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Willa Mae Ricker, the patron saint of respect for Lindy Hoppers ISDFNOKA #3

April 5, 2011


What does ISDFNKA stand for, you might ask? Why, “incredible-swing-dance-followers-no-one-knows-about.” It’s a new series over here at Swungover.

There’s a good chance you have heard of Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Willa Mae Ricker, but usually it’s the same way people hear of Ann Johnson: in the context of Frankie Manning having really liked dancing with them. But Willa Mae Ricker was quite a force in the Whitey’s both on and off the dance floor.

First off, both Frankie Manning and Norma Miller’s books list her name as “Willamae,” however, her business card and her name as listed on her 1943 photos with Leon James say “Willa Mae,” so we have assumed that’s the way she would have wanted it (assuming she told the photographers how she wished her name to appear) and have decided to go with that for this article. (Though, for the moment I don’t have the time to go back and change it in all the other posts she’s listed in here at Swungover. Suffice it to say, it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things, but since we’re here to honor her today, we’ll go with Willa Mae.)

She was born Willa Mae Briggs April 7, 1910*, and Frankie considered her one of his best friends as they grew up. They were with each other and a few other friends the first night any of them had gone to the Savoy Ballroom.

After a few years, Frankie mentions how she and three other girls were almost always the winners of the Saturday night contest. “She was one of the greatest Lindy Hoppers ever,” Frankie says in his autobiography, coauthored by Cynthia Millman. “She made every partner look good.”

(And her list of film partners is unequaled; she danced with Snookie Beasley in A Day at the Races; Al Minns in Hellzapoppin’, Cottontail and Outline of Jitterbug History;and Frankie Manning in The Spirit Moves footage. She and Leon James were also famously featured in a Life Magazine photography spread.)

Soon after the creation of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, she was asked to be on the second tier of the group, along with fellow dancers Norma Miller, Leon James, Ella Gibson and Snookie Beasley (her partner for her first few years in Whitey’s). This was the group that appeared in A Day at the Races. (Frankie Manning was in the first tier, which was engaged at a club in New York.)

She married her teenage sweetheart, Billy Ricker, in the late 30s (and they lived happily for the rest of their lives together). Billy was also a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper, and is best known as the chef in Hellzapoppin’.

Often in his autobiography, Frankie Manning mentions moments when they were stealing steps, making up moves, or creating choreographies. Almost always Willa Mae’s mentioned as an advisor. I get the impression her opinion was valued a lot. He also thought Willa Mae was one of the most versatile Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy. (She probably has the most footage of all the original Harlem followers. Let’s watch most of it now…)

There’s a moment in A Day at the Races where Willa Mae does some swiveling while Snookie Beasley does a double turn. If you watch her swivels, Willa Mae is rocking some hip-popping swivels at a time when many followers, including Norma Miller and Dorothy Miller, had swivels where their full bodies moved as one.

Notice too how she tucks her skirt into her underwear right before jumping into the “camel” at the end. (In the mid 30s, skirts were still fashionably long; swing music would soon help change the fashion to shorter skirts for dancing.)

Willa Mae’s dancing in Hellzapoppin, unfortunately, does not look its best; she often hunches, which could also be the result of Al Minns’s leading and/or her not being comfortable with the speed. However, just a short period later, she and Al dance in Hot Chocolates,(a.k.a. “Cottontail”) and the hunch is gone (and the speed slower), and she looks fantastic.

The footage shows that Willa Mae was tall for a follower (usually as tall as her partners), and was powerful in the base and often the flying role in aerials (especially with Frankie). Notice also that she had a sense of “calmness under pressure” in her dancing. Her pulse is never as excited as that of her peers, and even at daredevil speeds in Killer Diller, she often looks like she’s just walking in the park (and perhaps sometimes so into the ground that she doesn’t look energetic enough to fit the music or her partner).

However, I think Willa Mae’s strength is above the feet; we already talked about her swivels in A Day at the Races. But when you watch her clips, pay attention to her shoulders, arms and head. Aside from always being well-presented, Willa Mae’s arms flow gracefully and un-stifled through a lot of her dancing (check out the Killer Diller clip for a good example) and she is really good at throwing her head around (a personal favorite styling of mine) in her dancing.

When I asked my partner what stuck out to her about Willa Mae’s dancing, Kate mentioned that Willa Mae usually looks really connected to her partners. Compare her to her peers in A Day at the Races, for instance.

Aside from remembering her for her dancing, both Frankie Manning and Norma Miller remark in their books that Willa Mae was both incredibly fashionable (as evidenced by her chic use of a belt on the outside of her shirt in A Day at the Races and by every picture of her in non-performance clothes) and naturally dependable.

She often managed the groups while they were on tours or gigs, and was the first dancer Norma Miller remembers finally standing up to Whitey and demanding that the Lindy Hoppers get paid what they were worth. Whitey, one of Harlem’s most successful underground businessmen, with many goons under his pay, reportedly tried to blubber and guilt trip Willa Mae, to no avail.

For these reasons, Swungover would like to make Willa Mae Ricker our honorary patron saint of respect for Lindy Hoppers.

After the war hit, Whitey broke up the troupe. Willa Mae started a performance group of Lindy Hoppers that kept going until Frankie came back from the war, when he started the Congaroos and Willa Mae joined it.

Following the Congaroos, Willa Mae had a second career in fashion (I’m not clear on what she did, and the descriptions I’ve seen aren’t clear). She died of cancer in the 1970s.

Possible discrepancies in Willa Mae information: There is some probably inaccurate information on several historical sites. First off, there is a claim that Willa Mae won the first Harvest Moon Ball with Leon James in 1936. Leon James did win that year, with Edith Mathews, according to both Norma Miller and Frankie Manning in their books. Also, a few sites list Willa Mae as having died in the 1960s. Frankie’s autobiography, however, researched in-depth by Cynthia Millman, listed Willa Mae as having died in June 1978 [UPDATE: Not 74. I messed up because I had ’74 and ’78 listed in the article, and din’t have the book with me when I went back to edit. I chose poorly.] A comment below shows that the ’78 date is probably right.).

——————————————————————————————————————————————————

* — This info brought to you by intrepid detective Mike Thibault, who discovered what is probably her social security record. See comments below.





16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2011 1:23 pm

    Hi Bobby,

    Great post. The Social Security doesn’t list anyone of her name having died in June of 1974, but does list the following with birth and death dates:

    RICKER, WILLA 07 Apr 1910 Jun 1978
    Last Address of Record: 10026 (New York, New York, NY)
    Issued by: New York

    Social Security was first issued in Nov of 1936, which would fit with this person.

    If this is her, then it would be her 101st birthday TODAY.

  2. April 7, 2011 1:48 pm

    A little bit of trivia: searching for her name in the New York Times archives also shows that she performed at the Artists’ Equity Foundation’s Spring Fantasia Ball on May 20, 1954 in the Astor Hotel’s Grand Ballroom.

    “[The event] offered entertainment by dancer-artist Geoffrey Holder and his Trinidad Dancers, Leon James and Willa Mae Ricker.”

    • jackthevampire permalink*
      April 7, 2011 1:59 pm

      Great detective work! Yes, that’s her, 78. I made a mistake in saying 1974 in my post; I had both 1974 and 1978 written when I wrote the article, but am currently away from my house and copy of Frankie’s book to confirm. I’m almost positive Frankie’s biography says 1978 (it’s in the index of people’s names and bios.)

      Bobby

  3. jackthevampire permalink*
    April 7, 2011 2:01 pm

    And how about that coinicdental timing! If she’s confirmed to be the same Willa Mae, it’s her birthday!

  4. Sue permalink
    April 16, 2011 1:29 pm

    Hi Bobby,

    Do you like coincidences? Well, here’s one. We love swing dancing so our daughters bought us a big poster of 2 Lindy-hoppers for a recent Wedding Anniversary present. We were frustrated because we couldn’t find the names of the dancers or any details about them.
    Well, thank you, sir, the photo is the one at the top of your article!
    Not only was Willa Mae a fantastic dancer, she clearly was quite a gal so, massive respect to her, and we will display our poster with pride in our dance studio aka the spare bedroom.
    Keep up the good work :)

    See you soon,

    Sue

  5. July 24, 2011 6:59 am

    Might just be your “American English” but when you say … “This was the group that appeared in A Day at the Races. (Frankie Manning was in the first tier, which was engaged at a club in New York.)” … do you mean that Frankie was working at the NY club during the filming of A Day at the Races?

    My understanding is that he was performing in Australia during the filming. I’ll dig up the references I have if you’re interested.

    • jackthevampire permalink*
      July 24, 2011 6:56 pm

      Hey Carl–

      Yes, I do mean that Frankie was dancing in a club in NY during the filming, which is information I got from his autobiography. I don’t have it in front of me, but I believe the passage ends with Frankie saying something like “People often ask me if I was sad not to be in the Day at the Races film, but I wasn’t at all….that’s what a big deal it was to perform at the cotton club! [or whatever club it was].”

      His big trip to Australia wasn’t until a few years later, 1938, and it included Snookie Beasely and Willa Mae, who were both in A Day At the Races. (A friend in Australia actually just gave me copies of the original program, it’s neat. It also lists all the dancers.)

      I’m interested in the references now. What documentation do you have that talks about the Australia thing during Day at the Races?

      Bobby

      • July 24, 2011 7:13 pm

        Ahhh, yes you’re right of course. I think I may just have my wires crossed here. Serves me right for posting after a weekend of dancing!

        I have a copy of the program too and remember Claudia showed Frankie around the Princes Theatre area when he was here a number of years ago. I’ll look through my files when I’m home tonight and shoot through what I have.

  6. Lili Lanes permalink
    October 25, 2012 4:26 am

    She’s my favorite in “Hellzapoppin”, total commitment!

  7. Annemie Zuidema permalink
    March 11, 2013 7:27 pm

    How can we get hold of copies of these pictures please.
    Annemie

  8. April 15, 2013 3:43 am

    Hey There. I just aquired a signed (Mili) numbered (52/75) framed print of the famous Willa Mae and Leon Ricker “Lindy hop” Any idea of its rarity and worth ??
    Thanks and Keep on Danc’in!

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