Copyright and written by Harri Heinila
I owe a debt of gratitude to Sugar and George Sullivan, Barbara Billups, and Sonny Allen for numerous discussions about their career. I want to thank Barbara A. Jones from The Harlem Swing Dance Society for many extensive interviews we did with Sugar and George between 2013 and 2014. I have also quoted and paraphrased in my article the Sugar Sullivan interview that dance historian Sally Sommer conducted in 2001. I am grateful to her for the interview. I am thankful to the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan for discussions and his research that have been helpful for this article. I am also thankful to jazz dance historian Peter Winquist Loggins for his Sugar Sullivan article in the Jassdancer blog, and to Eric Esquivel for finding out film clips that present Sugar and George Sullivan in the Harvest Moon Ball and the Ed Sullivan Show. Otherwise the article is based on my doctoral dissertation and articles published in newspapers and magazines.
Born as Ruth Guillory in Harlem, New York, Sugar started her dancing career in a Harlem dance school when she was four years old. In the school, she studied ballet for six months, singing for some time, but particularly tap dancing for three years. Her mother Esther Stude Baker was a shake dancer who had a rooming house near Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, which accommodated many comedians and tap dancers like Slappy White and Redd Foxx. The tap dance act Three Speed Kings and its dancers, James ‘Buster’ Brown and Sylvester Luke, were crucial for Sugar’s commitment to a professional dancing. They taught Sugar a professional tap routine that she performed in a dance school recital instead of the routine her dance instructor taught for the occasion. The incident caused her to leave the dance school, and her mother asked Buster and Sylvester to teach Sugar at home. This led into small gigs on the weekends.
Inevitably, she gravitated towards the Lindy Hop when she began to frequent the Pepsi Cola Club in Harlem by 1946. Sugar and her partner Eugene ‘Ray’ Daniels earned two paintings, which were signed by Walt Disney, when they won a Jitterbug contest that the Miss America Magazine organized in 1946. Thus, Sugar was on the winning streak from the very beginning. In the club, Sugar and Ray did usually the Lindy Hop performances and Sugar sang, but she was also an avid Be Bop dancer, which rightfully contradicts claims about Be Bop as non-danceable music. They first learned to lindy hop by watching movies like A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’. Sugar recalls that she and her partner spent the whole day in a theater watching the movie, and then they went to the Central Park to practice the moves they saw on the screen. Sugar did not only watch movies that presented the Lindy Hop. Because she also loved tap dancing, she used to watch those films as well and became familiar with dancers like the Nicholas Brothers, and Buck and Bubbles. Gene Kelly was one of her favorites.
In 1948, a big challenge appeared on the horizon when she and her new partner Norton ‘Stoney’ Marteeni, who later was part of the Norma Miller Dancers, heeded advice to enter the famous New York Daily News-sponsored Harvest Moon Ball dance contest. Unfortunately, they had missed the Savoy Ballroom preliminary for the finals, but they found out that the Roseland Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan still had a Jitterbug Jive preliminary available for Lindy Hoppers. Therefore, Sugar and Norton promptly went to the Roseland Ballroom to enter the preliminary. They were chosen for the Jitterbug Jive finals at the Madison Square Garden among otherwise white Roseland Ballroom couples. Sugar remembers that the preliminary results were not reported, but actually the Daily News published the names of the chosen couples in one of its issues. Although they did not succeed in the finals, the experience was mind blowing to Sugar. In the finals, she saw for the first time live the Savoy Lindy Hoppers whose existence she knew only via movies. She was amazed by the speed of dancing the Savoy Lindy Hoppers showed in the contest. The Roseland couples could not dance that fast. Sugar spotted the Savoy finalists already before the contest started, but she was not able to meet them until the contest was over. After explaining that she wanted to learn from them, they told her how to find the Savoy.
Soon, Sugar visited the Savoy Ballroom, although initially she was denied to enter it because of her very young looks, and she did not have an ID with her. Finally, when she reached the Savoy’s dance floor, she immediately noticed “the good dancers” from the Harvest Moon Ball, who told Sugar that they were shocked to see that she and her partner were among the white Roseland couples.
The Savoy Lindy Hoppers’ shock originated most likely from the racist access policy the Roseland Ballroom had maintained for the years. It did not usually allow African Americans enter the ballroom. Times might have been changing in that regard as Sugar and Norton’s participation hints, but evidently the Savoy Lindy Hoppers had not forgotten the policy as racism still was rampant in New York and overall in the US. The reaction also stemmed from the competition between the Savoy Lindy Hoppers and the white, mainly Roseland Ballroom-based, Lindy Hoppers. It was boosted by the Daily News articles during the preceding years when the paper had frequently predicted the Savoy Ballroom’s loss in the Lindy Hop division. As the home of the Lindy Hop, the Savoy Ballroom wanted to win all the prizes in the Jitterbug Jive division to which the name of the Lindy Hop division was changed in 1942. The reason for the name change was that the Daily News wanted to lessen the Savoy Lindy Hoppers’ overwhelming winning streak in the contest, which had begun in 1935 when the contest started. The name change was connected to the frustration the Daily News felt that other ballrooms had only a little chance to win the Lindy Hop division, which was the most popular division in the contest. According to the Daily News, the Jitterbug Jive emphasized originality and smoothness of dancing, which allegedly helped other ballrooms to compete with the Savoy.
The Lindy Hop in Harlem was increasingly known as Jitterbug and Lindy Hoppers as Jitterbugs when Sugar began to frequent the Savoy Ballroom at the end of the 1940s. The term Lindy Hop, however, did not disappear, and a new generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers, known as the Third Generation, was emerging at the time. The beginning of the new generation was possibly connected with Herbert ‘Whitey’ White’s effort to reinvigorate the Lindy Hop in the Savoy Ballroom after the Savoy lost the Jitterbug Jive title to a white Roseland Ballroom couple, for the second time, in the 1946 Harvest Moon Ball contest. The emergence of the new Savoy Lindy Hoppers was definitely connected with the activities of the Second Generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers like Norma Miller and James ‘Blue’ Outlaw, who mentored new dancers at the Savoy in the end of the 1940s. Both of them had worked in Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers years before the Third Generation, and ‘Blue’ Outlaw, who won the Jitterbug Jive division in 1949, was still connected with Herbert White at the time. Despite original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers like Norma Miller and Frankie Manning had left the group in 1943, White trained Lindy Hoppers until his death in September 1950. Sugar never met Herbert White, but she was part of ‘Blue’ Outlaw’s Jivadeers that White managed. Therefore, she was right there when the Third Generation started.
Harvest Moon Ball champions, ‘Blue’ Outlaw and Candy Carter, took Sugar “under their wing” and mentored her in the Lindy Hop. She recalls also that she used to watch Norma Miller and Esther Washington, in addition to Frankie Manning, Al Minns, and Leon James, who visited the Savoy quite frequently. Particularly, Esther Washington was the dancer Sugar looked up to. When she had learned enough to be able to dance on their level, she danced especially with Frankie and Al. They danced in the Circle on the Corner in the North-East part of the Savoy near the bandstand. Later, there have been misconceptions about the correct terminology. Since the Stearns’ Jazz Dance in 1968, the Corner became falsely to be known as the Cat’s Corner, a term that obviously was never used at the Savoy. Also, they danced in the Circle, not in the “jam circle” which is frequently used in current “swing dance” parlance. According to Sugar, the Circle was not always on the Corner. Sometimes, it was in the middle of the dance floor if there was space and the audience for that. Actually, at the Savoy, there could occur several circles at the same time as those who either played or danced there have remembered.
The Corner and its Circle were not for everyone. While the audience was allowed to stand on the circumference of the Circle for watching dancers, only those who were able to dance could go into the middle of the Circle. Al Minns and Leon James explained in Stearns’ Jazz Dance that intruders were removed from the Corner and its Circle by harsh methods. Although their description sounds exaggerated, it is true to some extent. Sugar has emphasized that the Corner was theirs as it was Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’ before the Third Generation. At her time, the Savoy Lindy Hoppers used a special rotating step for removing unwanted dancers from the Circle. Those who had tried to defy the step had been kicked. When compared to the birthday “jam circles” in the current “swing dances” where practically anybody can go into the middle of the circle, the contrast between the past and the present is huge. Not only regarding dance skills, but also tempo-wise. Sugar’s main criticism against the current “swing” scene is that her generation did the Lindy in the Circle only to fast tempi. The current “birthday circle” practice favors slow tempi for getting all involved in it.
As Sugar excelled at the Lindy Hop, once again, it was a time to enter the Harvest Moon Ball contest. In 1950, she partnered another Savoy Lindy Hopper Willie Posey, but they did not succeed in the finals. A new try with Delma ‘Big Nick’ Nicholson in 1951 looked promising until Sugar hurt herself in an air step in the Savoy rehearsals. While Sugar was recovering from the accident, ‘Big Nick’ had found a new partner, and Sugar was left stranded. After complaining to her husband George Sullivan that she could not dance anymore, George asked if she accepted him as the partner for the contest. Sugar was very skeptical whether George was able to do it because he lindyed very seldom. But George persisted, and finally Sugar agreed to partner him. After three weeks practicing with the help of Sugar and others, they entered the preliminary and, against all odds, were selected to the finals. Although they did not place in the finals, the Daily News published a positively labeled picture of them. Sugar and George did not participate in the 1952 Harvest Moon Ball contest probably because Sugar was pregnant. In the meantime, Sugar danced in Mura Dehn’s Spirit Moves with other famous Savoy Lindy Hoppers like Al Minns, ‘Big Nick’ Nicholson, and Teddy Brown.
In 1953, Sugar and George were back in the Harvest Moon Ball and this time they placed third in the Jitterbug Jive division while other Savoy Ballroom couples secured the first and the second place. The 1954 Harvest Moon Ball turned out to be very disappointing to them. They tied with a Roseland couple for the third place. Unfortunately, they lost the dance-off and placed fourth because, according to George, the white couple “kept it in the air” by doing continuously air steps while they danced on the floor. It was certainly a surprise because the Third Generation dancers usually thought that they could not be beaten. George has acknowledged the male partner of the Roseland couple as the best of the white Roseland Lindy Hoppers.
To win the Jitterbug Jive (Lindy Hop) division, which was known also as the Rock ‘n’ Roll division for a few years, became the prime goal for the Third Generation of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. When a Savoy couple lost the title, they began to practice very next day for the next Harvest Moon Ball. It was about endless training, more than six hours every day, until you got the title. Sugar says that they had a Harvest Moon Ball every night on the Corner; it was very serious to them. Sugar and George belonged also to the Savoy Ballroom’s famous 400 club that still was in action on Tuesdays in the 1950s. It was established in 1927 and became a club for elite Lindy Hoppers in fall 1929. George says that if you got the 400 club jacket, it meant that you were able to dance. In other words, you were an excellent Lindy Hopper.
Finally, in 1955, Sugar and George were crowned the Jitterbug Jive Champions. Their lightning speed dancing is captured in a Harvest Moon Ball footage in which the presenter says justifiably, “[o]h, yes, it is a real treat to watch these to keep the right beat”, when Sugar and George are in the spotlight. Sugar feels that the step, “the drop down the back”, they were doing at the moment, played an important part in bringing the Championship to them. Compared to other couples depicted in the newsreel, most of which were from the Savoy, Sugar and George definitely deserved the Jitterbug Jive Championship. According to George, they performed twice in Ed Sullivan’s TV shows. In one of them, Sugar and George can be seen doing a “precision” routine in the Lindy, which differs remarkably from the current light-hearted “swing dancing” in which the correctness of the rhythm is not the main concern.
After working as a dancing couple in various shows, and teaching the Lindy to the dance teachers in the Arthur Murray dance school and to the June Taylor dancers, George moved away from the show business, but Sugar wanted to continue in it. Somewhere between the last part of 1957 and the beginning of 1958, she met Sonny Allen, an avid tap dancer, who visited the Savoy Ballroom after returning from the military service. The first encounter between them was not the happiest as Sugar told NO to Sonny who asked her to dance on the Corner. By practicing with the help of George and Sugar, ‘Big Nick’ and other Savoy Lindy Hoppers, Sonny began to excel in the Lindy Hop and won the Rock ‘n’ Roll Harvest Moon Ball Championship in 1958. He decided to form a dance company that became to be known as Sonny Allen & the Rockets. In the beginning of the 1960s, Sugar joined in it. She had also kept touch with Mura Dehn and participated in Mura’s performances as did the Rockets. The Rockets included, in addition to Sugar and Sonny, Harvest Moon Ball finalists and winners like Charlotte ‘Mommy’ Thacker, and Barbara Billups who began to frequent the Savoy approximately at the same time as Sonny.
Sonny Allen & The Rockets toured in the US and in Canada, especially in Montreal, until the first half of the 1970s. However, Sugar did not forget the Harlem scene and kept touch with other Savoy Lindy Hoppers after the Savoy closed in 1958. She connected with them, particularly, through the Harvest Moon Ball preliminaries that Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks Duncanson organized. First, P.S. 68 at West 127th Street and then the Savoy Manor in the Bronx became important rehearsing places for new Harvest Moon Ball entrants who were trained by George, Lee Moates, and other Savoy Lindy Hoppers and Harvest Moon Ball Champions. Whenever back in NYC, also Sugar trained these new entrants. She was usually mentioned in the newspapers when it was the Harvest Moon Ball time. For example, the Daily News reported on how she and George helped their children, Sheryl and Gerald, to compete in the contest.
When the original Harvest Moon Ball ceased in 1975, Sugar did the Hustle dance which was basically the revamped Lindy Hop, but she did not feel about the new disco scene similarly as she felt about the old Swing scene. She took a few years break from dancing and came back at the end of the 1970s. In 1980, just before the mainly white dancers rediscovered the Lindy Hop and started the revival in it, Sugar was reported to be lindy hopping in various events, in some of which also the Mama Lou Parks Dancers performed. Dance historian Sally Sommer, who played an important role in promoting authentic jazz dancers in the pre Lindy Hop Revival scene, depicted one of these events in her “Rhythm Method” article in the Village Voice. Thus, it was especially Sugar and also the Mama Lou Parks Dancers who still were actively performing at the time when the Lindy Hop was claimed to be dead, and the mainly white Lindy Hop revivalists were supposedly resuscitating it in the 1980s by bringing back the “forgotten” Savoy Lindy Hoppers who actually were never forgotten by those who knew the Lindy Hop. Only the public interest in the Lindy Hop had waned by the time.
Al Minns, whom the new Lindy enthusiasts rediscovered in 1981, became soon, in 1982, Sugar’s dancing partner. According to her, Al still “danced the same” as he did at the Savoy when they first met. Jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan in his Al Minns article has discussed Al and Sugar’s performances in various venues. Their co-operation lasted until 1983. At the time, Sugar was remarried and could not go with Al to the European tour. Instead of Al, Sugar started to dance with Sonny Allen. When they were in the Rockets, Sugar danced with ‘Mommy’ Thacker, and Sonny with Barbara Billups. In 1983, Sugar and Sonny did numerous performances in NY and nearby, from which, particularly, performances in the Studio Museum in Harlem and in the Sandra Cameron Dance Studio are the most famous. Sometimes also ‘Buster’ Brown participated in those performances, which certainly brought back memories of his role in initiating Sugar’s professional dancing career.
As the new ‘Swing’ scene emerged in the 1980s, Sugar connected with the new Lindy Hop enthusiasts. Along with other Savoy Lindy Hoppers, she frequented events in Harlem like in the renowned Smalls’ Paradise, and events of the New York Swing Dance Society in the Cat Club in downtown, Manhattan. Sugar did not stop frequenting ‘Swing’ events in NYC until she moved to Florida by 1997. It should also be remembered that she was the one who met the London-based Jiving Lindy Hoppers when they performed on the stage at the Lincoln Center in NYC in 1992 and brought them later to Miami, Florida for learning from her and George. Terry Monaghan from the Jiving Lindy Hoppers brought Sugar to the fourth London Lindy Hop Festival in 1998. Therefore, she was intrinsically part of the 1980s Lindy Hop Revival from the beginning.
Sugar, in addition to the Mama Lou Parks Dancers, should be recognized for being right there when the Revival started. Al Minns is usually acknowledged as the first rediscovered Savoy Lindy Hopper who was brought back after a retirement. However, Sugar has been in public through her whole career. There have been unfounded claims that even Sugar was rediscovered by the Lindy Hop revivalists. How to rediscover someone who practically never left the scene? Despite the misconception, Sugar and George have been recognized as the leading figures of the Third Generation. She has taught the Lindy Hop and other jazz dances, and has explained the Savoy scene in numerous events around the world. Her professional dancing career spans over eight decades. It is a record that is hard to beat.
Sugar and George Sullivan at the Savoy plaque in Harlem in May 2013.