Swing Memories: Calling Irene
Swing Memories: Calling Irene
This is Part 2 of Irene Thomas Week (which is longer than a week, because that’s how cool she is). For Part 1, please visit this article.
February 16, 2011
“Hello, is this Irene Thomas?”
“Yes, this is Irene.”
“Hi, this is Bobby White. I’m a professional swing dancer. Tom Koerner called earlier today to see if it was alright if I called you and asked you a few questions.”
It was the day before a flight to London, and I had been going to wait to call her until after I got back. It had been a busy day, and I still wanted to go to the gym, which I hadn’t done in several days, and eat dinner and finish packing. If I waited, though, it’d be a week away. Doesn’t matter, I’d thought. I’m not ready to call her.
I had gone ten minutes through my workout when I suddenly thought, “What if she died while I was in London?” It was stupid, but I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. What if I went away on a week-long trip and passed up the opportunity to talk to one of my favorite swing dancers of all time? I left the gym without having broken a sweat, sat at my kitchen table in my short shorts, and dialed her number. I suddenly realized the reason I had been planning on calling her a week from now. I was now shifting the phone back and forth, pacing, and breathing strangely. But as introduced myself, I relaxed, feeling the hard part was over.
“I’m sorry, could you say that again?” she said. Her voice, though pleasant, had the kind of rasp that can only be described as ninety-years-old.
After I repeated myself, I added, “May I say it’s an honor to talk with you. You are one of my favorite dancers of all time, both to me and my partner.”
I said it overly loud and clear, and as every actor can remember from their first time on stage, once you say something overly louder and clearer than you normally do, it starts to sound insincere and forced, and you realize that as you say it, and it only makes you try harder, thus making it even more forced, and it’s just the kind of downward spiral that leads so many hopeful stage actors to drink. But I didn’t have anything to worry about, as Irene was very pleased to know I was interested and answer my questions.
“Well, for starters, how did you start dancing?”
“I did tap and ballet since I was seven. And acrobatics. I graduated in ’40, so it must have been ’39 when I first learned Lindy. A guy named Bill Alcorn showed me some steps, and after that, I just made it up.”
As I realized she was more than willing to speak, I grabbed my computer, opened up a file, and started frantically typing with one hand while I held my phone with the other (the new smart phones are not made for holding between the neck and ear, and the last thing I wanted to do was risk a hang up).
“I imagine you knew Dean and Jewel?”
“Dean and Jewel were just on a higher level. I knew Jewel but we weren’t girlfriends or anything. I thought she was a very nice lady.” She put emphasis on this, almost as if she knew she were an exception. “She came out dancing in the early days but then stopped coming out much. There were things Dean could do with her that he couldn’t do with anyone else.”
“How did you develop your style?”
“Well, it was a lot of tap and ballet,” she said.
“And your sense of humor?” I asked.
She laughed. “Well, I’d been in show business for years.”
I decided to ask her one of the investigative questions I was hoping she’d have an answer to.
“Did you know a dancer named Genevieve Grazis? She was in a lot of your films. We’re trying to find out about her.”
“No… no… maybe she came after me. I left around ’46.”
Something was strange. She didn’t get all of my question.
“She might have been called Jeanie or Jenny or…”
“I’m sorry, what did you say? I have a hearing aid and don’t hear too well.”
Oh, no. It’s not surprising a woman her age would need a hearing aid. But it did mean that it’d be hard to ask rather complex questions, and what if I couldn’t trust the information she told me, if she assumed I had asked something else in the previous questions?
“Did you know a dancer named Johnny Duncan?”
“Johnny Duncan, yes! [I put my fist in the air] That sounds familiar. [I put it back down.] That name definitely sounds familiar. Oh, and Pegleg Bates!”
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
“He had one leg and danced on a pegleg, and he could dance. He was good.”
I had finally come to what was a typical Old-timer Tangent. This happens often—an old-timer, going down memory lane, will suddenly remember something random to the listener, and begin talking about it as they remember it. It’s important to let these moments simply happen and pay attention to them. Interviewing old-timers is often not about leading the way; it’s about following along. (Something tells me therapists understand.)
Suddenly a crumpled piece of paper fell onto the desk from the loft above. Kate had thrown it down. It said, “Who was your favorite dancer, and why?”
“Eddie Markwell,” she answered, when I asked her the question. “And Bob Ashley was great.”
Ah, so she assumed “favorite dancer” meant “leaders she liked to dance with.” This is the other thing about talking to the old dancers. You have to be specific, and I hadn’t been. Does favorite dancer mean best performer? Best person to social dance with? Best leader? Best follower? Most musical?
“Eddie Markwell was six foot four. You could turn under his arm and didn’t have to become a corkscrew to do it. [Here I believe she is referring specifically to a move where she would turn under her arm at the end of a swing out. She mentioned it several times.] He was the one I made up “the drop” with, but Jean [Veloz] called it “the quick stop.””
So there it was—Irene Thomas apparently invented the quick stop.*
In the conversation, she also put a strange accent on Veloz, which I couldn’t remember later, but which seemed to suggest I had been saying it wrong for many years. Irene would know, as they are good friends.
“In my time we had three dances. The new kids don’t have this. Lindy, Swing, Bal. [Here she is referring to “Swing” as the early form of Bal-Swing and “Bal” as the dance we now call Pure Closed-Position Balboa.] Only five or six could really do Swing: Willie [Desatoff], Maxie [Dorf], Hal [Takier], and Bob Ashley. It was the fast dance. The medium songs were Lindy and Balboa. When a fast song would come on, the Lindy dancers would just sit and watch. You know the song White Heat?”
“Oh, yeah!” At this point, I actually sang White Heat to Irene Thomas using “da-da-da” sounds at roughly 4,000 beats per minute. But I wasn’t embarrassed, because we were best friends now.
“Hal, some of the girls could keep up with him and some couldn’t. I don’t think that song was fast enough for Willie and the others. It was a beauty to see.”
“So did you dance Swing?” I asked. [As in, the early form of Bal-Swing.]**
“Yeah, I did Swing. Maxie and Hal and Willie were very smooth. All their action was from the hips down.”
Suddenly there was barking in the background. Irene said “You can feed yourself, shut up!” then I could hear her blush over the phone.
“I’m sorry, not you. My dog, Bijou. He runs the household.”
I laughed and asked her if they had seen the Harlem dancers in the films when she was younger.
“Oh yeah, we saw Hellzapoppin’; I might have that name wrong. They were marvelous, but they were mostly acrobats.”***
“What kind of bands did you like?” I asked, and she obviously began answering as if I asked her what dances she liked.
“Well, I loved whatever I was doing. If I was doing Swing I loved Swing [again, referring to Bal-Swing in its early days]. If I was doing Balboa, I loved Balboa. If it was Lindy, I loved Lindy.”
“I agree. What kind of music do you like to dance to?”
“I like the jump tunes, anything with a solid four beat. I don’t like [here I thought I heard the word “bullsh**t.”] You know what I mean, [again, the word that I though was “bulls**t.”]
“I’m sorry, what?”
“You know, boom-shick, boom-shick, boom-shick.”
“Ah, yes, I know what you mean.”
[The phrase “Boom-shick” refers to early jazz rhythm. Btw, Irene does NOT use bad language.]
“We had so many great bands. Lunceford, Ellington, The Dorseys, Miller [If I’ve never said it before, I’d like to say it now: Yes, Glenn Miller was popular for playing a lot of sweet and/or mediocre pop-jazz, but he could also swing damn good if it was asked for, as several recordings show.****] And man, they’d send ya.”
I love the moments when you talk to an old-timer and the polite eloquence of 1960s grown-ups suddenly disappears, and for just a moment, they become that nineteen-year-old kid who loved, loved, loved swing. When Irene said “man, they’d send ya,” I was talking to THE Irene Thomas, the one fresh out of the clips.
“You’ve seen us dance today, what do you think of the modern dancers?”
“You’ve added a lot of beautiful steps to it; it’s very flashy [she said this as a sincere compliment]. There were a lot of things we couldn’t do in the dancing. We might have been the pioneers but you guys have taken over and everything’s getting better.”
[Just for reference, the last time she saw Lindy Hop was probably a few years ago.]
Before hanging up, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind if I called her every now and then and asked her questions. She seemed thrilled. She then told me her address and asked me if I could mail her a DVD of my dancing. She wanted to see what we were doing with the dance these days. I will probably send her a collection of my stuff, as well as a sample of other dancers, and a collection of her own dancing from all the films I have of her.
“How did your talk with Irene go?” Kate asked when I had hung up the phone and hit “save” on the computer several times.
“We’re best friends now,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” she said, “You’re Irene’s BFF?”
I looked at the address I had written in my hand. “You know what? What kind of best friend doesn’t come by and visit?”
*—-Later in the conversation, she also mentioned having invented the styling many SoCal followers used in their swivels. She basically tried to do swivels the way Jewel did them (Irene then described them by saying “booom…..boooom……booom” to articulate Jewels on-the-beat timing. But it wasn’t comfortable for Irene, so she turned it into a tap rhythm (Which she described by saying “chee-ka-boom…chee-ka boom….,” a twisted kick-ball-change-type motion that became popular both in the SoCal day as well as the modern “Hollywood” resurgence of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I love it when old-timers talk in scat. They really never seemed to count.
**—A video of her answering a question similar to this can be found here.
*** —- This was interesting because it made it sound like Irene didn’t quite equate the Lindy Hop she knew with what she saw in Hellzapoppin’, as if they were different beasts. I will discuss this in way more detail than you will wish for in a post coming soon.
****—So, I was visiting a foreign city in 2003 that had a large amount of DJ squabbles going on because there were a ton of passionate DJs and not enough nights to have them all spin. One night I was in a friend’s car riding to an event, and he was one of the DJs of the city. He put in a cassette tape of an old 1940s radio broadcast where Glenn Miller was the swing band for the program. (Many 1930s/40s radio programs had one “sweet” band, one swing band, and one Latin/other kind of dance band for a night of programs.)
This was one killer concert, so kicking I couldn’t imagine it was Glenn Miller, who I had assumed played only “sweet” swing too bland for my tastes. And it was an hour straight of it.
The cassette tape itself, however, wasn’t doing too well. There were some worn patches where the music wavered, and I knew it wasn’t long for this world.
I happened to have some music editing software, and offered to help save the music by making him a CD of it. (And my only price would be that I get to make a copy of the music for myself.) Well folks, never underestimate the depths to which an early 2000’s DJ-heavy scene will find itself sinking. He decided he would rather let the cassette tape die and no one get the music before he’d let someone else have it.
I don’t think Glenn Miller would have approved.