Mama Lou Parks by Terry Monaghan

CRASHING CARS & KEEPING THE SAVOY’S MEMORY ALIVE by Terry Monaghan

Always in a hurry, Louise “Mama Lu” Parks crashed cars regularly. Usually about one a year, and they were usually Lincolns or Cadillacs. That activity was indicative in two ways of Mama Lu – she was a classy woman who went in pursuit of her goals with a ferocious enthusiasm. She had to. Coming to the Savoy Ballroom during its last phase she was lucky enough to imbibe its infectiously swinging atmosphere, but like many others unlucky enough to have experienced its sad demise.

Mama Lu was not to be downhearted though; there was still work to be done. Charles Buchanan, the Manager of the Savoy, urged the last illustrious group of Savoy Lindy Hoppers to take on the responsibility of staging the Lindy Hop preliminaries, at the new Savoy Manor in the Bronx, for the Harvest Moon Ball Dance Competition held each September at Madison Square Gardens. Coming to the fore, Mama Lu created a replacement scenario that attracted new dancers at one end whilst turning out Lindy Hop Champions at the other.

After being born in Raleigh, North Carolina she moved to Boston at an early age and only made it to New York when she was old enough to strike out on her own. Her family wanted her to be a minister, but she had her sights fixed on the stage and appeared in various productions. In 1955 she got a grant from the state to teach “square dancing” to young people but decided that was not such a great idea for a 127th Street venue in Harlem and got to work on jazz dancing instead. Starting as a hat-check girl at the Savoy, Mama Lu soon progressed to becoming a significant dancer there in her own right and finished up getting some of the best of her contemporaries – including Lee Moates, George Sullivan and “Big Nick” – to teach the youngsters. These three-month summer classes became an annual event that both attracted new youngsters to the dance form whilst the experienced ones prepared for the Harvest Moon Ball that took place at the end of September or the beginning of October. Invariably the winners finished up dancing in her company. By 1961 a professional company had been established which stayed on the road until her sad demise in 1990. Their 29 year run, set a record that no other group of Lindy Hoppers has come near to challenging.

At a time when popular dance was moving rapidly away from couple dancing, keeping the Lindy Hop alive as a performance and competitive dance form became an increasingly laborious task but she had powerful allies to work with. Redoubtable spirits like Marshall Stearns and Mura Dehn who argued the case for, and staged, dance demonstrations to show that the “latest” dance crazes were still only variations on traditional historical dance forms, created precedents by which various types of authentic jazz dancers got together in demonstration/performance shows that showed various continuities of the dance forms. What better setting for her dancers than to work alongside so many former great dancers?

Local politics played a part as the Republicans began to make inroads into New York City. Governor Rockerfeller, who had attended the Beaux Arts Ball at the Savoy regularly before it closed, became a helpful ally. The bedrock for success, however, remained the talents of the company, which Dickie Harris and Thelma Grant clearly demonstrated, in their decisive victory at the Harvest Moon Ball in 1966. Shortly after, the company made it to Radio City Music Hall, the first group of Lindy Hoppers to perform there since Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in the 1930’s. The resultant publicity, backed up by the remorseless work of Mura Dehn secured the inclusion of the company in the group of artists representing the USA at the Cultural Festival that preceded the Olympic Games in Mexico in 1968. Working regularly with Lionel Hampton, another staunch Republican, led to a gig in the White House for the New Year Inaugural Ball for the newly elected President Nixon. Later that same year, they joined the (State Department sponsored) “Back To Africa” tour that Mura Dehn organized in which they toured and performed across eight African countries. For the Mama Lu Dancers it was something of a homecoming as they re-met African artists who they had made friends with in Mexico. Experiencing everything from dodging bullets in the Nigerian civil war to being personally presented with gold medals by Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia in his palace widened their horizons and was to prove a useful antidote for the difficult years of the 1970’s that lay ahead.

Disco-soul proved to be a more insidious threat, to the continuity of the old dance forms, than anything else to date as its’ watered down Latin rhythms took new generations further and further away from an interest in, or even an ability to recognize, swing. In 1974 the Daily News, the major sponsor, withdrew its support for the Harvest Moon Ball. Eventually, the much smaller replacement event dropped the Lindy Hop in 1979 in favor of the Hustle. However the Mama Lu approach that was developed in the 1960’s of making sure her dancers were always the best at whatever was the latest style enabled her company to always be accepted and to keep the Lindy to the forefront.

Mama Lu had already seen the writing on the wall and looked again to Europe for new possibilities. Some of her dancers had already toured Sweden in 1963 – 4 with the “King Coleman Show”, along with other brief performing visits to other parts of Europe. The company started working the George Wein circuit of European jazz festivals in 1978, which ironically brought them back together with the major big bands; they had danced so avidly with in the US.

Other possibilities arose from this initiative. They made repeated tours of Sweden and contact was established with Wolfgang Steuer of the World Rock ‘N’ Roll Federation in Germany, which led to Steuer sponsoring the winners of the new Mama Lu Harvest Moon Ball event, to compete in the international finals in Europe. (A lot better deal than the same organization has been offering other groups recently!) This was a fortunate coincidence, as by then the official Harvest Moon Competition Organization had given up on swing dancing altogether. These new European activities attracted the attention of the British TV Company who produced the major arts, program “The Southbank Show”. In 1981 they paid for one of Mama Lu’s events to be re-staged at Small’s Paradise Club on 7th Avenue in Harlem, which became the first major TV programme on Lindy Hop.

New allies appeared on the scene. Neighborhood dancers in the South Bronx launched the hip-hop uprising against the, by then, smooth conformity of disco, and the re-surfacing of many old dance styles gave the surviving parts of the Lindy scene a new boost. Mura Dehn started filming the breakers, Mama Lu incorporated them into her shows and generally a new interest in Lindy, as the roots of Hip Hop, began to take a hold.

For many years Mama Lu’s Harvest Moon Ball preliminaries and then her stand- alone events, had been the rallying point where old Lindy Hoppers re-met and kept in touch. Awards were given annually to former great, and by then virtually forgotten, dancers like Al Minns, Norma Miller and Frankie Manning. But they did not remain forgotten for much longer. The new spirit re-ignited the smoldering embers of swing and before long other productions were afoot. In 1984, Norma Miller directed a two-performance gig at the Village Gate featuring the Nicholas Brothers and former members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Mama Lu’s Company leapt right in and followed up with a regular gig at the same venue with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band for the next three years called “Jitterbug Jazz”.

Throughout the difficult years Mama Lu’s collaborators had been able to sustain the original inter- relationships of the social, competitive and performance modes of Lindy in close proximity to each other. The new interest in the Lindy that emerged in the early 1980’s saw an increasing separation of these aspects and in particular a predominant narcissistic fascination with the individual’s own dance experience. The old ballroom practice of watching other dancers on the floor went into sharp decline. The Mama Lu dancers, increasingly out of touch with these sentiments, became largely performance dancers. That was still a good gig, but it put a considerable distance between them and many of the new enthusiasts!

Other new allies however were to hand. The Brooklyn Academy of Music, otherwise known as BAM moved into the forefront of promoting the new spirit of black dance on stage and scored a spectacular hit with their 1983 production “Dance Black America.” The noted film director Pennebaker made it into a superb documentary. Mama Lu’s dancers were prominent of course as they were in the following year’s production of “Sweet Saturday Night.” The Village Voice reviewer recorded “Mama Lu’s dancers Lindy like no one I’ve seen.” It wasn’t that the Mama Lu dancers had lost their old competitive skills, as Dickie Harris and Joya James decisive victory in the 1985 TV entertainment competition “Star Search” demonstrated. It was rather that they moved almost unthinkingly into new areas where work needed to be done, leaving the old territory to the new enthusiasts. Thus in following up their British TV coverage the Mama Lu dancers toured the UK in 1983 and 1984 and left a trail of new Lindy Hop enthusiasts in their wake, the most prominent being the Jiving Lindy Hoppers.

Surprisingly little credit has been given recently to the sterling efforts of Mama Lu and her company in keeping the memory of the Savoy Ballroom and its dancing alive throughout the difficult years of the 60’s and 70’s let alone arousing new enthusiasm for the dance form. Larry Shultz met Al Minns at one of her Harvest Moon Ball events which led to the emergence and founding of the New York Swing Dance Society (NYSDS). Their many visits to Sweden must have played a significant role in promoting the resurgence of Lindy Hop there, which eventually led to the formation of the Swedish Swing Society and subsequently the Rhythm Hot Shots and the Herrang dance camp. Without a doubt Mama Lu was central to the emergence of the new scene in the UK. The fixation with “classes” had begun to take hold elsewhere however, and the new enthusiasts were less interested in performance. In 1988 the NYSDS held its 4th anniversary dance at the Cat Club featuring the Count Basie orchestra and despite her offer of performing being declined Mama Lu marched her dancers through the doors and they swung out with their friends in the Basie band anyway.

Fortunately her status was recognized more generously elsewhere and later that year in December, the Bronx Arts Council honored her at a special evening show at Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center, at which one of her former youthful protégés Gregory Hines appeared alongside the veteran tap dancers of the Copasetics who had toured Africa with her company back in 1969. In June 1989, the Mama Lu Dancers scored a major hit with the Basie Band at Carnegie Hall for Joe William’s 70th birthday party.

But Mama Lu was not in good health, legally blind and suffering from diabetes, she kept up an unrelenting pressure and despite many pleas from her wide circle of collaborators and friends, refused to take it easy. She fell ill whilst directing her dancers on a cruise ship off Florida in August 1990 and had to be brought ashore. She died on the 23rd September back in the Bronx. That year her Harvest Moon Ball was cancelled and never re-staged. Tina Pratt, the tap dancer, got together a celebration of her memory in the Bronx in April 1991, which brought together a wide circle of contacts, reflecting the life she lived.

Her company has been through some rough times since then, but kept together under the guidance of Richard “Dickie” Harris, and continuing to rehearse weekly in the 127th Street venue where she first began so long ago. Recently the company has enjoyed a new influx of recruits and once again is making its presence felt on the NY Scene. At the Mid-Summer Swing event at the Lincoln Center in July 2000, eighteen dancers got together – 10 from Mama Lu’s Company, 3 from the Jiving Lindy Hoppers and 5 from the Lindy Hop Ensemble of Singapore – to perform a ten minute number in memory of this great woman who had passed away ten years previously. A number of her old Savoy Ballroom friends and collaborators turned up – “Sugar” Sullivan, Barbara Billups, “Little Nick” Mosley and Charlotte “Mommy” Thacker along with a number of former Harvest Moon Ball Champions she had trained. It was a gorgeously warm evening marked by that frenetic but inclusive ambience that Mama Lu invariably generated, when she wasn’t crashing cars.

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Afterthoughts from Frankie100

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

Between May 22nd and 26th, 2014, it was organized one of the biggest events concerning so called ‘Swing Dance’ scene for years 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 opinions about the latter, Frankie100 event, the common 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 in 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 modest 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 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 from 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 come to the event for seeing a remarkable dancer. Minns also had become activate, where 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 danced The Lindy Hop through the decades. So, what did the newcomers really reinvent or rediscovery 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 concerning 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 the interest, and then in the 1990s when there was the second revival of the 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 common tenor of the revival panelists was for bringing back the dance which had faded, and there were left only inferior and watered down versions. Only the leader of the panel, Lennart Westerlund credited Mama Lou Parks and her dancers for maintaining the performance version of The Lindy Hop during the decades (mainly between the 1960s and the 1980s) when the couple dancing was not in fashion. Also other 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, of which the most 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 in 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 in 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. Thus also honoring the environment of the dance during 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 the dance 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 to the “Swedish kids” whose performance in the show was otherwise praised by others who were not strictly Lindy Hoppers in the past. As 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.” Also there were 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 like 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 defied 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 already existing research about the subject? Anyway, are these hostile, personality targeting attacks the way so-called ‘Swing Dance’ community really works?

What 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? Where the U.S. is concerned, the Indians were only natives, who existed there originally. So did the Indians Jazz Dance? With all respect concerning their own 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 common tenor when the author of the article has discussed with Old Timers. It also should be noted that during this era of YouTube and Internet, it cannot be unclear to the most of the enthusiasts how people danced in the past, and how they dance nowadays. There exist so many examples about different dance styles for free that you really cannot miss those if you have access to Internet. Of course, it is true that there have been dance styles which you cannot find from 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 have to really practice to be good. There also are “teachers”, who claim to teach authentic styles. As mentioned before in one of the earlier articles, you only can be authentic in your own style. If someone claims, that he teaches ‘Savoy Style’, and has never been in the ballroom or has not even seen the building, how that is 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

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Who Found Frankie Manning in the 1980s

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

It is time to clear the facts about the Revival of the Interest in the Lindy Hop in the 1980s and tell which of the Lindy revivalists really first found Frankie then.

Everyone who was in the Frankie95 Lindy Revival panel discussion in May 2009 remembers the clip in which Margaret Batiuchok and Frankie danced together in the dance studio. That clip was from 1985. I asked Margaret later when she saw Frankie at the first time. That was even earlier: in 1984, when Margaret was an understudy in the rehearsals of the Norma Miller’s dance group. Frankie was sitting there and watching queitly the rehearsals. Frankie also frequented the New York Swing Dance Society’s Cat Club since 1985.

We also know that Lennart Westerlund with his friends, Anders Lind and Henning Sörensen, and Larry Schulz, who worked with Albert ‘Al’ Minns at the time, saw Frankie earlier than Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell. They, however, did not attend to Frankie then. And it also should be remembered that Jiving Lindy Hoppers (Terry Monaghan and Warren Heyes and their group) worked with Frankie and Norma Miller at the latest in 1986.

Even that is not the whole truth. To be exact Frankie never disappeared totally from The Lindy Hop scene. Although he worked in the post office for decades, he still danced socially and participated in gatherings of the old Savoy Ballroom guard. He also judged in one of Louise ‘Mama Lou’ Parks Duncanson’s International Harvest Moon Ball competitions with other Lindy Hop masters like George Sullivan in the beginning of the 1980s. So, how to “rediscover” him, if he never really disappeared?

The official story still goes (by the Frankie’s official biography ‘Ambassador of The Lindy Hop’ and even by the Frankie document film ‘Frankie Manning: Never Stop Swingin’) that Erin and Steven called Frankie from California and they met him in 1986 at the Bryant Dupré’s party in New York. Frankie started to teach them after that. That was the official start of Frankie’s new career as The Lindy Hop teacher.

These, however, are the facts. Margaret Batiuchok should get the recognition that she was the first one of the revivalists of the Interest in the Lindy Hop who danced and rehearsed with Frankie Manning in the 1980s. We know that Margaret and Frankie danced regularly together also later because there are Margaret’s theses and DVDs (from 1987-88) in which Frankie dances with Margaret. Hopefully the history of the Revival of the Interest in the Lindy Hop will be reconsidered, and these facts are noted before the Frankie100 panels, because we do not want to repeat old mistakes.

This is the updated version which is based on Harri Heinila’s article in 2009.

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The Short Story of The Shim Sham

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila (published originally in the late dancehistory.org site (the site by Peter Loggins) in 2009)

The story starts from 1926, when Leonard Reed met Willie Bryant in one of Whitman Sister’s shows. Whitman Sisters had one of the longest runned shows in the States, which lasted from about 1900 to 1943. They need for the show a quick finale, which Leonard and Willie made in the basement in very short time in 1927. They called this tap routine as ‘Goofus’ and it contained four steps: the double shuffle, the tack annie, the cross over and the half break as done by one chorus routine to a 32 bar tune. The tune that they used was ‘Turkey in the Straw’. They got the tack annie from a Tap dancer called Jack Wiggins who did a thing called ‘Pull it’. He used to say to the audience: ‘Do you want me pull it’. The answer was usually ‘Yes!’. Once he was performing to the audience, where was also his girlfriend Annie, Jack said those words again and added: ‘Annie next step may be tacky, but I gonna do it for you!’ The half break they composed from the rhythm of ‘Bugle Rag Call’ and the double shuffle they invented after seeing some guy doing shuffle in an old movie.

The dance was easy enough that they could teach even a total beginner to dance that in the show. One of dancers of the show got fired (obviously Joe Jones) and he went to New York, and created there a group called ‘The Three Little Words’. The Three Little Words started to doing the dance at Connie’s Inn in Harlem and they called it Shim Sham (if we trust on Stearns’ Jazz Dance) or they went to the club called Shim Sham where they started to call the dance by name Shim Sham Shimmy (if we trust on Leonard Reed’s own story). Anyway that happened in 1931 after which the dance (by original name ‘Goofus’) started to spread around rapidly. According to ‘Jazz Dance’, Shim Sham evolved also into a quasi ballroom dance without taps. That version also obviously spread to the television programs and shows as a finale.

An intresting fact is that when The Three Little Words performed Shim Sham in the club in 1931, they also invited everybody to get aboard and that happened. The tradition perform Shim Sham as a group started then very early.

Somehow that dance spread also into the Savoy Ballroom. Frankie Manning remembers that Shim Sham was done as a group line dance without taps. It was different than today’s swing dancers do. They did only two choruses into usually 32 bar chorus songs. It was not also organized thing or a big deal in the Savoy Ballroom. Only a few people joined to it according to Frankie.

It is interesting that later, obviously in the end of 1940s or in the beginning of the 1950s, they started to dance the Shim Sham version in the Savoy Ballroom, which we know as the Al & Leon Shim Sham (or Al’s Shim Sham) or as the Line Routine, according to Mura Dehn’s Spirit Moves. At least there are no earlier film clips of that routine than the Spirit Moves (from 1951), and it cannot be the same version Frankie told, because the Line Routine is longer than two 32 bar choruses. This version also differs mostly from the original Shim Sham. The origins of the A. & L. Shim Sham or the Line Routine are unknown.

Also Dean Collins created his version of the Shim Sham. Dean’s Shim Sham starts in the same way than the original Shim Sham but with some modifications, after which it goes totally different direction. Dean created his version for performances (not for social dancing) with exactly choreographied steps and body movements. Dean obviously created his Shim Sham somewhere in 1938. There are some film clips where Dean’s Shim Sham is done partially (as the Hep and Happy by Glen Grey Orchestra). Only film clip where this Shim Sham is wholly done is from 1983 (by Dean himself and Bart Bartolo).

Later came also new Shim Sham versions from the original creator Leonard Reed, who created the latest version ‘Revenge of the Shim Sham’ in 2002 in the age of 95. Other versions he made were the Freeze Chorus somewhere in the 1930s (this is basically same than the original one, but there are freezes instead of full breaks), the duet variation Joe Louis Shuffle in 1948 and Shim Sham II in 1994.

At least the original tap version from 1927 spread around into the Tap World as the simple finale dance, which was usually done in Tap performances.

The most know version in the today’s Lindy Hop World is the version which Frankie created somewhere in the very end of 1980s. Frankie used the original version, but without taps and he included also another chorus with boogie forwards, boogie backs and shorty georges. It is interesting to see Frankie doing the tap version in 1988 film clip (from a Margaret Batiuchok’s theses DVD). He also change for a while to the version without taps, but he did not do the third chorus with mentioned boogie steps and shorty georges (The second chorus is the original version but with freezes (not full breaks), which Frankie did partially in the clip).

Frankie started to do his famous version later in the New York Swing Dance Society’s dance happenings in the late 1980s after which he spread his famous version to around the world. Frankie put the pieces together for his Shim Sham and taught it to Margaret Batiuchok and some of the other members of the New York Swing Dance Society Board. Margaret had the idea and suggested to the other members of the NYSDS board that they do it once every NYSDS weekly dance at the Cat Club. Some other members on the board were skeptical, afraid it would take up dancetime. It took some persuasion but Margaret persisted and they agreed. Frankie lead the Shim Sham when he was in the town and when he was not, Margaret lead that. That’s the way the Frankie’s Shim Sham tradition started.

Today the Shim Sham has really spread around the world as you can see for example from Frankie95 videos in YouTube. The dance is now in the very solid base and it seems that there are almost as many versions of it as there are Shim Sham Dancers.

References:

– Film clip concerning Shim Sham (Al Minns & Leon James) (from Marshall Stearns’ dancehistory project. Clips can be found in YouTube) (from the beginning of the 1960s).

– Film clips concerning Dean Collins Shim Sham edited by Peter Loggins. Clips can be found in YouTube

– Frankie Manning: The Ambassador of The Lindy Hop. 2007.

– Marcus Koch and Barbl Kaufer: Dean Collins Shim Sham DVD (history part of it. Contains interviews with Mary Collins, Leonard Reed etc.). 2004.

– Mura Dehn’s Spirit Moves -document film (parts of the Line Routine might be filmed in 1951).

– The interview with Margaret Batiuchok (http://www.danceMB.com). 2009. New York.

– Margaret Batiuchok: The Lindy theses DVD (Frank Manning). 1988. New York.

– Rusty Frank’s ‘Leonard Reed Shim Sham Shimmy (interview with Leonard Reed). 1994.

– Marshall & Jean Stearns: Jazz Dance. 1968.

– The late dancehistory.org -site (Mostly Peter Loggins as concerning different Shim Sham versions).

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The State of Jazz Dance

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

In the end of September 2013, The National Hand Dance Association organized one of the most important events in Washington D.C. The event included a panel discussion with Old Timers from The Savoy Ballroom era and with The Washington D.C. Hand Dance veterans, in addition to other panelists from the current Swing and Hand Dance scene. The event also had Hand Dance and Lindy Hop demonstrations with help of Old Timers from both the Hand Dance scene and The Savoy Ballroom.

Luckily, the event gathered a lot of audience, especially Hand Dancers, but unfortunately it gathered less from the current so-called Swing Dance scene which mostly stayed away.

The same phenomenon happened in the Harlem Swing Dance Society dance in October. The Columbia University Swing Dancers basically represented the downtown scene, but that was mostly it. Luckily, the event gathered a lot of Old Timers from different eras: The Savoy Ballroom era and the post-Savoy era, and a lot of Harlemites came in. So, for those who really wanted to meet people from the Harlem scene from different decades, that was the place.

At the same time, all kinds of workshops and dance camps take a lot of dancers. Also Old Timers are regularly represented in those events, but mostly for authenticating younger generations’ dancing by telling stories from the past. It sometimes looks like those younger dancers just wait for the stories have been told and then they can go to learn from younger generation dancers how the dance should really be done. It looks like these dancers ignore the fact that Old Timers still can teach and younger dancers can learn from them. Are these younger dancers really capable of replicating what older generations did? If you asked that from the late Terry Monaghan, a famous The Savoy Ballroom historian, his answer would have been a firm NO.

Monaghan states in his “theses” concerning The Savoy Ballroom and The Lindy Hop’s relation to it, that there possibly are some of “new dancers” who are thinking that they are superior to Elders. They may think, for example, that they have larger “step collections” than Elders, and thus they have better knowledge about the dance. These “new generation dancers” also use different nuances from old film clips for their teaching without really understanding and analyzing the idea behind those movements. Monaghan states that “new scene” has micro-analyzed Lindy Hop technique, which has led to confusing facts how The Lindy Hop should be learned and danced.

According to Monaghan, the original Savoy scene was consciously structured and modified over the years to integrate differing levels of expertise in a way that developed the dance form as a whole. Also the original scene respected social dancers more than today’s scene where to be kicked or to be collided is more likely than in the past. Nowadays dancers rather make exhibitions of themselves than really dance with their partners on the social dance floor. Monaghan thinks that the main departure from Savoy modes of organization is the replacement of a general awareness of the differences between performance, competition and social dancing. By categorizing dancers in ‘beginners’, ‘intermediates’ and ‘advanced’, the way to become an expert is to take more classes instead of the old ballroom test of successfully attracting congenial dance partners.

The old way to learn by individual observation and imitation is largely omitted from this world of dance classes. The categorizing also leads to standardization, as the goal is to reach ‘advanced’ level to be a good dancer. And even that is not the final goal as there is a level above ‘advanced’: ‘performance training’, which indicates that a logical goal to social dancers is to perform that they can be even better dancers than ‘advanced’. The top layer of the new scene of performance and competition dancers is sometimes called as ‘rock stars’ who have been the star attraction of the dance camps. They usually are the ones who define correct techniques which should be taught.

Thus, in effect, these ‘top layers’ of the new Lindy scene have replaced Old Timers as role models, where dancing is concerned. That also has led to a fact that to be able to increase amount of students in classes is achieved by winning competitions or by performing regularly in big enough events.

At the same time, when teaching is mostly “allowed” only to those who are “advanced” enough, also dance history information has been under “control” as there has been “collectors” who possibly have tried to use their information as “merchandise”. Certain people try to control the Jazz Dance-related information and think that they only are able to speak for Old Timers. Hiding information for their own use has led to the situation where Jazz Dance research has incidentally been slowed down, but hopefully only a bit as mostly this hidden information seems to be some random details which as such does not make a big picture, but probably can help in making the big picture.

Anyone, who really has researched history, knows how time consuming research really is. At the best it is a full time job and your life. You do not have much time for other activities. Thus, the easiness of “dance historians”, when they reveal their ‘revolutionary facts’ about Jazz Dance, reminds of the same micro-analysis than where the analysis of the dance is concerned. This “micro-analysis” of Jazz Dance has led to so-called ‘puzzle history’ where these “historians” are giving a piece of puzzle, but at the same time, they are hiding other pieces for the future use. This “information feeding” keeps their admirers “in check” as they are happy for even a small piece of information, although that piece did not mean much in the big picture.

Jazz Dance, and in it especially swing-related dances, and the Charleston have become a big business where you really can make big money if you can control information, and if you are able to convince others about your superiority in Jazz Dance. The acknowledgement of these facts as conditions for success has led some people to find “shortcuts” to these issues, and has created a new phenomenon at least in Finland, where certain people, who are calling themselves as “jazz dancers”, are trying to define what is correct in Jazz Dance. These people have masqueraded their operation in a form of ‘non-profit’ organization, but in reality they are probably taking a piece of the ‘big business’. Incredible, but true is that nobody has challenged them in any way. As local dance associations stay quiet in the case and are not willing to challenge these “jazz dancers”, the situation reminds old gangster films where streets were divided into different gang areas –in this case – of course – between different jazz gangs. Obviously everybody involved is happy about that they all can make money.

These people also control newspapers and information about them as you can see videos about them in YouTube, and all comments in these videos are disabled. You also cannot correct their misleading historical information in newspapers as those papers do not publish your comments obviously because their friends are responsible for those articles. They have their own dance events and classes and you cannot see them social dancing in other ballrooms (probably because they cannot social dance, although they claim to teach social dance), and definitely they are not going to be challenged in any public performances with real performers or in competitions. At the same time, they claim that they have superiority in Jazz Dance. That reminds a religion where reality is ruled out, and created a fictive world with details that match to their “religion”.

Also a question concerning authenticity comes up quite often. Who are authentic dancers? Can anybody teach someone else’s dance style authentically enough? To answer these: first of all, “authentic” is what you are doing. Everybody is “authentic” in his own thing. To be someone else authentically enough is not the easiest case: you can learn about someone else’s style even straight from the person, but you cannot get into his head, even if you were otherwise as good as possible. In other words you can’t replicate someone else’s mindset: You can teach only what you are.

This article quotes from the late Terry Monaghan and his ‘ ”Stompin’ At the Savoy” -Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom (Dancing At The Crossroads. African Diasporic Dances in Britain. Conference Proceedings 1-2 August 2002). Monaghan study is the study which everybody should read carefully.

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A Great Weekend in Harlem

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

Between May 9th and May 12th 2013, there was organized one of the most important events for years in New York. The event, which was based on the collaboration of The Harlem Swing Dance Society, The National Hand Dance Association (from Washington D.C.) and BABBLE organization (Balboa, Swing, Blues and The Lindy Hop exchange in New York), gathered hundreds of participants from the U.S. and abroad.

The event also gathered a lot of Old Time dance legends like Norma Miller, Sugar and George Sullivan, Barbara Billups, and Sonny Allen from the Savoy Ballroom era. The Savoy Manor era (the post Savoy Ballroom era) was represented by Mama Lou Parks dancers like David Butts Carns, Debra Youngblood, Joya Jaimes, Clementine ‘Tiny’ Thomas, and Crystal Johnson. The Washington D.C. Hand Dancers were represented by greats like James ‘Sparky’ Green, Lee Ware, Maxie Grant, and Lawrence Bradford.

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The dancers’ discussion panel from the left, Norma Miller, Sugar Sullivan, George Sullivan, Sonny Allen, David Butts Carns, James ‘Sparky’ Green, Lee Ware, Maxie Grant, and Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford.

The weekend was opened by the dancers’ discussion panel on Thursday, where the Savoy Ballroom legends and Harvest Moon Ball winners Norma Miller, Sugar and George Sullivan, Sonny Allen, and the Harvest Moon Ball winner David Butts Carns from Mama Lou Parks Dancers represented Harlem, and James ‘Sparky’ Green, Lee Ware, Maxie Grant, and Lawrence Bradford represented the Washington D.C. Hand Dancers. As the moderators worked Margaret Batiuchok who is another Harvest Moon Ball winner from 1983, and Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald from Rutgers University, who both also started the discussion session with their historical summaries of the African American dance and The Lindy Hop.

There were different topics in the discussion. Norma Miller opened on behalf of the discussion panelists by stating, how ‘the most talented and brilliant people’ had centered in Harlem, when she started her career. She also stated how swing differed from Dixieland music and how their dancing differed from earlier styles, because of swing music. According to Norma, they were originally dancing ‘a smooth style of Lindy’. Aerials came later. As Norma put it: ‘All dancing was flat prior to aerials’.

Sugar Sullivan told, how she ‘tried to put as many steps as possible’ into the swing out or into the swing as Old Timers usually call the swing out. She just did not want to ‘run out and run back’. ‘I wanted to do something with my feet’. ‘My thing was footwork’.

George Sullivan stressed in his statement the importance of rhythm: ‘It is all about rhythm. Everybody out there in your dances: when you walk, you dance. When you walk, you dance, it just when you put something with it, when you are on the floor and enjoy’.

Sonny Allen stated, ‘I’ve tried to put it easy’. He compared different tap dancers to each other as some of them have danced ‘into the floor’ and some of them have danced ‘on the top of floor’. To dance ‘on the top of floor’ is easier. ‘You don’t fight with floor’, as he said referring to those who are dancing ‘into the floor’. He also said referring to George Sullivan, how ‘this gentleman here danced like he was gliding across the floor’, which caused a storm of applause. Sonny also said, how ‘a lot of teachers’ are teaching people in the way ‘they danced in the 20s’ referring to ‘the down and up bounce to the every beat’, which is usually done by today’s Lindy dancers. As Sonny said, ‘you can’t do that to Count Basie’s music’. He continued, how they danced more horizontally ‘on the top of the floor’ than vertically ‘into the floor’. Sonny also referred in his later statement to social dancers who are competing with other couples on the social dance floor, and not dancing together as a couple and a group as they should be. George added to that ‘it is an agreement’ to dance with each other as a couple.

David Butts Carns stressed the importance of partnering as he referred to his over 15 years partner Debra Youngblood, with whom he won Harvest Moon Ball in 1980. David himself won HMB twice: first with Betty Silva in 1962 and then with Debra. He also stressed the importance of ‘flash’ (movements) in the performance mode of The Lindy Hop.

The special moment happened when Norma Miller surprisingly asked from a moderator Margaret Batiuchok in the end of the discussion session if the late George Lloyd, with whom Margaret danced for a long time, was Margaret’s favorite dance partner because George’s style was so smooth. As Margaret stressed that she likes diversity of styles, the late George Lloyd got highly praises from all the Lindy Hop panelists.

What comes to the Hand Dance panelists, the Turner’s Arena in Washington D.C. came up as the place for Hand Dancing between the late 1940s and the 1960s. In Turner’s Arena, ‘all good dancers gathered on Sunday evenings’ especially from Washington D.C. and Baltimore as a panelist Lee Ware stated, even if they danced at any places like community centers, schools, churches, on streets, and anywhere where they played music as a panelist Maxine Grant told.

James ‘Sparky’ Green answered to question: ‘How Hand Dancing changed his life’, that by Hand Dancing he was able to see ‘all the top bands like Count Basie and Duke Ellington’ as they played in the places where he went to. Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald concluded, based on the Hand Dance panelists’ answers, that ‘ ‘Hand Dance’ helped them improve social skills, gave them health benefits, and kept them out of trouble’.

The different code of dance ethics between Hand Dancers and Savoy Lindy Hoppers also came out. Where Hand Dancing was concerned, a lady couldn’t dance with someone else during the same song if man asked her to dance, and she denied. Otherwise there would have been ‘a trouble in the parking lot’ as Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald stated with acceptation of all the Hand Dance panelists. Norma Miller commented to the statement from the viewpoint of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers that they didn’t dance with everybody. They were ‘very snobbish’. The Savoy Lindy Hopping mostly happened on the left side of the ballroom where the Corner was located, and it happened in the Circle. George Sullivan added to Norma’s statement that it was about ‘skills’. James ‘Sparky’ Green and Lee Ware claimed concerning Hand Dancing in Turner’s Arena that the Circle phenomenon happened also there as far as good dancers were concerned. Lee Ware stated that good dancers were in the front of the bandstand or in the Corner on the right side of the bandstand.

Maxine Grant explained, how they did not go to the formal dance classes, they just picked up steps. Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford also added to that ‘if you didn’t know how to do a step, the community taught you how to do the step.’ Both basically similar procedures as Savoy Lindy Hoppers had. It also became clear that all the panelists agreed that music makes you dance and it is about feeling the music.

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The musicians’ panel from left, Albert Vollmer, Topsy Durham, Dawn Hampton, Dr. Larry Ridley, James ‘Sparky’ Green, Melvin Copeland and Lawrence Bradford.

After dancers’ panel came musicians’ panel which gathered musical greats like Topsy Durham, daughter of the late Eddie Durham; Dawn Hampton from the Hampton Jazz family; Dr. Larry Ridley, a legendary Jazz bassist who had played with many musical greats, and in addition to them James ‘Sparky’ Green, Melvin Copeland and Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford. Albert Vollmer, the manager of Harlem Jazz and Blues Band, joined to the panelists in the last part of the panel. As moderators worked Larry Schulz from Sandra Cameron dance studios and Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, the President of The National Hand Dance Association. Dr. Ridley opened on behalf of the musician panelists by stating how jazz music is from Africa and it is about feeling the music, which makes you move. Topsy Durham told, how his father, who arranged for many Jazz greats, wanted to make blues music danceable by using blues in swing music. Dawn Hampton stressed, how she didn’t know what swing was until she went to the Savoy.

Norma Miller brought up the difference between Hand Dancers and her generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers: Hand Dancers dance to the vocal music and her generation danced to bands referring Hand Dancers as social dancers and her generation as performers. Sparky Green corrected Norma as he stated, how he went to dance to the Big Band Swing events where there was played instrumental music. Panelist Brad Bradford stated, that when he teaches Hand Dance he wants to see you doing what he hears, because a dancer is a ‘visual instrument’ of the music. Dr. Larry Ridley stated the importance of improvisation as that makes you do what you hear from music. Melvin Copeland, who comes from the 1950s and the 1960s Hand Dance era, agreed with Dr. Ridley as they (Hand Dancers of his era) never had time to rehearse their dancing. Thus, it was about improvisation. A different procedure compared to Savoy Lindy Hoppers who used most of the day for rehearsing, and that happened every day. This, however, did not mean that Savoy Lindy Hoppers could not improvise when needed.

On Thursday evening, the most of Savoy Lindy Hoppers went to the Alhambra Ballroom where Cab Calloway Orchestra played with the lead of Cab’s grandson, Christopher Calloway Brooks. The event became memorable gathering of the Savoy Lindy Hoppers in one of ‘rare, still going on’ Harlem ballrooms. On Friday, Hand Dancers and Savoy Lindy Hoppers went to the Harlem bus tour where Old Timers took turns telling Harlem history with great help of the tour guide Barbara A. Jones, the President of The Harlem Swing Dance Society. The bus tour ended at the Savoy Plaque where The Savoy Ballroom was located. We saw memorable dance performances and Shim Sham, where great dancers like Norma Miller and Sugar Sullivan danced together.

The one of most anticipated happenings of the event were the Saturday dance classes. Brad Bradford gave a lesson for adults about the Hand Dance basics, and at the same time Deonna Ball gave a Hand Dance lesson to youth. The classes culminated in the reunion of the two most important Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers: Sugar and George Sullivan, who taught together first time for a long time, and that happened twice as David Butts Carns was not able to help Sugar with teaching in the first Lindy basics class, and George came in to help Sugar in that. The magical moment of the class happened when Sugar and George danced together. According to George, that happened for the first time after 58 years, referring to their Harvest Moon Ball championship. They, however, did competitions occasionally after that at least until the end of the 1950s. To the article writer, the real test was dancing in the front of Sugar and George in their master class, when, at the same time, on the background, other Old Timers were looking at us. It felt like we could not move our feet but we did our best. I guess that other pupils in the class felt the same. The experience, however, was such a great! Sonny Allen’s, who was George Sullivan’s student, master class finalized classes for that day in a great way.

Before Sonny’s master class we went with George to the Savoy Plaque where he told about The Savoy Ballroom and how he experienced that. At the same time, the plaque was frequented by tourist groups, who did not recognize George Sullivan! One of those tourist guides just turned away without asking, whom they were dealing with. Sonny Allen would have said in the case: ‘That’s George Sullivan!’, referring George’s importance in the Savoy Lindy Hop 1950s era and in the Savoy Manor era after that. George started to dance The Lindy Hop in 1951, because of his ex-wife Sugar Sullivan was hurt when doing an air step with Delma ‘Big Nick’ Nicholson. George promised to start to dance with Sugar after that, even if he first had to learn The Lindy Hop. As George and Sugar participated in the competition for the first time together after Sugar’s recovery, others laughed at George who did not know what to do. He, however, was determined to learn. He decided to make it to the Harvest Moon Ball finals, and they did it. It took four years endless training to win the Harvest Moon Ball, which happened in 1955.

George became one of the great Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hoppers, who with Sugar was known about ‘lightning speed and smooth style of dancing’, and as Sonny Allen puts it: ‘Nobody couldn’t touch George in his prime in dancing’. Also Sylvan Charles, an avid Savoy Ballroom social dancer from the post World War II period, has stated, how George Sullivan was his generation’s idol in the same way than Frankie Manning was the earlier generation’s idol.

When George and Sugar stopped dancing together, George started to train kids (mostly Mama Lou Parks Dancers) in The Lindy Hop. Many of his students remember how George took them into the corner and taught them to dance. George was known as a demanding teacher with zero tolerance. As he puts it: ‘I was hard to kids, but in the end there were results’. The results were impressive as it is said, that he trained 26 Harvest Moon Ball winners. And that is not all, when you also add second and third places to the amount. The figure must be a lot bigger; at least tens of Harvest Moon Ball participants. Although George was the main man in these wins, according to Sugar Sullivan also she helped George with teaching as George used to call Sugar to show some patterns to his students and especially when George and Sugar started to train Jiving Lindy Hoppers from London in the 1990s. Some of George’s students also remember Lee Moates as another coach. Lee Moates was George’s main teacher in The Lindy after Sugar first taught George to dance The Lindy. Lee Moates, who George calls as the ‘monster’ (in the sense of respect) who knew everything, was the first of the Third Generation Savoy Lindy Hoppers with Sugar Sullivan from the end of the 1940s.

When asked, how George feels about all those Harvest Moon Ball champions he trained, he said, that he did that for kids. George is known as a humble man who hided when those Harvest Moon Ball wins happened. He did not make a number of himself as the mastermind of those wins. His former students still love him and praise him as The Master of The Lindy Hop.

The Harlem part of the event culminated in the Saturday night party at Joseph P. Kennedy center, which was organized by BABBLE. The only minus concerning the party goes to the live music which mostly was plain Dixieland and caused a lot of complaints from today’s and former Harlemites, who wondered, how they can play Dixieland in Harlem! Obviously that happened for the first time in that scale since the beginning of the 1920s before Harlem orchestras started to develop swing in the middle of the 1920s. George Sullivan, however, set critics straight as he stated, that he saw people had a ball in the dance (as many downtown dancers came to the dance and Dixieland has traditionally been big in the downtown crowds). George also said, that even if it was ragtime and not Count Basie, Basie, however, came after that, so Dixieland was the base for the later swing and thus it was understandable to play also earlier jazz forms.

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The event participants in the front of Joseph P. Kennedy center. From left, Sonny Allen, Norma Miller, Sugar Sullivan, George Sullivan, Dawn Hampton, Barbara Billups and Margaret Batiuchok.

The Saturday evening culminated when Old Timers were honored by The Harlem Swing Dance Society. People applauded in such a powerful way that you understood that something remarkable had happened in Harlem and the Swing Revival of The Interest in Harlem is on its way. It is coming back at full throttle to where it started.

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Sad Losses in Harlem

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila

Very sad news has been carried recently as the former buildings of Lafayette Theatre, Connie’s Inn and Hoofers’ Club have been destroyed for making a way for new buildings in Harlem.

A great part of the Harlem Jazz Dance history has thus gone forever with those demolitions. All the mentioned places were showcases for several African American Jazz Dancers like Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Honi Coles, Eddie Rector, Toots Davis and Earl ‘Snakehips’ Tucker just mention a few of those countless dancers. Without them Harlem would n0t have been the place for the African American dance entertainment during its Golden Era between the 1920s and the 1950s.

The most important reason for forgetting these buildings and their significance to Harlem culture for years has possibly been the distance between the Harlem Renaissance movement and Jazz Dance and its practitioners. That distance was created already from the very beginning of the movement in the 1920s, when Harlem was developing to the most important center for African Americans in the U.S. According to Terry Monaghan, Jazz Dance and especially one of its key dances, The Lindy Hop, were mainly left outside the movement and thus disconnected from their logical context as part of the Harlem Renaissance.

It also has been forgotten that the exceptional freedom, which Harlemites felt in the segregated U.S at the time, was remarkably achieved by those Jazz Dancers who helped to tear down racial barriers with their all races approved dancing, and they thus paved the way for the later Civil Rights Movement. The mentioned distance still can be felt as current dancers are rarely deeply interested in Harlem culture and Harlem’s cultural contributions to Jazz Dance, as far as the Harlem entertainment is concerned. Because of that Harlem has become more or less ‘storied’. We just can hope that new generations take a firmer stance on Harlem Jazz Dance and the entertainment history before all that has been forgotten and demolished.

The Connie's Inn building on August 21st 2012

The Connie’s Inn building on August 21st, 2012.

The history of the ‘Connie’s Inn building’ as an entertainment place started in November 1921, when Jack Goldberg opened Shuffle Inn at 165 West 131st Street. The name ‘Shuffle Inn’ obviously came from the successful ‘Shuffle Along’ theatrical play which gave stardom at least for Josephine Baker and Florence Mills. Shuffle Inn was integrated from the beginning, although it seems that white customers were in the majority. After two years of its existence, George and Conrad ‘Connie’ Immerman, two brothers, bought Shuffle Inn and made it Connie’s Inn with the new entrance at 2221 Seventh Avenue by June 1923. The original Connie’s Inn orchestra was Wilbur Sweatman’s Jazz Kings. By September 12th there was a show – in ‘the nature of a big opening’ -: ‘Harper & Blanks And Their Sensational Musical Revue’ including Eddie and Grace Rector, Cole and Parker, and Mutt and Jeff. Leroy Smith and His Orchestra provided the music. Although Connie’s Inn initially advertised that ‘all are welcome’, the management started quite soon to favor white customers and Connie’s Inn became a cabaret for “white tourists” from downtown.

The orchestras kept changing during years as Allie Ross’ Orchestra replaced Leroy Smith’s Green Dragon Orchestra in 1926. Later, between 1929 and 1930, Louis Armstrong came in with Carroll Dickerson’s orchestra, when ‘Hot Chocolates’ show created possibly the greatest stir in Connie’s Inn. Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller and Andy Razaf wrote the show and it produced hit songs like ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ ‘ and ‘That Rhythm Man’. Fletcher Henderson Orchestra came in after that for 1930-1931 and was replaced by Louis Russell Band in May 1931. Don Redman’s ‘Chant of the Weed’ orchestra replaced Louis Russell Band in October 1931 and stayed in Harlem until the end of the Connie’s Inn era.

What comes to dancing, the act called Three Little Words brought the tap routine: Shim Sham on the stage of Connie’s Inn at that time, and the whole club joined them including waiters. That gave a feel of the integration in the otherwise segregated club. Three Little Words got Shim Sham from Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, who had developed the routine (which was named originally as Goofus) in the “next door” building, Lafayette Theatre, a few years earlier in 1927.

The end of Connie’s Inn in Harlem is unclear. It seems to have happened somewhere between 1933 and 1934 as there were references to Connie’s Inn in Harlem in 1932. There still was a reference to the Harlem Connie’s Inn in March 1934. Conrad ‘Connie’ Immerman also had Connie’s Restaurant at 2524 Broadway in 1931. The restaurant probably was working under his management until he moved Connie’s Inn to Broadway and 48th Street in April 1935. Obviously The Harlem Club replaced the old Connie’s Inn for a very short time until it was closed in 1934 and replaced by the Ubangi Club. The Ubangi Club was working in Harlem until 1937, when also it was closed between April and May after losing the liquor license. The club moved to Broadway between 52nd and 53rd Streets. The Ubangi Club was a gay, integrated cabaret club, where one of highlights was “High, Wide and a Handsome” show including Gladys Bentley, Ralph Brown, and Alma Smith. Willie Bryant provided the music for the show. The Connie’s Inn building went through changes and it worked as a supermarket during the last years.

The Lafayette Theatre building on August 21st 2012

The Lafayette Theatre building on August 21st 2012.

Lafayette Theatre was located next to Connie’s Inn at 2227 Seventh Avenue. Seventh Avenue was known as ‘Great Black Way’ opposing Broadway as ‘Great White Way’. Lafayette Theatre, which was built in 1912, was originally a segregated theatre for whites, but it desegregated by 1914 becoming possibly the most stylish African American showplace in Harlem. Apparently almost every noted African American performer in show business performed in Lafayette. The Lafayette Players, Harlem’s first legitimate African American theatre group, re-created Broadway shows like ‘Shuffle Along’ and ‘Hot Chocolates’. Because of the African American emphasis on the play script and acting, the Lafayette Players were able to express themselves such as they really were without pleasing white audiences with the African American stereotypes.

After the Schiffman family took over Lafayette Theatre in 1925, the theatre became the place of jazz with a slogan ‘A New Jazz Band Every Week’. Lafayette Theatre continued to showcase African American talent and included for example such billing as Fletcher Henderson’s Jazz Fantasy. When the Schiffmans moved their operations to the Apollo Theatre in 1935, Lafayette Theatre continued especially under Work Administration Project (WPA)-connected Negro Theatre Project until 1939. The Williams Christian Methodist Episcopal Church bought the Lafayette Theatre building in 1951. The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s staff rated the building as of “outstanding significance”, but it was never designated.

Hoofers’ Club was the place for serious Tap dancers between the 1920s and the 1940s. According to Laurence ‘Baby Lawrence’ Jackson, the club located in two different ends of Lafayette Theatre: first, it was located in the end where Bill Robinson later, in 1941, opened his Mimo Professional Club at 2237 Seventh Avenue, and then, finally, it was located in the end next to the Connie’s Inn building. Hoofers’ Club was basically a cellar room, which the piano playing proprietor Lonnie Hicks from Atlanta established for those who wanted to practice, watch and learn Tap for free. He made his business with the gambling upstairs. The Hoofers Club gathered Tap greats like King Rastus Brown, Eddie Rector, John W. Sublett known as Bubbles, Honi Coles, Raymond Winfield, Harold Mablin, Slappy Wallace, Roland Holder, and Laurence ‘Baby Lawrence’ Jackson. According to Jackson, the names of the great hoofers were scratched on the wall of the club. Hoofers’ Club was re-created in the 1984 movie, Cotton Club, which also included the original Hoofers’ Club dancer Honi Coles.

Here is a dance scene from the movie:

This article is based especially on the studies and articles as follows:

–       Jean and Marshall Stearns: Jazz Dance.

–       George Hoefer: Jazz Odyssey, Vol. 3: The Sound of Harlem.

–       Jervis Anderson: This was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait 1900-1950.

–       Terry Monaghan: “Stompin’ At the Savoy” -Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

–       Streetscapes: Harlem’s Lafayette Theater; Jackhammering the Past by Christopher Gray from New York Times, November 11, 1990.

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