Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila
Between May 9th and May 12th 2013, there was organized one of the most important events for years in New York. The event, which was based on the collaboration of The Harlem Swing Dance Society, The National Hand Dance Association (from Washington D.C.) and BABBLE organization (Balboa, Swing, Blues and The Lindy Hop exchange in New York), gathered hundreds of participants from the U.S. and abroad.
The event also gathered a lot of Old Time dance legends like Norma Miller, Sugar and George Sullivan, Barbara Billups, and Sonny Allen from the Savoy Ballroom era. The Savoy Manor era (the post Savoy Ballroom era) was represented by Mama Lou Parks dancers like David Butts Carns, Debra Youngblood, Joya Jaimes, Clementine ‘Tiny’ Thomas, and Crystal Johnson. The Washington D.C. Hand Dancers were represented by greats like James ‘Sparky’ Green, Lee Ware, Maxie Grant, and Lawrence Bradford.
The dancers’ discussion panel from the left, Norma Miller, Sugar Sullivan, George Sullivan, Sonny Allen, David Butts Carns, James ‘Sparky’ Green, Lee Ware, Maxie Grant, and Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford.
The weekend was opened by the dancers’ discussion panel on Thursday, where the Savoy Ballroom legends and Harvest Moon Ball winners Norma Miller, Sugar and George Sullivan, Sonny Allen, and the Harvest Moon Ball winner David Butts Carns from Mama Lou Parks Dancers represented Harlem, and James ‘Sparky’ Green, Lee Ware, Maxie Grant, and Lawrence Bradford represented the Washington D.C. Hand Dancers. As the moderators worked Margaret Batiuchok who is another Harvest Moon Ball winner from 1983, and Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald from Rutgers University, who both also started the discussion session with their historical summaries of the African American dance and The Lindy Hop.
There were different topics in the discussion. Norma Miller opened on behalf of the discussion panelists by stating, how ‘the most talented and brilliant people’ had centered in Harlem, when she started her career. She also stated how swing differed from Dixieland music and how their dancing differed from earlier styles, because of swing music. According to Norma, they were originally dancing ‘a smooth style of Lindy’. Aerials came later. As Norma put it: ‘All dancing was flat prior to aerials’.
Sugar Sullivan told, how she ‘tried to put as many steps as possible’ into the swing out or into the swing as Old Timers usually call the swing out. She just did not want to ‘run out and run back’. ‘I wanted to do something with my feet’. ‘My thing was footwork’.
George Sullivan stressed in his statement the importance of rhythm: ‘It is all about rhythm. Everybody out there in your dances: when you walk, you dance. When you walk, you dance, it just when you put something with it, when you are on the floor and enjoy’.
Sonny Allen stated, ‘I’ve tried to put it easy’. He compared different tap dancers to each other as some of them have danced ‘into the floor’ and some of them have danced ‘on the top of floor’. To dance ‘on the top of floor’ is easier. ‘You don’t fight with floor’, as he said referring to those who are dancing ‘into the floor’. He also said referring to George Sullivan, how ‘this gentleman here danced like he was gliding across the floor’, which caused a storm of applause. Sonny also said, how ‘a lot of teachers’ are teaching people in the way ‘they danced in the 20s’ referring to ‘the down and up bounce to the every beat’, which is usually done by today’s Lindy dancers. As Sonny said, ‘you can’t do that to Count Basie’s music’. He continued, how they danced more horizontally ‘on the top of the floor’ than vertically ‘into the floor’. Sonny also referred in his later statement to social dancers who are competing with other couples on the social dance floor, and not dancing together as a couple and a group as they should be. George added to that ‘it is an agreement’ to dance with each other as a couple.
David Butts Carns stressed the importance of partnering as he referred to his over 15 years partner Debra Youngblood, with whom he won Harvest Moon Ball in 1980. David himself won HMB twice: first with Betty Silva in 1962 and then with Debra. He also stressed the importance of ‘flash’ (movements) in the performance mode of The Lindy Hop.
The special moment happened when Norma Miller surprisingly asked from a moderator Margaret Batiuchok in the end of the discussion session if the late George Lloyd, with whom Margaret danced for a long time, was Margaret’s favorite dance partner because George’s style was so smooth. As Margaret stressed that she likes diversity of styles, the late George Lloyd got highly praises from all the Lindy Hop panelists.
When it comes to the Hand Dance panelists, the Turner’s Arena in Washington D.C. came up as the place for Hand Dancing between the late 1940s and the 1960s. In Turner’s Arena, ‘all good dancers gathered on Sunday evenings’ especially from Washington D.C. and Baltimore as a panelist Lee Ware stated, even if they danced at any places like community centers, schools, churches, on streets, and anywhere where they played music as a panelist Maxine Grant told.
James ‘Sparky’ Green answered to question: ‘How Hand Dancing changed his life’, that by Hand Dancing he was able to see ‘all the top bands like Count Basie and Duke Ellington’ as they played in the places where he went to. Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald concluded, based on the Hand Dance panelists’ answers, that ‘ ‘Hand Dance’ helped them improve social skills, gave them health benefits, and kept them out of trouble’.
The different code of dance ethics between Hand Dancers and Savoy Lindy Hoppers also came out. Where Hand Dancing was concerned, a lady couldn’t dance with someone else during the same song if man asked her to dance, and she denied. Otherwise there would have been ‘a trouble in the parking lot’ as Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald stated with acceptation of all the Hand Dance panelists. Norma Miller commented to the statement from the viewpoint of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers that they didn’t dance with everybody. They were ‘very snobbish’. The Savoy Lindy Hopping mostly happened on the left side of the ballroom where the Corner was located, and it happened in the Circle. George Sullivan added to Norma’s statement that it was about ‘skills’. James ‘Sparky’ Green and Lee Ware claimed concerning Hand Dancing in Turner’s Arena that the Circle phenomenon happened also there as far as good dancers were concerned. Lee Ware stated that good dancers were in the front of the bandstand or in the Corner on the right side of the bandstand.
Maxine Grant explained, how they did not go to the formal dance classes, they just picked up steps. Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford also added to that ‘if you didn’t know how to do a step, the community taught you how to do the step.’ Both basically similar procedures as Savoy Lindy Hoppers had. It also became clear that all the panelists agreed that music makes you dance and it is about feeling the music.
The musicians’ panel from left, Albert Vollmer, Topsy Durham, Dawn Hampton, Dr. Larry Ridley, James ‘Sparky’ Green, Melvin Copeland and Lawrence Bradford.
After dancers’ panel came musicians’ panel which gathered musical greats like Topsy Durham, daughter of the late Eddie Durham; Dawn Hampton from the Hampton Jazz family; Dr. Larry Ridley, a legendary Jazz bassist who had played with many musical greats, and in addition to them James ‘Sparky’ Green, Melvin Copeland and Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford. Albert Vollmer, the manager of Harlem Jazz and Blues Band, joined to the panelists in the last part of the panel. As moderators worked Larry Schulz from Sandra Cameron dance studios and Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, the President of The National Hand Dance Association. Dr. Ridley opened on behalf of the musician panelists by stating how jazz music is from Africa and it is about feeling the music, which makes you move. Topsy Durham told, how his father, who arranged for many Jazz greats, wanted to make blues music danceable by using blues in swing music. Dawn Hampton stressed, how she didn’t know what swing was until she went to the Savoy.
Norma Miller brought up the difference between Hand Dancers and her generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers: Hand Dancers dance to the vocal music and her generation danced to bands referring Hand Dancers as social dancers and her generation as performers. Sparky Green corrected Norma as he stated, how he went to dance to the Big Band Swing events where there was played instrumental music. Panelist Brad Bradford stated, that when he teaches Hand Dance he wants to see you doing what he hears, because a dancer is a ‘visual instrument’ of the music. Dr. Larry Ridley stated the importance of improvisation as that makes you do what you hear from music. Melvin Copeland, who comes from the 1950s and the 1960s Hand Dance era, agreed with Dr. Ridley as they (Hand Dancers of his era) never had time to rehearse their dancing. Thus, it was about improvisation. A different procedure compared to Savoy Lindy Hoppers who used most of the day for rehearsing, and that happened every day. This, however, did not mean that Savoy Lindy Hoppers could not improvise when needed.
On Thursday evening, the most of Savoy Lindy Hoppers went to the Alhambra Ballroom where Cab Calloway Orchestra played with the lead of Cab’s grandson, Christopher Calloway Brooks. The event became memorable gathering of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers in one of ‘rare, still going on’ Harlem ballrooms. On Friday, Hand Dancers and Savoy Lindy Hoppers went to the Harlem bus tour where Old Timers took turns telling Harlem history with great help of the tour guide Barbara A. Jones, the President of The Harlem Swing Dance Society. The bus tour ended at the Savoy Plaque where The Savoy Ballroom was located. We saw memorable dance performances and Shim Sham, where great dancers like Norma Miller and Sugar Sullivan danced together.
The one of most anticipated happenings of the event were the Saturday dance classes. Brad Bradford gave a lesson for adults about the Hand Dance basics, and at the same time Deonna Ball gave a Hand Dance lesson to youth. The classes culminated in the reunion of the two most important Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers: Sugar and George Sullivan, who taught together first time for a long time, and that happened twice as David Butts Carns was not able to help Sugar with teaching in the first Lindy basics class, and George came in to help Sugar in that. The magical moment of the class happened when Sugar and George danced together. According to George, that happened for the first time after 58 years, referring to their Harvest Moon Ball championship. They, however, did competitions occasionally after that at least until the end of the 1950s. To the article writer, the real test was dancing in the front of Sugar and George in their master class, when, at the same time, on the background, other Old Timers were looking at us. It felt like we could not move our feet but we did our best. I guess that other pupils in the class felt the same. The experience, however, was such a great! Sonny Allen’s, who was George Sullivan’s student, master class finalized classes for that day in a great way.
Before Sonny’s master class we went with George to the Savoy Plaque where he told about The Savoy Ballroom and how he experienced that. At the same time, the plaque was frequented by tourist groups, who did not recognize George Sullivan! One of those tourist guides just turned away without asking, whom they were dealing with. Sonny Allen would have said in the case: ‘That’s George Sullivan!’, referring George’s importance in the Savoy Lindy Hop 1950s era and in the Savoy Manor era after that. George started to dance The Lindy Hop in 1951, because of his ex-wife Sugar Sullivan was hurt when doing an air step with Delma ‘Big Nick’ Nicholson. George promised to start to dance with Sugar after that, even if he first had to learn The Lindy Hop. As George and Sugar participated in the competition for the first time together after Sugar’s recovery, others laughed at George who did not know what to do. He, however, was determined to learn. He decided to make it to the Harvest Moon Ball finals, and they did it. It took four years endless training to win the Harvest Moon Ball, which happened in 1955.
George became one of the great Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers, who with Sugar was known about ‘lightning speed and smooth style of dancing’, and as Sonny Allen puts it: ‘Nobody couldn’t touch George in his prime in dancing’. Also Sylvan Charles, an avid Savoy Ballroom social dancer from the post World War II period, has stated, how George Sullivan was his generation’s idol in the same way than Frankie Manning was the earlier generation’s idol.
When George and Sugar stopped dancing together, George started to train kids (mostly Mama Lou Parks Dancers) in The Lindy Hop. Many of his students remember how George took them into the corner and taught them to dance. George was known as a demanding teacher with zero tolerance. As he puts it: ‘I was hard to kids, but in the end there were results’. The results were impressive as it is said, that he trained 26 Harvest Moon Ball winners. And that is not all, when you also add second and third places to the amount. The figure must be a lot bigger; at least tens of Harvest Moon Ball participants. Although George was the main man in these wins, according to Sugar Sullivan also she helped George with teaching as George used to call Sugar to show some patterns to his students and especially when George and Sugar started to train Jiving Lindy Hoppers from London in the 1990s. Some of George’s students also remember Lee Moates as another coach. Lee Moates was George’s main teacher in The Lindy after Sugar first taught George to dance The Lindy. Lee Moates, who George calls as the ‘monster’ (in the sense of respect) who knew everything, was the first of the Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers with Sugar Sullivan from the end of the 1940s.
When asked, how George feels about all those Harvest Moon Ball champions he trained, he said, that he did that for kids. George is known as a humble man who hided when those Harvest Moon Ball wins happened. He did not make a number of himself as the mastermind of those wins. His former students still love him and praise him as The Master of The Lindy Hop.
The Harlem part of the event culminated in the Saturday night party at Joseph P. Kennedy center, which was organized by BABBLE. The only minus concerning the party goes to the live music which mostly was plain Dixieland and caused a lot of complaints from today’s and former Harlemites, who wondered, how they can play Dixieland in Harlem! Obviously that happened for the first time in that scale since the beginning of the 1920s before Harlem orchestras started to develop swing in the middle of the 1920s. George Sullivan, however, set critics straight as he stated, that he saw people had a ball in the dance (as many downtown dancers came to the dance and Dixieland has traditionally been big in the downtown crowds). George also said, that even if it was ragtime and not Count Basie, Basie, however, came after that, so Dixieland was the base for the later swing and thus it was understandable to play also earlier jazz forms.
The event participants in the front of Joseph P. Kennedy center. From left, Sonny Allen, Norma Miller, Sugar Sullivan, George Sullivan, Dawn Hampton, Barbara Billups and Margaret Batiuchok.
The Saturday evening culminated when Old Timers were honored by The Harlem Swing Dance Society. People applauded in such a powerful way that you understood that something remarkable had happened in Harlem and the Swing Revival of The Interest in Harlem is on its way. It is coming back at full throttle to where it started.