Written and copyright by Harri Heinila
It was June 2011 when fellow researcher Judy Pritchett suggested that we should go to the New York Public Library to search articles and pictures of George Snowden in the Daily News, in particular, concerning the famous dance marathon at the Rockland Palace in Harlem between June and July in 1928. A little did I know then that the Harlem dance marathon was going to be an important part of my doctoral dissertation a few years later. When we went through the Daily News, there came out the dance marathon articles and pictures. Particularly, it was interesting to find a picture in which were depicted two couples on the truck on their way to the Municipal Building in downtown, Manhattan. One of the couples was going to be married, and they needed a license for their marriage, which they were going to get in the Municipal Building.
Judy said to me that there might be a footage in which the wedding process is depicted. I just listened to her, but at the same time I thought a discussion on the Yehoodi.com a few years before in 2009, in which the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan discussed the Harlem dance marathon and the footage George Snowden mentioned to Marshall Stearns in 1959 when Stearns interviewed him. The discussion does not exist anymore on the Yehoodi.com. According to Stearns, the Fox Movietone News took a close-up of Snowden’s feet. This is discussed in Marshall and Jean Stearns’ Jazz Dance (see page 316 in the 1994 version of the book). Terry Monaghan mentioned in the Yehoodi discussion that “only rich and powerful were filmed” referring to Snowden’s statement, and he did not think that the footage existed. So, I doubted whether Judy was correct that there was the footage.
On December 13, 2015, when I was checking a few things in my upcoming doctoral dissertation, in particular, regarding the Harlem dance marathon that I discussed in two chapters in my dissertation, I happened to take a look at the Wikipedia article, ‘History of Lindy Hop’, which mentioned that the couple who was going to be married during the dance marathon was depicted in a footage that “was recorded by FOX Movietone News”. In the Wikipedia article, there was and still is the link to the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. I immediately clicked the link, and it led to the description of the Harlem dance marathon film. It was certainly surreal to find out the footage which should not have existed. I had already sent my dissertation for printing, so I had to ask to stop the printing. Luckily, they were able to stop it for a moment. I made a correction in my dissertation regarding the footage, and the printing went on successfully. So, there is a short discussion on the footage in my doctoral dissertation on page 138.
After my doctoral dissertation that I defended in January 2016, it took years until I was able to confirm what really took place in the footage. I had a picture of it as based on the description on the Moving Image Collections site. In June 2017, I answered to DC Copeland who commented on my blog article, ‘In Defense of the Former Lincoln Theatre Building in Harlem’. He mentioned the footage George Snowden talked about to Marshall Stearns. I said in my reply that there is a footage in which George Snowden and Mattie Purnell are depicted during the wedding process, in addition to the couple who was going to be married. I also added to my reply that “[i]f anybody is able to take a look at the film, and [to] tell us what really happens in it, thanks.” I was not able to go to check the film at the time, and it took a few years after that until I saw the film.
When I read at the end of November 2019 that the Harlem dance marathon film was premiered at the International Lindy Hop Championships (the ILHC) event in Washington D.C. as a “newly discovered” footage, I was perplexed. It definitely was not “newly discovered” as the aforementioned story clearly shows. Also, the Harlem dance marathon pictures that were shown in the exhibition were not for the most part “newly discovered” as I discussed most of them in my doctoral dissertation. Those pictures were mostly from the Daily News. As far as I know, I am the only one who has scientifically analyzed and written about the Daily News pictures of the Harlem dance marathon. The ILHC should have credited those organizations which the pictures and the footage were from, in addition to us who have researched the Harlem dance marathon years and even decades before the ILHC. Marshall and Jean Stearns in their Jazz Dance discussed the Harlem dance marathon already in 1968, and after them there have been researchers who in articles and studies have explored the dance marathon. We all definitely deserve to be credited for our research.
I am not criticizing the possibility to see those pictures and the footage in the ILHC exhibition. It is wonderful that people had the chance to see those rare pictures and the footage. I did not publish any pictures in my dissertation because of the copyrights. The US copyright laws are pretty tough to be messed with.
Then a few words about the footage. First, it becomes clear that the Lindy Hop was not created during the truck ride to the Municipal Building as much as the footage covered the wedding process. The description in the Moving Image Research Collections describes pretty exactly the events of the film. The couples, Aurelia Hallback and Bernard Paul (the soon-to-be-married couple), and George Snowden and Mattie Purnell can be seen dancing in a close position as couples on the truck during their trip to the Municipal Building. There were a few moments that suggested a slightly more energetic dancing than the quite motionless dancing for the most time of their trip, but the breakaway did not take place on their way to downtown.
Instead of the breakaway, it could be argued that the rhythm Snowden and Purnell, and also the soon-to-be-married couple used in their dancing on the truck and in front of the Municipal Building was more like the 4/4 rhythm than the 2/4 rhythm which prevailed before swing music started to take over the jazz scene in New York. Interestingly, the partners of the couples are separated for a moment at the end of the footage when they are stepping down from the truck. According to the rules of the dance marathon, the partners of the couple were “not allowed to separate from each other while on the dance floor, for any unreasonable length of time”. Considering the phrase “unreasonable length of time”, the breakaway in the dance marathon could have been done the way Snowden described it happened accidentally. But likely the breakaway did not take place on the truck, which leaves the beginning of the Harlem Lindy Hop to Harlem as it is described in my dissertation, in Terry Monaghan’s article of George Snowden in the Jassdancer blog , and in Stearns’ Jazz Dance.
I would like to thank the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina and particularly Benjamin Singleton from the Moving Image Research Collections for the opportunity to see the footage.