The Creators of The Lindy Hop: George ’Shorty’ Snowden and Mattie Purnell

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

When the United States prepares to celebrate its independence day on July 4th, some of its most important cultural characters in the field of dance stay mostly unknown and uncelebrated.

George Snowden, who was born on July 4th in 1904 and died in 1982, created with his partner Mattie Purnell one of the most influential dance forms, ’The Lindy Hop’, in a dance marathon at Manhattan Casino, Harlem, New York exactly 84 years ago. The Lindy Hop, which also is known as Jitterbug or Jive or Swing, has strongly influenced other dance forms like Mambo/Salsa, Hustle and West Coast Swing, just to name a few of many Lindy influenced dances.

The Lindy Hop was revolutionary at the time: The Lindy Hop included the breakaway feature which allowed a couple’s both partners’ improvisation. The breakaway means separation of the partners in the dance at any given time. That was exceptional compared to the other ballroom dance forms.

However, Snowden and his partner Mattie Purnell did not invent anything completely new when making the breakaway in the dance marathon. As Marshall Stearns put it in his ’Jazz Dance’ study: ”Snowden’s mild conviction that he invented the breakaway and then the essence of the Lindy is probably true for his time and place. It might be more accurate, however, to say that he rediscovered it, for the breakaway is a time-honored method of eliminating the European custom of dancing in couples, and returning to solo dancing- the universal way of dancing…”

There are good reasons to claim that Snowden and Purnell’s invention was probably the most important innovation ever made in the field of the 20th century dancing. The Lindy Hop, which mixed European ballroom dancing with different African-American dance forms, produced a revolution in the ballroom dancing.

As Terry Monaghan and Karen Hubbard write in their article:

”The Lindy Hop was the first noteworthy African American dance to be created in the North as opposed to being brought from the South as part of the turn-of-the-century Great Migration. In effect, it was a major reordering of almost the entire African American social dance experience. The Lindy Hop also involved a redefinition of gender relations that struck at the core of prevailing derogatory and demeaning racial characterizations of African Americans. Developing into a comprehensive and rhythmically charged critique of the European partner-dancing tradition, it articulated a new aestetic of cultural equality. Dominated by continuous rhythmic play in its defining swing-out, the two partners rhythmically improvised while separating apart and drawing back together. The driving reciprocal dynamic of both partners characterized the essential vitality of the dance that paid minimal deference to the ballroom conventions of leaders and followers. Through such mutually assertive roles of independently and jointly sustaining a combined interactive rhythmic response to swing music, the new Lindy Hoppers made a major contribution to transforming the way these dancing African Americans not only saw each other but also how other blacks and whites perceived them. Defining individual expression in the context of working closely with another person (i.e. thus revealing its true jazz character) enabled the Lindy Hop to make such a dramatic impact. Black dancing bodies became ”hep” and respectfully imitated.” (“Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor – Social Dancing at the Savoy” from “Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake – A Social and Popular Dance Reader” edited by Julie Malnig, 2009)

There exist many stories of how Snowden and Purnell created the Lindy at the Manhattan Casino dance marathon between June 17th and July 4th, 1928, when the marathon was going on. The origin of most of the stories is unknown. Marshall Stearns, however, interviewed Snowden concerning the marathon in December 1959. Stearns explains in his work Jazz Dance on the basis of the interview that the invention happened, when Snowden flinged his partner out and improvised a few solo steps of his own. Stearns also writes, that this happened, when Snowden got tired of the same old steps, and he cut loose with a breakaway.

Despite the importance of Snowden and Purnell’s invention and its consequences, the most of Lindy Hop historians have concentrated on the naming of the Lindy Hop and not to how the Lindy Hop was really created, and what it has achieved.

However, a few words of the naming should be said in order to clarify the stories that are told of the origin of the name ‘lindy hop’.

Even if Snowden explained to Stearns that he created and named the Lindy in the dance marathon, there has not, however, been any evidence of the naming of the Lindy Hop until from September 12th, 1928 when the Lindy Hop was mentioned for the first time in the New York Amsterdam News article ’Dance Revue Contest at Lincoln’ in the form ‘lindy hop’. It was mentioned in the article that George (Shorty) Snowden and Pauline (means Pauline Morse, Snowden’s new partner/Harri Heinila) also were featured in the show. Was it Snowden or the author of the newspaper article or someone else, who named the Lindy Hop then, is unclear. After that ’Lindy Hop’ became established as a term in newspapers articles.

In addition to that and Stearns’ interview with Snowden, also Frankie Manning claimed that Snowden himself told him that he (Snowden) named the Lindy Hop in the marathon.

It can be asked, if Snowden really named the Lindy Hop in the marathon, why is there no evidence in newspapers during the next two months between July and August 1928? This is especially interesting because there is an article (”Scuffle Along” Scoring Big Hit) in the New York Amsterdam News on August 8th, 1928, where it is mentioned: ”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, who participated in the recent dance Marathon. This clever pair were forced to respond to many encores for ‘Walk That Broad’ and for their ‘Lindbergh Hop’ and only stopped when completely exhausted.” That refers to the fact that ”Lindy Hop” was not named then, and possibly Snowden and Purnell called their invention as ’Walk That Broad’ in the show, or they called their invention as ‘Lindbergh Hop’ and ‘Walk That Broad’ was something else.

There also is a theory that Snowden and Purnell named their dance invention as ’Lindbergh Hop’ in the marathon, and that was changed later to the form, ’Lindy Hop’. There exist many articles in newspapers from the time of the marathon stating that Snowden and Purnell danced ’Lindbergh Hop’. Especially there is one article, where it is mentioned, “The smallest pair on the floor, Mattie Purnell and George Snowden garnered a 15 dollars gold prize for the fanciest performance of a new dance called the ”Lindbergh Hop” ” (from The New York World, on June 20th 1928). The claim: Snowden and Purnell named their invention first as ‘Lindbergh Hop’ does not, however, sound convincing because there are many articles after Charles Lindbergh’s flight in May 1927 and before the dance marathon (the latest ones from May 1928), where ‘Lindbergh Hop’ is mentioned as a dance in New York. Articles especially concerning Lindbergh Hop in Harlem, New York can be found after the marathon at least until the year 1930 when George Snowden was advertised as the winner of the Savoy Ballroom Lindbergh Hop Contest! According to Terry Monaghan, also Savoy Ballroom manager Charles Buchanan, choreographer and producer Leonard Reed, and a first generation Savoy Lindy Hopper Alfred Leagins have claimed that the Lindy Hop and Lindbergh Hop were different dances.

In addition, there is one article in the New York Amsterdam News on June 27th, 1928 (Marathoners Continue Their Athletic Gyrations at the Manhattan Casino), where it is stated, “They (Snowden and Purnell/Harri Heinila) have a little specialty dance of their own, which they mix up with ”Lindbergh Hop” and feature during practically every dance period, especially in the evenings.” The little specialty dance could be their unnamed invention, which later was known as the Lindy Hop.

Anyway Snowden and Purnell’s invention, which was known as ’Lindy Hop’ at the latest from September 12th, 1928, gained much popularity during next years, even so that according to Carl Van Vechten in 1929: ”It was possible to observe an entire ball-room filled with couples devoting themselves to its celebration” obviously referring to the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

Van Vechten, who wrote in his ’Parties’ in 1930 about the Lindy Hop and how it was created in the dance marathon, reinforced Snowden’s Lindy Hop invention claim.

Van Vechten’s timing was right for Snowden and Purnell because next year in 1931 Snowden’s dance company partner George ’Twistmouth’ Ganaway started to claim that in fact he was the creator of the Lindy. After Ganaway there were also others who started to claim the same, but by then the Lindy Hop had already gained mass popularity in the New York area and in the U.S., and also in the other countries.

However, George Snowden and Mattie Purnell have not been celebrated for their remarkable invention as the originators of the Lindy Hop. Hopefully, when there is going to be Frankie Manning 100 (years) celebration in New York in 2014, also George Snowden and Mattie Purnell are celebrated as the creators of the Lindy Hop. This is especially valuable, because Snowden would have been 110 years then. This could at last be the beginning of the annual celebration of the Lindy Hop and its creators: George Snowden and Mattie Purnell without forgetting Frankie Manning whose earlier dance career with his dance inventions during the Swing Era and the renewed career as a professional Lindy Hopper, and a dance teacher between the end of the 1980s and 2009 remarkably helped to get new enthusiasism for the Lindy Hop and African-American Jazz dancing.

George ‘Shorty’ Snowden and Beatrice ‘Big Bea’ Gay:

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About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Authentic Jazz Dance: all jazz dances from different eras of jazz. E.g. Cakewalk, the Charleston, Black Bottom, The Lindy Hop, Mambo, Rhythm Tap. Heinila researches jazz dance, in particular, in the context of Harlem, New York. His doctoral dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality - The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 is a groundbreaking study in the field of jazz dance and Harlem.
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11 Responses to The Creators of The Lindy Hop: George ’Shorty’ Snowden and Mattie Purnell

  1. carol snowden says:

    He was my great uncle.

  2. swiveltam says:

    Great article. Thanks for messaging me the link. So, it would seem it would not be historically inaccurate to credit Snowden with the invention of the lindy hop. I find in interesting that Snowden called the other dance “Walking the Broad.” I’m still stuck on “lindy” being a another slang term for “broad.” “dame” “women,” Etc. At any rate. Wonderful blog. I have a lot of reading to do 😉

    • Hi Swiveltam!

      Thank you for the comment! Yes, it would be correct to credit Snowden and also Purnell for The Lindy Hop. Why that has not really happened by so-called ‘Swing dancers’, it is a mystery to me. So-called ‘Swing Dance’ enthusiasts ignore Snowden and Purnell and don’t celebrate them as The Creators of The Lindy Hop. They mostly only celebrate Frankie Manning, and Norma Miller to some extent, too, but Snowden and Purnell, and many others seem to be forgotten. As Manning and Miller have been important characters since their Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers days, and they definitely deserve all the appreciation for their contribution to The Lindy Hop, they, however, haven’t been the creators of The Lindy Hop. And they even have never claimed to be creators of The Lindy Hop! It seems that “Swing dancers” are ignoring the history of their dance and are thus acting totally differently than ‘Tap Dance’ enthusiasts who are interested in their Elders and in keeping Elders’ traditions alive by recognizing and doing Tap Elders’ signature steps, remembering their birthdays, and honoring them regularly. “Swing dancers” mostly ignore other important Lindy Hop characters but Frankie and Norma. Luckily there have been new initiatives and events in Harlem and elsewhere, where also other Lindy Hop Elders have been honored and remembered. It is still a long way to reach Tap dance enthusiasts in that sense. We hopefully will see the day when “Swing dancers” to a great extent want to learn from their Elders, and younger generations really respect their Elders’ dance styles and traditions by studying the culture and history of The Lindy Hop and its Elders before its too late. Harlem and its history don’t mean much to many of current enthusiasts who mostly support their own ideas and don’t care about the history. Thank you for your interest anyway! It’s at least something to start with! I’m positive that there will emerge new generations which really are interested in Elders’ Lindy Hop and Jazz Dance culture. It just takes time as we have seen.

      • swiveltam says:

        I know there are a few, I heard about Snowden through Peter Loggins many years ago and most of the international teachers try to give a brief history as they understand it. I think each set of teachers have their own perspective and how it relates to their students?

        It’s also important, not only to understand the origin, but also the evolution of the lindy hop. I enjoy most incarnations of Lindy hop (I will dance to anything), but what really gets in my bones and connects me to the music and my partner is when I dance to late 30s and early 40s music and lindy style, though it is not true to the original lindy. I enjoy hearing the stories from a few of the people who are still alive from the 40s era and even 50s . And because I lived in California and Arizona for many years I gravitate towards these old-timers.

        I would speculate, (since I am not a dance historian, merely a lover of 30s 40s culture), that the East Coast of this country and West Coast of this country have different perspectives on the evolution of lindy? Not to mention the European influence. Just when did Lindy turn into Jive? I now live in Texas where they do a “country swing,” I can see the basis of lindy in it (or more so East Coast Swing), but it would be interesting to know how these regional differences evolved. Although, I doubt 99% of the people of the dance floor would care. I’m not sure they should. Is it enough that they experience the joy of dance?

        Unfortunately (or not), as much as I am interested in the historical truth, most people are not. People come to dance for many, many reasons and most of them do NOT have to do with history. As you know dance is an evolving “living” art form. I have always stressed the importance of period costume: if you are trying to duplicate or recreate an era’s dance you need to wear the era’s costume. In that way your body with have the same confines and limitations and even feel of fabric on the skin as the dancers in the respective eras did. Most dancer’s even world class lindy hop contest winners could not be bothered.

        MOST people could care less and that’s okay, too. I don’t know if it’s important for EVERYONE to know and everyone to desire to know, it’s important that a few, like you, carry the torch of truth, don’t you think.

  3. Hi Swiveltam! George Snowden’s part in creating of The Lindy Hop is documented in Jean and Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance. You find that quite surely in libraries. If not, you can buy it easily from regular bookstores. Although I don’t agree with all what is documented in Jazz Dance as to creating of The Lindy Hop, anyway you can get a picture of that. Stearns’ Jazz Dance is obligatory to anyone who is seriously interested in Jazz Dance and its different dances like The Lindy Hop. The late Terry Monaghan also discussed some of his findings in this discussion thread: http://www.yehoodi.com/comment/79178/anyone-track-down-the-lindy-hop-newspaper-cover/

    What comes to differences in The Lindy Hop between the East Coast and West Coast of The U.S., you should notice that there was Dean Collins in Los Angeles, who came from New Jersey and claimed to have frequented Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom before he left New Jersey/New York and moved to LA in 1936. He was the one who taught many of dancers in LA how to dance The Lindy. Also Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers visited regularly in LA in the 1930s, and I remember that Norma Miller has told how they also taught locals in LA to dance The Lindy Hop. Has anyone ever asked from local dancers in LA if they learned from Norma and others? Anyway the origin of The Lindy Hop is in Harlem. I know that there is a disagreement about how The Lindy Hop spread in the U.S. Some say that it spread like wildfire and some disagree with that by claiming that there were regional variants around the U.S., when swing music really started to spread. I tend to prefer more the wildfire theory as it seems that The Lindy Hop really spread in the 1930s by different Savoy Lindy Hoppers: Mostly by Herbert ‘Whitey’ White’s dancers which usually are known as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and by George Snowden’s dancers. Especially these two groups spread The Lindy Hop when they performed in different parts of The U.S. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers even spread the dance to different continents when they traveled around the world. The Lindy Hop also changed during the years, and there has never been only one way to dance it, not at The Savoy Ballroom or elsewhere. What comes to dressing for dancing, you should remember that they really dressed at The Savoy Ballroom. Men even couldn’t get in without jackets. So what we see nowadays in the “Swing Dance” events is not mainly up to the picture of the past as far as to dress for dancing is concerned, but who cares, but you and me, Peter Loggins, Elders, and a few others.

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  6. Cerissa Huggins says:

    Hello! I’m doing research on dancers similar to that of Snowden. Do you happen to have any knowledge on how he died, and how he ended up in Far Rockaway at the time of his death? Thanks in advance!

    • Hi Cerissa! Thank you for your comment. Information you are asking in your comment comes from the late Terry Monaghan. I have not researched census records, which I believe, the late Terry Monaghan did. I know that Snowden lived in Queens, but I do not know how he ended up in Far Rockaway. Indeed, I also researched this issue for some time. As George Snowden was pretty common name, I could not find answers to your questions which I also did when I researched the issue. I may go back to find those records. If you are doing serious research, that means, you are connected to a University or a College, I would like to speak with you. I’m not excluding you if you are not connected to those institutes. If you know main principles of research methods, that is fine. I’m looking for researchers who are interested in researching jazz dance which the Lindy Hop also belongs to. You can be a historian, a social scientist etc.

  7. Pingback: Reasons for Celebrating George ‘Shorty’ Snowden’s Birthday on July 4 | authenticjazzdance

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