Written and copyright by Harri Heinila.
The whole May 2015 was dedicated to the celebration of Frankie Manning, Savoy Lindy Hopper and Whitey’s Lindy Hopper, who is commonly considered the Ambassador of the Lindy Hop among so-called swing dancers. Manning, who passed in 2009, left countless number of friends, students and followers who have sworn to keep his legacy and name alive. Manning’s fan base was mainly created during two decades between the end of the 1980s and 2009 when he taught around the world. As based on his huge success, he deserves the annual celebration. The World Lindy Hop Day was designed as the annual official birthday celebration which brings together numerous so-called swing dance enthusiasts all over the world. The official main event was to be in Rome in May 2015. The event was canceled only a few weeks before it should have happened. Luckily, the local dance community in Rome was able to organize substitute events for those who were left stranded with their plans to participate in the main event.
The cancellation of the main event led to a bitter debate between the organizer and her former associates who blamed each other on the issue. Because the debate is well-documented on the Internet, it is not needed to repeat it here. The debate raises a question why the project was allowed to proceed until its sad end only weeks before the event? Why it was not overseen properly and stopped early enough if malpractices in the event organization were known already in January? The whole episode is leading to the situation where there will not be anymore the main annual World Lindy Hop Day event (the WLHD event). Thus, Frankie95/100 kind of events will never happen again as one of the former organizers stated. This all raises another question, how the failure can prevent the future events? An answer comes from the former organizer who revealed the truth behind the Frankie100 organization: if one person had not stepped up to organize the Frankie100, it would have never happened. The whole event was practically in danger of collapsing before that.
As Frankie100 had a few thousands participants, which, by the way, was equivalent to one night at the Savoy Ballroom, the Rome event would have had even less, only a few hundreds participants. These figures are relatively small compared to any major event in sports etc. where thousands of spectators is an average figure. So-called swing dance scene, which should have tens of thousands enthusiasts around the world, has had trouble to organize relatively small size events to celebrate one of its central figures. This is contrasted with the fact that so-called swing dance camps have been running seemingly without similar financial problems.
If Frankie Manning is really appreciated, why his friends, followers and associates would not be able to organize frequently an annual international event for his birthday celebration in a similar fashion than Frankie 95/100 events were organized? There should be potential organizers among tens of thousands enthusiasts and Frankie fans, and getting money for that should not be a problem when considering how fast (in one week) the swing enthusiasts collected more than 25,000 dollars for tap dancer Mabel Lee’s surgery after her accident in a Korean swing dance camp in June 2014. This is used only as an example. The money was really needed for the surgery. Similarly, these enthusiasts have had money for dance classes, swing dance camps, even so that they, for example, have been able to pay 140 euros (almost 150 dollars a participant) in Helsinki, Finland for a few months’ weekly dance classes held by a person who has had minimal dance experience. People seem to rather use their money for other dance-related purposes than support Frankie 95/100 kind of events.
The Frankie100 organization also needed voluntary help for bringing Old Timers in the event. To those who helped were explained how the organization cannot afford to bring the Old Timers in. In some cases, costs of hotel rooms were covered, but that was it. At the same time, reports from respectful sources told how certain people were paid. No names here, but somehow it seems that organizers or people close to them were selective in who were paid for their participation. This may describe how “Frankie values” like inclusiveness, respectfulness, and generosity were “fulfilled”.
Anyway these values were less important to the organizers as far as the Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers and their descendants were concerned. By giving even a small acknowledgement to these generations in one of the evening events would have bridged the gap between the newest and oldest generations. Only the 1950s panel, where small part of the whole Frankie100 audience participated in, discussed the issue. Thus, the major opportunity for acknowledging the missing links between Frankie’s generation and the newest enthusiasts with the help of living legends from the oldest generations was lost maybe forever, at least, where the major swing events are concerned.
It was not anyhow surprising to hear later in 2014 that certain Third Generation Old Timers were no more invited to one of the major swing dance camps as they were invited during earlier years. Another swing dance camp in the beginning of 2015 had a vote for which of the Old Timers would be invited to the camp. The camp had money to hire instructors from around the world to teach classes, but as far as certain Old Timers were concerned, suddenly there was no money. I do not know if the organizers really got it, but all that sounds disrespectful and definitely insulted the Old Timers who paved the way for them.
When comparing the way how so-called swing dancers treat their Elders to how tap dancers have treated their older generations, the difference is clear. Tap dancers have brought various Old Timers from different generations in their events, not only one or two of them. They have acknowledged widely different tap dance generations without voting or selective support. Their respectful attitude for all the Old Timers is totally different than “swing dancers’ ” attitude. The latter has practically acknowledged only a few of the most known Lindy Hoppers and some of non-Lindy Hoppers who have had connections to the most known Lindy Hoppers. Practically during last decades only Frankie Manning and Norma Miller from Savoy Lindy Hoppers have been frequently acknowledged by the swing dance enthusiasts. Even Norma Miller was not in the position where she is now when Frankie Manning was alive. One of the newcomers told years ago that they could not invite her to a swing dance camp because she talked too straight. She might have acknowledged the rules of the game lately, but there was the time when the enthusiasts did not appreciate her similarly than now.
The roots of disrespectful attitudes towards Old Timers can be tracked down to the 1980s when so-called Lindy Hop revivalists started the revival of the interest in the Lindy Hop. There still are enthusiasts also from the 1980s period who believe that they really re-discovered Old Timers who were forgotten a long time ago. All evidence supports the fact that these Old Timers were practically active in the 1960s and the 1970s where dancing is concerned, unlike the enthusiasts insist that the Old Timers were passive. Thus it is wrong to talk about the Lindy Hop Revival in any sense because there was no need for bringing the dance back to the Old Timers. They kept dancing during the decades. Some even professionally, not only socially like Frankie Manning did during his post office years. Where the Harlem Lindy Hop is concerned, the 1980s newcomers only did not know that because they lived outside Harlem and the African-American community.
The 1980s newcomers encountered hostility from the Old Timers when they met them. Even Frankie Manning initially did not want to talk about his Lindy Hop experiences to white enthusiasts. It took time to get him to teach and talk. Norma Miller still stated in the beginning of the 1990s how newcomers had stolen their routines, and she insisted that the newcomers should create their own routines. The Lindy Hop was Harlemites’ dance. Some Old Timers never talked to white revivalists. This all resulted from the racist practices which the Old Timers had experienced during decades. The experiences were hard to forget, especially, when you were forced to live for years or even decades in a slum called Harlem and without proper income. The Lindy Hop and African-American jazz dance were the only valuables which the Harlemites had. Those who have interviewed the Old Timers during last years still have encountered hostility to some degree, which might have surprised those who are not familiar with the real Harlem social history.
To the 1980s newcomers learning to Lindy Hop also was not easy. According to Terry Monaghan, who was one of the 1980s newcomers, even experienced dancers had trouble to learn the Lindy Hop correctly. That can be compared to the experiences in the current Lindy Hop classes where even beginners are considered fast learners, and usually everyone looks good in the end of the class, as the teachers seem to state commonly. This may result from marketing tactics where happy customers are considered more valuable than customers who may not be happy in the end of the class, but at least they have been told honestly what they really can do.
Whether it resulted from the difficulties to learn the Lindy Hop correctly or from the mistrust which existed between the Old Timers and the newcomers, the 1980s newcomers gradually began to create lower standards which were better suited to their skill level. Thus, they eroded the base of the Lindy Hop, especially, where the competitions are concerned. The competition mode of the Lindy Hop, which always, since the beginning of the Lindy Hop, was danced to fast tempos and set routines, was shifted to slower tempos and non-choreographed dancing through the decades starting from the 1980s. Accordingly, to the social mode of the Lindy Hop was added elements from the competition and performance modes of the Lindy Hop.
The couples, which used to dance in harmony on the social dance floor, became mini-exhibitions where show offs with complex patterns are more common than listening to music and dancing at least somehow according to the rhythm of music. This resembles white, less-skilled Jitterbugs from the 1930s period (there were also skilled white Jitterbugs). As Albert ‘Al’ Minns has commonly been credited for saying that those Jitterbugs lacked control, the same has been stated by many other Old Timers, too. At the same time, as the Lindy Hop performance can go all kinds of dancing whether it is really the Lindy Hop or not. For example, the current trend in the Lindy Hop is to add modern dance/modern jazz dance influences to the Lindy Hop, which has led to the emphasis on upper body movements, instead of the traditional emphasis on a lower body. Where decades ago tap dancers from the audience could enter the stage in Harlem’s Apollo Theatre just for challenging tap dancers who performed on the stage, and showing to them how it was supposed to be done, today’s audiences applaud politely even weak performances. Norma Miller stated years ago that they did everything on the stage for getting audience on their side. They would have even thrown themselves to the audience if needed. It was that serious to them.
The disagreement between the 1980s newcomers and the earlier generations led also to a sad rift between the newcomers and the dancers who represented the competition and the performance modes of the Lindy Hop. The latter modes were, especially, represented by Mama Lou Parks dancers who got sidetracked by the 1980s enthusiasts because many of the enthusiasts did not understand the differences between social, performance and competition modes. This decades old rift still has repercussions. There have been recently new initiatives for starting the Harvest Moon Ball again in Harlem, and according to the old standards. These initiatives have received only a modest response from the new enthusiasts who seem commonly to ignore the initiatives. They rather settle to the contests where almost anybody can win whether they can dance or not, especially, because there are so many different divisions in those contests that it is almost impossible to lose. You can always find a division in their contests which suits best to your way of dancing, instead of mastering the Lindy Hop in the way that you can challenge anybody anytime like it used to be in the past.
It became “uncool” to the newcomers to learn from those who really knew the old standards of the competition and performance modes of the Lindy Hop. The 1950s Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers and Mama Lou Parks dancers were not recognized properly where the modes are concerned. For example, Harvest Moon Ball Champions from 1955 and remarkable Savoy Lindy Hoppers George and Sugar Sullivan, who have trained tens of Harvest Moon Ball champions and winners, have never been recognized properly by most of outside Harlem enthusiasts. Instead of them these outsiders have recognized Frankie Manning and Norma Miller, and even Dawn Hampton as ones who are master Lindy Hoppers also where the contests are concerned. It should be noticed that they never won the Harvest Moon Ball championship, in other words they never won any major contest. At best, Frankie Manning was third and Norma Miller was second. Manning and Miller are extraordinary performers who lindy hopped and jazz danced in the movies and on the stages. Dawn Hampton did not compete or perform in the Lindy Hop at all at the time. She played in her family band which occasionally played also at the Savoy Ballroom in the 1950s. She danced socially there during band intermissions.
Possibly, this misunderstanding is one of the reasons why the real masters and champions in the competition mode of the Lindy Hop have never been recognized properly outside the Harlem community. The task of recognizing Harlem Old Timers has traditionally been fulfilled by Harlem jazz dance connected parties. During the last few years, especially, The Harlem Swing Dance Society (THSDS) has acknowledged the living Harlem masters of the Lindy Hop considerably more widely than any other Lindy Hop community outside Harlem. In spite of that, even THSDS has had little success in acknowledging Harlem social dancers who lindy hopped or danced otherwise in various Harlem ballrooms. Lack of resources probably has been the reason for that. The task has not been easy as the Harlem enthusiasts have struggled to get the message through. It is a common scene in the Harlem swing events that Harlemites sit at the tables and do not even try to move their feet. At the same time, Harlem Renaissance Orchestra blasts the best big band swing in the world, but mostly in vain. Only a few locals, a couple of white enthusiasts, and a few Harlem Old Timers dance on the floor. There were times, not longer than two decades ago, when the dance floor was full of Old Timers. As years have gone by, it is natural that the oldest members of the community have left the dance floor.
A big problem has been how to engage younger Harlemites in the Lindy Hop. Those who have tried to maintain dance classes in Harlem have had trouble to get young people into the classes. The younger Harlem generations rather do something else than Lindy Hop nowadays. It is not cool enough to them. The reasons for this sad development can be tracked down to the Harlem Renaissance Movement which did never acknowledge respectfully the Lindy Hop during movement’s heyday in the end of the 1920s and in the 1930s. They neglected Harlem’s “folk dance”, which gradually affected Harlemites who did not support powerfully their dance during decades when the interest in the Lindy Hop was decreasing. That means especially decades from the 1960s onwards. In recent years also the current Harlem Renaissance Movement has begun to acknowledge the importance of the Lindy Hop.
After the demise of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in 1958, the task of keeping the Harlem Lindy Hop alive was left, in addition to George and Sugar Sullivan, and Lee Moates (who also trained the Harvest Moon Ball champions and winners) and their associates, and those who still social danced and competed, to jazz dancers like Pepsi Bethel, Mura Dehn, Leon James and Albert Minns, and to groups like Mama Lou Parks dancers, and Sonny Allen and the Rockets (also Norma Miller had her Jazz Men, but only until the middle of the 1960s). Instead of learning the Lindy Hop, new generations were more and more engaged in modern dance, African dance, ballet, and modern jazz dance. Probably, there was also a financial reason involved in this because it became more and more difficult to earn living the with help of the Lindy Hop and other authentic jazz dances.
As a result from this, the Lindy Hop has not been recognized in the way it should have been. The dance should be recognized officially as the dance of Harlem. This means, in the same way than West Coast Swing has been recognized as the state dance of California. The Lindy Hop has mostly been recognized as a fad. It has been a fun dance to most of the new enthusiasts, and it has been taken seriously only by a few of them. When considering the enormous amount of training which mastering the Lindy Hop has needed, it should not be unclear to anybody that the dance has been more than a fad and a fun dance. As it is true that Old Timers usually have described how dancing the Lindy Hop is fun, endless training was needed to have all the fun. You can have fun with minimal Lindy Hop skills, but you cannot compare your skills to those who have really worked for having fun!
It is shameful that so-called swing dancers do not acknowledge properly the living Old Timers (also those who are not the Savoy dancers) who kept the Lindy Hop and authentic jazz dance alive between the 1950s and the 1980s when the Lindy Hop was only a “vernacular” or primitive version of jazz dance to those who represented modern jazz dance. Some of the Lindy Hoppers and jazz dancers even sacrificed their potential career in more profitable jobs because of dancing. Some of them do not have social security. Some have hard time to survive economically. Some are homeless. American society is hard if you cannot pay your rent.
The reality hit hard current “swing dancers” when one of their heroes turned into zero overnight. The fantasy world where the Lindy Hop made everybody happy collapsed almost half a year ago when it was revealed that one of the rock star newcomer Lindy Hoppers used his position wrongly. After the revelation, some of “swing dancers” began to plan “safe spaces” in the swing dance events. It could be asked how the Lindy Hop or swing dance (you name it) is supposed to prevent similar incidents in the future. Whether it is the Lindy Hop or something else, there always will be “bad people” who use every possibility for their bad intentions. Using common sense would be better cure for that. If common sense says to you to be careful, you should listen to it. That was the way the Old Timers worked in the past. You might have been safe at the Savoy Ballroom, but reality hit you when you left the place and walked the streets of Harlem. Without common sense you could not survive.
As life used to be hard in Harlem, and it still is like that to so many of the Old Timers, new initiatives are needed for helping those who need financial and other help. They are the people who paved the way for today’s dancers. They deserve to be appreciated for their work, don’t they? The things also have not changed where the research is concerned. New initiatives are needed for interviewing all the living Old Timers whether they are dance superstars or not. A sad example of this is how only recently was found 102 years old chorus dancer who used to dance in Harlem. The Harlem community seemed to have forgotten her a long time ago, but luckily she was found by outsiders who interviewed her, and she saw a film clip about her dancing for the first time in her life. A lot of knowledge will be wasted if there is not going to happen a miracle and somewhere start to appear interview projects and money to those projects. Harlem still has a lot of Old Timers who competed, danced socially or performed in the ballrooms. They all should be interviewed until its too late. It is really frustrating to be in a position where you only can watch how everything is going to be wasted because there is no proper interest in the interviews and in Old Timers where Harlem is concerned.
Harlem also has had hard times with its infrastructure. Only two years ago the Lafayette Theatre and Connie’s Inn (The Ubangi Club) buildings were demolished. All happened so fast that there were no initiatives for preserving the buildings. When the Renaissance Ballroom building was recently demolished, there were initiatives for preserving it. Over 4,000 signs in the petition were not enough for that. The fact seems to be that most of Harlem’s culturally important buildings are not landmarks which have been protected from potential demolition. Those buildings could be demolished just like snapping fingers. New initiatives also are needed for their preservation. You can find almost any old building in Harlem as a building where there has been historically important activity. It is a huge task to map and preserve all those places.
New thinking, new resources, new enthusiasm, and recognizing the beginning of the Lindy Hop are needed for bettering the Lindy Hop/jazz dance/swing world. It is on a sad track now, but maybe tomorrow is better. There is a huge work waiting for those who want to put things back on the right track and this work must be started as soon as possible until its too late. The future of the Lindy Hop and jazz dance as based on their original forms depends on that.