The Short Story of The Shim Sham

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila (published originally in the late dancehistory.org site (the site by Peter Loggins) in 2009)

The story starts from 1926, when Leonard Reed met Willie Bryant in one of Whitman Sister’s shows. Whitman Sisters had one of the longest runned shows in the States, which lasted from about 1900 to 1943. They need for the show a quick finale, which Leonard and Willie made in the basement in very short time in 1927. They called this tap routine as ‘Goofus’ and it contained four steps: the double shuffle, the tack annie, the cross over and the half break as done by one chorus routine to a 32 bar tune. The tune that they used was ‘Turkey in the Straw’. They got the tack annie from a Tap dancer called Jack Wiggins who did a thing called ‘Pull it’. He used to say to the audience: ‘Do you want me pull it’. The answer was usually ‘Yes!’. Once he was performing to the audience, where was also his girlfriend Annie, Jack said those words again and added: ‘Annie next step may be tacky, but I gonna do it for you!’ The half break they composed from the rhythm of ‘Bugle Rag Call’ and the double shuffle they invented after seeing some guy doing shuffle in an old movie.

The dance was easy enough that they could teach even a total beginner to dance that in the show. One of dancers of the show got fired (obviously Joe Jones) and he went to New York, and created there a group called ‘The Three Little Words’. The Three Little Words started to doing the dance at Connie’s Inn in Harlem and they called it Shim Sham (if we trust on Stearns’ Jazz Dance) or they went to the club called Shim Sham where they started to call the dance by name Shim Sham Shimmy (if we trust on Leonard Reed’s own story). Anyway that happened in 1931 after which the dance (by original name ‘Goofus’) started to spread around rapidly. According to ‘Jazz Dance’, Shim Sham evolved also into a quasi ballroom dance without taps. That version also obviously spread to the television programs and shows as a finale.

An intresting fact is that when The Three Little Words performed Shim Sham in the club in 1931, they also invited everybody to get aboard and that happened. The tradition perform Shim Sham as a group started then very early.

Somehow that dance spread also into the Savoy Ballroom. Frankie Manning remembers that Shim Sham was done as a group line dance without taps. It was different than today’s swing dancers do. They did only two choruses into usually 32 bar chorus songs. It was not also organized thing or a big deal in the Savoy Ballroom. Only a few people joined to it according to Frankie.

It is interesting that later, obviously in the end of 1940s or in the beginning of the 1950s, they started to dance the Shim Sham version in the Savoy Ballroom, which we know as the Al & Leon Shim Sham (or Al’s Shim Sham) or as the Line Routine, according to Mura Dehn’s Spirit Moves. At least there are no earlier film clips of that routine than the Spirit Moves (from 1951), and it cannot be the same version Frankie told, because the Line Routine is longer than two 32 bar choruses. This version also differs mostly from the original Shim Sham. The origins of the A. & L. Shim Sham or the Line Routine are unknown.

Also Dean Collins created his version of the Shim Sham. Dean’s Shim Sham starts in the same way than the original Shim Sham but with some modifications, after which it goes totally different direction. Dean created his version for performances (not for social dancing) with exactly choreographied steps and body movements. Dean obviously created his Shim Sham somewhere in 1938. There are some film clips where Dean’s Shim Sham is done partially (as the Hep and Happy by Glen Grey Orchestra). Only film clip where this Shim Sham is wholly done is from 1983 (by Dean himself and Bart Bartolo).

Later came also new Shim Sham versions from the original creator Leonard Reed, who created the latest version ‘Revenge of the Shim Sham’ in 2002 in the age of 95. Other versions he made were the Freeze Chorus somewhere in the 1930s (this is basically same than the original one, but there are freezes instead of full breaks), the duet variation Joe Louis Shuffle in 1948 and Shim Sham II in 1994.

At least the original tap version from 1927 spread around into the Tap World as the simple finale dance, which was usually done in Tap performances.

The most know version in the today’s Lindy Hop World is the version which Frankie created somewhere in the very end of 1980s. Frankie used the original version, but without taps and he included also another chorus with boogie forwards, boogie backs and shorty georges. It is interesting to see Frankie doing the tap version in 1988 film clip (from a Margaret Batiuchok’s theses DVD). He also change for a while to the version without taps, but he did not do the third chorus with mentioned boogie steps and shorty georges (The second chorus is the original version but with freezes (not full breaks), which Frankie did partially in the clip).

Frankie started to do his famous version later in the New York Swing Dance Society’s dance happenings in the late 1980s after which he spread his famous version to around the world. Frankie put the pieces together for his Shim Sham and taught it to Margaret Batiuchok and some of the other members of the New York Swing Dance Society Board. Margaret had the idea and suggested to the other members of the NYSDS board that they do it once every NYSDS weekly dance at the Cat Club. Some other members on the board were skeptical, afraid it would take up dancetime. It took some persuasion but Margaret persisted and they agreed. Frankie lead the Shim Sham when he was in the town and when he was not, Margaret lead that. That’s the way the Frankie’s Shim Sham tradition started.

Today the Shim Sham has really spread around the world as you can see for example from Frankie95 videos in YouTube. The dance is now in the very solid base and it seems that there are almost as many versions of it as there are Shim Sham Dancers.

References:

– Film clip concerning Shim Sham (Al Minns & Leon James) (from Marshall Stearns’ dancehistory project. Clips can be found in YouTube) (from the beginning of the 1960s).

– Film clips concerning Dean Collins Shim Sham edited by Peter Loggins. Clips can be found in YouTube

– Frankie Manning: The Ambassador of The Lindy Hop. 2007.

– Marcus Koch and Barbl Kaufer: Dean Collins Shim Sham DVD (history part of it. Contains interviews with Mary Collins, Leonard Reed etc.). 2004.

– Mura Dehn’s Spirit Moves -document film (parts of the Line Routine might be filmed in 1951).

– The interview with Margaret Batiuchok (http://www.danceMB.com). 2009. New York.

– Margaret Batiuchok: The Lindy theses DVD (Frank Manning). 1988. New York.

– Rusty Frank’s ‘Leonard Reed Shim Sham Shimmy (interview with Leonard Reed). 1994.

– Marshall & Jean Stearns: Jazz Dance. 1968.

– The late dancehistory.org -site (Mostly Peter Loggins as concerning different Shim Sham versions).

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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. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-7783-9010 .
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10 Responses to The Short Story of The Shim Sham

  1. swiveltam says:

    I LOVE this post. I’ve never re-blogged a post, but I’d like to re-blog this one. It’s wonderful and informative and would fit on my site. Maybe I could post part and direct my readers back to you? Let me know how I can share this 🙂

  2. swiveltam says:

    I also thought of something else. What about Dean’s (Collin’s) Shim Sham. Did he take Frankie’s original Shim Sham and change it to suit the West Coast in the 1940s? Do you have any info on that?

  3. Hi Swiveltam! Thank you for the questions! Yes, you can re-blog this if you mention me as the author of the original article. When it comes to your second question concerning Dean Collins Shim Sham, my knowledge of Dean’s Shim Sham is based on information from Peter Loggins, Marcus Koch and Barbl Kaufer’s interviews with Dean’s students and his wife, Mary Collins. In addition to that, it is based on different film clips in YouTube. I’m, however, sure that Frankie didn’t create his Shim Sham until the 1980s. So Dean hadn’t any idea about Frankie’s version when Dean started to create his version somewhere in the 1930s. I’m also sure that Dean took the original Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant’s Shim Sham as a base for his own version. The beginning is similar with Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant’s original version.

    • swiveltam says:

      Aha, Thanks, that makes sense. I had heard of it from Peter as well. Doh, I missed your paragraph on Dean. You covered it. I know it may sound corny, but I like to find connections to my fictional story, Although in one scene my gal is at a Frankie Workshop learning his Shim Sham 🙂 I don’t have my 40’s characters doing it, though. Hmmmmm…. I’m will try to reblog tomorrow, but might ad some pix 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Short Story of The Shim Sham » The Girl In The Jitterbug Dress

  5. Pingback: Frankie Manning Shim Sham | Setajam Silet

  6. It should be noted that Leonard Reed choreographed it to the song “Goofus”, which no one ever does the Shim Sham Shimmy to lol!

    • Hi Forrest Outman! Thank you for your comment. I checked Stearns’ Jazz Dance, and it is stated there that according to both Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, they had “a comedy dance “an old-man shuffle” to a fast ‘Goofus’ rhythm” ” (see: pages 195 and 196 in the 1994 version of Jazz Dance), so it is about semantics: Did they have a song or did they only use the rhythm of the song? If you have more information, please let us know. I also checked Leonard Reed’s interview in Marcus Koch and Barbl Kaufer’s ‘Dean Collins Shim Sham’ DVD. Reed called it originally ‘Goofus’, and then it was renamed ‘Shim Sham’. It is true that we do not do the Shim Sham to “Goofus”, not even to the rhythm of it. I remember discussing with Peter Winquist Loggins a long time ago concerning the ‘put the clap back to Shim Sham’ campaign which was started by Leonard Reed who claimed that there used to be a clap at the same time when you went to tack annie. Now, the clap seems to be ignored at least as far as Lindy Hoppers or “swing dancers” (you name it) are concerned.

  7. My daughter was taught Buster Brown’s Shim Sham by the legendary Tobias Tak, who was taught it by Brenda Buffalino. Brenda, was taught it by Buster Brown. I’ve seen someone teaching it on Youtube, but the steps have been modernised infortunately. As most of Brenda’s knowledge came from 1st generation originals (as we sll know) we know hers will be correct.

    • Thank you Mark for your comment! I had never a chance to meet the late Buster Brown. Evidently, he became my favorite Tap artist after I saw various film clips about his dancing. He was a very modest person according to all I know, although he could have had a big ego because of his superb Tap skills. Those who have learned from original dancers have been very lucky. Terry Monaghan talked about dilutions as based on Marshall Stearns. He referred to the fact that the original concept changes when going through “middlemen” between the original dancer and the latest one who claims to use the ideas of the original dancer. That is why it is difficult to claim that you dance like someone else, particularly, when you have not even seen personally the original dancer. There are people who do claim that they are capable of doing the same things than the original dancers, but practically they have no idea of the things but they have seen in the film clips. It always makes me ask what is the problem with your own style if you have to teach someone else’s style. To avoid too many dilutions, I have tried to find either originals dancers or those who learned from them. Sometimes, you have to find those who have learned from those who have learned from those who have learned from the original dancers, but then there starts to be too many dilutions that the original idea has likely changed.

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