The Footage That Did Not Exist: Two Couples in the Harlem Dance Marathon on Their Way to the Municipal Building

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 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 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.


About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and the former 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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3 Responses to The Footage That Did Not Exist: Two Couples in the Harlem Dance Marathon on Their Way to the Municipal Building

  1. Thanks for mentioning me. I was thrilled to actually see the video that I had once speculated about. I am so grateful to ILHC, Tena Morales and Mike Thibault for making this material available to a large number of dancers and for including an amazing museum as well as historic lectures in an international dance competition. It is always a thrill to “discover” something that you have never seen before and to share the excitement with others. The term is used loosely in America. For instance, we often hear that our continent which was home to several major civilizations such as the Aztecs and Incas was “discovered” in 1492. I am often amused to hear that Frankie Manning was “discovered” by a couple from California a few years after he had been teaching at the Sandra Cameron studio in New York and many years after he had been spreading joy on the planet wherever he went. I hope more and more people “discover” the wonderful history of the Lindy Hop. Thank you for sharing your work with us.
    Judy Pritchett

  2. Mike Thibault says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, and for the advice on how to bring these efforts to a higher standard. I put together the exhibit, and for any future showings, I will ensure that all the items have proper credit to their sources, and that the efforts of past researchers are acknowledged in print alongside them as well. The statement about the materials was not meant to suggest that every item had been unknown to exist, but perhaps some other description would have left it less open to interpretation. I believed the film had not been viewed by anyone in the modern era based on the information that there was no digital copy yet available at the time. I’m glad that you have now seen it as well; it’s truly thrilling to see them in motion even if they are not as active in their dancing as we might have hoped.

    It is natural to honor the creative contributions of the original dancers themselves, but if it were not for the efforts of many researchers, yourself included, we would not have as rich an understanding of the origins and early years of jazz dance. To you, Marshall and Jean Stearns, and Terry Monaghan, who have worked hard to publish findings on this subject, I would like to acknowledge this credit. Many thanks to Judy Pritchett as well for her research and comments listed above, and to all others who are keeping these important subjects in the minds of Lindy Hoppers around the world. I hope we all can continue to share the rich history of jazz dance with our community.

    Thanks very much for your efforts.

    • Thank you, Judy and Mike, for your comments. Nowadays, it is easy to search databases and to get results in a few seconds. All of us who have researched more than ten years know that was not the case when we started. So, now it is alluring to search only databases and to get quick “answers” with the help of “primary” sources, instead of studying earlier research first and concluding things by writing articles and studies as based on both “primary” sources and earlier research. All new research stems from earlier research and research questions which are not answered adequately or not at all.

      It is not a good situation that many of important studies and articles are not available in public. They are behind paywalls or available only for those who belong to the organization that published them etc. There is a tendency in academia for supporting “open access”, that is, publications are available for free, and you can download them to a certain extent for research purposes. Of course, some of academic researchers do not support the idea because they cannot get money off of it. Yes, academic researchers have to pay the rent, too. There are not grants available for all of us. So, many of the researchers have to do other jobs for living. That is an unfortunate situation especially in Finland where only 10 % of those who apply for grants get a grant, and there are not academic jobs in the universities for all of us. Thus, also I have had to support my research by working in non-academic jobs, and I have been unemployed, too. In spite of that, my studies and articles have been available for free, according to the “open access”, and I have not got even a penny for my current research, with the exception of a small grant.

      Actually, I have paid for most of my research, including my doctoral dissertation, by working for years, and by saving every penny I could. At this moment, I am writing a book with the help of the aforementioned grant I got for a three month writing process. That is not much, but it is definitely helpful, and I am very thankful for that. Many of us do not get even that much for their research, so you understand that we are serious in this research. It is not just a hobby for fun. That is why we hope that we are recognized when there is a reason for that. As my studies and articles have been available for free for years, I wish that there are people who read them. Surely, we cannot know everything and nobody is faultless as we all make mistakes. As I emailed with Mike, he apologized for not mentioning me, and I accepted his apology. I just wish that researchers, who have sacrificed even their lives for research, are recognized for their accomplishments. We cannot forget those who paved the way for us. And yes, I wish I could afford to have days off, but I cannot. This is full-time, 24/7, to me now.

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