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Al Minns: A Dancer’s Dancer

December 9, 2009

Published originally for the Jam Cellar Email Newsletter

This essay is an introduction to Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Al Minns. The essay also mentions Frankie Manning and Leon James – Al’s friends and fellow dancers. I’d like to reinforce that in no way am I suggesting that Leon James and Frankie Manning aren’t worth studying. They are without a doubt two of the greatest Lindy Hoppers of all time, for different reasons than Al Minns. This essay is simply meant to point out why Al Minns is a name we remember, too, and why it’s completely deserved.

First, a little history; and sadly, that’s all we have about Al Minns—a little.*

He was born Jan. 1 in 1920 and died in 1985. As one of the youngest dancers in the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, he quickly excelled to the top team, headed by Frankie Manning. He wasn’t, however, one of the four asked to do the famous choreography for the film “Hellzapoppin.” When one of the couples repeatedly blew off practices, Frankie replaced them with Al Minns and Willa Mae Ricker. Let’s watch it: (Al and Willa Mae are the third couple).

At one point, Al and others realized his unique strength as a dancer was his legs and flexibility with them. Al, possibly with the help of Frankie Manning, developed his jam for “Hellzapoppin,” so that it is completely geared towards showing off Al Minn’s legs and the powerful lines he makes. Even his high-wasted waiter coat is perfect for elongating his lines.

What’s equally impressive is how impressive he is technically in “Hellzapoppin.” He and Frankie are obviously the best leaders in the choreography, but whereas Frankie’s movements seem to have a lot of muscle behind them, Al appears to use his body so well it makes for clean and relaxed-looking dancing (Though his air steps aren’t near as incredibly executed as Frankie’s). But, I think it’s safe to say the amount of control Al has at 300+ bpm is incredible to watch.

If you’d like to see the Hellzapoppin routine danced a little slower, check out the clip Hot Chocolates (AKA Cottontail,). I couldn’t find a good one on YouTube but it’s pretty easy to find from classic clips collection. (A special note: Check out Al Minns’s head-bob at the beginning. He’s the one with the collar that goes to his abs.) In it, Al replaces his final “Shake the Change” trick with a simple high-kick-and-flailing-arm move–many people recently have tried it, none have gotten it even close to how good it looks on Al.

World War II more or less stopped the professional career of most of the Whitey’s. Dancing still continued at the Savoy, and Al, Leon, Frankie and others were filmed for The Spirit Moves, an independent film that chronicled hours of jazz dance at the Savoy. There’s a lot of great Al Minns dancing in it, including great clips of the Tranky Doo, Al and Leon’s Shim Sham, and some blues jams that are incredible.

UPDATE: The following section of the essay includes information regarding Al and Leon working with Marshal Stearns, who was researching the Savoy Ballroom at the time. Frankie Manning and others have mentioned their opinions on what Al and Leon told them, which is mentioned below. However, we have never heard the story according to Al or Leon, who have now passed away. Kevin Minns, Al Minns’s son, wrote a reply in the comments section below with his rebuttal to what Frankie and others have mentioned about the incident. Since this original article was written at a time when I only had Frankie Manning’s autobiography as a source, I felt it proper to update the article taking into account Kevin Minns’s words. For the original text, please see the footnotes.

The next we hear of Al, it’s the 1960s, and he’s teamed up with his good friend and fellow Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Leon James to help historian Marshall Stearns, a jazz historian with a pretty wicked pencil-mustache who’s researching jazz dance for a book he’s writing. Now, here is where things have gotten messy. According to Frankie Manning’s biography, Al and Leon told Stearns inaccurate recollections of what life was like at the ballroom, even including giving the wrong credit for whom invented the first aerial. According to Frankie, Leon wasn’t present when Frankie invented the first aerial, and Al wasn’t even dancing yet. In his book, Frankie talks about how he confronted Al about how he wasn’t even there when the first aerials were invented, and Al said “Man, I just made it sound exciting.” About all of this, Frankie was apparently not offended, just surprised. He figured a lot of those stories were thrown around and exaggerated (Which, to be fair, is very much the tradition of Jazz. We need to remember that Frankie himself was a master story-teller, and should not necessarily be expected to give 100% accurate retelling of historical events.)

However, according to Kevin Minns, Al’s son, his father was not the type to lie in the ways he was accused of. And, the simple truth is that the modern scene has never been able to get Al or Leon’s side of the story.

I’d like to conjecture that it is perhaps Marshall Stearns who is probably the most responsible for the problems that have arisen from this: it was he who relied only on two people as sources for his entire history of the Savoy Ballroom and its dancing culture. In hindsight, it seems strange: surely he could have found other dancers to talk to about it as well, and thus he would have been able to confirm or deny Al and Leon’s side of things. As it stands, though, we only have Al and Leon in Jazz Dance, and, years after it was published, Frankie and a few others explaining their side of things. Frankie’s invention of the first aerial in Lindy Hop is probably true — however, he notes that very soon after all the other dancers were inventing aerials. What with that, and a culture of story telling, and “games of telephone” over years, it’s highly possible Al and Leon really were telling what they knew about the history of the Savoy Ballroom, as passed down by their own experiences and stories told to them by others.

Anyway, we need to learn from Stearns, and be careful of this as well — of only relying on a few sources to find Al and Leon completely guilty. I don’t think there was malicious intent to any one’s side of things — based on what I have read about it, we the modern scene have probably taken more annoyance at it than Frankie or Al and Leon ever did, for instance. But the reality was probably just more complex than either parties remembered dozens of years after the events happened. I don’t want to go much more into this, because then it stops being an article about Al Minns. Suffice it to say, Al helped Marshall Stearns with his book Jazz Dance. And we’re very lucky he did — because it lead to many recordings of some of the finest solo jazz dancing ever put on film.

This is because Stearns’s book become THE definitive word on jazz dance history, and Al and Leon went on tours with Marshall Stearns — did the daytime talk show route, as it were — and we’re lucky enough to have several of their demonstrations on film. The most popular example is from a television talk show produced by Playboy which ran from 1959 to 1961, which was basically all the articles of Playboy with none of the focus on gynecology. In all seriousness, the show focused a lot on jazz (and is available on Netflix DVD.)

What followed is some of the finest solo jazz dancing on film as they take viewers on a tour of jazz dance history from the Charleston to the Bee-bop era:

What makes this so incredible? Well, I can tell you why it is to me. The original Lindy Hoppers in their younger years tended to pull off energy really well, and in their older years, subtlety. At this stage in their dancing, Al and Leon are middle-aged and seem to have the best of both worlds; they are clearly energetic and silly, but every motion is full of years of experience and refinement. When you watch them dance, Leon is easy to pin right away. The attention-grabbing hands, the exaggerated facial expression, the lazy movements. Al Minns, however, has nothing that sticks out more than anything else—he’s a full-body dancer who covers all the bases. Just as a really-solid, good swing-out is a work of dance art, so is almost every step that Al Minns does in this presentation.

Almost every Lindy Hopper today knows that Frankie Manning was “rediscovered” in the 80s after years of retirement and started teaching Lindy again. What most dancers don’t know is that Al Minns was rediscovered around the same time as Frankie Manning, and in 1984 was teaching the Swedish Lindy Hop scene everything he remembered about performance and social Lindy Hop. Until that point, the Swedes only had a few clips to break down. He’s part of the reason the Swedish dancers became so good at Whitey’s-styled performances. (For a look at a modern dancer inspired by Al Minns style, check out Swedish dancer David Dalmo in the Rhythym Hot Shots “Can’t Top The Lindy Hop” performance. He’s in the black pants, puffy shirt and baggy hat.)

To conclude this essay, there’s nothing better than listening to the man himself. Here’s an interview Al did for Swedish television around that time:

And another…

And, yet another interview, including footage from the Spirit Moves:

And, I’m excited to add, a recently youtubed video of Al in the 1980s:

There are many clips of Al Minns dancing, most of which are from the Marshall Stearns television show tours or The Spirit Moves (He’s on the left side in the Tranky Doo Spirit oves clip). Also, there are clips of him dancing and teaching the Swedes in the 1980s, in one of which he wears a shirt that says “Americans like beer.” These are probably easily gotten from your local swing clip collector, assuming they are dead and it can be pried from their rigamortised hands.

Al Minns. Enjoy some today.

UPDATE: [Aug, 2013]:

Regarding the changed section. The original text at the changed section:

The next we hear of Al, it’s the 1960s, and he’s teamed up with his good friend and fellow Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Leon James to help historian Marshall Stearns, an extremely white guy with a pretty wicked pencil-mustache who’s researching Jazz dance for a book he’s writing. Being pranksters, they make up a bunch of stories about gangs and fights among the Savoy dancers, which Stearns recorded and published as bible writ, not realizing they were joking and probably thinking that gang warfare could only help sales.

Little did Al and Leon know that Stearns’s book would become THE definitive word on jazz dance history, and would be almost impossible to correct. To this day, Frankie Manning and others have written passionate letters to the book’s publisher to have these facts corrected for future printings, to no effect. (It should also be noted that in Stearns’s book, Al and Leon took credit for a lot of the deeds that most sources attribute to Frankie Manning—including the invention of the first air steps. However, in reading the passages, it is my opinion that it was not done out of malice to Frankie, but was simply a different memory of events.)”

UPDATE: [2/20/14] After the section that mentioned the Playboy talk show, I had originally written this sentence: “In a sea of comically 60’s pipe-smoking crusty-whiteness and bunny cocktail waitresses, the two out-of-place men from Harlem perform…”
I have since gone back back and, upon rereading this, shuddered. I was naive to write this about the show and it did not deserve that description — it’s actually pretty cool to look back and see how they were trying to get away from dry talk shows and instead focus on more of an intellectual cocktail party where they talked about jazz. I’m going to update my original article on that, as well.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin T. Minns permalink
    October 14, 2012 9:41 pm

    In regards to What my Dad and Leon said in the book “Jazz Dance,” about gangs at the Savoy, and to those who continue to label them as providers of “DISINFORMATION” to the researchers, I quote the following: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Arthur Schopenhauer German philosopher (1788 – 1860.” Since the publishing of Jazz Dance, the detractors of what he and Leon shared has gone through stages 1 and 2. It is my most fervent wish, that this blog I found be the opening to the final stage…
    http://africanamericanplaywrightsexchange.blogspot.com/2012/06/harlem-dramaturgy-project-part-5
    africanamericanplaywrightsexchange.blogspot.com

    Additionally, to label my dad and Leon pranksters also reveals how “little” those who have criticized Al and Leon’s input to Jazz Dance new them as men. My father did not joke about dancing.It was his life and the above blog reveals the aspect of the gang persona surrounding the Savoy and the originator of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. But, believe what you will. I know what he told me as a boy about the gangs, when I discovered him in the book and I know what he told me again about the gangs and the Savoy when I was at his death bed as a grown man: HE SAID WHAT HE MENTIONED ABOUT THE GANGS WAS TRUE, AND WORSE THAN WHAT IS DOCUMENTED IN JAZZ DANCE. Maybe the question researchers need to ask themselves is what is the intent of those who deny this claim. I already have my answer….

    • leroy permalink
      July 10, 2013 7:14 pm

      It’s either you’re living in denial or you really don’t know a whole lot about your father Al Minns. Be careful of what you seek, you could be opening a can of worms! It can get messy you know?

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