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 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: