsession. London, Great Britain: Victor Gollancz LTD, 1947.

Heinilä, Harri. An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943. Helsinki, Finland: Unigrafia, 2015.

Heinilä, Harri. ”The End of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom – Observations and Explanations for Reasons.” Open Science Framework Preprints, 2018, https://osf.io/7w945/ .

Hubbard, Karen and Terry Monaghan. ”Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor,” in edited by Julie Malnig, Ballroom Boogie, Shimmy, Sham, Shake – A Social and Popular Dance Reader. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2009.

Iwaschkin, Roman. Popular Music – A Reference Guide. Routledge Library Editions: Popular Music, 2016.

Manning, Frankie and Cynthia R. Millman, Frankie Manning – Ambassador of Lindy Hop. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2007.

Miller, Norma and Evette Jensen, Swingin at The Savoy – The Memoir of A Jazz Dancer. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1996.

mischalke04. ”Stompin’ at the Savoy.” Berlin Beatet Bestes. August 28, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2021 from https://mischalke04.wordpress.com/tag/four-hundred-club/ .

Monaghan, Terry, ” ”Stompin At the Savoy”: Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in Terry Monaghan and Eileen Feeney. Dancing at the Crossroads: African Diasporic Dances in Britain: Conference Proceedings. London: London Metropolitan University, Sir John Cass Dept. of Art, Media, and Design, 2002. Monaghan’s thesis was updated in 2005. That is why I will use for his thesis the year 2005 instead of the year 2002.

Monaghan, Terry. ”Remembering ”Shorty”.” The Dancing Times. July 2004.

Monaghan, Terry. ”The Chicago and Harlem Savoy Ballrooms – Different Cultures – Different fortunes.” in Society of Dance History Scholars Proceedings (Twenty-Eight Annual Conference Northwestern University – Evanston, Illinois 9-12 June 2005). Society of Dance History Scholars, 2005 (2005b)

Stearns, Marshall and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance – The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York, NY: Da Capo Press, 1994.

The Savoy Story. Unknown publisher, 1951.

Interviews

Myron Steves. ”DVD – George Sullivan – Savoy 80th Anniversary.”, undated.

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Who Did What? Comments on Staging the Famous Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop Scene and on the Legacy of Norma Miller

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

The late Norma Miller, a famous jazz dancer and comedienne, would have been 101 years old on December 2. Sadly, we lost her in May 2019. Her death touched the current swing scene as it was felt by her surviving peers in jazz and comedic circles. In her last years, she had begun to work with the current ”swing dance” enthusiasts seemingly more peacefully than she worked with the swing enthusiasts at the time of her comeback in the 1980 when she acquainted with the then re-emerging mainly white Lindy Hop scene. Her first meetings with the 1980s Lindy Hop newcomers were not always harmonious. She repeated her reluctance to work with “amateurs performers” when she met with members from the British Jiving Lindy Hoppers in New York in 1985. She also gave “brusque” answers to a member of the Jiving Lindy Hoppers when the member asked from her basically appropriate, but slightly inept questions about how musicians worked with dancers. There were also some misunderstandings between her and members of the then just established New York Swing Dance Society, which needed a few mediators to resolve the disagreement.

Norma stated straightforwardly her opinion in racial and other issues. This was witnessed in “swing dance” events in which her opinions perplexed or even scared some of the mainly white audience. Ultimately and allegedly, this led, in some cases, to her exclusion from those events. Arguably, after Frankie Manning passed away in May 2009, the swing scene began to be more interested in the legacy of Norma Miller, although a documentary, ‘Queen of Swing’, which discussed her career, was published a few years earlier in 2006, and she published a memoir of her career and life as early as in 1996. It could also be argued that she was accepted by the current swing enthusiasts to a much greater extent during her last years than never before. This even while she stated racially explicit comments on the history of jazz dance and occasionally criticized the swing scene and its dancers. Her comments were not always in accordance with the idea of the current swing scene as racially inclusive and harmonious.

Sometimes, it looked like the current swing enthusiasts just ignored her harsh, but justified comments and treated her like a five-year-old child who they considered cute, but the poor child did not seem to know what she was talking about. Of course, they did not say that to Norma, at least openly, although there were occasions in which Norma’s advice to dance students was resented. Somehow, it felt that the current swing enthusiasts needed desperately someone from the surviving Savoy Lindy Hoppers to authenticate their ideas after Frankie passed away. Norma was the oldest of the Lindy Hoppers, who deserved for her age, and some may argue also for her accomplishments, to be noticed as the “authenticator” instead of her surviving peers.

in 1992, the late jazz dance historian Ernie Smith interviewed Norma for the Smithsonian oral history project. In the interview, Norma ranted on that the swing scene at that time allegedly “didn’t create nothing”, and thus they had actually “stolen” the Lindy Hop from the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. She blamed also the North Carolina Shag scene for taking Harlemites’ Lindy Hop and renaming it. Norma’s rant led Ernie Smith to state that “even Frankie [was] not that outspoken and militant” as Norma. It looked like she was really mad at those who she considered to have appropriated Harlemites’ Lindy Hop without recognizing first them, the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. She stated that the Lindy Hoppers loved to see their dancing to be done by others, but it should be remembered that the dance came from the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. She might have settled down a little after that, but fundamentally she both kept stating racially explicit comments and was skeptical about the swing scene until the end.

As compared to her friend and peer Frankie Manning, there were differences between the two in their reactions to racial and other issues. Frankie Manning was seemingly more accommodating to the “white public swing opinion” than Norma, and he was not expressing a similar militancy in those issues as Norma did. Maybe, it was also about diplomacy: Frankie felt that he did not need to argue with the new “swing dancers” in public as it is clear that he was not always satisfied with the state of affairs in the swing scene. Was it only about differences in behavior between Frankie and Norma or something else needs more research.

They also disagreed as to the past events. These arguments were witnessed, for example, in the Herräng Dance Camp when they both were invited at the same time. One of these arguments was about the Lindy Hop scene in the Hellzapoppin’ movie in 1941. As far as the swing scene’s opinion is concerned, Frankie Manning is usually credited for choreographing or staging, the latter term was used at the time, the Lindy Hop scene in the movie. In the scene, there lindy hopped eight Savoy Lindy Hoppers or The Harlem Congeroo Dancers as they were named for the movie. According to the existing interviews of Manning and Manning’s memoir published in 2007, he mainly choreographed the scene. Manning credited Nick Castle, the “official dance director” of the movie, only for a minor role in the Lindy Hop choreography. According to Manning who was the manager of The Harlem Congeroo Dancers group, Castle asked him merely whether they were able to make the splits at the end of the Lindy Hop scene and showed the boundaries of the area that was reserved for their dancing. That was basically all Nick Castle did for the scene. 

Manning’s explanation differed radically from what Norma Miller said about the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy scene. In the interview Ernie Smith did with her in 1992, she explained that it was Nick Castle who choreographed it. When Smith explained that Frankie had claimed for the choreography, Norma asked Ernie whether he had “ever seen a dance sequence look like that” prior to the Hellzapoppin movie? Ernie said no. Norma answered to that “no, because we had not Nick Castle on anything before!” Ernie summed it up to Norma by stating: “You practiced for two weeks. Frankie to some degree helped with that, but it was really Nick Castle [who choreographed that] all the way?” Norma answered, “all Nick Castle” and added that she and others “only showed them the steps [they] did” and Nick Castle “formed them how [they] should do [the steps].” 

She also blamed Frankie for taking steps from her act’s Mutiny routine for his Hellzapoppin’ Lindy routine. Norma was part of the Savoy Pavilion dancers in New York’s World Fair in Queens in 1939 when Savoy Lindy Hoppers performed in the Savoy Pavilion between April and July. In the Pavilion, they did the Mutiny routine that contained various air steps which were executed in sequence without any other steps between the air steps. Frankie Manning was not part of the Pavilion group, but he was able to see what was going on after he had returned in June-July 1939 from the Australian tour he did with the Hollywood Hotel Revue. Manning claimed in his memoir that after they had returned from the Hollywood Hotel Revue, which Billy Ricker and Esther Washington also were part of, Billy and Esther invented a routine that contained only air steps with the exception of one swing out in the beginning. When Manning saw the routine, he said that is mutiny and the name allegedly stuck. He also claimed that Billy Ricker, George Greenidge and he “turned the mutiny into an ensemble dance”.

According to what Norma said in her memoir in 1996, their World’s Fair Mutiny routine was already an “ensemble dance”. Based on Norma’s explanation, it also seems that the slide through between the male partner’s legs, in which the female partner on her backside slides away from the male partner, was used in the World’s Fair Mutiny. “The slide through with the slide” was part of Frankie Manning’s Hellzapoppin’ routine, but otherwise it is unclear what other acrobatic steps these routines might have shared. In his memoir, Manning stated that his ex-partner, Lucille Middleton, did “the slide-through” in a contest before he used the step for his Hellzapoppin’ routine. 

In 1992, Robert P. Crease interviewed Frankie Manning for the same Smithsonian oral history project as Ernie Smith did with Norma Miller. In his interview, Manning emphasized his major role in the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy choreography and belittled Nick Castle’s role in it. Manning said in the interview that Castle asked them only about the splits. In his memoir later in 2007, Manning clarified that, in addition to Castle’s splits question, Castle and possibly also the film director showed them the boundaries of the area that was reserved for their dancing. Castle did not do anything else for the Lindy choreography, and it was left to Manning to stage it. Manning told Crease about “two or three cameras” that were used for filming the scene, and which were situated in “different spots”. On the contrary, Manning mentioned in his memoir that there were only one camera, and a film director and a camera man, to whom it took three days to figure out how to film the Lindy Hop scene. Manning states in his memoir also that the film crew decided where they put the camera and the angles they used for shooting the scene. This strongly suggests that Manning did not choose the camera positions and someone else decided how to film the scene. Therefore, there was someone who directed the filming of the scene. Someone who at the very least to some degree decided how the scene was set. In other words, someone who also affected the choreographic setting. In fact, Robert P. Crease asked from Manning whether he had “any control on the camera?” Manning answered no.

When asked about the choreography in the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop scene, Manning usually brought out that he tried to help his fellow dancers to execute their steps on the correct beat that they were able to do, in particular, air steps properly. In the interview that Robert P. Crease conducted for the Smithsonian project, Manning explained that he “supervised each one of [the Lindy Hop] routines” in the Lindy scene and he “set up a routine” for each couple. He said also that, in addition to “a routine”, he gave the Lindy couples “an entrance step”,  “a finish step” and the amount of time they would dance to. Thus, they were able to know how long to dance to the chorus they were asked to dance to. With this advice that Manning gave them, they did not need to think the beginning and the end of the chorus. They just kept dancing between the entrance and finish steps. Although Manning did not said it clearly, his statements imply that he did not exactly give other steps to the couples. Indeed, he explained that they had rehearsed at the Savoy Ballroom since they knew about the movie and he wanted to have something to provide for the Lindy scene, so they rehearsed the choreography already prior to their Hollywood trip. Manning clarified in his memoir that the steps they did on the background of the Lindy Hop scene were not choreographed. Thus, he admitted de facto that he did not choreograph the whole Lindy Hop scene as far as his memoir from 2007 is taken into consideration.

In the Smithsonian interview, Crease asked Manning whether he came up with a step Al Minns did in the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy scene. In the step, Minns jumped to arms of his partner who held him as he was upside down and kicking his feet wildly at the same time. Manning said “yeah” with a slightly cautious “well” and noted that Minns’ step was not done for the first time in the Hellzapoppin’ scene. Manning referred to Shorty Davis, another Savoy Lindy Hopper, who “used to do those kind of things” and “used to do that step” implying to some degree that he had got the idea from Davis. Actually, the step Minns did was Minns’ trademark step since the Harvest Moon Ball contest in 1938 when Minns won the Lindy Hop division with Mildred Pollard. Minns and Pollard did the step at the end of their Harvest Moon Ball routine. Therefore, it is clear, at the very least, that Manning did not invent the step. In his memoir, Manning corrected his earlier statements (He did not mention that it was a correction.) and said that Al and Mildred made up the upside down step, although he “told” them to do it. He also claimed in the memoir that he gave them a step, in which Minns was spinning around quickly with his leg held out horizontally. The latter step was used at the latest in the Harvest Moon Ball contest in 1940, in which George Greenidge did the step with Norma Miller. Manning admitted this in his memoir by stating that the step was “made up” by George and Norma.

It seems that Frankie Manning’s memory was jogged a bit by the time of his memoir was published in 2007. Sandra Gibson, who was earlier known as Mildred Pollard, stated in the issue of the Footnotes in 1987, which The New York Swing Dance Society published, that Al did the step with her in their Harvest Moon Ball routine in 1938. Manning may have found out Gibson’s statement after Robert P. Crease interviewed him in 1992. In fact, during the interview Crease did with Manning, and when asking about the choreography in general, Crease said wryly that Manning remembered choreographing all the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop routines, although he could remember “specifically only some of them”. Manning likely understood the irony in the statement as he slightly laughed to it.

If Frankie Manning’s Hellzapoppin’ statements have left room for questions as to his actual role in the Lindy Hop choreography, also Norma Miller did not explain in detail how Nick Castle formed their steps for the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop choreography. Indeed, Miller told to Ernie Smith that it was Nick Castle who choreographed the orchestral scene in the Hellzapoppin’ movie. In the scene, musicians were depicted performing just before the Lindy Hoppers began to dance. However, she did not elaborate on that. In retrospect, it seems that Frankie Manning had got his own Hellzapoppin’ routine quite much down pat by June 1941 when LIFE magazine did an article about the Savoy Ballroom and its dancers. In the pictures of the article, Manning and his partner, Ann Johnson, were depicted performing the similar Lindy routine they did in the Hellzapoppin’ scene. When the aforementioned background steps, the splits and the boundaries for the area reserved for their dancing are excluded from the question, it is far from clear how much Manning really choreographed for his fellow dancers’ Hellzapoppin’ routines. 

In addition to Norma Miller’s description in her memoir, there has not surfaced film clips from the Savoy Pavilion at the World’s Fair, in which the Mutiny was performed. Therefore, we do not know what was exactly the Mutiny routine Norma Miller and other Savoy Pavilion dancers did in 1939, and thus we cannot not conclude precisely whether Manning really “stole” steps from the Mutiny for his routine while it is clear that Manning did not choreograph all the steps for the Hellzapoppin’ Savoy Lindy couples. As the manager of the group, he probably tried to get the couples to execute steps on the same beat in the air steps and routines they did together, and he possibly helped them with dancing to choruses of music. However, it is the fact that Frankie Manning could not count beats in music in the 1980s until he was taught how to do it, and sometimes he started dancing in the middle of choruses in music, which all casts doubt on the claim about his help with dancing to the choruses. A plausible conclusion and a compromise seems to be that his role in the choreography was more like suggesting ideas than making definitive decisions about them. That is because the other Lindy couples like William Downes and Frances ‘Mickey’ Jones, in addition to Al Minns and Willa Mae Ricker, used “several steps” they already knew as Manning admitted in his memoir.

This does not deny the definite nature of Manning’s orders because as the manager of the group he excluded Thomas ‘Tops’ Lee and Wilda Crawford from the movie group after they did not follow his order to attend the rehearsals of the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop scene at the Savoy Ballroom, which took place before they went to Hollywood. On the other hand, it is unlikely that Nick Castle choreographed the whole Lindy Hop scene. As Norma stated in her interview, Castle was a known choreographer among African American dancers and Norma praised him, but Castle was obviously not experienced with Savoy Lindy Hoppers prior to the Hellzapoppin’ movie. Thus, it is unlikely that he choreographed all for the scene, although it is possible that he affected the form of the steps the Lindy Hoppers did, which was at variance with Manning claimed. Anyway, considering cameras and the overall setting of the Lindy Hop scene, it is likely that Castle did more for the Hellzapoppin’ Lindy Hop choreography than merely showed the boundaries of the area reserved for dancing and suggested to use the splits at the end of the scene.

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Updates to George ‘Shorty’ Snowden’s Birthday and His Role in the Beginning of the Lindy Hop

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

First, a note about George Snowden’s birthday. Mike Thibault approached me regarding the correct date of birth. According to the “Certificate of and Record of Birth” from the NYC Municipal Archives, George Hughes Ellsworth Snowden was born on July 5, 1904. The place of birth was in Lower East Side, which is similar to what Snowden told Marshall Stearns in 1959. I confirmed the certificate from the NYC Municipal Archives. Therefore, it seems that we should celebrate George Snowden on July 5. However, we can assume that Snowden wanted to be celebrated on July 4 when he mentioned his date of birth to Stearns. Thus, now in 2020 and later, we can celebrate him on both July 4 and 5. In addition, it has been 92 years since the Manhattan Casino / Rockland Palace dance marathon was ended by health officials on July 4, 1928. George Snowden and Mattie Purnell were among the four couples who survived until the end of the marathon. As they also devised the Harlem Lindy Hop in the dance marathon, there are reasons for the July 4 as the date for the celebration.

Second, an update to George Snowden and Mattie Purnell’s role in the beginning of the Lindy Hop. How Snowden and Purnell created the Lindy Hop and what was their alleged role in the naming of the dance was discussed in my doctoral dissertation, “An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality : The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943”. In the dissertation, see the chapter, ‘4.1 The Savoy Lindy Hoppers’ First Generation: George Snowden – The Unsung Hero’. You can find it at

https://researchportal.helsinki.fi/en/publications/an-endeavor-by-harlem-dancers-to-achieve-equality-the-recognition

In one of my articles, I also discussed the relation between the Harlem Lindy Hop and the ‘lindy hop’ dances prior to the Harlem creation. The article can be found at

https://authenticjazzdance.wordpress.com/2017/08/02/the-racial-imagination-of-the-lindy-hop-from-the-historical-standpoint-comments-and-corrections/

Also, the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan discussed the beginning of the Lindy Hop in his George Snowden article that you can find at

http://jassdancer.blogspot.com/2012/10/shorty-george-snowden.html

In my dissertation, I quoted the New York Amsterdam News article from August 8, 1928, which reports on a show in which George Snowden and Mattie Purnell performed after the dance marathon. The article says that

One dance number in the show deserves special mention. It is called “Walk That Broad.” The number is [led] by George Snowden and Mattie Purnell…This clever pair were forced to respond many encores for “Walk That Broad” and for their “Lindbergh Hop”.

In my analysis, I wrote that this implies the “Lindy Hop” was not named at the time, and Snowden and Purnell may have called their invention as “Walk That Broad” or they called it “Lindbergh Hop”, and the “Walk That Broad” was a different dance. There is evidence for the fact that Snowden and Purnell did not name their invention in the dance marathon as the “Lindbergh Hop” or with any other name, and the invention was actually named later as the “Walk That Broad” that was renamed as the “Lindy Hop” by September 1928. You can read more about my conclusions in my dissertation on pages 139-141. In addition to the evidence, also an article in the Tattler on August 10, 1928 states that

[George Snowden and Mattie Purnell]…gave their interpretation of the “Lindbergh Hop” and how. But they stopped the show Monday afternoon with a dance called “Walk That Broad”, a fantastic conglomeration of steps of their own creation.

This gives more support to the claim that the “Walk That Broad” was actually the “Lindy Hop” Snowden and Purnell created in the dance marathon between June and July 1928, but they did not name the creation in the dance marathon. The naming of the dance as the “Lindy Hop” took place at the time when their dance was mentioned for the first time in public on September 12, 1928.

I quote in my dissertation (see its page 141) also another The New York Amsterdam News article from the time of the dance marathon, in which it is stated

[Snowden and Purnell[ have a little specialty dance of their own which they mix up with the ‘Lindbergh Hop’ and feature during practically every dance period, especially in the evenings.

So, all this combined to the analysis in my doctoral dissertation strongly suggest that the “Walk That Broad” was their unnamed invention in the dance marathon, which  was named afterwards as the “Walk That Broad”, and it was renamed as the “Lindy Hop” by September 1928. This is also a conclusion Terry Monaghan did in his aforementioned article, but there are no footnotes in his article, so we cannot ascertain his sources and how he ended up with the conclusion. However, this is how Terry stated in his Snowden article:

Following the marathon, Snowden and Purnell apparently were considering calling their dance innovation Walk That Broad. By September though Snowden had rechristened it The Lindy Hop when appearing in Harlem’s Lincoln Theatre, with a new partner, Pauline Morse. 

Later, Terry corrected this statement in a discussion that took place on the Yehoodi.com. He said that we do not know whether it was Snowden or someone else who renamed the “Walk That Broad” as the Lindy Hop for the Lincoln Theatre event. The Yehoodi.com has deleted the discussion, so it is no more available in public. However, I have a copy of the discussion.

Despite the evidence piles up for supporting the Harlem Lindy Hop as George Snowden and Mattie Purnell’s creation, and the lack of evidence for they named the dance with any name in the dance marathon, there still are many of those who insist that George Snowden named the Lindy Hop in the dance marathon, and the Harlem Lindy Hop was created prior to the dance marathon by unknown Harlemites who possibly were from the Savoy Ballroom or they were white dancers outside Harlem. No one has presented any convincing evidence for these claims. There are “historians” who have pushed these unproven claims, and who, for some reason, have been very silent regarding my and Terry’s conclusions. Instead of substantiating their claims with a reasoning that is based on an adequate analysis of the earlier research and on using sufficient sources, they have rather pushed their misinformation. Therefore, the confusion about who created and named the Harlem Lindy Hop has continued, and loads of misleading statements, particularly regarding Snowden’s role in the naming of the dance in the dance marathon, circulates on the Internet. As my and Terry’s research on the Lindy Hop has been available for free to anybody who is interested in it, there is no excuse for ignoring our input in the issue. Real researchers and historians build on the earlier research, in addition to sufficient sources, and are able to make appropriate corrections with explanations why those corrections are needed.

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Ruby Reeves 1936-2020

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

Very sad news from New York. Ruby Reeves sadly passed away in May. She was a Lindy Hopper and a Harlem Jazz Dancer, who frequented Harlem places of entertainment since the 1950s and demonstrated jazz dances particularly with the help of her dancing partner Harry Connor. Ruby and Harry performed among others with the Mama Lou Parks Dancers, participated together in the Harvest Moon Ball contest in the 1980s, and they were very known in the events of the New York Swing Dance Society. They did especially the Cranky Doodle, a version of the Tranky Doo routine, which Harry learned from Herbert ‘Whitey’ White when he was part of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the 1940s. This short article concentrates on her dancing career by reminiscing some of the highlights of it. I am thankful to Margaret Batiuchok, who luckily had Ruby’s phone number, which helped me to set up an interview with Ruby in November 2014. My deepest condolences go to her family and friends.

As a Harlemite, Ruby learned to dance from her sister who frequented the Savoy Ballroom when Ruby was six years old. She remembered that her formal training in dancing, singing, and theatre started at the age of nine in the classes of Colonial Park Center. After winning a Lindy Hop contest, she was rewarded by a prize that allowed her to study in Katherine Dunham’s dance school. The prize was likely a result from Dunham’s interest in the Savoy and its main dance, the Lindy Hop. Ruby tried the Dunham classes, but left the school almost immediately because she feared that she could not manage with highly skilled Modern dance-oriented Dunham dancers. Instead of Dunham’s Modern dance, Harlem’s jazz dance scene had a bigger pull on her. She began to frequent the Colonial Park dances, which were organized in Harlem since the 1930s, and various dance events in community centers. Their motto was “each one teach one” which was a return to the original methods for learning jazz dances that differed strikingly from the current leaning towards formal dance classes.

At the time, Be Bop was big in Harlem. She learned also Bop dancing from her sister. Especially, the Audubon Ballroom at West 166th Street organized Be Bop dances in which she participated zealously. She became familiar with other Harlem ballrooms as well including the Savoy Ballroom, the Central Ballroom, and the Rockland Palace. In the latter, she crossed paths with Paul Winley who organized Rhythm and Blues-related dances and became later to be known as a Hip Hop promoter.

Her big time came when she met Leonard Reed and joined his Reedettes chorus line. After tough training with demanding Reed and Cholly Atkins, they toured in theatres on the East Coast like the Howard in Washington D.C. and the Apollo in New York. She remembered enthusiastically becoming friends with Sarah Vaughan and seeing Louis Jordan on their tour, who greeted Ruby when he bypassed her on the backstage. However, she did not feel that show business was for her, and she left it after the tour. Because the experience had an unforgettable and crucial effect on her dancing career, which molded her state of mind profoundly in favor of dancing, she was determined to learn more. She did Mambo with her friend Andrew ‘Andy’ Jerrick who was one of the famous Mambo dancers at the Palladium Ballroom in midtown, Manhattan. Andy had another dance partner named Raymond ‘Ray’ McKethan who became friends with Ruby. Ray had begun to frequent the Savoy some time before the Savoy closed. Ruby, Ray, and Andy won several Savoy contests in a row, which led the ballroom manager Charles Buchanan to ban them from the contests. That resembles George Snowden, Frankie Manning, and Al Minns’ experience in the 1930s when they were similarly denied to enter the contests. Likely, the Savoy did not want to lose participants and thus banned too dominating couples.

After the Savoy closed, the Harlem jazz dance scene seemed to diminish significantly. Ruby left dancing for being a housewife. In the middle of the 1960s, she stumbled into Ray McKethan when she was walking in Harlem. Soon, they were performing together again. Later, Ray took her to the rehearsals of the Mama Lou Parks Dancers where the great Savoy Lindy Hopper George Sullivan taught her. She became friends with many of the dancers she met in the rehearsals. One of them was Harry Connor, a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper and a Harvest Moon Ball finalist in the 1940s. Harry taught Ruby routines he had learned from Herbert ‘Whitey’ White. Ruby and Harry became famous for their performances in events that both Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks Duncanson and the New York Swing Dance Society arranged. They also competed together in the 1980s by participating in the new Harvest Moon Ball contest and winning a Lindy Hop contest in the Smalls Paradise.

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Harry and Ruby

Almost recently, in 2006, Ruby and Harry did together another very memorable performance in the Savoy 80 event. They worked also in various events with Delilah Jackson, the late Harlem jazz dance historian. One of the most important was The National Tap Dance Day in 2000, which honored Tap and jazz dancers like Leonard Reed, Elvira Davis, Clayton Bates, and James Brown. Actually, Tap dancing was one of Ruby’s favorite dances, in addition to the Lindy Hop, the Bop, Mambo, Walking the Floor and many others. She was part of the “Tappin’ Seniors”, a Harlem Tap dance group, in the 2000s, and she was reactivating Leonard Reed’s Reedettes with permission from Mr. Reed by creating a younger version of the group. Therefore, she stayed active in dancing almost until the end.

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You can read more about her at

https://harlemlindyhopmusings.blogspot.com/2020/05/in-remembrance-of-ruby-reeves.html?fbclid=IwAR0I_qtsdWfOlAQoVTH_5OP5j9LHfIYgkFyNPWoOO-_X_222Y8X3IMWqnZ8

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Sugar Sullivan – The Savoy Lindy Hopper and Jazz Dancer

Copyright and written by Harri Heinila

I owe a debt of gratitude to Sugar and George Sullivan, Barbara Billups, and Sonny Allen for numerous discussions about their career. I want to thank Barbara A. Jones from The Harlem Swing Dance Society for many extensive interviews we did with Sugar and George between 2013 and 2014. I have also quoted and paraphrased in my article the Sugar Sullivan interview that dance historian Sally Sommer conducted in 2001. I am grateful to her for the interview. I am thankful to the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan for discussions and his research that have been helpful for this article. I am also thankful to jazz dance historian Peter Winquist Loggins for his Sugar Sullivan article in the Jassdancer blog, and to Eric Esquivel for finding out film clips that present Sugar and George Sullivan in the Harvest Moon Ball and the Ed Sullivan Show. Otherwise the article is based on my doctoral dissertation and articles published in newspapers and magazines.

Born as Ruth Guillory in Harlem, New York, Sugar started her dancing career in a Harlem dance school when she was four years old. In the school, she studied ballet for six months, singing for some time, but particularly tap dancing for three years. Her mother Esther Stude Baker was a shake dancer who had a rooming house near Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, which accommodated many comedians and tap dancers like Slappy White and Redd Foxx. The tap dance act Three Speed Kings and its dancers, James ‘Buster’ Brown and Sylvester Luke, were crucial for Sugar’s commitment to a professional dancing. They taught Sugar a professional tap routine that she performed in a dance school recital instead of the routine her dance instructor taught for the occasion. The incident caused her to leave the dance school, and her mother asked Buster and Sylvester to teach Sugar at home. This led into small gigs on the weekends.

Inevitably, she gravitated towards the Lindy Hop when she began to frequent the Pepsi Cola Club in Harlem by 1946. Sugar and her partner Eugene ‘Ray’ Daniels earned two paintings, which were signed by Walt Disney, when they won a Jitterbug contest that the Miss America Magazine organized in 1946. Thus, Sugar was on the winning streak from the very beginning. In the club, Sugar and Ray did usually the Lindy Hop performances and Sugar sang, but she was also an avid Be Bop dancer, which rightfully contradicts claims about Be Bop as non-danceable music. They first learned to lindy hop by watching movies like A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’. Sugar recalls that she and her partner spent the whole day in a theater watching the movie, and then they went to the Central Park to practice the moves they saw on the screen. Sugar did not only watch movies that presented the Lindy Hop. Because she also loved tap dancing, she used to watch those films as well and became familiar with dancers like the Nicholas Brothers, and Buck and Bubbles. Gene Kelly was one of her favorites.

In 1948, a big challenge appeared on the horizon when she and her new partner Norton ‘Stoney’ Marteeni, who later was part of the Norma Miller Dancers, heeded advice to enter the famous New York Daily News-sponsored Harvest Moon Ball dance contest. Unfortunately, they had missed the Savoy Ballroom preliminary for the finals, but they found out that the Roseland Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan still had a Jitterbug Jive preliminary available for Lindy Hoppers. Therefore, Sugar and Norton promptly went to the Roseland Ballroom to enter the preliminary. They were chosen for the Jitterbug Jive finals at the Madison Square Garden among otherwise white Roseland Ballroom couples. Sugar remembers that the preliminary results were not reported, but actually the Daily News published the names of the chosen couples in one of its issues. Although they did not succeed in the finals, the experience was mind blowing to Sugar. In the finals, she saw for the first time live the Savoy Lindy Hoppers whose existence she knew only via movies. She was amazed by the speed of dancing the Savoy Lindy Hoppers showed in the contest. The Roseland couples could not dance that fast. Sugar spotted the Savoy finalists already before the contest started, but she was not able to meet them until the contest was over. After explaining that she wanted to learn from them, they told her how to find the Savoy.

Soon, Sugar visited the Savoy Ballroom, although initially she was denied to enter it because of her very young looks, and she did not have an ID with her. Finally, when she reached the Savoy’s dance floor, she immediately noticed “the good dancers” from the Harvest Moon Ball, who told Sugar that they were shocked to see that she and her partner were among the white Roseland couples.

The Savoy Lindy Hoppers’ shock originated most likely from the racist access policy the Roseland Ballroom had maintained for the years. It did not usually allow African Americans enter the ballroom. Times might have been changing in that regard as Sugar and Norton’s participation hints, but evidently the Savoy Lindy Hoppers had not forgotten the policy as racism still was rampant in New York and overall in the US. The reaction also stemmed from the competition between the Savoy Lindy Hoppers and the white, mainly Roseland Ballroom-based, Lindy Hoppers. It was boosted by the Daily News articles during the preceding years when the paper had frequently predicted the Savoy Ballroom’s loss in the Lindy Hop division. As the home of the Lindy Hop, the Savoy Ballroom wanted to win all the prizes in the Jitterbug Jive division to which the name of the Lindy Hop division was changed in 1942. The reason for the name change was that the Daily News wanted to lessen the Savoy Lindy Hoppers’ overwhelming winning streak in the contest, which had begun in 1935 when the contest started. The name change was connected to the frustration the Daily News felt that other ballrooms had only a little chance to win the Lindy Hop division, which was the most popular division in the contest. According to the Daily News, the Jitterbug Jive emphasized originality and smoothness of dancing, which allegedly helped other ballrooms to compete with the Savoy.

The Lindy Hop in Harlem was increasingly known as Jitterbug and Lindy Hoppers as Jitterbugs when Sugar began to frequent the Savoy Ballroom at the end of the 1940s. The term Lindy Hop, however, did not disappear, and a new generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers, known as the Third Generation, was emerging at the time. The beginning of the new generation was possibly connected with Herbert ‘Whitey’ White’s effort to reinvigorate the Lindy Hop in the Savoy Ballroom after the Savoy lost the Jitterbug Jive title to a white Roseland Ballroom couple, for the second time, in the 1946 Harvest Moon Ball contest. The emergence of the new Savoy Lindy Hoppers was definitely connected with the activities of the Second Generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers like Norma Miller and James ‘Blue’ Outlaw, who mentored new dancers at the Savoy in the end of the 1940s. Both of them had worked in Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers years before the Third Generation, and ‘Blue’ Outlaw, who won the Jitterbug Jive division in 1949, was still connected with Herbert White at the time. Despite original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers like Norma Miller and Frankie Manning had left the group in 1943, White trained Lindy Hoppers until his death in September 1950. Sugar never met Herbert White, but she was part of ‘Blue’ Outlaw’s Jivadeers that White managed. Therefore, she was right there when the Third Generation started.

Harvest Moon Ball champions, ‘Blue’ Outlaw and Candy Carter, took Sugar “under their wing” and mentored her in the Lindy Hop. She recalls also that she used to watch Norma Miller and Esther Washington, in addition to Frankie Manning, Al Minns, and Leon James, who visited the Savoy quite frequently. Particularly, Esther Washington was the dancer Sugar looked up to. When she had learned enough to be able to dance on their level, she danced especially with Frankie and Al. They danced in the Circle on the Corner in the North-East part of the Savoy near the bandstand. Later, there have been misconceptions about the correct terminology. Since the Stearns’ Jazz Dance in 1968, the Corner became falsely to be known as the Cat’s Corner, a term that obviously was never used at the Savoy. Also, they danced in the Circle, not in the “jam circle” which is frequently used in current “swing dance” parlance. According to Sugar, the Circle was not always on the Corner. Sometimes, it was in the middle of the dance floor if there was space and the audience for that. Actually, at the Savoy, there could occur several circles at the same time as those who either played or danced there have remembered.

The Corner and its Circle were not for everyone. While the audience was allowed to stand on the circumference of the Circle for watching dancers, only those who were able to dance could go into the middle of the Circle. Al Minns and Leon James explained in Stearns’ Jazz Dance that intruders were removed from the Corner and its Circle by harsh methods. Although their description sounds exaggerated, it is true to some extent. Sugar has emphasized that the Corner was theirs as it was Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’ before the Third Generation. At her time, the Savoy Lindy Hoppers used a special rotating step for removing unwanted dancers from the Circle. Those who had tried to defy the step had been kicked. When compared to the birthday “jam circles” in the current “swing dances” where practically anybody can go into the middle of the circle, the contrast between the past and the present is huge. Not only regarding dance skills, but also tempo-wise. Sugar’s main criticism against the current “swing” scene is that her generation did the Lindy in the Circle only to fast tempi. The current “birthday circle” practice favors slow tempi for getting all involved in it.

As Sugar excelled at the Lindy Hop, once again, it was a time to enter the Harvest Moon Ball contest. In 1950, she partnered another Savoy Lindy Hopper Willie Posey, but they did not succeed in the finals. A new try with Delma ‘Big Nick’ Nicholson in 1951 looked promising until Sugar hurt herself in an air step in the Savoy rehearsals. While Sugar was recovering from the accident, ‘Big Nick’ had found a new partner, and Sugar was left stranded. After complaining to her husband George Sullivan that she could not dance anymore, George asked if she accepted him as the partner for the contest. Sugar was very skeptical whether George was able to do it because he lindyed very seldom. But George persisted, and finally Sugar agreed to partner him. After three weeks practicing with the help of Sugar and others, they entered the preliminary and, against all odds, were selected to the finals. Although they did not place in the finals, the Daily News published a positively labeled picture of them. Sugar and George did not participate in the 1952 Harvest Moon Ball contest probably because Sugar was pregnant. In the meantime, Sugar danced in Mura Dehn’s Spirit Moves with other famous Savoy Lindy Hoppers like Al Minns, ‘Big Nick’ Nicholson, and Teddy Brown.

In 1953, Sugar and George were back in the Harvest Moon Ball and this time they placed third in the Jitterbug Jive division while other Savoy Ballroom couples secured the first and the second place. The 1954 Harvest Moon Ball turned out to be very disappointing to them. They tied with a Bronx Wintergarden couple for the third place. Unfortunately, they lost the dance-off and placed fourth because, according to George, the white couple “kept it in the air” by doing continuously air steps while they danced on the floor. It was certainly a surprise because the Third Generation dancers usually thought that they could not be beaten. George has acknowledged the male partner of the Bronx Wintergarden couple as the best of the white Lindy Hoppers.

To win the Jitterbug Jive (Lindy Hop) division, which was known also as the Rock ‘n’ Roll division for a few years, became the prime goal for the Third Generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. When a Savoy couple lost the title, they began to practice very next day for the next Harvest Moon Ball. It was about endless training, more than six hours every day, until you got the title. Sugar says that they had a Harvest Moon Ball every night on the Corner; it was very serious to them. Sugar and George belonged also to the Savoy Ballroom’s famous 400 club that still was in action on Tuesdays in the 1950s. It was established in 1927 and became a club for elite Lindy Hoppers in fall 1929. George says that if you got the 400 club jacket, it meant that you were able to dance. In other words, you were an excellent Lindy Hopper.

Finally, in 1955, Sugar and George were crowned the Jitterbug Jive Champions. Their lightning speed dancing is captured in a Harvest Moon Ball footage in which the presenter says justifiably, “[o]h, yes, it is a real treat to watch these to keep the right beat”, when Sugar and George are in the spotlight. Sugar feels that the step, “the drop down the back”, they were doing at the moment, played an important part in bringing the Championship to them. Compared to other couples depicted in the newsreel, most of which were from the Savoy, Sugar and George definitely deserved the Jitterbug Jive Championship. According to George, they performed twice in Ed Sullivan’s TV shows. In one of them, Sugar and George can be seen doing a “precision” routine in the Lindy, which differs remarkably from the current light-hearted “swing dancing” in which the correctness of the rhythm is not the main concern.

After working as a dancing couple in various shows, and teaching the Lindy to the dance teachers in the Arthur Murray dance school and to the June Taylor dancers, George moved away from the show business, but Sugar wanted to continue in it. Somewhere between the last part of 1957 and the beginning of 1958, she met Sonny Allen, an avid tap dancer, who visited the Savoy Ballroom after returning from the military service. The first encounter between them was not the happiest as Sugar told NO to Sonny who asked her to dance on the Corner. By practicing with the help of George and Sugar, ‘Big Nick’ and other Savoy Lindy Hoppers, Sonny began to excel in the Lindy Hop and won the Rock ‘n’ Roll Harvest Moon Ball Championship in 1958. He decided to form a dance company that became to be known as Sonny Allen & the Rockets. In the beginning of the 1960s, Sugar joined in it. She had also kept touch with Mura Dehn and participated in Mura’s performances as did the Rockets. The Rockets included, in addition to Sugar and Sonny, Harvest Moon Ball finalists and winners like Charlotte ‘Mommy’ Thacker, and Barbara Billups who began to frequent the Savoy approximately at the same time as Sonny.

Sonny Allen & The Rockets toured in the US and in Canada, especially in Montreal, until the first half of the 1970s. However, Sugar did not forget the Harlem scene and kept touch with other Savoy Lindy Hoppers after the Savoy closed in 1958. She connected with them, particularly, through the Harvest Moon Ball preliminaries that Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks Duncanson organized. First, P.S. 68 at West 127th Street and then the Savoy Manor in the Bronx became important rehearsing places for new Harvest Moon Ball entrants who were trained by George, Lee Moates, and other Savoy Lindy Hoppers and Harvest Moon Ball Champions. Whenever back in NYC, also Sugar trained these new entrants. She was usually mentioned in the newspapers when it was the Harvest Moon Ball time. For example, the Daily News reported on how she and George helped their children, Sheryl and Gerald, to compete in the contest.

When the original Harvest Moon Ball ceased in 1975, Sugar did the Hustle dance which was basically the revamped Lindy Hop, but she did not feel about the new disco scene similarly as she felt about the old Swing scene. She took a few years break from dancing and came back at the end of the 1970s. In 1980, just before the mainly white dancers rediscovered the Lindy Hop and started the revival in it, Sugar was reported to be lindy hopping in various events, in some of which also the Mama Lou Parks Dancers performed. Dance historian Sally Sommer, who played an important role in promoting authentic jazz dancers in the pre Lindy Hop Revival scene, depicted one of these events in her “Rhythm Method” article in the Village Voice. Thus, it was especially Sugar and also the Mama Lou Parks Dancers who still were actively performing at the time when the Lindy Hop was claimed to be dead, and the mainly white Lindy Hop revivalists were supposedly resuscitating it in the 1980s by bringing back the “forgotten” Savoy Lindy Hoppers who actually were never forgotten by those who knew the Lindy Hop. Only the public interest in the Lindy Hop had waned by the time.

Al Minns, whom the new Lindy enthusiasts rediscovered in 1981, became soon, in 1982, Sugar’s dancing partner. According to her, Al still “danced the same” as he did at the Savoy when they first met. Jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan in his Al Minns article has discussed Al and Sugar’s performances in various venues. Their co-operation lasted until 1983. At the time, Sugar was remarried and could not go with Al to the European tour. Instead of Al, Sugar started to dance with Sonny Allen. When they were in the Rockets, Sugar danced with ‘Mommy’ Thacker, and Sonny with Barbara Billups. In 1983, Sugar and Sonny did numerous performances in NY and nearby, from which, particularly, performances in the Studio Museum in Harlem and in the Sandra Cameron Dance Studio are the most famous. Sometimes also ‘Buster’ Brown participated in those performances, which certainly brought back memories of his role in initiating Sugar’s professional dancing career.

As the new ‘Swing’ scene emerged in the 1980s, Sugar connected with the new Lindy Hop enthusiasts. Along with other Savoy Lindy Hoppers, she frequented events in Harlem like in the renowned Smalls’ Paradise, and events of the New York Swing Dance Society in the Cat Club in downtown, Manhattan. Sugar did not stop frequenting ‘Swing’ events in NYC until she moved to Florida by 1997. It should also be remembered that she was the one who met the London-based Jiving Lindy Hoppers when they performed on the stage at the Lincoln Center in NYC in 1992 and brought them later to Miami, Florida for learning from her and George. Terry Monaghan from the Jiving Lindy Hoppers brought Sugar to the fourth London Lindy Hop Festival in 1998. Therefore, she was intrinsically part of the 1980s Lindy Hop Revival from the beginning.

Sugar, in addition to the Mama Lou Parks Dancers, should be recognized for being right there when the Revival started. Al Minns is usually acknowledged as the first rediscovered Savoy Lindy Hopper who was brought back after a retirement. However, Sugar has been in public through her whole career. There have been unfounded claims that even Sugar was rediscovered by the Lindy Hop revivalists. How to rediscover someone who practically never left the scene? Despite the misconception, Sugar and George have been recognized as the leading figures of the Third Generation. She has taught the Lindy Hop and other jazz dances, and has explained the Savoy scene in numerous events around the world. Her professional dancing career spans over eight decades. It is a record that is hard to beat.

Sugar and George Sullivan at the Savoy plaque in Harlem in May 2013.

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AL MINNS: The Incorrigible Lindy Hopper, 1920-1985 by Terry Monaghan

I am thankful to the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan for this article. He sent it to me for corrections in 2009, but it was never published on his http://www.savoyballroom.com . The site has not been working for years after his death in 2011. On his savoyballroom.com, Terry published quite many profiles that mostly he and Robert P. Crease wrote about the Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hop legends. I paraphrased parts of this previously unpublished Al Minns article in my doctoral dissertation.

I am also thankful to Larry and Sandra Schultz, and Paul Grecki for discussions on Albert ‘Al’ Minns and for the discussions with all the others who knew and worked with Al Minns, with whom I have been lucky to discuss, and who have helped me with my Albert ‘Al’ Minns research. The idea of Al Minns’ birthday on January 1 comes from the Al Minns’ curriculum vitae that Larry compiled for Al. This is the original version without my corrections. Indeed, I removed a few pictures from it for the copyright reasons.

Back in the early 1980s all the main Lindy newbies around the World headed for New York to find Al Minns.  Emerging from ‘retirement’ for a third time, he had begun teaching the Lindy at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center in NYC.  Although it tends to be forgotten now, Al’s teaching there resulted in the emergence of the nucleus of enthusiasts who founded the New York Swing Dance Society.  The intrepid Swedish Swing Society separately got their act together, located him in NY and took him back to Sweden for their Lindy Hop induction.  Of the LA enthusiasts who came looking, only Erin Stevens struck lucky in happening to take class with him at the Sandra Cameron studio.  The London contingent arrived in Easter 1985 only to hear the sad news that he lay dying.  To have attracted such widespread interest in such a short space of time says a lot about this at times troubled but always brilliant Lindy Hopper, and it all took place during a brief coda at the end of a long and varied career.

Born in Newport News, Va. in 1920 he went with his mother to watch his father playing twelve-string guitar in wealthy houses, and began dancing at the age of 5 when his father played the same music at home.  Soon after they moved to Harlem, Al’s father took him out singing and dancing at house-rent parties.  Once started, he never stopped.  Eventually he made it to the Savoy, and finally won a dance contest.  On being invited into Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, he joined with Joe Daniels, Joyce James and Mildred Pollard.

The details become somewhat vague here, possibly to hide the more prosaic reality that Whitey had been primarily interested in recruiting Mildred.  Although WLH’s folklore has it that originally Al danced with Joyce and then switched to Mildred at Whitey’s suggestion, this seems unlikely as Joe and Joyce competed in the 1937 HMB as a team.  Al later told the story differently to Marshall Stearns, in describing how he’d learnt the company’s routines from an unnamed female member of WLH who partnered an early member Chick Hogan.  Al then clashed in some way with Leon James, after the latter insouciantly swaggered back into the Savoy in 1937 following the filming of the Day At The Races’ celebrated Lindy sequence in Hollywood.  While the story as reproduced in Jazz Dance sounds exaggerated, it would seem quite plausible that a kind of ego challenge occurred between the two, but on realizing how remarkably different their dancing styles were, Leon pointed out to Whitey his initial neglect of a major dancing talent.

Going apparently for the obvious comedy potential of the little guy with the big women, Whitey had meanwhile partnered Mildred with Shorty Davies who had actually won the HMB that same year with another partner.  Whitey sent them on the 1937-8 tour to California as part of the Big Apple Lindy Hoppers led by the 400-pound dancer Tiny Bunch.  It seemed this partnership didn’t cause any creative sparks to fly though, as Mildred featured in the Lindy sequence shot on that tour for the movie Radio City Revels on her own.  She put her new mastery of the twist-twist to effective use when truckin’ memorably across the main dance space.  After the tour Whitey replaced Davies with Al, thus unleashing an even greater potential by combining a male who could play with partnering techniques ranging from strong leads to submissive follows, with a female who possessed a similar range of abilities.

Whitey’s reorganization paid off later in 1938 when Al and Millie won the Lindy division of the HMB on their first attempt.  Despite predictions that Roseland dancers would finally take the Lindy prize away from the Savoy, no other couple could match the ‘devastating gyrations’ of Al and Millie in the finals according to the Daily News.  Even the HMB newsreel footage which rarely visually depicted the Lindy entrants sympathetically spotlighted Al and Millie’s special qualities.  Theatrical from the outset, Al had taken no chances and worn an unmissable white suit.  Subsequent newspaper reporting noted that Al and Millie received by far the most applause when they appeared in the traditional follow-up victors’ performance show at the Loew’s State hosted by Ed Sullivan.

Whitey then stepped up the pace.  As that year’s Lindy Hop champs Al and Millie featured in high profile performance slots.  Their inclusion in the fall show at the Cotton Club working alongside Cab Calloway from Sept 1938 to February 1939 took them to a new level; while the demand for ace Lindy Hoppers intensified.  In addition, from the following October Al found himself appearing in Knickerbocker Holiday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, a commitment that also lasted into the following year.  Al, as one of eight ‘Algonquin Indians,’ simulated a ferocious attack on Walter Huston with a frenzied Lindy routine that included numerous air steps.  According to another ‘Indian,’ Willie Jones, their routine proved so popular the Director drastically reduced its length in order to minimize the prolonged applause it aroused.  Apparently Al and Millie also found time to fit in a week at the Apollo starting November 11in 1938 as the Prize Winning Jitterbugs.  Al must have been racing from one gig to the next, faster at times than he actually moved on stage, and that was quick enough.

1939 saw new challenges.  Al and Millie appeared in the Blackbirds of 1939 flop, but also in WLH’s major successful theatrical success in the Hot Mikado that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre.  It ran for 85 performances despite competing with the original version, the Swing Mikado, which it had in fact plagiarized.  After dancing all the way through this run, Al and Mildred carried on into 1940 when it switched to the World’s Fair.  But when the Hot Mikado finished Mildred decided to break with Whitey’s operation and turned solo.  She signaled this by marrying ‘Gip’ Gibson of the Chocolateers and became Sandra Gibson.

Promptly teaming Al up with another strong female dancer, Willamae Ricker, Whitey sent them almost immediately on a New Hollywood Hotel Revue tour of the Mid West in 1940.  Partnering Willamae proved to be fortunate indeed for Al.  Being keen to involve Willamae in the group of dancers Whitey had assigned to go to Hollywood to appear in yet another movie, Frankie invited the both of them to join.  They replaced Tops and Wilda, who despite being 1940 HMB champions lost their chance to be the featured team on this tour over a dispute about rehearsals with Frankie, the tour’s manager.

In just over three incredible years Al thus reached the pinnacle of appearing in the sensational film version of Hellzapoppin’, and the follow up Hot Chocolate soundie.  Few first time viewers of the Hellzapoppin’ clip forget Al’s seemingly lightning speed especially when his back leg extensions stretch out in perfect counter-point to Willamae’s characteristic powerful, but always feminine pivotal hunch posture, that culminates in him finishing upside down, with her holding him.  It represented a drastic updating of the classic conclusion to his and Millie’s winning HMB performance of 1938.  Perhaps the Hot Chocolate title of that latest piece contained some kind of allusion to Sandra Gibson’s new associations?  If so such ruminations were soon swept aside as Whitey dispatched three of this group’s four Lindy teams, which included Al and Willamae, straight to Brazil for an envisaged another major success.

Their major impact on the night club world of Rio and the Argentine though came to be overshadowed by the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which brought the US into WW2.  German U-Boats attacks on shipping meant flights were hard to find, and stranded them in South America for ten months.  Finally making it back to Miami by late 1942, Al’s parents mailed his fare home as the US Army had already issued his draft papers to them.  Enlisting on 11 Feb 1943, Al curiously enough gave his former occupations as Cook, Parachute Jumper and Dog Trainer.  He appeared to be expressing contradictory feelings about the war, ranging from the strong African-American sentiment of that time about not wanting to sacrifice for a cause that remained indifferent if not hostile to their inclusion, to expressing his preferences as to which section of the Armed Forces he wanted to serve in.  He finished up in the Army Air Force, and spent time in the UK, where apparently some locals were lucky enough to be taught Lindy by him.  Following demobilization he came back to a very different Harlem that he didn’t respond much to and drifted off into a regular factory job.

Around that time Mura Dehn had come to a realization of the limitations of her own jazz dance performing ability and so set about mobilizing the remaining jazz dancers who were increasingly being swept aside by the new “white” trend in US entertainment.  She found Al working in a paint factory and brought him together with Leon James and other Lindy Hoppers for a 1947 production she devised and promoted.  They demonstrated the dances of the Savoy in her concert style lecture-performances.  Al and Leon became major featured dancers in her epic film ‘The Spirit Moves,’ shot in 1951 at the Savoy and in a studio, during which Al turned in a truly dazzling Charleston performance.  Al along with Leon James, Esther Washington, Pepsi Bethel and Blue Outlaw became the core of the remaining contingent of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers still actively dancing at the Savoy.  They also passed on that legacy to representative dancers of a new generation of Savoy Lindy Hoppers who were also featured in Mura’s film.  A couple of years later Al and Leon were recruited for Roger Tilton’s technically ground breaking 1954 film Jazz Dance, to inject some ‘authenticity’ into this film record of the then mid-town student jazz scene that consisted mainly of drinking beer to astounding music.

About this time Marshall Stearns met Al & Leon after he became involved in Mura Dehn’s live productions.  Whereas Mura focused more on their bodily dance ‘talking’ Marshall also took an interest in their vocal expressions, for which they were also renowned.  The timing proved good, as Marshal had virtually completed his book on Jazz Music and guided by the musicians he’d interviewed, his interest now moved towards jazz’s dancing aspect.  Who better to talk to, but Al and Leon?  Mura had aroused their former enthusiasm by working with them to identify old jazz dance steps that were resurfacing among the new 1950s dancing generations of young people who had begun dancing wherever they could to the new swing influenced rhythm and blues music.  In 1957 Marshall’s first wife Betty headed a funding initiative to raise funds to launch Al and Leon as a new professional dance company.  Lengthy interviews, panel discussions in jazz events, and performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and in TV documentary expositions of classic jazz steps and their new versions- 1960 ‘American Jazz Dances’ (1960), and ‘Chicago and All That Jazz’ and ‘Those Ragtime Years’ (1961) – followed.  They regularly advertised their activities at the time in Dance Magazine as the leading Authentic Jazz Dance teachers.

Although Marshall eventually followed the dance story more towards tap dancing and other more dedicated performance expressions of authentic jazz dance, Al and Leon enjoyed a busy schedule until Marshall’s health began to decline around 1965 and he retired to Florida to complete his epic study Jazz Dance.  Followed Marshall’s death in 1966 Al and Leon dropped out of the picture for a while when they ‘retired’ again.  The book’s 1968 publication however stirred them back into action to resume live performances as a tribute to Marshall, and yet again their efforts found enthusiastic audiences.  It also left a contentious legacy as the accuracy of Al and Leon’s observations made in Jazz Dance, have been challenged much more recently, especially by Frankie Manning.

Unfortunately the popular dancing aspect of the Stearns’ book was overtaken by the widespread, and grossly exaggerated fears about street-hoodlums, who thus were written into the Savoy story as being responsible for the Lindy Hop.  The myths that emerged about the Lindy Hop being invented by unknown street gangs high on drugs or alcohol, who occupied by physical force an equally mythically named Cat’s Corner at the Savoy thus became prominent, and possibly had something to do with the elimination of the Mambo from its otherwise intended inclusion in the book.  Al himself later repudiated the Cat’s Corner name when he met the new Swedish enthusiasts in 1984, but elements of this confusion still persist.  Seen as the almost inevitable consequence of difficult times when establishment USA seemed to want to bury the Lindy Hop as deeply as possible, all such efforts to keep the memory alive need to be respected, while making appropriate corrections.

Al and Leon’s performing renaissance came to an end a few years later when Leon died and Al retired and got into a bad way with excessive drinking.  The Lindy Hop world’s real caring continuity though still had some life in it, and just as Al and Leon had kept in touch with the old Savoy brigade through Mama Lou Parks’ annual HMB ‘Savoy prelim’, the same event threw out another lifelines to Al in the early 1980s.  When the Harvest Moon Association dropped the Lindy as a dance category in 1980, Louise Parks turned her ‘prelim’ into a standalone event that continued to rally the dance’s remaining loyal cadre.  The following year’s 1981 event had two directly beneficial consequences for Al.  At that year’s event Larry Schultz of the Sandra Cameron dance studio finally met up with this surviving Lindy legend, and set to work trying to revive his career.  Also in that same yet The Southbank Show – one of the UK’s leading TV arts programs – paid for Louise Parks to re-run her 1981 ‘Savoy prelim’ in Harlem as the basis for the first full-length documentary on the Lindy, in which Al spoke and danced with Sugar Sullivan.

It had proved to be an uphill struggle that sadly all too soon became downhill.  If anyone mints a Lindy awards medal, Larry Shultz should be the first recipient.  His intervention proved decisive.  Al still had a problem with the drink, and nursed old grievances, even muttering disdainfully about Louise Parks, while also rightfully remembering old wrongs, such as being excluded from the Roseland.  Larry persevered though, and even if a return to Broadway proved to be a step too far, he enabled Al to register significant successes that played a critical role in sparking off the new interest in the dance.  Most importantly Al began teaching Lindy at the Sandra Cameron Studio as Dance Magazine announced in July 1982.  He appeared on US TV with Sugar Sullivan talking thoughtfully about the past and present of the dance, and successfully performed in 1982 with Sugar in a cycle of dance tales called ‘In The Circle: Stories From The Savoy’ for the Riverside Dance Festival.  In 1983 he danced an impromptu Big Apple, at the Richard Yarde Savoy Art Exhibition in Harlem with his old partner Sandra Gibson plus Frankie and Norma, and Sugar & Sonny Allen who fortunately remembered the steps!  It was followed up by a truly memorable reunion of Savoy Lindy Hoppers at the Sandra Cameron dance studio.

Unfortunately his new partnership with Sugar broke up soon after though when they were offered a European tour with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in 1983.  For domestic reasons Sugar couldn’t make it, so the rhythm tap dancer Tina Pratt replaced her.  Her Lindy style though originated in Pittsburgh where they swung out differently from New York, and so the partnering aspect of the resultant performance was unsatisfactory, but they both danced brilliantly as individuals.  Al remained on form, enjoying what amounted to his stage swan-song.  Back in New York in 1984 he enjoyed a brief reprise when Norma Miller, reunited on stage Al, Frankie and Billy Ricker, the three surviving male dancers from Hellzapoppin’ during her own production at the Village Gate.  Shortly afterwards Al found himself being stalked around New York by three ‘Vikings’ who he suspected of being from the FBI.  Finally he spoke to them at the Red Parrot.  In fact were the members of the Swedish Swing Society intent on persuading him to visit Sweden, which he did later that same year.  An interview with Al was thankfully recorded in Sweden which can be seen on Youtube in part 1 and part 2.

After igniting a new intense enthusiasm for the Lindy Hop in Sweden that has blazed ever since, his poor state of health finally caught up with him soon after returning to New York early in 1985.  His terminal conditions became apparent as his health declined rapidly.  Bob Crease of the NYSDS who took class with him, and spent quite some time interviewing Al wrote a memorable article after his death, which this writer has gratefully drawn upon for source material, and especially Bob’s sensitive description of Al’s funeral:

On April 25 Albert Minns died.  A memorial service was held at a rundown chapel in Sugar Hill, once Harlem’s finest neighborhood.  On the walls black and white angels frolicked together.  A pale blue sky dotted with clouds was painted on the ceiling above Al’s coffin; he was in heaven.  On each side of the dais was a stand of flowers, one from the Swedish Swing Society, the other from the New York Swing Dance Society.”

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The Footage That Did Not Exist: Two Couples in the Harlem Dance Marathon on Their Way to the Municipal Building

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

It was June 2011 when fellow researcher Judy Pritchett suggested that we should go to the New York Public Library to search articles and pictures of George Snowden in the Daily News, in particular, concerning the famous dance marathon at the Rockland Palace in Harlem between June and July in 1928. A little did I know then that the Harlem dance marathon was going to be an important part of my doctoral dissertation a few years later. When we went through the Daily News, there came out the dance marathon articles and pictures. Particularly, it was interesting to find a picture in which were depicted two couples on the truck on their way to the Municipal Building in downtown, Manhattan. One of the couples was going to be married, and they needed a license for their marriage, which they were going to get in the Municipal Building.

Judy said to me that there might be a footage in which the wedding process is depicted. I just listened to her, but at the same time I thought a discussion on the Yehoodi.com a few years before in 2009, in which the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan discussed the Harlem dance marathon and the footage George Snowden mentioned to Marshall Stearns in 1959 when Stearns interviewed him. The discussion does not exist anymore on the Yehoodi.com. According to Stearns, the Fox Movietone News took a close-up of Snowden’s feet. This is discussed in Marshall and Jean Stearns’ Jazz Dance (see page 316 in the 1994 version of the book). Terry Monaghan mentioned in the Yehoodi discussion that “only rich and powerful were filmed” referring to Snowden’s statement, and he did not think that the footage existed. So, I doubted whether Judy was correct that there was the footage.

On December 13, 2015, when I was checking a few things in my upcoming doctoral dissertation, in particular, regarding the Harlem dance marathon that I discussed in two chapters in my dissertation, I happened to take a look at the Wikipedia article, ‘History of Lindy Hop’,  which mentioned that the couple who was going to be married during the dance marathon was depicted in a footage that “was recorded by FOX Movietone News”. In the Wikipedia article, there was and still is the link to the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. I immediately clicked the link, and it led to the description of the Harlem dance marathon film. It was certainly surreal to find out the footage which should not have existed. I had already sent my dissertation for printing, so I had to ask to stop the printing. Luckily, they were able to stop it for a moment. I made a correction in my dissertation regarding the footage, and the printing went on successfully. So, there is a short discussion on the footage in my doctoral dissertation on page 138.

After my doctoral dissertation that I defended in January 2016, it took years until I was able to confirm what really took place in the footage. I had a picture of it as based on the description on the Moving Image Collections site. In June 2017, I answered to DC Copeland who commented on my blog article, ‘In Defense of the Former Lincoln Theatre Building in Harlem’. He mentioned the footage George Snowden talked about to Marshall Stearns. I said in my reply that there is a footage in which George Snowden and Mattie Purnell are depicted during the wedding process, in addition to the couple who was going to be married. I also added to my reply that “[i]f anybody is able to take a look at the film, and [to] tell us what really happens in it, thanks.” I was not able to go to check the film at the time, and it took a few years after that until I saw the film.

When I read at the end of November 2019 that the Harlem dance marathon film was premiered at the International Lindy Hop Championships (the ILHC) event in Washington D.C. as a “newly discovered” footage, I was perplexed. It definitely was not “newly discovered” as the aforementioned story clearly shows. Also, the Harlem dance marathon pictures that were shown in the exhibition were not for the most part “newly discovered” as I discussed most of them in my doctoral dissertation. Those pictures were mostly from the Daily News. As far as I know, I am the only one who has scientifically analyzed and written about the Daily News pictures of the Harlem dance marathon. The ILHC should have credited those organizations which the pictures and the footage were from, in addition to us who have researched the Harlem dance marathon years and even decades before the ILHC. Marshall and Jean Stearns in their Jazz Dance discussed the Harlem dance marathon already in 1968, and after them there have been researchers who in articles and studies have explored the dance marathon. We all definitely deserve to be credited for our research.

I am not criticizing the possibility to see those pictures and the footage in the ILHC exhibition. It is wonderful that people had the chance to see those rare pictures and the footage. I did not publish any pictures in my dissertation because of the copyrights. The US copyright laws are pretty tough to be messed with.

Then a few words about the footage. First, it becomes clear that the Lindy Hop was not created during the truck ride to the Municipal Building as much as the footage covered the wedding process. The description in the Moving Image Research Collections describes pretty exactly the events of the film. The couples, Aurelia Hallback and Bernard Paul (the soon-to-be-married couple), and George Snowden and Mattie Purnell can be seen dancing in a close position as couples on the truck during their trip to the Municipal Building. There were a few moments that suggested a slightly more energetic dancing than the quite motionless dancing for the most time of their trip, but the breakaway did not take place on their way to downtown.

Instead of the breakaway, it could be argued that the rhythm Snowden and Purnell, and also the soon-to-be-married couple used in their dancing on the truck and in front of the Municipal Building was more like the 4/4 rhythm than the 2/4 rhythm which prevailed before swing music started to take over the jazz scene in New York. Interestingly, the partners of the couples are separated for a moment at the end of the footage when they are stepping down from the truck. According to the rules of the dance marathon, the partners of the couple were “not allowed to separate from each other while on the dance floor, for any unreasonable length of time”. Considering the phrase “unreasonable length of time”, the breakaway in the dance marathon could have been done the way Snowden described it happened accidentally. But likely the breakaway did not take place on the truck, which leaves the beginning of the Harlem Lindy Hop to Harlem as it is described in my dissertation, in Terry Monaghan’s article of George Snowden in the Jassdancer blog , and in Stearns’ Jazz Dance.

I would like to thank the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina and particularly Benjamin Singleton from the Moving Image Research Collections for the opportunity to see the footage.

 

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African American Jazz Dancers in Africa until the 1970s

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

A note on June 1, 2021: a correction to the text: The New York Times wrote that there were over 10,000 people in the audience in the first night when James Brown performed.

African American jazz dancers have visited Africa since the Jazz Age between 1917 and 1930. The first jazz dancer in Africa was probably Louis Douglas who toured in Egypt for a month in 1927 and later between 1929 and 1930[i]. He was followed by Percy Winters and Cora Merano, who performed with a French revue in North Africa. They performed particularly in Tunis and also in Egypt for three months in the middle of the 1930s.[ii]

In the 1950s, the United States Department of State began to fund musicians and dancers who toured outside the US. With the help of President’s Special Emergency Fund, the State Department sent the Modern dance-based José Limón Company to South America in 1954. Two years later the State Department had the Cultural Presentations Program, and in 1965, it had the National Endowment for the Arts. All that made possible the rapid growth of the Modern dance-based dance companies in the 1960s and the 1970s because the State department mainly sponsored the US Modern dance-based dance companies and the US Ballet companies during the decades.[iii]

Another important organization that sponsored the US musicians and dancers was the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC), which was established in 1957. It ended in 1969 after losing many of its members when in 1967 it was exposed that the CIA had funded the organization. AMSAC consisted of 400 members who were mainly African Americans.[iv] The society included celebrities like musician Duke Ellington and the NAACP’s counsel Thurgood Marshall. AMSAC tried to enlighten African Americans regarding their cultural heritage and advance “mutual respect between Americans and Africans” by spreading information of the cogency of African and African American cultural contributions. AMSAC provided a liberal, anti-communist approach to African affairs.[v]

AMSAC sponsored the Festival of Negro Art and Culture in Africa and America in Lagos, Nigeria in December 1961, which marked the opening of the AMSAC cultural center in Lagos[vi]. According to historian Lonneke Geerlings, the event was meant to examine “the relationship between the culture and art of Africa and the Americas” in connection with the Négritude movement.[vii] Poet Langston Hughes as a narrator in the event, in addition to 37 other African American delegates, implied the connection[viii]. The delegates included jazz musicians like Lionel Hampton and Edward Pazant, and jazz dancers, Albert ‘Al’ Minns and Leon James. Because the cultural center in the Lagos was practically “an African American embassy on African soil” as Lonneke Geerlings argues[ix], this was probably the first time when the U.S. government-related institution sponsored authentic jazz dancing in the events outside the U.S.. It should be noticed that the prefix ‘authentic’ is used in this article for distinguishing real –jazz music-based– jazz dance from Modern dance-based ‘modern jazz dance’ at the time.

The AMSAC festival in Lagos between December 18 and 19 consisted of the two parts: African American and African performances. As to the African American performances, the Al (Minns) & Leon (James) jazz dancing was received positively by the Nigerian press. One local reporter praised them for being “a picture of perfection and precision” and overall the reporters appreciated their dancing. There were also some negative tones in the reviews as their dancing was dismissed strangely as “Tap dancing”.[x]

While the jazz dancers made it in the festival, the jazz musicians fared worse than them. The local press criticized harshly Lionel Hampton and his antics. According to the African American magazine Ebony, the Nigerian newspaper Lagos Daily Express considered Hampton “a cheap entertainer” who clowned like an idiot[xi].  On the contrary, the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender reported that Lionel Hampton was received on the stage by “a tumultuous ovation”[xii]. The Nigerian press also considered a Nigerian-born musician Michael Olatunji, who had moved to the U.S., “a sad spectacle” and even a betrayer of his home, Nigeria.[xiii]

African dancers in the festival seemed to fare worse than other performers. The African counterparts of the contingent of the US performers were lambasted in the Nigerian reviews. The Nigerian-based Alumn War Dancers were rated as “poor in taste” and even as a cultural insult towards Nigerians. Also the US-based African dancer George Holder’s performance was considered “rubbish”[xiv], although, according to the Ebony, the Lagos Morning Post praised him[xv].

The criticism could be partly explained by the US neo-colonialism claims stated by the Nigerian press because the critics were aware of using Lagos as a “battlefield in the cold war”. At least some of the artists and the audience understood that the festival was more like “a cultural imperialist performance” than an innocent celebration. Also the festival did not satisfy the critics because the artists were considered mediocre by African standards.[xvi] Thus, being in effect an insult towards real African dancing and music. Lonneke Geerlings argues that Al Minns & Leon James’ jazz dancing was rated as relevant because jazz was African American and it had roots in Africa[xvii]. However, the press lambasted Lionel Hampton because of his antics, and even his jazz music could not better the situation. Therefore, it would be more correct to say that the Minns & James performances were more respectable than Hampton’s and jazz dance likely helped in that because it was an American invention with African roots, which did not insult African standards.

In spite of the criticism, the festival enhanced the US participants’ feeling of their African heritage and probably bettered communication between African Americans and Africans[xviii]at least in formal situations because jazz dancer Al Minns complained that they could meet only few ordinary Lagos residents[xix].

African American jazz dancers returned to Africa in 1969 when the Cultural Presentation Program of the State Department sponsored Russian-born dancer Mura Dehn’s American Folk Dance Theater that visited Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Somalia, Nigeria, Gambia, Guinea, and Senegal between June 7 and August 3. The dance theater consisted of jazz dancers, Avon Long, Cook & Brown, Albert Gibson, Buster Brown, James Cross, Pepsi Bethel, and the Mama Lou Parks Dancers including Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks, Gloria Thompson, Jessie ‘Gi Gi’ Brown, Micki Wall, Gregory Arnold, David Butts, and Dickie Harris. Dick Vance led the orchestra. Mura Dehn acted as the organizer and director.[xx].

The American Folk Dance Theater was an authentic jazz dance and jazz music-related production. That was the first time when the State Department sponsored a genuinely African American jazz dance and music production in Africa. The aforementioned AMSAC production in 1961 had also non-jazz artists[xxi]. The State Department had sponsored the US jazz musicians like Wilbur De Paris and Louis Armstrong in Africa before the jazz dance productions took place.[xxii]

According to Mura Dehn, almost all of the concerts in the tour ended with a standing ovation.[xxiii] Dehn’s claim is supported by the unpublished film called ‘The Jazz Dance Theatre’ which depicts the African American jazz dancers and their interaction with the audiences in various countries in Africa. The applauding audiences are captured in the film in most of the visited countries.[xxiv] Also documents on their visits in countries like Morocco speak for the appreciation. Regarding their visit in Morocco, and there in Tangiers, Marrakech, Casablanca, and Rabat, an undated document, supposedly based on the U.S. embassy comments, states that they packed houses in those towns, appealed to various social classes, and achieved cultural communication to a great extent.[xxv].

The members of the theatre interacted also with local residents in the African tour. The film shows that the members were interested in various African culture forms in their spare time[xxvi]. Partly, that was likely for the US propaganda for emphasizing the harmony between African Americans and Africans. Historian Clare Croft has suggested, that using dancing in the US foreign politics was a method for bringing out the US more like a global partner than “a dominant power”[xxvii]. In the case of the dancers of the theatre their interaction with local residents was mostly depicted in a very dignified manner. Whether the film was intended for the propaganda purposes or not, the members of the theatre were genuinely interested in the African cultural heritage[xxviii].

The African tour turned out to be a success also when, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie presented all the members of the theatre with gold medals. According to a press release, the Ethiopian newspapers considered their show “the best musical and dance performance ever presented in Addis Ababa’.[xxix] Similarly, other notable African politicians like the Prime Minister of the Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara, and the Governor of North Central State in Nigeria, Colonel Abba Kyari, met with the members of the theatre[xxx].  In addition, the US Ambassadors in the visited countries treated them as guests of honor and gave them a reception.[xxxi] Another recognition of their performances was when, according to Mura Dehn, the director of the Addis Ababa national museum visited in every performance in Ethiopia. She also suggests a larger public interest in the jazz dancers when in Somalia, a nomadic tribe, in a friendly way, started a challenge dance against the dancers at a formal reception, and in Nigeria, after the performances, the public followed the jazz dancers into nightclubs for learning dancing from them[xxxii].

Despite the success, there were also obstacles on the road. According to the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan, one of the members of the theatre, the late Dickie Harris, told a story about how Mura Dehn persuaded the members to participate in an impromptu performance in Nigeria when there was a curfew at night because of the Nigerian civil war. Soldiers with submachine guns checked Dehn and the group of dancers, but let them go after finding out that they were American jazz dancers.[xxxiii] Mura Dehn did not discuss the incident, but she mentioned in her unpublished article that in Nigeria, in one of their performances, the chief commander of armed forces jumped onto the stage and joined the dancers in the finale.[xxxiv]

Terry Monaghan claimed that “a number of the dancers” did not want to work with Dehn anymore after the incident in Nigeria[xxxv]. That is not necessarily true when judging from newspaper articles published after the African tour. Her group continued almost with the same dancers.[xxxvi]

It seems that the State Department did not sponsor authentic jazz dancers after the African tour. According to Clare Croft, since the beginning of the 1960s, the support for performing arts was slowly decreased. In the late 1960s, because of global politics that were largely tied to the US participation in the Vietnam War, the support for dance companies was more decreased. By the end of the 1970s, the funding for large dance company tours had almost disappeared.[xxxvii]

The Mama Lou Parks Dancers went back to Africa when a member of the dance company, David Butts, and his partner Lola Love, performed with James Brown in a music festival in Zaire in September 1974. The music festival was planned to happen just before the famous boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Because George Foreman hurt himself in rehearsals, the boxing match was rescheduled to October. The music festival took place between September 21 and 23. It was filmed and later published in the movie, ‘When We Were Kings’, which also depicted Muhammad Ali preparing for the boxing match. David Butts and Lola Love can be seen dancing in the film.[xxxviii]

It seems that their participation in the James Brown performance was not reported in the US press.  Although The New York Amsterdam News reported that James Brown succeeded in the festival[xxxix], the festival was not a real success. The New York Times wrote that there were 10,000 people in the audience in the first night when James Brown performed[xl]. The Washington Post stated that James Brown with other stars sang to very few in a 60,000-seat stadium in the second night when there were only 1,000 people listening to the stars because ticket prices were extremely high for an average Zairian[xli].

In spite of a few setbacks in the success of African American jazz dancers in the African tours, authentic jazz dance was significant in the relations between the US and African countries, which speaks for the fact that it was a serious vehicle in foreign policy of the US. It seems that Africans perceived authentic jazz dance positively and recognized African American jazz dancers as a continuation of the African heritage, therefore recognizing the jazz dancers as remarkable cultural exponents of the heritage.

However, there is needed more research how much the jazz dancers affected communication and relations between the US and African countries. Also why the State Department did not sponsor more the jazz dancers’ touring productions in Africa needs more research. There might have been more privately funded jazz dancers touring in Africa, which should be researched as well.

Endnotes:

[i]Ivan H. Browning, ’ Across the Pond’, The Chicago Defender, May 28, 1927, p. 6. ’Louis Douglas and Show Touring Europe’, The Chicago Defender, November 9, 1929, p. 7. ’Negro Troupe in Egypt’, Variety, December 18, 1929, p. 3.

[ii]Edgar A. Wiggins, ‘Hands Across the Ocean’, The Philadelphia Tribune, March 12, 1936, p. 15. Edgar Wiggins, ‘Across the Pond’, The Chicago Defender, March 14, 1936, p. 8. ‘Winters and Merano Dance Team “Take” Parisian Fans’, The Philadelphia Tribune, April 23, 1936, p. 14. ’Across the Pond’, The Chicago Defender, June 26, 1937, p. 10.

[iii]Clare Croft, Dancers as Diplomats – American Choreography in Cultural Exchange(New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 6 and 15.

[iv]Lonneke Geerlings, ‘Performances in the Theatre of the Cold War: the American Society of African Culture and the 1961 Lagos Festival’ in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 16_1, 2018, pp.  1-2.

[v]Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 205-206, 209. See also Geerlings 2018, p.  2.

[vi]Geerlings 2018, p. 2. ’33 U.S. Negroes Off For 2-Day Cultural Program in Nigeria’, The Chicago Daily Defender, December 12, 1961, p. 4.

[vii]Geerlings 2018, p. 2.

[viii]Geerlings 2018, p. 4. For Langston Hughes’ connection with the Négritude movement see Anna Micklin, ’Negritude Movement’, June 29, 2008, published on the Internet at https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/negritude-movement/.

[ix]Geerlings 2018, p. 7.

[x]Geerlings 2018, pp. 9-10.

[xi]’African-American Cultural Exchange’, the Ebony, p. 88. See also Geerlings 2018, p. 11.

[xii]’Lionel Hampton Heads Star Group In Africa’, The Chicago Defender, January 6, 1962, p. 10.

[xiii]Geerlings 2018, pp. 11-12. See also ’African-American Cultural Exchange’, the Ebony, p. 88.

[xiv]Geerlings 2018, pp. 10-11.

[xv]’African-American Cultural Exchange’, the Ebony, p. 88.

[xvi]Geerlings 2018, pp. 11-12.

[xvii]Geerlings 2018, p. 10.

[xviii]Geerlings 2018, pp. 14-15.

[xix]Robin D. G. Kelley, Africa Speaks, America Answers – Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 69.

[xx]’Dance Theatre Returns’, Back Stage, August 22, 1969, p. 18. ’ Jazz Dance Group Home’, The New York Amsterdam News, August 16, 1969, p. 18. Jesse H. Walker, ‘Theatricals’, the New York Amsterdam News, June 7, 1969, p. 43. Regarding the visited countries, the list is based on the unpublished film called  ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’ which depicts the 1969 Africa tour.  The author of the article has seen a copy of it. The list is similar to the list published in the August 16 issue of The New York Amsterdam News and to the list mentioned in Mura Dehn’s unpublished article, but Gambia was not mentioned. In addition to the other countries, Dehn mentions Cameroon. See Mura Dehn’s list ’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library. See for the members of the group the endnotes of the unpublished film.

[xxi]Geerlings 2018, p. 10.

[xxii]John S. Wilson, ‘American Jazzmen Overseas’, The New York Times, July 14, 1957, p. 83.Penny M. Von Eschen, Satchmo Blows Up the World – Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 58.

[xxiii]’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library.

[xxiv]The unpublished film, ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’.

[xxv]See ’American Embassy in Rabat Comments on Successful Visit of Jazz Dance Theater to Morocco’, undated, in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 251, the New York Public Library. See also ’Rabat… LE PETIT MOROCAIN…June 16, 1969 (At the National Theatre of Mohammed V)’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 249, the New York Public Library and ’Casablanca… LE PETITE MOROCAIN’, undated, in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 251, the New York Public Library.

[xxvi]The unpublished film, ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’.

[xxvii]Croft 2015, p. 14.

[xxviii]This is demonstrated, for example, in Louise ’Mama Lou’ Parks’ comments in Nigeria regarding her mother who was from Nigeria. Concerning the dancers interaction with the local residents, there is one scene in the film where Louise Parks looks angry after visiting in a local shop in Morocco. However, that is a rare exception in the film. See the unpublished film, ’The Jazz Dance Theatre’.

[xxix]See the press release ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (August 1969)’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 250, the New York Public Library.  See also ’Jazz Dance Group Home’, The New York Amsterdam News, August 16, 1968, p. 18.

[xxx]‘The Prime Minister of the Gambia, Sir Dawda Jawara, congratulates the JDT after their hit in Bathurst.’ and ‘Dancers Meet Governor:’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 24, folder 313, the New York Public Library.

[xxxi]See the press release ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (August 1969)’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 21, folder 250, the New York Public Library. The receptions were depicted also in pictures captured in the African tour. See ‘Members of the Jazz Dance Theatre Meet Ambassador Henry J. Tasca’ and ‘20. Orchestra Ethiopia shown performing at Ambassador and Mrs. William Hall’s reception in honor of the Jazz Dance Theater.’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 24, folder 313, the New York Public Library.  See also ’Jazz Dance Group Home’, The New York Amsterdam News, August 16, 1968, p. 18.

[xxxii]’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library.

[xxxiii]Terry Monaghan, ‘The Legacy of Jazz Dance’, in the Annual Review of Jazz Studies, 1997/1998, p. 300.

[xxxiv]’Black-American Folk Dance in Africa 1969’ in the Papers on Afro-American social dance, box 1, folder 9, the New York Public Library.

[xxxv]Monaghan 1997/1998, p. 300.

[xxxvi]See for example Linda Winer, ’The Jitterbug Is Back in Town’, the Chicago Tribune, October 17, 1972, p. B4. ’Jazz Dance Theatre opens at Goodman’s’, The Chicago Defender, October 14, 1972, p. 20. Basically, only Pepsi Bethel and Avon Long from the African tour were not part of Mura Dehn’s jazz dance group in 1972.

[xxxvii]Croft 2015, p. 23.

[xxxviii]See ’When We Were Kings’, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1996. See also Ulish Carter, ’Comment on Sports’, The New Pittsburgh Courier, September 28, 1974, p. 25. ’Better Line Up an Exhibition in Gabon’, The Evening Press, September 17, 1974, p. 12-A. Brad Pye Jr., ’Muhammad Ali Is Still Something to See’, the Los Angeles Sentinel, September 26, 1974, p.  B3.

[xxxix]’Theatrical Spotlight’, The New York Amsterdam News, October 19, 1974, p. B6.

[xl]Thomas A. Johnson, ’100’000 Cheers Greet Mobutu ’Gift,’ a Rebuilt Stadium’, The New York Times, September 23, 1974, p. 3.

[xli]David B. Ottaway, ’Zaire Festival, a Comedy of Errors’, The Washington Post, September 25, 1974, p. D1.

Sources

Bibliography

Archive Sources

New York Public Library:

Papers on Afro-American social dance circa 1869-1987, Mura Dehn, 1902-1987, Jerome Robbins Dance Division.

Newspapers & Magazines

Back Stage, New York, New York, 1961-2000.

Chicago Daily Defender, The, Chicago, Illinois, 1961.

Chicago Defender, The, Chicago, Illinois, 1909-1967.

Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois, 1963-1996.

Ebony, Chicago, 1945-2015.

Evening Press, The, Bingham, New York, 1974.

Los Angeles Sentinel, Los Angeles, California, 1934–2005.

New Pittsburgh Courier, The, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1966 – 1981.

New York Amsterdam News, The, New York, New York, 1922-1993.

New York Times, The, New York, New York, 1857-2011.

Philadelphia Tribune, The, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1912-2001.

Variety, Los Angeles, 1905-2000.

Washington Post, The, Washington D.C., 1877-1998.

Audio & Video

The Jazz Dance Theatre, unpublished, the author of the article has seen a copy of it.

When We Were Kings, Polygram Filmed Entertainment, 1996.

Literature

Croft, Clare, Dancers as Diplomats – American Choreography in Cultural Exchange(New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Geerlings Lonneke, ‘Performances in the Theatre of the Cold War: the American Society of African Culture and the 1961 Lagos Festival’ in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 16_1, 2018.

Kelley, Robin D. G., Africa Speaks, America Answers – Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Micklin, Anna, ’Negritude Movement’, June 29, 2008, published on the Internet at https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/negritude-movement/.

Wilford, Hugh, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).

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From the Pepsi-Cola Junior Club of Harlem to the Harlem World Disco

Written and copyright by Harri Heinila

Between May 1945 and June 1947, the Pepsi-Cola Junior Club at 121 Lenox Avenue in Harlem nurtured the future Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers like Sugar and George Sullivan, and it could be considered in a certain way a starting point of the emerging Third Generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. Later, the club building also provided a rehearsal place for the famous Sonny Allen and the Rockets, a versatile Harlem singing and jazz dance company, and the building re-emerged in the end of the 1970s as the Harlem World Disco which became famous for its Hip Hop activities. Thus, suggesting the continuation of Harlem jazz dance over the post-war decades.

When the Pepsi-Cola company opened the junior club at 121 Lenox Avenue in May 1945, it was presented as a gift to African American Harlemites[1]. According to The Afro-American, the purpose of the club was to promote “good citizenship through self-government” done by the participating Harlem teenagers.[2] That meant that adults were allowed in the club only on special occasions[3]. Although adults were not usually allowed to participate in the club events, they, however, were part of the club organization. Mrs. Nina Purveyance was the director of the club for the two years it existed, and the club members were guided by the advisory board that consisted of fifteen men and women representing various activities in the Harlem community like police officers, priests, judges, and social agencies[4].

The club in Harlem was part of the chain of the junior clubs which the Pepsi-Cola company operated in the New York metropolitan area during the World War II and the years following the war. By 1946, there were three other Pepsi-Cola junior clubs, two of which were located in Northern New York and in Long Island. In addition to the junior clubs, the Pepsi-Cola company established Pepsi-Cola centers for servicemen and women which were open also to African Americans[5].

Despite a noble idea of creating good citizens by providing Harlem youngsters a place where they can learn principles of self-government and socialize with each other, practically, the reason for the club was economic. In the 1940s, there was a rivalry between the Coca Cola company and the Pepsi-Cola company. The latter had an idea of marketing Pepsi-Cola to African Americans by getting African Americans involved in the company’s activities starting in 1940 when the company hired three African Americans for its sales team.[6] The Harlem junior club was likely part of this strategy to win African Americans over to the Pepsi-Cola company.

Dances, Christmas and birthday parties, and other festivities were organized in the lavishly decorated club which was open almost every afternoon and evening, but not on Sundays, and it had a dance floor, a soft drink counter, a juke box, ping pong tables, and booths for card and checker games. The club also had an indirect lighting system that, according to The New York Amsterdam News, was comparable or even superior to the New York’s finer night clubs. Walter S. Mack Jr., the president of the Pepsi-Cola Corporation, claimed that the operation cost of the club was over 200,000 dollars during its existence. As the club had about 700 members ranging between 14 and 19 years, and it was visited more than 100,000 times, the cost per visit was approximately two dollars.[7]  While the Pepsi-Cola Corporation seemed to put much money to the club, which suggests the importance of African Americans’ support for the Pepsi-Cola products, and while the club attracted a lot of customers with a relatively small cost, which speaks for its success among Harlem youngsters, the club was likely unprofitable[8].

Particularly, two club events were reported in the African-American newspapers which brought out activities of the Harlem branch of the Pepsi-Cola junior clubs. The first of them concerned the twenty-second Women’s International Exposition at Madison Square Garden between November 13 and 18 in 1945. The exposition had 168-200 exhibitors including numerous groups based on various nationalities, youth, politics, and other social aspects. It was earlier a morale builder for the women who worked in the war-related jobs, but at this time the exposition delivered to the women various lectures, panels, forums, and exhibits, in addition to counseling service, as based on the idea of how to make a transition from war to peace activities.[9]

The New York Amsterdam News stated that the Harlem branch youngsters at the Madison Square Garden event demonstrated club workings and put on a dance show which led to an offer to “dance for soldiers every Thursday evening at the Hotel Astor”. George Sullivan and Ruth Guillroy (should be Guillory) who later has been known as Sugar Sullivan were among the seventeen members of the Harlem branch, who participated in the event.[10]  Their participation in the event and the offer suggest the continuation of the U.S. war politics which emphasized national unity between races at the same time when basic Civil liberties were denied to African Americans[11]. On the other hand, it speaks for the continuation of racial mixing in connection with Harlem jazz dance, which still continued in the 1940s, although to a lesser degree than in the 1930s and the 1920s[12].

Another club event which was reported in The New York Amsterdam News was the first anniversary of the Harlem branch in May 1946. The club celebrated the first anniversary by organizing a Big Barn Dance that included Square dancing, but also Jitterbug. The paper discussed, in particular, zoot suit clad Ruth Guillory and her partner Eugene ‘Ray’ Daniels, who were depicted in a picture showing the routine which helped them to win the club’s Jitterbug contest. According to the paper, Ruth and Ray won earlier the Jitterbug division of the Miss America Magazine dance contest, and as a prize of the magazine dance contest they had received original paintings from the Walt Disney Production, Make Mine Music, autographed by Walt Disney.[13]

As far as Lindy Hop/Jitterbug contests are concerned, the Miss America Magazine dance contest was a start of Ruth Guillory’s (Sugar Sullivan’s) dancing career which led to the Daily News Harvest Moon Ball contest and to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in the late 1940s. In 1955, she won with George Sullivan the Jitterbug Jive division in the Harvest Moon Ball contest. Both Sugar and George became famous also as the leading Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers in the 1950s.[14]

The end of the Pepsi-Cola junior club of Harlem came in 1947, when the president of the Pepsi-Cola company Walter S. Mack Jr. announced that the club was going to be closed by the end of June. He stated that for the time the company sponsored the club, the Harlem community did never show appreciation for his efforts which helped to keep Harlem youngsters off the streets and gangs. All he got from the community was harsh criticism.[15] Walter S. Mack Jr.’s claims cannot be substantiated by the press which did not criticize his efforts when the club existed, but it is possible that there was some sort of criticism behind the scenes.[16]

The more plausible explanation for the end of the club, however, is that it did no more serve its purpose to promote profitably Pepsi-Cola products to Harlemites and African-Americans. This is suggested by the facts that the club existed only for two years, and when Walter S. Mack Jr. announced its end, he offered the club to any responsible party with one or one and a half years rent for free. The rent for one year was otherwise 10,000 dollars. The Harlem community was for the continuation of the Harlem branch, which also supports the explanation that the club did not make a profit for the Pepsi Cola Company. The general tenor expressed by the Harlem community including the club members and its president Ray Daniels, police officers, and various church representatives was that the club had significantly prevented juvenile delinquency and gang activity in Harlem. Despite this, there were no parties who had taken Walter S. Mack Jr.’s offer to continue the club.[17]

As the years went by, the former junior club building re-emerged as a rehearsal space for the Sonny Allen and the Rockets which also Sugar Sullivan belonged to. A versatile singing and jazz dance group Sonny Allen and the Rockets toured mainly around the U.S. and Canada between the very end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1970s. They sang and performed various jazz dances like Mambo and the Lindy Hop. The group, which consisted of five members, included also a full orchestra. When they were back in Harlem, they rehearsed on the first floor of the building that also worked as the Democratic club led by Sonny Allen’s father.[18]

In 1978, the former junior club building, after working as the Woolworth department store, was opened as the Harlem World Disco on June 28. According to one of its owners and the president of the club Earl Washington, the 30,000 square foot disco in Harlem was planned to be a tourist attraction which had raised interest in the Harlem community and its places of entertainment, in addition to serving Harlem community organizations which could use the place for their events.[19]

By paying homage to the Harlem jazz dance history which Harlemites still recognized at the beginning of the 1980s, the disco was described as part of the continuum of Harlem entertainment history and as a modern Savoy Ballroom, without forgetting other places of entertainment in Harlem like the new Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre and the Smalls’ Paradise. The disco besides dancing and entertaining customers could decrease Harlem’s unemployment, and it was endorsed by politicians like Assemblyman George W. Miller and Major of New York City Edward Koch particularly for its presumed positive effects on Harlem’s economy.[20]  When considering the fact that the disco existed for seven years, it likely had positive effects on the Harlem community, but not necessarily economically because according to one of its employees, the place did not make a profit until the very end of its existence[21]. According to the press, the disco was also criticized by the Harlem Muslims who considered it could increase criminal activity in Harlem and nearby their mosque on 116th Street, across the street from the disco.[22]

Although originally intended to serve tourists and the local community, the Harlem World Disco turned to serve emerging Hip Hop communities from Harlem, the Bronx, and the New York metropolitan area. Famous Hip Hop acts like Cold Crush Brothers, Fantastic Romantic Five, Treacherous Three, and Busy Bee performed in the place. In spite of strong interest in Hip Hop at the Harlem World, disco nights with artists like Eartha Kitt, Arthur Prysock, GQ, and Atlantic Star were frequently organized there.[23]

Charlie Rock who worked in the Harlem World claims that the place was closed quietly in 1985 for financial and political reasons because politicians involved in the Harlem World were no more supporting it and the local community turned against it. Also, the owner of the place at the time could not afford to it anymore, in particular, because other clubs capitalized successfully on the idea of Hip Hop.[24]  Charlie Rock’s statements are supported by the fact that the closure of the Harlem World did not cause much discussion in public if not at all.[25] This suggests that the Harlem community was lost interest in it. The place was closed at the time when interest in Harlem was increasing because of the mainly white people-based revival of interest in the original Harlem jazz dance, the Lindy Hop[26]. It is another story to speculate what could have happened with the Lindy Hop revival if the Harlem World Disco had continued after 1985.

The former Pepsi-Cola Junior Club building in September 2012:

Endnotes:

[1]‘Opens Youth Center in N.Y.’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[2]New Canteen Opens for Harlem Youth’, The Afro-American, May 19, 1945, p. 10

[3]‘Opens Youth Center in N.Y.’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16 and Nora Holt, ’Pepsi-Cola Club In First Anniversary’, The New York Amsterdam News, May 18, 1946, p. 14.

[4]’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16. ‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, p. 1. ‘Opens Youth Center in N.Y.’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[5]’Negro Staff To Be integrated In Pepsi Cola Field Organization’, New Journal and Guide, October 11, 1947, p. 9. ’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16. Nora Holt, ’Pepsi-Cola Club In First Anniversary’, The New York Amsterdam News, May 18, 1946, p. 14. Louis Lautier, ’Capital Spotlight’, The Afro-American, October 17, 1942, p. 4.

[6]Stephanie Capparell, ‘How Pepsi Opened Door to Diversity; A 1940s All Black Team Targeted a New Market And Broke a Barrier’, The Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2007, B1. Michelle Archer, ‘Pepsi’s challenge in 1940s: Color barrier; CEO hired black marketing team’, USA Today, January 22, 2007, p. B5. ’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[7]‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, pp. 1 and 16 and ’Pepsi-Cola Firm Equips Kiddies Club’, The Chicago Defender, June 2, 1945, p. 16.

[8]The claim that the club was not profitable is discussed in the paragraph that starts with “The more plausible explanation for the end of the club…”.

[9]‘Women’s Exposition to Cover Wide Field’, The New York Times, November 13, 1945, p. 18. ‘163 Exhibitors Get Space’, The New York Times, October 11, 1945, p. 24. ‘ “Women In Peace” To Be Exposition Theme’, The New York Amsterdam News, October 13, 1945, p. 10. ‘Peace Theme in Exhibit’, The New York Times, September 29, 1945, p. 18.

[10]Kay, ’CanTEEN’, The New York Amsterdam News, December 1, 1945, p. 20.

[11]Harri Heinilä, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 (Helsinki, Finland: Unigrafia, 2015), p. 187.

[12]In the Harlem context, a yardstick for measuring racial mixing is Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom which was known for interracial dancing between African-Americans and whites. By the 1940s, less and less whites frequented the ballroom. See Heinilä 2015, pp. 116 and 126.

[13]Nora Holt, ’Pepsi-Cola Club In First Anniversary’, The New York Amsterdam News, May 18, 1946, p. 14.

[14]See Sugar Sullivan interview by Sally Somner, in Durham, March 19, 2001, the New York Public Library. See also ‘The Third Generation’ by Terry Monaghan, published in https://authenticjazzdance.wordpress.com/2017/03/11/the-third-generation-by-terry-monaghan/on March 11, 2017.

[15]‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, p. 1.

[16]I have not found anything which supports Walter S. Mack Jr.’s claims. However, it is possible that Harlemites criticized the club in private.

[17]‘Harlem’s Kids To Lose ‘Fun Center’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1947, p. 1 and ’Pepsi-Cola Club Marked to Close’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 14, 1947, p. 27.

[18]Rennie McDougall, ‘In Harlem, They’re Still Dancing the Original Swing’, The Village Voice, September 6, 2017. Published in https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/09/06/in-harlem-theyre-still-dancing-the-original-swing/ . Sonny Allen interview by Harri Heinilä, in Helsinki, September 2013. Harri Heinilä has the original copy of the interview.

[19]’Harlem World Club Now At Noted Corner’, The Billboard, July 8, 1978, p. 49 and Nelson George, ’New disco expects to advance revival of Harlem’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 24, 1978, p. D6. See also Zamgba Browne, ’New Disco Stirs Muslim Protest’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 29, 1978, p. D1.

[20]‘Harlem disco to open soon’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 3, 1978, p. D2. Zamgba Browne, ’New Disco Stirs Muslim Protest’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 29, 1978, p. D1. Jeanne Parnell, ’Discomania!’, New Journal and Guide, January 19, 1979, p. A9. ’Harlem World praised’, The New York Amsterdam News, June 28, 1980, p. 31.

[21]‘Charlie Rock of “The Harlem World Crew” and Harlem World. With Troy L. Smith’, Fall of 2003. Published in http://www.thafoundation.com/charock.htm. Later referred to as Smith 2003.

[22]J. Zamgba Browne, ‘Muslims protest disco’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 22, 1978, p. A1 and A2. Zamgba Browne, ’New Disco Stirs Muslim Protest’, The New York Amsterdam News, July 29, 1978, p. D1. Disco Protested’, the Los Angeles Sentinel, June 25, 1979, p. A8.

[23]Smith 2003.

[24]Ibid. I have not found any articles in which the closing date is exactly stated. The closing year 1985 is supported by the fact that the press referred to the Harlem World in the past tense in 1986. See for example, J.D. Considine, ‘Taking the Rap to Baltimore’, The Sun, June 8, 1986, p. 10L.

[25]The reasons for the closure which Charlie Rock mentions were not discussed in public to a great extent as far as the press is concerned. I have not found those articles from the time when the place was closed.

[26]The revival is discussed in numerous articles and studies. One of the best studies on it is Terry Monaghan’s “Stompin’ At the Savoy” -Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, (Dancing At The Crossroads. African Diasporic Dances in Britain. Conference Proceedings 1-2 August 2002).

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