Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila
Between May 22nd and 26th, 2014, one of the biggest events for years as to so-called ‘Swing Dance’ scene was organized in New York. The event obviously gathered about 2,000-3,000 enthusiasts at least from 47 different countries. The late Frankie Manning had passed five years ago, only one month before his 95th birthday which also was celebrated in New York in May 2009.
After asking about opinions of the latter, Frankie100 event, the general tenor has been that the event was well-organized. Both Old Timers and newcomers of the scene have stressed that. The obvious purpose of the event was to bring together different parties in the name of celebration of the man who has been claimed to contribute so much to the “Swing Dance” scene during decades. Even The New York Times published an article on May 24th, 2014, where the picture label stated, “The Festival is named for Frankie Manning, a Lindy Hop creator”. Indeed, in the main text of the article, it is stated more modestly that Manning was only “one of its early creators”. It should be noted that Manning never claimed, at least, in public that he was the creator of The Lindy Hop. Also all existing evidence does not support this.
According to the article, “[t]he look of the original Lindy Hoppers did not last into the 1950s and 1960s, and its popularity faded”. Thus, the article gives the picture that during the 1950s and the 1960s there was not at least originality in The Lindy Hop or even The Lindy Hop at all.
The article talks about “the revival of The Lindy Hop”, in which were participated dancers from California, Britain, and Sweden. Oddly, the article passes the New York connection and does not even mention Larry Schulz who found Albert ‘Al’ Minns in the Mama Lou Parks event in 1981, and brought him to downtown Manhattan to teach The Lindy Hop in summer 1982, without forgetting other events, where he got Albert Minns to perform. That happened a couple of years before the Swedes brought Minns to Sweden to teach The Lindy Hop in October 1984. Some say that Minns’ visit was the real start of The Lindy Hop in Sweden. It also should be noted that it was not even Larry Schulz who “found” Minns before the Swedes. Historian and academic Sally Sommer suggested to Schulz to visit the Mama Lou Parks event for seeing a remarkable dancer. Minns also had become activate, as far as teaching is concerned, before Larry Schulz met him. Thus, although Larry Schulz’s part was remarkable, where the activation of Albert Minns’ career in the 1980s is concerned, Albert Minns, like other Old Timers, had not disappeared. He, like others, still did The Lindy Hop through the decades. So, what did the newcomers really reinvent or rediscover in the 1980s?
The article also claims, “dance historians say Swedes were essential” in the process. One of those Swedes claims in the article that she learned The Lindy Hop already in 1979 by watching The Lindy Hop scene of ‘A Day at the Races’ movie. Especially the Swedes are described as “Godlike” in their attitude toward The Lindy Hop. Indeed, at least one of them has stayed unsure about the status as she tells in the article, “The thing about godlike, I’m not sure”. In spite of that, she however states, “But we were pretty much the first people who took it seriously again after the ’30 and ‘40s”.
Also the headline of the article states for “Comeback for the Lindy Hop (Give Credit to Sweden)” like The Lindy Hop really was brought back by these new enthusiasts mainly in the 1980s when there was the first revival of interest, and then in the 1990s when there was the second revival of interest as the late Terry Monaghan defined these two revivals in his research. Monaghan insisted on “The Revival of The Interest in The Lindy Hop” because he claimed that The Lindy Hop never faded totally during decades unlike The New York Times article claims.
Although there exists a lot of evidence for Monaghan’s claim, it, however, did not worry the organizers of the Frankie100 panels to name their revival panel as “The Revival of The Lindy Hop”. The general tenor of the revival panelists was for bringing back the dance which had faded, and there were left only inferior and watered down versions before the revival. Only the leader of the panel, Lennart Westerlund, credited Mama Lou Parks and her dancers for maintaining the performance version of The Lindy Hop in the decades (mainly between the 1960s and the 1980s) when partner dancing was not in fashion. Also a panelist Darlene Gist who was part of Norma Miller Dancers in the 1980s, and who also worked with Mama Lou Parks Dancers, gave credit to George Sullivan who trained over 20 Harvest Moon Ball finalists, the most of which were Harvest Moon Ball Champions.
Otherwise the panelists concentrated on stressing the “fact” that they brought back the proper versions of the dance, which mostly had faded from the scene. Some of the comments even made George Sullivan, who sat next to me, to look at me like what these people are talking about. He was there during the decades, when, it is claimed, The Lindy Hop did not exist at all, and suddenly he hears that what he did: danced and trained the Champions was nothing compared to what these newcomers did later.
This disrespect of George Sullivan and other Lindy Hoppers and Jazz Dancers like Sonny Allen and The Rockets, Mama Lou Parks Dancers, Albert Minns, Leon James, Pepsi Bethel Authentic Jazz Dance Theatre, Mura Dehn, and etc., including so many unnamed performers, competitors, and social dancers on their mission to keep alive the Authentic Jazz Dance forms during the decades from the 1950s to nowadays, did not come as a surprise to the author of this article. As one of the organizers stated to me that “George Sullivan is not in their scope” when I suggested that they should ask George Sullivan to participate in the event. They, however, invited him to ‘the 1950s and Cat’s Club’ panel. He, like many other Old Timers, was rarely mentioned during the event. You can compare that to the event one year ago in Harlem when The Harlem Swing Dance Society and The National Hand Dance Association from Washington D.C. invited many Old Timers to their event in May 2013. George and Sugar Sullivan and many others were invited and celebrated then. Also The National Hand Dance Association in Washington D.C. did a good job in this sense in their event in the end of September 2013.
The Apollo Theater event in the beginning of the Frankie100 included the fundamental truth that you cannot do only one thing for the whole show. Instead of performing only The Lindy Hop, the show contained various Authentic Jazz Dance forms, in addition to The Lindy Hop. Thus also honoring the environment of the dance in the decades when Frankie was active in the past. At the time different Jazz Dance forms and practitioners affected each other. It was not only about The Lindy Hop. According to different sources, thanks for this goes to Chester Whitmore who had put the pieces together for the show. The various forms of Jazz Dance presented at the Apollo Theatre showcased a lot of talent. When once again asked from the Old Timers, the overall tenor concerning the show was that “it was good”. The more profound analysis, however, revealed that there were differences between the performers when observing Old Timers’ reactions in the audience. It was striking to see how some of the Old Timers did not applaud, for example, the “Swedish kids” whose performance in the show was otherwise praised by others who were not strictly Lindy Hoppers in the past. One of these Old Timers told me later that they “did too many mistakes. They had shortcuts. They have not practiced enough. We practiced differently.” There were also other Old Timers who stated the same. In spite of that, one of “Swedish kids” told in Facebook how they practiced for six months for the show, and they were praised for their performance. Maybe next time these kids have to practice longer and better.
Basically, it seems that also “Swing Dance history” follows “Swing Dance” as the branch where mistakes are allowed, and it is the most important to have fun. The serious attitude is not appreciated among most of the enthusiasts. So, you can twist the facts into the form you want and make your own kind of history writing as it seems to be the case when taking a look at the current Facebook sites and other Internet sites where historical “facts” are stated. The author of this article recently participated in a bitter debate in one of those sites. Some of the opponents began to post threatening messages which included personal facts. The safest way was delete my comments concerning the recently published study where the author of the study has serious methodological weaknesses. That was not first time as the author of this article has got “hate mail” from various parties. They rather posted these personal attacks than defended the study, especially by bringing out its merits. Does that mean that they stay uncertain what are really the merits of the study compared to other existing studies on the subject? Anyway, are these hostile, persona targeting attacks the way so-called ‘Swing Dance’ community really works?
When it comes to the Frankie100 Research Roundtable, it was a hard fought battle. When the author of this article suggested not to talk about ‘Vernacular Jazz Dance’, which has not had a proper definition, he got only the answer that it cannot be changed and vernacular does not mean only ‘ordinary’. That came after when the author of this article suggested that ‘ordinary’ is not a correct term to describe complex Jazz Dance techniques. It was also told to him that ‘vernacular’ can also mean ‘native’. So, it is a correct term, and there is no need for further discussion. Period. Well, if ‘vernacular’ means native, it is then ‘native jazz dance’. What is that? As far as the U.S. is concerned, the Indians were only natives who existed there originally. So did the Indians do Jazz Dance? With all respect to their dance culture, I, however, do not think so because jazz music did not even exist then, and the original connection comes from people whose origins are in Africa.
One of the reasons for the unwillingness to criticize current “Swing Dance” and “Swing Dance history” is probably money. Many of the practitioners of the branch seem to want to make money with people involved in the scene. It has been a big business for a while. Some people claim that you can earn even 700 dollars per day in the dance camps. Surely you can earn even 100 dollars per hour for private lessons. That is probably why many of the practitioners seem to keep telling how everything is good in the community. At the same time, they seem to ignore some of their Elders and keep classifying even social dancers into different skill levels, because of the dance classes, and thus scattering the scene into small pieces when the original social dance scene worked for incorporating different dancers onto the same dance floor.
Basically, you do not need many dance classes or not even one class when considering the fact that many of Old Timers learned by observing other dancers. When you know your basics, you can always add your own style without paying all your money for maintaining or improving your dance skills. That has been the general tenor when the author of the article has discussed with Old Timers. It also should be noted that during this era of YouTube and the Internet, it cannot be unclear to most of the enthusiasts how people danced in the past, and how they dance nowadays. There exist so many examples of different dance styles for free that you really cannot miss those if you have access to the Internet. Of course, it is true that there have been dance styles which you cannot find in the Internet clips, but anyway you get an idea what it has been about.
It is not exaggerated to claim that nowadays this “swing culture” is too often based on “modified truths”. There have been “dance teachers” who have said that you are better than before when you leave the class. That is not usually true: very few learn immediately. The most of the Old Timers, I have discussed with, have stated that you really have to practice to be good. There also are “teachers” who claim to teach authentic styles. As mentioned before in one of my articles, you only can be authentic in your own style. If someone claims that he or she teaches ‘Savoy Style’, and has never been in the ballroom, or has not even seen the building, how is that possible?
Well, it is time to finish this article for this time. Thank you for reading this. I save your time and leave you waiting for the part 2 which is coming in the near future.
By the way, here is the Apollo Theater show. It is the same 10pm show that I’m talking about. You can make your own judgement on how it really was. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u_-AP8u1R94