Savoy Style vs. Hollywood Style: A Fight to the Death (Hopefully?)
This essay has footnotes that can be found in the previously published post available here. It was created so that you could open another tab and flip back and forth if you wish. I also recommend opening up video links in new tabs.
“Do you teach Hollywood style or Savoy style?” *
I was asked this question a few months ago at the Jam Cellar. “I don’t mind which,” the person continued, “I just want to know because my boyfriend’s taking the beginner class and I want to know how to follow him.”
I have nothing against the person who asked this question—many people have been exposed to the terms “Hollywood” style and “Savoy” style, and it’s not their fault that the vocabulary still survives in the culture and makes people think weird things, like the idea that one should follow one differently than another. **
However, after years of research and great love for original swing dancers of all regions, I have come to cringe at hearing the words. The terms were loose and shaky to begin with, and not meant to carry the added weight that people have heaped on them over the years (myself included, at a few points in time). I’m pretty sure they have now officially collapsed, and we should do the good thing and take them out back and shoot them.
Let’s begin by explaining where the terms originally came from, to my knowledge:
Savoy style: As far as I know, the term began in the 80s, possibly the 90s. I first saw this term myself on the box for Frankie Manning and Erin Stevens’ videotape lessons on Lindy Hop. I always assumed Frankie allowed it because (1) Frankie Manning was fully aware that there were different styles of Lindy Hop in his day, and he didn’t want to claim his was the only way, and (2) he had pride in being one of the greatest dancers in the Savoy Ballroom, and he wanted people to remember the Savoy, and its place in developing Lindy Hop. However, in his autobiography (co-written by Cynthia Millman), he states on several occasions that all styles were individual at the Savoy (Pg. 169 and numerous others).
Hollywood style: Late 90s, early 2000s. Though there was Savoy style, there wasn’t really any other labeled style (again, as far as I know). Sylvia Sykes and a few others had taught “Dean Collins style” Lindy for decades, but that was because they had learned it straight from Dean Collins himself, and that was the extent of any “styles.” The phrase “Hollywood style” was coined by LA dancers, most notably Erik Robison and Sylvia Skylar, to describe the style of Lindy Hop done by the (mainly White) Southern California dancers prevalent in Hollywood films in the swing era. (And, yes, master Southern California dancer Dean Collins danced at the Savoy several times before he moved to Hollywood and introduced Lindy Hop there.)
At the least, “Hollywood” style was created simply as a descriptive term for people wondering why people like Eric and Sylvia looked different than the nation’s other top couples when they danced (in the late 1990s it was a significant difference in look). At the most, it was a small linguistic way of giving credit to a group of original swing dancers who were almost forgotten, or thought “uncool,” in the neo-swing renaissance of Lindy Hop. It should be mentioned Eric and Sylvia have always been good friends and admirers of Ryan and Jenny and Frankie Manning, the population’s ideals of “Savoy” style, and there were no malicious politics involved in either term when they were first coined, in my understanding.
Here’s where things started to get weird: Hollywood style took the world of early 2000s Lindy Hop by storm. It became extremely popular, and almost every city’s scene soon had their advanced dancers choosing sides.
For various reasons, many people chose Hollywood, and—here’s the main problem—based their understanding of the original “Hollywood” dancers not on what they saw for themselves in the old clips (which in those days were much harder to come by), but on what they were told, usually by the nearest “advanced” dancer. It should be added that it wasn’t just the “Hollywood” style dancers who did this; a scene’s advanced “Savoy style” dancers often did the same.
In embracing the new trend, many people very quickly cast off the old and left behind all of their Charlestons, Bleyers***, and any move they ever learned from Frankie Manning. They made the “whip” their basic swing-out, bought white bucks and wedgies, and every scene suddenly had an expert on “Hollywood style” and all the fundamental ways in which it was different from “Savoy style.” They included several general rules that we will discuss below.
Now, there’s a lot more to the story than that, and how we got to where the scene is today, but it’s not really important for this article. This post is mostly about deconstructing the style “rules” that have been going around for the last decade in hope of understanding the more complex—and sometimes surprising—reality. (And if you don’t think the theories, research, and opinions expressed in this essay are right, I hope to you they are at least new wrong answers for you to ponder.)
After a few polls with fellow dancers, here are the basic “style” assumptions that people made about “Hollywood” dancers vs. “Savoy” dancers:
1. Hollywood dancers stand up straighter; they don’t bend forward or as much as Savoy dancers do.
2. Hollywood dancers are “smoother” in their dancing than Savoy dancers; hence, Hollywood style was also often called “smooth style” in the early 2000s.
3. Hollywood dancers lead whips; Savoy dancers send their followers out forward/sideways.
4. Savoy dancers dance more circular; Hollywood dancers dance more “slotted.”
5. Hollywood swivels are different than Savoy swivels (various reasons mentioned).
6. Savoy dancers do Charleston moves in their Lindy Hop; Hollywood dancers don’t.
I’d like to break these down, one at a time. While we do so, I think you’ll agree that there are a few important problems to note regarding the old footage.
But first, a few notes:
— Some might now be thinking “Dear God, why bring up the style wars again? Haven’t enough people died already?” When the student asked me the Hollywood vs. Savoy question, I was shocked myself at the thought that this wasn’t all settled long ago. Then, when I thought about it more, I realized I hadn’t settled it for myself. This post changed from me telling someone what I believed to me discovering what I believed. However, as you will see, it’s long. You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t read the entire post. I promise I’ll never even mention it.
— I tried to link to every clip I mention. Most of them can also be found in this Basic Index of Classic Clips.
— After having spent so much time looking at footage and comparing it to other footage, I sometimes feel I’ve begun seeing things. It can be tricky trying to pinpoint what it felt like to do the things you see a dancer do in a clip, and even if what you’re seeing is really what you’re seeing. So, I don’t presume to be 100% right about this material—there are a lot of theories and guesses, and I’m still exploring ideas and annoying fellow instructors, loved ones, and innocent bystanders with discussion, etc.
— A common theme we will explore is how the terminology of “Hollywood” and “Savoy” gets in the way of our better understanding of the original dancers. Good terminology can be a needed shortcut on a long, monotonous route. Bad terminology, though, is the kind of pot-hole ridden shortcut that cuts off beautiful and enriching scenery and noteworthy landmarks. So, I’m going to try to use more specific terminology, as I’ll explain now.
Terminology and “The Frankie Factor”
Regarding the “style wars,” one of the largest mistakes people have made in the past decade is to equate “Savoy style” (especially the leader’s role) specifically with the styling and moves of Frankie Manning. This is mainly because Frankie Manning was a force both in his youth and in his old age. Charismatic, soulful, long-lasting, a master choreographer, inventor of hundreds of moves, and the only one of his peers energetic enough to travel around and teach across the world in his 80s and early 90s, it makes sense that he is in the forefront of our minds when it comes to what dancing meant at the Savoy.*
The city block-sized Harlem ballroom, however, produced many different unique dancers; Al Minns, Sonny Allen, Leon James, Snookie Beasley, and George Lloyd looked very different from Frankie Manning (and each other), and all of them were Savoy Ballroom dancers, and thus deserve their dancing to also be grouped with “Savoy style.” You could even argue (and many have) the Southern California dancer Dean Collins deserves at least some credit as a “Harlem” or “New York style” dancer, as he developed much of his dancing when he lived in New Jersey, and danced at many New York ballrooms, including the Savoy several times, and surely was inspired by the other Harlem dancers.
There is also an era problem: Just as swing dancing has evolved over the last few decades, so did it in the first few. “Savoy style” itself changed in various ways over the years, and that greatly complicates things when trying to fit it all under one blanket “style.”
“Hollywood” style also shares these problems. Many people equate “Hollywood” styling simply with Dean Collins himself. Hal Takier, Lenny Smith, Wally Albright, Bob Ashley, and Johnny Archer were all unique Southern California dancers in their own right. (Though, the “Hollywood=Dean Collins” idea is admittedly not *as* much of a conflict as the “Savoy style=Frankie Manning” idea, because Dean Collins for all intents and purposes introduced Lindy Hop to Southern California and taught many of the dancers there his specific dance mechanics: Bob Ashley, Lenny Smith and Johnny Archer were all his students, we believe. Frankie Manning was very influential, but almost definitely not as directly influential to Harlem dancers as Dean was to Southern California dancers.)
You can say the same for the followers: Of the Savoy Ballroom, Norma Miller is a very different dancer from Willamae Ricker and Ella Gibson, for instance, and Jewel McGowan is a very different dancer than Jean Veloz, Irene Thomas and Betty Takier. (All of which will play a role in the essay ahead.)
More specific language is easy and will go a long way towards understanding the reality of the original style differences. Therefore, in the discussion of the topics in this essay, I’ll use “Southern California (or SoCal) dancers” or “Dean Collins students” instead of the blanket term “Hollywood style dancers,”** and I’ll use “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers” or “post-war Savoy dancers” or “Harlem dancers,” etc., in place of the blanket term “Savoy style dancers.”
So, with that in mind, let’s look at our first style “rule”:
1. Hollywood style dancers stand up straighter; they don’t bend forward or as much as Savoy style dancers do.
Regarding leaders, this is probably the one I hear the most. First, we need to realize there are different ways a leader can “bend.” A generic bend is bending shoulders over knees over toes—so both the leader’s torso and knees bend. However, a leader can also bend his torso further forward than his knees, or, bend his knees more than his torso.
Almost every single leader in the old footage had a kind of athletic bend—so the old debate goes that Harlem dancers bent more dramatically as a rule. We’re going to test this out, and, as I mentioned, discuss how the various bends were accomplished. (Henceforth in the essay, when I say a leader “stands up straight,” I mean he is in only a slight athletic position. No original leader I know of stood up totally straight.)
First, let’s look at the early Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in (1937) A Day at the Races.
The first leader, Johnny Innis, does have a dramatic basic bent posture most of the time he’s dancing. The second leader, Leon James, only bends dramatically when he’s at the end of his movements or mule-kicking or otherwise styling. In the middle of swing-outs, however, he’s moderately bent. The third leader, Snookie Beasley, is standing pretty straight in almost all of his dancing (again, trick steps get him bent a little more). The final leader, George Greenidge spends the entire time bending prostrate in what must have been a very uncomfortable position: His legs are straight but his torso is bent dramatically far forward. (He later changes this styling to more of a generic bend in Keep Punching.) And, in the group’s final swing-out choreography, the leaders all do a generic, but only slightly-bent, posture:
The earliest of the Whitey’s clips, A Day at the Races is where you will find the most dramatic bends and the greatest range in one clip. (Which makes sense, as it’s hard on the back to stay bent as much as some of those leaders are, and often looks more uncomfortable than it does cool. Dance styles naturally tend to gravitate towards the more comfortable and efficient.) There’s still a variety of range in many other Whitey’s choreographies, though the golden age of the bent-Savoy look is probably (1938) Radio City Revels , where all the leaders are bent like Frankie, and, to a lesser extent, (1941) Hellzapoppin’, where most of them are pretty bent, though in slightly different ways than Frankie.
However, watch any of the Harvest Moon Ball footage and you will see that most of the dancers are only slightly bent, and almost none as bent as Action-Frankie (Frankie Manning when in performance mode). Even a brief video of Frankie social dancing in a crowd at the Savoy in Ken Burns’s Jazz: (Episode 4: A True Welcome; video is roughly at 35 minutes into the episode) shows a Frankie Manning dancing without his dramatic bend. Yet another interesting film is (1942) The Outline of Jitterbug History, which shows the four couples of Hellzapoppin, all dancing without any dramatic bending (except, you know, to pick up girls).
Whitey’s like Al Minns and Leon James, as well as a post-war generation of Savoy dancers, almost all had only a slight bend in their dancing, as shown in social dancing jams in (1950) The Spirit Moves. Also see (198?) George Lloyd and (2001) Sonny Allen.
And we can’t forget the famous Savoy dancer Shorty George with his partner Big Bea, as seen in (1937) Ask Uncle Sol. He almost never bent dramatically (Frankie mentioned on several occasions that almost none of the first generation Savoy greats like Shorty picked up the dramatically bent style.) Again, for trick steps, Shorty bends down, but not for his basic dancing movements.
Now let’s look at Southern California dancers Dean and Jewel in (1942) Rings on Her Fingers. Dean here is dramatically bent through all his basic movements, and, just like the Whitey’s, he tends to fold his posture more dramatically when he does tricks/styling. You see something similar when you watch Lenny Smith, the sailor, in (1944) Swing Fever or Hal Takier in (1943) Maharaja , though Hal stands up straighter than Dean and Lenny for his default dancing.
Lenny Smith’s bend is worth discussing. Look at him in Twice Blessed, or at his sugar pushes at 2:50 in Swing Fever. Notice how, one moment, he will be bent dramatically forward, then the next, his knees are bent dramatically out in front of him and his torso is straighter? This is how Lenny created counterbalance*, by moving his feet in front of him (at the same time he moved his center away from her). Other Southern California dancers did this (mainly only the students of Dean Collins), but Lenny is at the extreme end of the spectrum (perhaps because he’s shorter than most leaders and can get away with making it dramatic). Even though Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers might “sit” away from each other to create counterbalance, especially in aerial preps, it doesn’t seem to happen in their basic movements like it does in Lenny’s.
Also, that primarily happens in sugar-pushes, a step the original Southern California dancers did, and, as far as we know, the Harlem dances did not.** (As you can imagine, the moves that each coast did are often very telling about the general mechanics of the style of jitterbug. We’ll come around full circle to this later.)
So, it seems there is no generic rule about who bent over and who didn’t in the classic swing world.*** Some people did, and some people didn’t, regardless of which coast they lived on. Frankie Manning himself was the first person he knew of to give his Lindy Hop that bent over “running” look (back in the mid-30’s), and there was an entire generation of Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom who came before him. And, even after Frankie adopted the look, it still was not universal.**** Again, a great example is his peer Al Minns. Watch Al dancing here or here: Even dancing to “Jumpin at the Woodside,” the older Al Minns is standing straight and proud.
Dean Collins and other dancers on the West Coast also came naturally to a bent look in their own development (or, there’s also a possibility Dean took this styling with him from the East Coast to California), with or without Frankie’s influence. Such an athletic posture is perhaps natural to many when dancing to such energetic music (and throwing women).
Going back to the way people can bend, I have seen pretty much all the various types of bending in both Southern California and Harlem dancers, and this diagram shows four main varieties: Snookie Beasley (top left, Whitey’s) standing up straight; George Greenidge (top right, Whitey’s) with straight legs, bent over torso; Lenny Smith (bottom left, SoCal) with straight torso, bent knees (though, this is only when he counterbalanced—his look is more like Wally Albright’s when he’s not counterbalancing); Wally Albright ( bottom right, SoCal) with bent torso and knees.
As for the followers, the SoCal followers were almost always straight, and many Harlem followers were, as well. Some Harlem followers did, however, choose to bend shoulders-over-knees-over-toes in a similar posture as a leader. That’s a mere taste, though, of what we’ll discuss in the swivels section.
2. Hollywood dancers are “smoother” in their pulse and dancing than Savoy dancers; hence, Hollywood style was also often called “smooth style” in the early 2000s.
This is an interesting one to mention to old-timers. Whether they’re from Harlem or LA, they will almost always say “of course Lindy Hop should be smooth.” In interviews, Frankie Manning often seemed confused that people called Hollywood style “smooth style” dancing, as if implying that his dancing was not.
Once again, a lack of specific terminology becomes a problem: What does “smooth” mean when we talk about the Harlem dancers vs. the SoCal dancers? Several of the old-timers describe smoothness simply as “not bouncy,” but there are many other ways “smoothness” can be applied in a partnered swing dance.
In the early 2000s Hollywood vs. Savoy terms, for instance, I think it was a blanket term for “fluidity of feet, ankle, and knee movement” to some, and “pulse and energy” to others (and even “fluidity through the ends of movements” to others). This makes sense when you look at some of the “Hollywood” dancers of the early 2000s, many of whom dramatically rolled their feet through steps (in sort of a Boogie-Woogie styling) and/or killed their pulse, while others took “smooth” to mean hardly picking their feet up off the floor. We’ll explain how these are not what the original SoCal dancers did. (At least, SoCal leaders…but let’s get there after we visit Harlem.) *
We’ll start by finding “smooth” Savoy dancers. Two obvious ones are George Lloyd and Sonny Allen. (Note: YouTube took down the best clips of Sonny dancing because of song copyrights.) Almost every aspect of these dancers is smooth: their pulse, their footwork, and their movement across their body and across the floor. And, in Sonny Allen’s case, his dedication to fitted suits and soul pompadours. Note also the use of slides.
Allen and Lloyd were both big presences in the post-war Savoy Ballroom, and you can see some of that post-war era’s jams and social dancing in the middle of this clip from The Spirit Moves. The leaders are almost all showing off for the camera, so it’s not that “social”, but as you can see, almost everyone at this time was trying to be smooth as glass in several ways: minimalizing their pulse, some even making their footwork hardly leave the ground, and almost all enjoying a ton of slide footwork. Leon James especially plays with the fluidity of movement across the dance floor and with his partner.
The things that get in the way of some of these dancers’ “smoothness” are (1) their hiccups in leading/following — some of them appear to hardly be leading/following at all— and (2) their use of moves that involve moving the torso and arms around dramatically (more on that later). Al Minns, who does a little Lindy Hopping in the jam, is the non-smooth one, specifically, in that his pulse is large, and his movements, especially his steps, staccato.
“But,” you might be saying, “that’s all post-war Savoy styling. Let’s get down to the original Savoy stuff.” Well, as I mentioned earlier, that’s part of the style problem. Is Savoy styling meant to imply pre-war Whiteys? Post-war Savoy? Or 80-year-old Frankie? They are all quite different. But let’s look at what aspects of smoothness existed in the pre-war Savoy dancers. (1937) A Day at the Races is probably the least smooth of any Whitey’s choreography; staccato Charleston kicks are rampant, many movements aren’t fluid, and in general things seem slightly jagged, bumbling and out-of-proportion, the perfect definition of adolescence, which was where their dancing was at that time. (Please don’t misunderstand me; I love the dancing in this clip.) But just a couple of years later, in (1938) Radio City Revels the Whitey’s Lindy Hop is obviously growing up connected and fluid, and comes into maturity with (1941) Hellzapoppin’ .
Hellzapoppin’, and to a smaller extent, (1939) Keep Punching, are very smooth in pulse, footwork, and across-the-floor movement. Sure, if they’re wearing sneakers and dancing aerials at 300+ BPM, you’re not going to see the sort of “smoothness” you get out of Lindy Hoppers dancing to 200 BPM songs in leather shoes, but I think the group of dancing kitchen and house workers show a mastery of “smoothness” by almost any dance definition of the word.
Now let’s investigate the smoothness of the SoCal dancers. Let’s look at (1945) Twice Blessed, one of my favorite SoCal clips (In this essay, I’ll use Twice Blessed a lot for examples, as it shows three distinctively different SoCal dance couples):
The dancers in here, like the Savoy dancers above, are “smooth” in that they try not to have their shoulders bounce up and down while they kick ass. But if you look at their feet, especially the leaders, you’ll see the pulse pump through their knees and feet. They are charging with their footwork, which isn’t the sort of feet-never-leave-the-ground style a lot of people equated with “Hollywood style” smoothness in the early 2000s. (Btw, please don’t pay attention to the actors. But, if you ever bump into me on the dance floor, just look at me coldly and say “Better watch your step, Clarence.”)
Just for a moment, pretend that all you ever saw of Savoy Ballroom dancers was the Sonny Allen or George Lloyd clips above, and all you ever saw of SoCal dancers was the Twice Blessed clip. Would you ever draw the conclusion that “Hollywood style” was the “smoother” one of the two?
What is an obvious difference between the original Harlem and SoCal dancers, and which could affect the “smoothness” of the look, is the way they choose to express themselves in their footwork and body/arms. Whitey’s, for instance, used a lot of Charleston substitutions (like mule-kicks instead of rock steps and kick-steps instead of 7&8 triples) and swinging-the-leg motions a lot. They also tended to use hop and jump steps to set up aerials, whereas the SoCal dancers didn’t, at least not nearly as much or as obviously.
SoCal dancers mainly kept to triples and kick-ball-changes, and we don’t see any mule-kicks from any of the SoCal dancers, whereas probably more than half the Whitey’s Lindy Hopper leaders do them. (Part of the SoCal dancers footwork choices could be dramatically influenced by the speed of most of the music they danced to, which was significantly slower than that in the old Harlem clips.) One interesting footwork substitution of note takes place with Wallie Albright, in Twice Blessed above. He’s the guy in the sweater who does a swing-out very soon following the “Jitterbug Finals Tonight” part of the clip. At the end of his swing-out, he does a sort of kick-step variation for the [7&8]—but it looks more like a heel back than a kick-step as a Harlem dancer would do them. Still, it’s the closest thing I’ve found to a SoCal leader doing a [7&8] kick-step variation, which, again, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers did all the time.
The choices the dancers made with their torsos and arms also affect the overall smoothness: SoCal Lindy Hoppers (especially the leaders) kept their torsos and arms pretty low-key, whereas Harlem dancers allowed their torsos to move around more (such as in mini-dip movements), and their arms to swing wide, wave in the air, and play a much more attention-grabbing role in their dancing. (However, an interesting exception to the torso/arms styling rule are SoCal Collegiate Shag dancers like Ray Hirsch and Patti Lacey, or Fred and Betty Christopherson who did quite a lot with their torsos and arms.)
The exceptions to these rules are always interesting, just as I imagine the sound a monkey wrench makes when it’s thrown into heavy machinery is probably quite interesting. We do have an example of a Savoy dancer who has many of the footwork, pulse and torso/arm traits of the SoCal dancers. Shorty George in (1937) Ask Uncle Sol has a charging pulse, no mule-kick or kick-step substitutions in his basic footwork, and keeps his torso and arms low-key. What’s missing to make Shorty George even more like Dean Collins? Counterbalance.
I’d like to argue that how the dancers tended to use counterbalance could affect the “smoothness” of the dance. Notice how some SoCal dancers, particularly Dean Collins and those he trained, seem to have a time-stretched look to the end of their patterns. To at least one swing dance historian, it appeared they many of them, particularly Dean Collins and Jewel MacGowan, were actually holding onto counterbalance at one particular level for a few counts of the ends of their patterns. This is different from the Harlem and several other SoCal dancers, who appear to simply stretch into and out of counterbalance without holding onto an amount of it for a significant length of time.
This use of holding onto counterbalance is one reason the continuous swivels Dean and Jewel did so often look so natural and flow so naturally from their movements— if Dean and Jewel usually keep the counterbalance the same level at the end of a swing-out as part of their default mechanics, it’s nothing to just keep it going at that level and just add more swivels until Dean brings her in.
See, for instance, 30 seconds into Rings on Her Fingers.
Now, certain Harlem leaders do have a time-stretched smoothness to the end of their patterns. For instance, Frankie Manning’s second set of swing-outs in his Hellzappopin jam come to mind (some of my favorite swing-outs of all time).
However, it appears that what they (as well as several of the SoCal dancers) were doing is just really slowing down the stretch, making it take up a lot of time in their movements, milking it. But that’s not the same as holding onto one specific level of counterbalance for a significant amount of time. (For example, try holding onto the exact same amount of stretch during the [7&8] of a swing out.) Of course, it is possible a Harlem couple at one point in time or in a move or two did do this, but with Dean and Jewel and several of the dancers who learned from them, it appears to be a trait with their generic dancing mechanics. Anyway, the theory (it’s not mine) makes sense to me, and I think it produces similar results when I try it in dancing.
Now, how does this relate to “smoothness”? The visual effect of holding onto counterbalance is that it appears to slow down the momentum to a stop before starting it again, and thus stretches out the timing of the patterns, giving it a subtly powerful smoothness of flow (The same smoothness that, exaggerated, gives us “The Matrix” slow-motion special effects. Or—cough—the Gap Swing Commercial effect.) This could be one reason why people felt the SoCal dancers tended to be “smooth” in a way the Harlem dancers, as a generic group, weren’t.**
Something else interesting—then I’ll let you take five and get a drink of water. A fellow dancer*** also pointed this out to me, and when I looked for it, I couldn’t deny it appears correct. After introducing the Twice Blessed clip above, I mentioned how the leader’s footwork in the clip was in general more charging and lively than the follower’s. This is a common theme in the SoCal dancers, and is an important aspect to the SoCal’s unique “smoothness”: Many of the followers didn’t charge with their pulse or pick their feet up off the ground as much as the leaders did, or as much as their Savoy Ballroom follower counterparts did. See also Dean and Jewel in Rings on Her Fingers.
In the Harlem footage, followers tend to move their feet with a lot closer to the same pulse and energy as the leaders move theirs. (I think this is part of an elegance motif that SoCal followers went for, which we’ll dive into a lot more in the swivels section.)
It’s interesting—a person who watches only the leaders of the era might not see near as much difference in pulse/footwork “smoothness” as person who watches only the follower might.
Before the 2000s, in the “Savoy style” era of the 1990s, slides were hardly ever seen on the dance floor. There are hardly any in “(1994) Can’t Top the Lindy Hop,” for instance (except for those done by Sonny Allen). Once the “Hollywood” craze hit, however, they were suddenly all over the place. At the time, most people assumed it was part of “Hollywood styling” and not part of “Savoy styling.” Obviously, you can see that Savoy dancers slid up a storm, from Snookie Beasley’s famous lock-up slide in (1937) “A Day at the Races” to (1950s) The Spirit Moves to every step George Lloyd ever took.
I think the assumption we (or at least, I) made that slides were a “Hollywood style” thing is evidence of how much we depended on Frankie Manning’s dancing as our definition of “Savoy style.” Frankie Manning rarely did slides, at least, in the 1980s and 90s when he taught across the world (we don’t know much about what his social dancing might have been like in the 30s). In the moves he taught and did in his demos, he was much more into playing with rhythm and body movement, and could possibly have been an exception, as far as his peers go, in having done hardly any slides.
It should also be noted that another factor that contributed to the fad of slides in the 2000s “Hollywood” craze was the change in footwear. Sueded shoes, which allow slides pretty easily, became all the rage with the “Hollywood craze,” whereas before, dance sneakers like Bleyers and jazz trainers were the shoes of choice for many. And if you wear sneakers, slides aren’t going to come naturally out of the dance.
Regarding the SoCal dancers, we know they did slides socially, and dancers like Dean Collins and Willie Desatoff were masters of them, but there are hardly any Lindy Hop slides at all in the old SoCal clips. An older Dean Collins shows off a few here.
If we want to be scientific, we need to admit that our data are flawed. It’s for a few reasons, but for now, let’s highlight the speed problem, as it came up in our discussion of smoothness. The problem is this: Almost all of our Harlem footage is significantly faster than our SoCal footage. Take a look:
Savoy Ballroom dancers
Ask Uncle Sol (Savoy) (300 BPM)
A Day at the Races (Whitey’s) (270 BPM)
Radio City Revels (260 BPM)
Keep Punching (Whitey’s) (260 BPM)
The Outline of Jitterbug History (Whitey’s) (230 BPM)
Hellzapoppin (Whitey’s) (310+ BPM)
The Spirit Moves (Savoy) (Several tempos, our main source for mid-tempo Savoy dancing. It should also be noted the music was overdubbed for copyright reasons, so tempos are only noted by the dancer’s rhythm.)
Buck Privates (180 BPM)
Rings on Her Fingers (193 BPM)
Chool Song (190 BPM)
Powers Girl (200 BPM)
Glen Gray (180,190, 270 BPM briefly,and mainly only solo dancing)
Maharaja (285 BPM, our main source for fast SoCal performance dancing, however, not *pure* Lindy Hop—more “swing” style dancing with some Lindy Hop steps thrown in occasionally.)
Jive Junction (150, 165 BPM)
Groovie Movie (many tempos, fastest is 270 BPM)
Twice Blessed (fastest is 250 BPM)
In his autobiography, Frankie mentions that a night at the Savoy included all tempos (pg. 70). (I think we can assume tempos for a night of dancing were pretty similar on both coasts, as no one has stated otherwise; for instance, there’s no reason to assume Jimmy Lunceford would play a vastly different set at the Hollywood Palomar than he would at the Savoy.)
The great SoCal follower Irene Thomas mentioned that, as far as SoCal social dancing was concerned, the Lindy Hoppers left the floor and watched the Swing dancers hit the floor when fast music came on. (“Swing” as in, the early form of Bal-Swing.)
This lack of comfort with fast music shows. In Groovie Movie, only Lenny Smith seems confident doing Lindy at the 270 BPM ending tempo, and the director spends the fast part of the clip cutting back and forth between goofy steps, Shag, and struggling Lindy. My sources tell me the fastest we have Dean and Jewel doing Lindy is 300 BPM in (1940) Hold That Tiger. It’s only for a few seconds at the very end (They’re on the right), and though they are on tempo, it is obvious they are not primed for that speed, whereas the Whitey’s look much more natural at their 300+ BPM in Hellzapoppin’.
(You might even say the Whitey’s have the reverse problem in (1942) The Outline of Jitterbug History. This is the Hellzapoppin’ group, and their performance dancing looks strange and sluggish at the low 230 BPM.)
What does this mean? Well, regardless of who was comfortable at what speed of dancing, it means most of our SoCal footage is at mid-tempo—the perfect tempo for intricate styling—but, the Harlem footage is almost exclusively at high-tempo—the perfect tempo for partnered jam-oriented dancing.
Where this has perhaps the most unfortunate consequences is with the Harlem followers: We hardly see anything of them except their ability to hang on and get thrown around. With the SoCal followers, we get to see tons of mid-tempo styling by Irene Thomas, Jean Veloz, and Jewel McGowan. But we don’t get to see what original Harlem followers like Ann Johnson, Willamae Ricker, or Norma Miller, for instance, would have done at the same tempo.
Also, the speed would have determined certain mechanics and techniques these dancers would have developed. For instance, this may account for why Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performance dancers didn’t develop the use of counterbalance the way Dean Collins and his contemporaries did, and why the SoCal dancers didn’t develop the powerful aerial preps the Whitey’s had.
So, to really put our data on equal ground, we need footage of unorganized Harlem dancers dancing to mid-tempo songs in a social dance style in the early 40s. And, we need the SoCal dancers to get organized into a well-trained group and make a balls-to-the-wall routine as fast as they could dance, the SoCal equivalent of Hellzapoppin.’ Sadly, it didn’t happen.
On the other hand, perhaps the tempos the groups were in general comfortable performing at is simply another difference between the two scenes.
3. Hollywood dancers lead whips; Savoy dancers send their followers out forward or sideways.
This issue is a little bit more complicated than it appears. For instance, a leader can send his follower out with only sideways momentum on , but the additional mechanics might make the follower be turned mostly backwards by . So, is that a “sideways” swing-out or a “backwards” swing-out?
Which way a leader sent a follower out (or which way a follower chose to go out) is not the only characteristic at play here. For instance, a leader can move himself and the follower through the [3&4,5,6] of the swing-out in a very linear fashion, a circular fashion, or various degrees between. It’s a subtly powerful part to an old-timer’s swing-out and is one of the factors that affects the “way” a follower is sent out.
First, we should probably define a whip in the old-timer’s sense of the word. A “whip” is a swing-out developed by Dean Collins that sends the follower out such that she unravels and rotates dramatically during the end of the swing-out (like the way a whiplash unravels down a whip). From what the footage shows, the whip itself was done powerfully only by Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan, and only a few times was it at its extreme (see the famous jam in (1941) Buck Privates, the swing-out right before Jewel goes into continuous swivels).
In film, we only see Dean and Jewel do dramatic whips as a transition into continuous swivels. (Sylvia Sykes mentioned that later in life, he would do it as a regular swing-out variation occasionally, but we don’t know if he would have done that in his early life.) It was done to far less degrees by some of his students, such as Lenny Smith, mentioned earlier. It’s important to know that no one else really did Dean’s whip, and no one followed it quite like Jewel McGowan did, probably because of her unique technique. (Sadly, “unique technique” is not as satisfying to say out loud as it is to write.)
Dean’s swing-outs in Buck Privates, for instance, tend to go like this: He sends Jewel sideways on , and the momentum carries through, rotating her into her frame (sometimes dramatically) on , where Jewel then unwinds dramatically on [7&8]. So, again, I think it’s misguided to call it either a “sideways” or a “backwards” swing-out. (Some in the early 2000s, like myself, would try to do the whip by either starting to send our follower out backwards on , or by smooshing our frames together on , like flattening a cardboard box, to get her to wrap up into her arm. If you watch Dean in slow motion, you can see what he did was different; he mostly used the circular momentum created in his [3&4] to get his follower to rotate into her frame. More about circular vs. linear below.)
In 2000, someone might have told you that many Savoy style leaders sent their followers out forwards or sideways in swing-outs, Frankie Manning being one of them.
Frankie Manning’s beautiful, beautiful swing-outs in Hellzapoppin’, for instance, are surprisingly tricky to pin down, because sorcerer’s illusions are at work. It’s technically what we dance scientists describe as forwardsy-sideways-ish. First, he starts sending his follower out forward, almost into his arm. However, as his weight transfers into his  and he then takes his  step, it appears as though he turns his follower’s body to sideways as he turns his own. So, by , the swing-out is a sideways one. And, by [7&8], all that momentum has turned her body all the way around to face him. So, the next time you pass a kid on a playground telling the other kids something like “Frankie Manning is so good, he can send a follower out forward, sideways and backward in the same swing-out!”, flick him a shiny quarter for being so wise for his age. *, **
And there are some examples of some more-or-less forward swing-outs, such as those by Leon James, who sends Norma Miller out forward in A Day at the Races, (but that’s only on the second one and could be done mainly to make her variation easier, because he seems to prefer to send followers out sideway/backward, at least in his later years). Sending a follower out forward also occurs in the (1938?) Harvest Moon Ball Footage, (1950) The Spirit Moves, and (1984) Al Minns in Sweden.
Now, in Frankie Manning’s autobiography, he talks about how followers themselves would often decide whether to go out backward or forward or sideways( pg. 169 ), which adds another layer of complexity into the issue, but helps give a clearer picture of what dancing would have been like in those times. Just because you planned on sending a follower out sideways, didn’t necessarily mean that was what was going to happen.***
It makes sense that you don’t find a lot of leaders who simply send their follower out forward. To strictly swing a follower out forward all the time, perfectly, with no sideways to it, requires a little more high-maintenance leading. It’s relatively easier to send the follower out sideways or backwards, as the leader’s body naturally leads such a motion as he turns during the [4,5,6] area of the swing-out.
Now, it IS very rare to see a SoCal dancer swing a follower out even the slightest bit forward for any count. But the exception is very interesting: Dean Collins himself is part of a forward swing-out in (1943) Kid Dynamite. He and his partner are on the left side of the screen, almost immediately after the clip starts. (Note: we don’t know if he leads her to or not, but she does go out forward.) Otherwise, the SoCal dancers might have done simple backwards swing-outs, and a few did do sideways swing-outs: Hal Takier’s swing-outs in (1943) Maharaja appear to be basically sideways/backwards. (They are also 540 degrees.)
Note: Frankie and Dean’s Swing-Outs
Real quick. During the early 2000s it was common for people to come to the conclusion that Frankie and Dean’s swing-outs were very similar. They’re different in a lot of fundamental ways, so I don’t really agree with that charge. But here are examples of the [3&4,5,6] swing-outs from both of them from the most similar angle I could find.
Especially regarding the next section of the essay, note how Frankie’s [3&4,5,6] are linear driven and Dean’s are more circular, a contradiction to the general “rules” we’ll discuss. (The linearity vs. circularity is easier to see if you look at the follower’s path of travel.)
It should be mentioned that (1) these are swing-outs at entirely different speeds and (2) Dean and Frankie’s swing-outs changed in various small ways throughout the years, and based on their partner, so by no means are these samples representative of all of their swing-outs. (Also, these pictures were taken thanks to the cunning use to taking screenshots of paused YouTube videos; it’s not an exact science. I may be a tiny bit off on these. But it beats the insomnia-induced all-nighter I would have had trying to get them perfect. I think they are good enough to get the idea.) *
4. Savoy dancers dance more circular; Hollywood dancers dance more “slotted.”
This one is tricky to explain in writing, but you can probably see from the footage already mentioned how the answer is not nearly as simple as the “rule” implies. Also, let’s define “circular” and “slotted.”
“Circular” could mean many things, several of which are vague and not easily described. However, for this essay, let’s assume it means (1) the overall movements are full of rotational momentum, and not a particularly striking or consistent amount of linear momentum*, or it could mean, more specifically, (2) the swing-out has circular qualities during its [3&4, 5, 6]area. As we’ve mentioned, one can do a swing-out that’s very linear driven, or one can do a swing-out where the action in the [3 & 4 – 5] area is circular in look and feel.
Some people take “slotted” to imply that it all happens in one line—but neither coast obviously limited itself to simply dancing back and forth in the same line. Dancers from both coasts allowed themselves to use all parts of the dance floor.
Old Frankie Manning, the one with hip problems, danced a very circular kind of Lindy Hop, especially in his [3&4, 5,6] of a swing-out (was this a choice made for physical comfort?). But his younger, performance-oriented self, obviously swung-out slotted and danced slotted, with very linear movements, and in his [3&4,5,6] of a swing-out for the films.
An example of a circular style (both overall and in the middle of a swing-out) from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers might be Snookie Beasley and Willamae Ricker, the third couple in (1937) A Day at the Races. And the most obvious example of slotted Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (linear both overall and in the middle of a swing-out) would be Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson (fourth couple) in (1941) Hellzapoppin’ or in (1948) Killer Diller (at 1:15).
From what I can see, the dance as a whole tended to get more slotted as the years pass from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, and this makes sense in regards to its Charleston origins: The swing-out came from a circular Charleston move, as evident in (1929) After Seben. The dancing in (1937) A Day at the Races is, I’d argue, more circular than in (1939) Keep Punching, which is more circular than in (1941) Hellzapoppin’.
We don’t even get SoCal Lindy dancers on film until around this time (the 1940s)—perhaps the slotted look to their dancing is more a product of the time/fashion of the dance overall? This theory breaks down with the Savoy Ballroom dancers of the (1950) The Spirit Moves jams. In the 1950s, some of the couples really bust out slotted, linear dancing, but a good half are obviously dancing very circularly. Also, it makes sense that the progression to linear in the original Whitey’s could also be them learning to dance slotted for the strong performance impact it creates.
Regarding the SoCal dancers, Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan actually look pretty circular in the famous (1941) Buck Privates jam, though their dancing looks more slotted in other clips.
I personally don’t remember this Savoy/Hollywood difference being mentioned much in my neck of the Atlanta woods during the early 2000s, but apparently it was big in other places (the Wikipedia article on Savoy style even mentions it).
To get a modern perspective, I asked David Rehm about the linear vs. circular debate regarding Harlem and SoCal dancers. David is undoubtedly one of the biggest Dean Collins studiers in the world. What people may be surprised to know is that he has also studied the Harlem dancers in-depth. He gave me his take on the matter, which is a little too complicated to explain fully here without you dancing with him. I recommend, if you are ever around him and interested, asking him about it.
But basically, it boiled down to this: He agreed that there are instances of each type of movement in both SoCal dancers and Harlem dancers of the day, but he argued the dynamics get even more complicated than what we’ve discussed so far.
As an example, David demonstrated how Dean Collins looked like he was a really slotted dancer, but actually his swing-outs felt like they were round because of the way he did them. (You can get a sense of this by looking at the Dean/Jewel swing-out graph above. His body looks like he’s making a strong linear movement, but she travels through the middle of the swing-out in a circular way.)
It felt really cool.
Many other SoCal dancers look powerfully linear in their stretches**, but tended to be circular in the [3&4,5,6,] of the swing-out, like Dean and Jewel. For instance, Wallie and Mousie Albright in Twice Blessed or Hal and Betty Takier in Maharaja. (Unlike, say, Frankie Manning, who tended to be linear in overall movements and linear in his [3&4,5,6] of swing-outs. Lenny Smith (in the dark suit at the end of Twice Blessed) is an example of a SoCal dancer who is also pretty linear throughout both movements and the middle of swing-outs.)
Note: White Harlem Dancers and Black SoCal Dancers.
It is well known that the Savoy Ballroom was an integrated ballroom, and both Frankie Manning and Norma Miller acknowledged there were some great White Lindy Hoppers who went there, and that the general spirit of the hall was that it didn’t matter how you looked, it was how you danced. And, as we’ve already mentioned, Dean Collins himself went to the Savoy before he moved to LA.
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers weren’t all Black; Whitey had some teams with White dancers in them, though according to Swing Dancing by Tamara Stevens (of the Stevens sisters)*, there was only one White couple: Ruth Ettin (Frankie says “Ruthie Rheingold”) and Harry Rosenberg. Frankie lists Harry as one of the best Lindy Hoppers in the Savoy, and a friendly rival of Frankie’s. Frankie mentions how he could often dance all of Frankie’s best steps as well as Frankie could (according to his autobiography, pg. 106.)
And, several clips of Harvest Moon Ball Footage shows White Lindy Hop couples—they seem to be doing more or less the same Harlem style of Lindy Hop as you see from the Whitey’s.
There was also a group of Black SoCal dancers, though they didn’t get much film time. In her autobiography, Norma Miller talks about meeting, befriending, and dancing with them on their trips to LA to make films (pg 161, 166). What’s interesting is this means this particular SoCal group was directly influenced by the Savoy dancers in ways the other SoCal dancers probably weren’t. It’s hard to imagine them not being excited to see the greatest Lindy Hop professional teams come to their local club and show them tons of new dancing ideas.** However, we don’t have much evidence of what the Black SoCal dancers’ dancing looked like.
You can see a few of the couples in the giant crowd in the dance clip from Hollywood Canteen. But you only see a few basics, and for the most part they look like generic SoCal styling, and to be honest, none of the couples look very skilled. One couple does a very loose, non-stretchy swing-out, however, and another does a breakaway—perhaps touches of Harlem in their styling? Sadly, I don’t think we can currently say for sure.
It’s hard enough to see on this YouTube clip. I have a DVD copy and a giant HD television at my disposal, and had to watch it many times through in slow-motion to spot the different couples and watch what they were doing.
5. Hollywood swivels are different than Savoy swivels.
I’ve often heard people mention these differences in this way:
(1) Savoy style swivels have the feet wider apart than Hollywood style swivels.
(2) In Savoy style swivels, the followers move their torsos with their swivels, as opposed to Hollywood dancers, who keep their torsos still and allow their hips to move more.
(3) Hollywood followers “sit” into their swivels to create counterbalance or stretch; Savoy followers squat into their swivels.
(4) Savoy followers throw their arms around more than Hollywood followers do.
Swivels are the universal follower’s styling among the classic Lindy Hoppers, and also show the way the followers responded to the stretches at the end of the movements. Let’s take a look at several great swivels in swing dance history from these aspects.
Width of feet
Here’s one of the perhaps more surprising results: I don’t think the Savoy followers widened their swivels as much as people seem to think, and, the SoCal followers were more likely to play with the width of their swivels to create specific effects than Savoy followers.
We should start by recognizing that there are two different places the old-timer followers feet could be wide in their swivels—the [7 & 8] swivel of a swing-out, or the [1,2] count after. Some followers we will discuss get wide feet on both, some on neither, and some only on the [7 & 8] swivel. (I don’t think I’ve seen any that stay close on [7&8] but go wide on [1,2]. Imagine it, in your head. Isn’t that kind of weird?)
Take a look at the followers’ feet in (1937) A Day at the Races or many of the (1939) Keep Punching swivels for instance, and compare the width of the swivels in (1944) Groovie Movie or (1944) Swing Fever. (Also, there are pictures below if you don’t want to go wading through clips.) Followers like Norma Miller swiveled a little wide on [7&8] but not on [1,2]. It’s rare to see followers like Esther Washington (the tall one dancing with Frankie Manning in Keep Punching) who swiveled wide on [7&8] as well as [1,2]
The only other one I know who swiveled super wide throughout the [7&8,1,2] was Mildred Pollard (She’s the second follower here. See her picture on the right. (What’s interesting is that if Mildred had also chosen to keep her torso up straighter, like several of her Savoy peers did, her swivels would look very similar to the SoCal swivels of Jewel McGowan and Jean Veloz.) (See the Jean picture at the bottom of this section, for instance.)
Hellzapoppin is a special case, because the followers hardly get a chance to swivel at all, the speed is so fast. (Also, to what extent does the speed make them ground themselves differently than they would normally?) But you still don’t see a lot of wideness. Norma Miller (dancing with the chef) hits some really wide stances, but Mickey Jones (first follower) and Willamae Ricker (third) seem to pretty much step under their shoulders at the ends of swing-outs. And Ann Johnson only steps a little wide at the end of Frankie’s powerhouse swing-outs.
It seems the style moved towards extra close swivels near the 1950s, because every single follower in the jams in the middle of this clip from (1950) The Spirit Moves keeps her feet close throughout all her swivels.
After thinking about it, the followers in A Day at the Races are all wearing skirts that go below the knees and leather-soled shoes. It wouldn’t be natural to swivel wide wearing clothes like this. This might have been why Norma Miller, for one, didn’t take her swivels as wide as she did in Hellzapoppin, where she forgot to wear a skirt at all.
Regarding the SoCal gals, researching this has shown me how much followers like Jean Veloz, Irene Thomas and Jewel McGowan played with the width of their feet on swivels for a specific desired effect, sometimes going for really close knees and feet, sometimes for very wide stances. The average Savoy follower, on the other hand, seemed to pick one way and stick with it, and didn’t change her swivels much. (Again, as always, the speed could affect this—we simply don’t have any slow Harlem-style dances on film to compare it to, except the Spirit Moves followers, who sort of don’t do anything.) However, I think it’s safe to say the Harlem followers we have on film made swiveling part of their basic steps, while SoCal followers like Jewel McGowan and Jean Veloz, made their swivels an event.
For instance, watch any clip with Jewel McGowan, or Jean Veloz in Swing Fever. (She starts dancing at 2:30 in the clip.)
In Savoy style swivels, the followers move their torsos with their swivels, as opposed to Hollywood dancers, who seem to keep their torsos still and allow their hips to move more, or even move their torsos slightly in opposition to their hips. (I’ll refer to this generally as “opposing”)
This one can be tricky to see, as a lot of followers aren’t so clear cut about it, but I think we can formulate some basic answers.
If you look at the first half of A Day at the Races and at Big Bea in Ask Uncle Sol it’s easy to see how this generalization got started. In those clips, Big Bea, Norma Miller and her older sister Dorothy Miller (Dorothy is the first follower in A Day at the Races, Norma the second) obviously tend to move their entire torso with their swivels to some extent. The third and fourth followers (Willamae Ricker and Ella Gibson) in A Day at the Races, however, look like they don’t—they seem to keep their torsos still and just twist their hips or move their torsos slightly in opposition to their hips.
Now take a look at this strange clip of Black teenagers dancing Lindy Hop in the 1940s. The first strange thing about this clip is how good the followers are compared to how bad the leaders are. The second strange thing is that the leaders are obviously doing a Harlem-styled dance, considering their moves, stretching, and footwork variations, but the followers look like their swivels could fit in a SoCal clip without too much of a strain. And both of the followers are moving their hips in opposition to their torsos rather than with them. (By the way if anyone has info on this clip, please let me know. It’s a mystery to me.)
In Keep Punching, it looks like half of the followers are one way, and half the other, though neither half is very dramatic, not near as dramatic, as, say, Dorothy Miller and Norma Miller in A Day at the Races from a couple of years earlier.
Let’s flip ahead to later years Savoy dancing. The Spirit Moves followers seem to be doing more opposing, but again, not very dramatically. (And it’s kind of hard to tell–when the music is fast in The Spirit Moves, they don’t tend to swivel.)
But now to the SoCal followers—check out (1944) Groovie Movie again. Almost all the followers move their bodies with their first [7 & 8] swivel. The followers then keep their torsos in opposition to their hips for the [1, 2] or continuous swivels (“switches”). One of them, however, doesn’t. Lenny Smith’s partner Kay Smith (the blond NOT dancing with the sailor) moves her entire body with her swivels.
So, the early Harlem followers are where the bulk of the full-body swivelers come from, but even then, Whitey’s dancers like Ella Gibson and Willamae Ricker had a different style—and by the 1940s, it’s rare to find any followers not keeping their torsos still and moving their hips or knees in contrast to create the swivel effect, what they called “the twist.”
And all of this doesn’t even begin to delve into the intricate directions and ways a follower can move her hips, not to mention also her knees, arms, and feet, in a “swivel.” For that, you start getting into almost purely individual styling.
Hollywood followers counter during their swivels by sitting away; Savoy followers counter by squatting away.
Let’s first clarify what “sitting” vs. “squatting” away means. Once again, the language we used to define our “rules” could mean many slightly different things.
For instance, take a mental snapshot of your favorite follower at the end of a swing-out.
One definition could go like this: If her shoulders are over her knees and feet, her hips behind her, then she’s in a generic squat position, and is “squatting” away to create a stretch. If the follower’s shoulders and hips are behind her feet, she’s “sitting” away to create a stretch.
But, as we will see, there’s as many combinations of ways to counter as there are combinations of feet-to-knee-to-hip-to-shoulders-bend ratios. Multiply into that the ways a pelvis can tilt, which also would effect the mechanics and look of a stretch. (By my math, that’s 3,715. Please note though I’m not good at math.) So perhaps we should just discuss those different combinations without labeling them.
Also, we should note that the chance to create any dramatic posture during the swivels is often dependent on the amount of counterbalance or stretch a leader asks for. For instance, Jewel McGowan could sit very dramatically, but Dean would hold up that kind of counterbalance, whereas most Harlem followers might simply have never thought to do a Jewel-style stretch because the Harlem leaders might not have asked a follower to respond with a ton of counterbalance. Other SoCal followers, however, didn’t “sit” in the Jewel fashion. Betty Takier, in Maharaja, for instance, only moves her hips away to create a stretch, perhaps because Hal is leading very stretchy swing-outs that demand a lot of movement from the follower:
But take a look at the Groovie Movie followers in this next picture, and see how their postures portray three different ways of responding to a stretch at the end of a movement: [UPDATED: I switched Katy and Jean in original post.] Kay Smith (farthest away) is barely using counterbalance, while Irene Thomas (middle) is “sitting” into it with her shoulders and hips behind her feet, and Jean Veloz, the closest follower, is really using her shoulders and leaning away, pelvis forward, to respond to the counterbalance:
Another thing to look at is their torsos: They go three different ways: Jean’s (left) is leaning backward, Irene’s (middle) is slightly forward, and Kay’s (right) is straight up.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s hard to find a lot of examples of solid Savoy swivels—the music tends to be too fast or the dancing doesn’t ask for enough stretch or counterbalance to show clear tendencies. But, there were several Harlem followers who look like they used at least a little bit of a “sitting on a stool” technique, though only one who looks like she had the chance to do as much as Jewel was able to do with Dean (and even then, the nature of the move takes the attention away from the follower).
It’s Willamae Ricker counterbalancing Al Minns’s crazy-leg continual swivels in (1941) Hot Chocolate AKA “Cottontail”. Look at her body compared to Jewel’s:
To try to find how Whitey’s followers might counter their leaders, I took a snapshot of all the followers in Hellzapoppin’, thinking that dancing their style that fast demanded the followers stretch away and show how they would use their posture to counter heavy amounts of stretch (you might want to click on the picture to see it larger):
Ann Johnson (with Frankie, top left) has her shoulders behind her knees and feet as a way of countering Frankie’s powerful stretch. Her torso is bent slightly. Compare this picture to the one of Irene Thomas in the Groovie Movie above, who has a similar posture. Norma Miller (top right) also has her shoulders and hips (slightly) behind her feet, but note she also has her torso vertically straight (a posture sometimes affiliated with SoCal followers, but definitely present in several notable Harlem followers). Willamae Ricker (bottom left) has her torso bent forward, but it looks oh-so-slightly behind her knees/feet—this is a good example of a posture that walks the line between “sitting” and “squatting” away definitions mentioned above. She was not alone in this. That leaves Mickey Jones (bottom right). She is basically shoulders-over-knees-over-feet, and just to note, it seems like her partner (William Downes) is not asking for any dramatic counterbalance in their swing-outs.
Savoy followers used their arms more and differently than Hollywood followers did.
A stereotypical “Savoy style” follower in 2000 would wave their arm. A stereotypical “Hollywood style” follower in 2000 would “hold a bowl of fruit.” (Already, we have the vague idea of action vs. inaction, and I believe some people even exaggerated this to be translated as “Savoy style is about going crazy; Hollywood style is about staying refined.”) Let’s break it down and see how much of it stands up to research.
Two striking arm variations Savoy followers did were (1) circling their arm during their swivels in a wide sweeping gesture and (2) waving their arms high in the air.
These arm variations seem like they were common, but in reality only a few followers in the old clips do them. Big Bea was certainly one of them; she does an arm circle swing almost every time she hits the end of a move, which is a lot (and makes it seem less like a “passionate” gesture and more like simply a planned one). And, once again, (1937) A Day at the Races provides a lot of evidence for the stereotypes of Savoy styling: Almost all the followers wave their hands high in the air at one point, and two of them circle the arm in the classic fashion. However, the fourth follower (Ella Gibson), once again proves the exception to the rule: She keeps her hand simple and calm throughout the jam, and even brings it down by her side on the first swing out, an early example of the kind of styling Jewel McGowan would later make famous (as famous as A follower’s left arm styling could be). In (1939) Keep Punching, two of the followers do some arm circling, but all the others in the clip don’t.
Now starts a period where almost all Savoy followers opt to keep their hands simply out, not doing much at all with them. It’s the case in (1941) Hellzapoppin’ , the (1938?) Harvest Moon Ball Footage the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers Tops and Wilda and almost all the followers in Sugar Hill Masquerade. Obviously, there are a few exceptions in these clips, but nothing compared to A Day at the Races, where three out of four followers live up the arm circling/throwing them high in the air.
What’s interesting to me is that, in Groovie Movie, Jean Veloz herself “swings the wing” to the announcer’s voice, though she doesn’t tend to do that styling much in her other filmed dancing—she is the one with the famous “holding up a bowl of fruit” arm, which she occasionally holds up high (see Swing Fever for straight up Jean Veloz styling). In Jive Junction one follower throws her arm up in a wave and another swings her arm around circularly, just for a few more examples.
But proving SoCal followers occasionally did moves Savoy followers did is only the shallow part of the argument. After all, to a certain extent, it’s the attitude with which they did the moves that people are often talking about when they mention the differences between the styles.
The big difference, as far as this is concerned, seems to be that it was popular for one group of SoCal followers (such as Jean Veloz, Irene Thomas, and Kay Smith) to make their arms look more on the “elegant” side, especially compared with many Savoy dancers, who seemed to make “energy” or, perhaps “energetic passion,” the priority when deciding what to do with their arms. Though, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. There are Savoy followers who obviously worked toward making their arms elegant—or others, not flashy, as seen in many of the clips mentioned earlier, and there are SoCal followers who didn’t care so much about looking elegant with their arms as they did about doing their Lindy Hop with a lot of attitude. Jewel McGowan, for instance.* (That’s one thing people don’t fully realize when they see Jewel—sure, she’s precise, and her swivels are gorgeous, but she also does them with a ton of attitude. Watch Jewel in Rings on Her Fingers”. There’s a pinch of “I will cut you” to her dancing, compared to, say, Jean Veloz.)
Let’s quickly mention the other arm, while we’re at it. (Hahaha. Nothing in this post is quick.) By which I mean, the one connected to the leader. Several Savoy clips have one or two followers who allow their arms to get out almost straight on the ends of swing-outs, and I wondered if this was one of the style differences. A quick look at (1945) Twice Blessed , (1943) Maharaja and (1944) Groovie Movie, however, show that several SoCal followers we know and love allowed their arms to get out almost straight, as well.
Some followers who don’t allow their arms to fully extend, but actually held them in are Jewel McGowan (SoCal), Big Bea (Savoy), and to some extent every follower in (1937) A Day at the Races (Whitey’s). (But most tend NOT to a few years later, such as in (1939) Keep Punching or (1938) Radio City Revels . Interesting, ain’t it? I think it’s safe to say 1937-ish is the time Whitey’s followers decided to extend their right arms more. In light of this, it makes sense how the Lindy Hop was becoming more linear at this time.
Most followers across the map had average elastic arms that wouldn’t go totally to straight, but would extend. However, to recap, here are some examples of the extremes from both coasts: Top left is Mousie Albright (SoCal) with straight arms. Top right is Jewel McGowan (SoCal), with arm bent. Bottom left is Lucille Middleton (Whitey’s) with a straight arm, and bottom right is Dorothy Miller (Whitey’s) with a bent arm (her right one, in the picture—the leader is off to the left.)
Note: Possibly the Most Important Part of This Essay
The final paragraphs of the swivels section point to something far more important than what followers swiveled in what way. I think what was at the heart of the differences in Hollywood vs. Savoy style for us in the 2000s could be boiled down to a perceived difference in attitude between the two.
I almost wrote “I think what was at the heart of the differences in Hollywood vs. Savoy style is perhaps a slight difference in spirit,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true from what I can see, and I think it’s dangerous territory to enter into, as I’ll try to explain.
For instance: It’d be relatively easy for someone to come to the conclusion that “the Harlem dancers danced wild and free-spirited, whereas the SoCal dancers danced more calculatedly and controlled.”
You might then look at (1937) A Day at the Races compared to (1944) Twice Blessed to support that conclusion. I have the urge, as usually happens in this essay, to follow this up with some possible dilemmas and exceptions to this rule.
Such as: 1937 Whitey’s dancing looks far more “wild” and “free spirited” than 1940s precise, smooth and well-rehearsed Whitey’s, so it’s not necessarily fair to compare 1944 SoCal dancing to 1937 Whitey’s.
Or this: The Whitey’s had more than their fair share of calculation. They knew that “wild, passionate” Lindy Hop was part of the image, part of what got them gigs, so they acted appropriately. In her book Swingin’ at the Savoy, Norma Miller talks about how Whitey himself would walk around the Savoy Ballroom during a night of social dancing and coach his dancers from the sidelines (pg. 63). Norma said what patrons thought they were seeing was social dancing, but a lot of it was really choreographed. Frankie Manning, in his autobiography (with Cynthia Millman), Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, often mentions how wild was part of the act (pg. 167 and numerous others). Yes, they enjoyed dancing the way they did, but to a certain extent, even the natural inclinations of dancers can soon become a calculated element to their performance. (See also: almost any contest of the last three years where someone has just done lots of swing-outs for their jam.)*
And, in contrast to the “wild Lindy Hop” stereotype, he talks about how several dancers strove for elegance, such as Leroy “Stretch” Jones, who was one of the three best dancers at the Savoy and who Frankie compares to Fred Astaire. So, it’s not like the Harlem dancers would have looked down upon a less wild style.
But though it’s interesting to think about the exceptions and dilemmas, it doesn’t change the fact that the Harlem dancers are usually visually more “free spirited” and “wild” than their SoCal siblings, regardless of calculation. After all, Harlem dancers had the jump preps, the higher aerials, the mule kicks, the flying arms as part of their styling traits.
Regardless, I think most would agree that the dancers who inspire us the most are those from both styles who have both aspects as major parts of their dancing. After all, if Frankie’s dancing in Hellzapoppin were done without much calculation or technique it would look pretty rough, not to mention possibly kill someone. And Dean and Jewel, as controlled as their mechanics are in Rings on Her Fingers, would not look as good as they did if they didn’t put their heart into it as much as they do. Both couples simply swing.
That’s why I don’t want to say that the best Harlem dancers danced with a different spirit than the best SoCal dancers did. Because the spirits of those dancers had the same ingredients: technique and Grrrr. They just might have, generally speaking, used slightly different brands and recipes.
6. Savoy dancers do Charleston moves in their Lindy Hop, Hollywood dancers don’t.
For this, we need only look at Hal and Betty Takier in (1943) Maharaja and Dean and Jewel in (1942) Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra (they do some solo Charleston and a partnered Charleston step right as the camera fades out at the end of the clip). Both are examples of SoCal dancers doing Charleston patterns. But what is true is that these are exceptions: It IS rare to see the West Coast dancers putting a lot of Charleston patterns into their Lindy Hop. For one thing, it’s also rare to see SoCal dancers dancing fast, and when they did, they tended to do things like Shag, Bal-Swing, and Jigtrot. (Charleston tends to be a natural fast dance step.) But, I think I have an even better theory about why there was not a lot of Charleston in SoCal dancing: There weren’t a lot of Charleston steps period in the 1940s.
My evidence? Charleston’s not as prevalent as you’d think in the Whitey’s clips after 1937. The contest dancing in (1939) Keep Punching has only one instance of Charleston in it, and in (1941) Hellzapoppin’ , only Al Minns and Willamae Ricker do a Charleston step (hacksaws) in all four jams. Tandem seemed to be one of the Charlestons to survive in Whitey’s choreography, and is the only Charleston Tops and Wilda do, as well as the only Charleston in (1942) Sugar Hill Masquerade (it’s also used almost exclusively as entrance into aerials, which it’s great for). The final Whitey’s clip, (1948) Killer Diller has one hand-to-hand and one tandem Charleston. So, really, it’s (1937) A Day at the Races that’s the Charleston-fest.
Perhaps this is because it’s the earliest of the Whitey’s clips (1936-37) and was closer to the Charleston roots of the dance. It’s also important to keep in mind that Lindy Hop only came to LA in the late 30s, almost a decade after it had developed in Harlem. So, perhaps, the LA dancers simply didn’t realize a lot of Charleston steps existed. By that time, the swing music they danced to was smooth and had a rolling rhythm, and if this was the way it happened, it’s not surprising they wouldn’t have invented a lot of Charleston-like steps.
Going back to the Harlem dancers, I would imagine that, even if the Harlem dancers did do a lot of Charlestons in their up-tempo dancing, they would not have done Charleston steps much in their mid-tempo dancing. For instance, just look at the Spirit Moves social dancing jams mentioned earlier, or the Sonny Allen or George Lloyd clips shown above. *
But this just touches on the greater issue at hand: the move differences between the two coasts. I’ve already mentioned a few throughout the essay, but let’s look at more.
We’ve discussed the followers differences in swivels, but let’s go a little bit deeper. In an earlier section, we mentioned how the speed of the general choreographies might have kept the Savoy followers from doing much in terms of variations. However, this might not be correct. In his autobiography, Frankie mentions that Lindy Hop for him and his fellow dancers was very lead-centric (pg. 166).
He adds that, at one point he and a follower started playing around with the follower doing leader’s footwork variations at the same time as the leader, then the follower started doing them without him.
However, we don’t see any of this in the old footage. Norma Miller’s kick-away in (1937) A Day at the Races is the *only* blatant follower’s footwork variation I’ve seen done in any original Harlem dancing on film in the swing era. Even in the 1950s The Spirit Moves social dance jams, the followers hardly do anything but basics at all, while a leader like Leon James are so playful and expressive he hardly ever does a basic footwork pattern. Some of the followers play with tiny things; they might change up the timing of their swivel or boogie, they might kick instead of stepping, or have little run-runs instead of step-steps, but it can’t help but have an apologetic air to its expressiveness when the leaders they are attached to are doing so much. The only exception I’ve seen is the follower at 5:25 in this clip of (1950) The Spirit Moves. (Frankie Manning reportedly said that one of the things he was most proud of in the modern scene is that it opened up the dance for followers.)
I don’t want the reader to think that I’m saying “variations = expression.” I’m a firm believer that the greatest dancers could express themselves incredibly well in basics alone (the “Taint what you do” principle). And as we’ve seen through the videos, many Whitey’s followers did this in the way they worked their swivels, the way they swung their torsos or arms, their joyous expressions, and many other subtle factors —often they look like they’re having a blast hanging on for the ride, and are content with that. It’s just sad for us that the only time the Harlem girls seem to really show us the breadth of their dancing abilities is in their solo dancing, such as the Big Apple.
I mentioned earlier how speed might affect this: The Harlem choreographies are just too fast for followers to do much but hang on. Performance might also come into play: They were concerned about impressing the crowds, and only the flashiest of steps were used. If Frankie’s autobiography is correct, most of the time before him, the followers didn’t do much, but then later they started doing more. We sadly have to take his word for it and can’t see much for ourselves.
However, the major SoCal followers really worked the variations. Take Jean Veloz in (1944) Swing Fever, or Irene Thomas in the clip montage Swungover created. The focus is so often put on the follower in the moves, and even if the followers are doing tiny footwork variations, or simply playing with alternative timing or styling of their basics, it’s hard not to see that these are variations, done differently on purpose for followers to express themselves.
Irene Thomas does a lot of tap-inspired variations, such as kick-ball-changes and other crisp rhythms, and occasionally would do things like “fanny bumps” (she calls them) or would turn twice when the leader only expected one turn. Jean Veloz, as we mentioned earlier, plays a lot with her swivels, foot flicks, and overall cuteness (I’ve heard she had a sailor’s mouth in her youth, just to give you a funny mental image).
In looking at this, it suddenly occurs to me that Jewel McGowan is probably somewhere between the quintessential SoCal followers and the Harlem followers. She had one or two variations she liked to bust out (like a left leg swoopy whippy thing at the end of a dramatic swing-out), and would occasionally play with small tap or kick variations, but on the whole, let her basics do the talkin’. (And with basics like those, who could blame her?)
Added 2/17/14: I also want to take a quick moment to mention something that greatly effected the Lindy Hop of Jewel McGowan, and probably to some extent, a few other SoCal dancers: Jewel McGowan was first a LA Swing dancer (early form of Bal-Swing), and many of those Bal-Swing mechanics shaped greatly how her Lindy Hop worked. (The dance instructor and historian David Rehm knows more about Jewel McGowan than anyone else I know. He first explained this Jewel’s Bal-Swing influence to me and since has done presentations focusing on it. If you get the chance to see one, do. It’s really fascinating and eye-opening.)
I mentioned how Frankie Manning was proud of how much our modern scene has supported the follower’s voice. I want to stress that, even in the abundant SoCal land of follower’s variations, we’re still only talking about a fraction of the things followers are now playing with within the dance. (Huzzah!, modern scene.) **
I already mentioned in the “smooth” section how many Harlem dancers had the “kick-steps,” and, specifically, the “mule-kicks” for their variations, and we don’t see these in the SoCal clips. Now let’s explore other variation differences among the leaders.
One style that several Savoy leaders had, including Snookie Beasley in A Day at the Races (third leader), George Lloyd and Al Minns, is that they often put their left hand into a “ballroom” hold during circles and certain closed position moves. (See also: Mike Faltesek.) No SoCal leaders I know of did this, at least when they were doing Lindy Hop. The LA Swing leaders might have while they were doing LA Swing, and then switched to “Lindy Grip” during Lindy. ***
The next statement is obvious, but I should probably make it anyway: We don’t see any SoCal dancers do any of the signature moves Frankie Manning taught in the 80s and 90s, like Frankie’s walking-facing-the-girl-while-pecking move, mini-dips, and pimp-walks. Though, it’s also important for us to note that we don’t see other Savoy dancers do Frankie Manning’s signature moves. (Even Frankie Manning himself didn’t do many of those moves in the filmed speed choreographies—he was the thrower on the team, and so what we have of young Frankie Manning is mainly his inventive and powerful aerials. Really, we just need more Savoy mid-tempo social dancing footage.)
SoCal dancers obviously had some signature moves Savoy dancers didn’t do as well, such as sugar-pushes and quick-stop-drops. (Even then, quick-stops, invented by Irene Thomas, were only done by two or three SoCal followers. That number rose by several thousand in 2001). They also, in Groovie Movie, and some other clips, start off dancing with six-count closed-position footwork and six-count send-outs, something we don’t see from the Savoy dancers (who most often simply swing out).
SoCal dancers also had way fewer aerials and a few signature ones like “the kip” (a.k.a. windmill, helicopter, kip-to-the-side) or Hal and Betty’s aerials in Maharaja that Savoy dancers didn’t do. SoCal dancers would do aerials either “elegantly” or “elegantly ragdollish” whereas Savoy dancers seemed to always opt for simply “ragdollish.”
As a whole, Whitey’s dancers were much better achieving height and power in aerials, though this probably all has to do with the fact that they were a well-trained team that spent a lot of time inventing aerials with each other and performing them hundreds of times throughout a show’s run. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The SoCal dancers DO do [my partner Kate giggles] breakaway and solo jazz steps in Groovie Movie, and Arthur Walsh in that clip does peckin’, Shorty Georges, “heels,” and a barrel-roll style turn, though it’s hard to find any of those in other SoCal dancer’s clips. And I recently found out a good possible reason why: Arthur Walsh came from the East Coast, Irene Thomas told me. “He danced a style unlike anyone else’s. He was very loose.” (She also told me his nickname was “Slippery,” but she didn’t know why.) Arthur Walsh, born in Canada, was the person who got the Groovie Movie dancers the job, so it’s likely he was important in the process, which would explain why his dancing, complete with “Peckin’,” Shorty George’s, and breakaways is showcased, and possibly explains why Jean Veloz “swings the wing” for the camera without it being a common part of her styling. Again, though, this is all possibilities at this point, not cold-hard facts. We only have one person telling us he was from the East Coast. (However, now that I look at him, I can’t see anything but a Frankensteinian (or should I say Frankie-steinian?…ZING!) mesh of Savoy and SoCal.)
Savoy dancers apparently put a lot of solo jazz into their Lindy Hop, and certain movements like mule-kicks, crazy legs, and the mini-dips weren’t part of the SoCal vocab. However, certain things like Tabby-the-cat were solo jazz moves SoCal dancers had that Savoy dancers didn’t.
One other thing several SoCal dancers had that Harlem dancers didn’t was LA Swing (the early form of Bal-Swing). It could even be argued that Hal and Betty (Maharaja) don’t dance Lindy Hop so much as LA Swing with some Lindy Hop steps occasionally thrown in, (which makes sense under the idea that their LA Swing was really just a collection of different dance steps). Jewel McGowan herself was a Bal-Swing dancer turned Lindy Hopper (which is apparent when you look at some of her movement, and would explain why her mechanics are so different from those of the Harlem followers we see, which we will discuss in another post). Often times SoCal dancers will throw a little Bal-Swing into their dancing, and even Dean Collins himself would do what little he knew of Bal-Swing, or a few Jig trot steps that he was pretty explosive at doing. Collegiate Shag was another dance SoCal jitterbugs (Ray Hirsch and Patti Lacey for instance) might combine or dance into and out of Lindy.
I’d like to end this all with a quick mention about the triple-steps of the old time dancers (especially the leaders—the followers [3&4] triples are probably too subject to the type of swing-outs the leader is leading, and [7&8] triples are almost always a part of their swivels, discussed earlier.]
In the early 2000s, it was often said that SoCal dancers “anchored” into their triple steps. At the time, it was described to me as that they allowed their weight to dramatically shift over the main foot of the triple. (So, as you did a L-R-L triple, your weight would shift over to that left foot as you did the triple step.) Here’s what we see from the dancers of the eras:
Pre-war Whitey’s: The only triples it’s easy to see are from Keep Punching , which is done half time, so we don’t know if that’s actually how they would have done triples. That said, the triples are pretty much right in place, right under them, nothing special.
SoCal: At around 4:30 in Groove Movie, you can see SoCal (possible Frankie-stein) leader Arthur Walsh show off what his form of anchoring was: Notice how his weight shifts dramatically over those triples. Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan in Buck Privates definitely “anchor,” though with slightly different mechanics behind it on account of the way Dean and Jewel use counterbalance. But that’s the main theme here: The “anchoring” look is often the visual effect of dancers using counterbalance or a strong stretch, which most SoCal dancers tended to do. (It’s why the term is called anchoring, as far as I know—it refers to a relationship with partners, not an action simply done to a triple regardless of a partner.) When Harlem dancers used strong stretches, it was in the middle of speed choreographies, and they usually weren’t doing triples. Their bodies, however, show a similar “anchoring” effect. The 1950s Harlem social dancers in (1950) The Spirit Moves however, don’t use much stretch, and their triples are often right under them. When one occasionally does use a powerful stretch, you can see a slight “anchoring” in their triples. (Though they get a slightly different effect, as they’re dancing on what looks like ice.)****
Aside from the different move choices the original dancers made, there is also the different clothing choices made by each group. Clothing is a subtle but influential part of the dance, as any one who has their “power skirt” or “competition pants” knows. In the footnotes, I have included a section on clothing differences that I think is really interesting and important, because it would derail our momentum if I add it here. *****
Different Time Periods
As I mentioned briefly earlier, it’s hard for us, in some ways, to find examples of Savoy dancers and Harlem dancers dancing in the same time period. The bulk of our Savoy dancer footage comes from before 1942, and the bulk of our SoCal clips come from after. Here are the dates of a few of them, but a glance at the Index of Basic Classic Clips makes it even more obvious:
(1937) Ask Uncle Sol (Shorty George and Big Bea) (Savoy) (300 BPM)
(1937) A Day at the Races (Whitey’s) (270 BPM)
(1939) Keep Punching (Whitey’s) (260 BPM)
(1941) Hellzapoppin (Whitey’s) (310+ BPM)
(1941) Buck Privates (“Hollywood”) (180 BPM)
(1943) Maharaja (“Hollywood”) (285 BPM)
(1943) Jive Junction (“Hollywood”) (150, 165 BPM)
(1944) Groovie Movie (“Hollywood”) (Many tempos, fastest is 270 BPM)
(1945) Twice Blessed (“Hollywood”) (250 BPM)
(1950s) The Spirit Moves (Savoy) (Many tempos)
Notice that the Whitey’s clips take place in one chunk of five or so years, followed by the SoCal chunk of five or so years. So, we don’t have hardly any footage of the Harlem and SoCal dancers dancing at the same time.
Street dances are constantly evolving. The Spirit Moves, clips show a substantially different dance than what we see in Keep Punching, for instance. (Also, again, look at the amazing difference between the way Shorty George looks in 1937 in Ask Uncle Sol compared with the Whitey’s in A Day at The Races that same year, and Shorty himself in After Seben a decade earlier.)
We also know that Lindy Hop didn’t spread to the West Coast until the late 30s, when the swing music rhythms had gotten a lot smoother. So, there wasn’t the near-decade of Lindy Hop history already present in the New York scene.
It also seems that, starting around 1941, Hollywood film producers suddenly realized youth across the states were jitterbugging, and so the idea of jitterbug shifted from “Black Performance Art” to “An Average American Teenager’s Night Out.” This leads to a whole new problem we’ll discuss next. But first…
Note: What Dean Collins, A Day at the Races and Ask Uncle Sol Have in Common.
It’s well known that Dean Collins danced several times in his early years at the Savoy Ballroom, and many times at other New York ballrooms when he lived in New Jersey. According to several biographical sources, he was named dancer of the year by The New Yorker in 1935, and within the next few years he moved to LA.
This means, when Dean Collins left the New York ballrooms, the style of Savoy Lindy Hop he last saw before he moved away was close to what you see in the movies A Day at the Races and Ask Uncle Sol.
While researching this essay, I realized certain aspects of Dean and Jewels dancing remind me of the mechanics in those early films. There’s the fact that Jewel keeps her right arm bent, and they don’t get too far away from each other, like the couples in A Day at the Races and the Shorty George and Big Bea clip. (Though this also could have been part of Jewel’s Bal-Swing background.)* There’s the aforementioned circular feel to the middle of their swing-outs, which we’ve mentioned before is also a trait of those early films.
Then there’s Shorty George in Ask Uncle Sol, who (1) prefers triples and kick-ball-changes over Charleston footwork substitutions just like Dean, and (2) really pulses his feet a lot with the dance, more than Big Bea, which is a trait similar to Dean and Jewel that we’ve discussed.
Now, I’m not suggesting a conspiracy theory wherein Dean got his inspiration from these specific dancers. There is no proof that he did, that I know of. All I’m saying that if Dean had seen the dancers in the Savoy Ballroom and other New York ballrooms in the mid-1930s, he most likely would have seen dancers like Shorty George, considered the best Lindy Hopper in the world at that time, and the general dancing mechanics that the young Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers had.
And, what’s more, he probably wouldn’t have seen New York style Lindy Hop often after that. So, I think it’s safe and interesting to consider the 1937 clips a rough estimate of what Lindy Hop Dean Collins took away with him from the Savoy when he moved to California.
Two Different Styles of Film Performance.
There’s an ever more subtle, but important problem when we compare the two groups of dancers.
Almost all of our original Whitey’s footage is from up-tempo performances that were originally built on the philosophy of performing for variety shows where the Lindy Hop was meant to impress and awe. A Day at the Races, the Keep Punching Lindy Hop contest, and Hellzapoppin’were all well-rehearsed aerial-heavy group choreographies with a showmanship design—and the group learned quickly what it meant to be showmen. In fact, both Norma Miller and Frankie Manning’s books begin as the story of their life in Lindy Hop, but soon turn into the stories of them learning what it meant to be professional entertainers in show business with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.
In an interview I had with Irene Thomas, an original SoCal jitterbugger, she marveled at the Whitey’s performance in Hellzapoppin’, and found it to be incredible, but on the whole thought it was a different idea of dance than what she knew; she thought she was looking at an entertainment acrobatic act.
Her response makes sense, as our footage of the SoCal dancers seems to come from a different place, probably for a few reasons. The first is that SoCal didn’t have a figure like Whitey. By all accounts, Whitey was a shrewd business man and visionary who chiseled his Lindy Hoppers into a well-oiled and unmatched group, hired specifically to perform crazy routines they had perfected over hundreds of performances at revues. The SoCal dancers, on the other hand, were dancers who probably just did local contests as far as performing went, and otherwise were more like a group of friends that went to the same casting auditions.
Another reason is because the idea of what the dance meant had changed for Hollywood. Like Irene mentioned, she saw the Whitey’s as a flashy acrobatic act, but by the time the SoCal dancers were getting into film, swing dancing was the thing all the teenagers across America were doing. So the SoCal dancers were most often cast in films as “the other people on the dance floor” who only occasionally had the chance to show off a trick step—and when they did, it was usually right back into basic social dancing-styled moves. Dean Collins himself was able to get a lot of intricate “social” dancing on dozens of films, whereas all we see of Frankie is his role as the main thrower in the group routines.
I think the difference between the two performance types is obvious when you think about it, and perhaps is a hindrance in understanding what many of the differences were in the regional styles or the social dancing of the original dancers.
It even shows in the smallest details: Check out the dancers on the right: Hellzapoppin’s William Downes and Mickey Jones are opened up, showing off their enthusiasm in a performance-oriented way, whereas, left, Dean Collins and Jewel McGowan are in more of a social dancing, focus-on-each-other mode.
The best way to compare the two dances would be if we had raw footage of a complete night’s dance in So Cal, and a complete night’s dance at the Savoy. Er, anyone have these?
Conclusion (and Cliff’s Notes)
In the present, and probably in the future, “Savoy style” and “Hollywood style” will be used more to refer to styles of Lindy Hop danced in the late 1990s/early 2000s than the original era. So perhaps the terms don’t have to disappear after all, since they played an enormous role in the way almost all international dance instructors dance today, and, therefore, in the current scene.
We as dancers have to be careful of generalizations, and instead try to speak specifically. If you ever want to make statements about styling, it should probably take you a long time to do so once you mention important exceptions, caveats, context, and fine print.
For instance, if you’re a guy, and you’re at a party, and the loud-mouth, arrogant attention-hog says “Savoy leaders bent down a lot more than Hollywood dancers, simple as that,” you can lean against the bookshelf, look down at your hand-rolled cigarette nonchalantly and say, “Well, technically, Savoy leaders had a range of bends in their bodies. It’s true that Frankie Manning and several others would have a dramatic bend in their torsos in their performance dancing, but I think you’ll find some people stood up proud and straight like Shorty George, Snookie Bishop and even often Al Minns, and the general styling of the post-war Savoy Ballroom was to stand up relatively straight. And that’s not even touching on the fact that there are several different ways one can bend.”
But a fair warning: Do not be surprised if many of the women and several of the men in the room wish you were their date instead.
However, I think a few ideals were shared by the best dancers of both coasts:
Dancing should be smooth in that it should not be bouncy, and it should fit the rhythm of the music you’re dancing to. For instance, never in the original footage did a dancer dance a Charleston-syncopated rhythm to a smooth swing song. Even when doing Charleston kicks, if the rhythm was smooth, the pulse matched it.
Individual style is highly praised. For instance, there were a lot of SoCal dancers who hated the fact that all of Dean’s students looked similar, and tried to make sure they had independent voices (via video interview with Ann Mills). Hal and Betty Takier were an example of a SoCal couple who didn’t dance at all like Dean and Jewel. And, the students of Dean we remember the most are those who took what they learned and created an individual style out of it, like Lenny Smith and Irene Thomas.
And, on the other side of the country, there was a similar problem: A lot of Whitey’s learned their routines and styling from Frankie Manning and the other members of Whitey’s top tiers teams, and so some of the Harlem dancers look like bland copies of their teachers. However, the dancers we love the most from that era all had individual voices; where they were from helped shape that voice, but the voice was still unique.
Spirited dancing is at the heart of great swing dancing. Just look at Jewel McGowan, or any of the other followers we know and love in the old footage—they worked it. There was an energy and attitude, and a vibrant spirit to all the best swing dancers of the original era, no matter what coast they lived on.
Good technique is at the heart of great swing dancing. From looking at a few modern dancers, one might easily conclude that some people are dancing as if “spirit” were hands-down the most important thing it took to be a great swing dancer.
There were very few original great swing dancers who didn’t take pride in looking really good, working hard, being able to do difficult steps, and training over and over for difficult performances and contests. Almost every great old-timer I’ve talked to or read a book from talks much more about how good a dancer looked—how smooth, how elegant, how sharp, how musical—than how spirited a dancer was.
For instance, when Frankie Manning entered contests at the Savoy, he would think he killed it, but his friends often wouldn’t clap for him because he wasn’t looking so hot. Knowing Frankie in any footage we’ve seen, he was probably spirited as hell. To quote Frankie, what mattered at the Savoy was how well you danced (according to his autobiogpraphy, pg. 71 and others.)
Keepin’ it casual
The SoCal dancer Bart Bartolo famously says “Keep it casual!” as universal dance advice, and Savoy dancer George Lloyd says that dancing should be floating on cloud nine, not working a job. Though not all great dancers always “kept it casual” or “floated on cloud nine” in their film footage, so this one isn’t entirely universal among the old-timers we remember. But a great majority of them on both coasts felt that the best dancing should be effortless and relaxed.
This project started off tiny, then blew up. As I watched each dancer in each clip looking for something different about their dancing, I realized more and more what an individual I was watching, and finding those differences sometimes became difficult.
For instance, take away the labels, and put Jewel McGowan in a room with 1940s Norma Miller, Jean Veloz, and a mid-1930s Willamae Ricker, and I think each would stand out as very different, and maybe even not as easy to put into groups as you’d expect.
The same holds true for the leaders. Put 1980s Frankie Manning, 1940s Hal Takier, 1940s Dean Collins, and a 1950s Leon James in a room, you’d have four pretty different takes on swing dancing.
But, as we mentioned, it’s not like there aren’t any differences. To recap the biggest ones:
Whenever someone mentions Hollywood vs. Savoy, I think it’s vital to remember that *most* of the Harlem film footage we have serves a different purpose than most of the SoCal film footage. The Harlem dance clips are usually previously-perfected show-stopping acrobatic-heavy acts shown to lightning-fast songs performed by a troupe of organized dancers. The SoCal dancers were a mostly unorganized group of ragtag dancers hired almost exclusively to play “the other social dancers on the average dance floor who occasionally show off.” The Spirit Moves Savoy Ballroom footage is yet something different again: a bunch of social dancing men showing off for the camera while hanging onto women.
The Feet-Forward Counterbalance
Though all leaders across the map bent in all sorts of ways, there’s one specific way of bending into counterbalance you would probably only find on a SoCal floor, as Lenny Smith in Swing Fever shows to an extreme degree: creating and playing with counterbalance by putting your feet in front of you and sitting back. Savoy leaders and many SoCal leaders might do this for certain reasons on special steps, but it’s only a group of SoCal dancers who do it as a default. (I first heard about this from avid Dean Collins studier David Rehm.)
Different Use of Counterbalance:
I currently agree with the theory that a large group of SoCal dancers held onto counterbalance for the end of their basic movements, and that this was unique to that group of people. It makes sense when watching the footage (like Dean and Jewel in Buck Privates). We don’t have footage of Savoy dancers holding onto one level of counterbalance as part of their overall basic movements, only occasionally. Harlem dancers and several SoCal couples tend to simply stretch into and out of their movements. A dance with this kind of reliance on counterbalance does look very in-tune and together. And one of the problems with some of the more “free-style” Harlem dance demonstrations (like some of the social dancing in The Spirit Moves) is that they can look really out of tune and badly connected with each other.
A large group of SoCal followers strove for a more “elegant” attitude than you’d find in the Harlem followers. (Perhaps because many of them, like Irene Thomas and Jean Veloz, allowed their Lindy Hop to be strongly influenced by their earlier ballet training?) [UPDATED: previous sentence changed slightly from original. See comments.] However, there was plenty of sass in many of the SoCal followers, and there was elegance in some of the Harlem dancers as well.
The early Harlem leaders on the whole were more likely to act “wild” than the SoCal dancers. However, some Harlem dancers looked very composed (George Lloyd, Sonny Allen, Thomas “Tops” Lee, and Snookie Beasley, just to name a few). And many SoCal dancers acted wild and crazy in films, such as Groovie Movie and Naughty but Nice.
First off, even with “sent them out forward” or “sent them out sideways,” you have to be more specific, because counts [4 -7] could have the follower in different positions, and all of those counts can be involved in “sending a follower out.” However, with those intricacies noted, no Harlem dancer ever did a whip as dramatic as Dean Collins did, though no SoCal dancers did, either. No SoCal dancer ever shot a follower out forward as a defaults (at least, from what we see on film) like some of the Savoy dancers did as their defaults. However, with most of them, sending the follower out forward was only the first part, the follower was almost always turned sideways or even backward by the end of the  count.
Many students of Dean’s adopted a mellow version of his whip, and many dancers at the Savoy—leaders and followers—would decide to swing out backwards, forwards, sideways, etc.
Moves and Styling
SoCal dancers had sugar-pushes and quick-stops, which the Harlem dancers did not, as far as we know. SoCal dancers loved continual swivels far more than the Harlem dancers did, and many also had the influence of Bal-Swing and Collegiate Shag. They had far fewer aerials, but the main one, the helicopter (a.k.a. windmill a.k.a. kip-to-the-side), was not done by Harlem dancers. And Hal and Betty’s aerials, like the carousel, were unique to them. It was also very common for SoCal men to not do much with their arms, to put attention on their body and footwork. A few Harlem leaders, however, would do a lot with their arms. SoCal dancers only had limited Charleston steps, though this may be a product of time rather than vocabulary. Harlem dancers had tons of aerials (again, because of their performance team training), slow-motion, jump turns, jump entrances, mule-kicks, mini-dips, and most of the moves Frankie Manning made up. In A Day at the Races they show off many of the Charleston steps you won’t find in SoCal clips. Overall, there is tons of footwork that one or two dancers from each area did that others did not.
So, in conclusion, er, it’s complicated.
Now, you might have wondered why this post is so long, and why I didn’t cut it up into 63 regular-length installments.
From the beginning, I felt in my gut that I wanted to publish it in one sitting, and since then I’ve tried to figure out why. Perhaps one of the reasons is I don’t think this essay deserved a few months worth of posts. It feels especially weird for me to say this because I probably worked harder preparing this one post and grew more in my understanding of classic Lindy Hop than in any other entire series I’ve done before.
Perhaps this is because the entire “Hollywood vs. Savoy” thing is already pretty old news to many people; it’s probably new-but-boring news to others; and, it’s not necessarily something the scene would be happy to dwell on. I also wanted the post itself to be my personal one-stop-response to the question “What is the difference between Savoy and Hollywood style, anyway?” Because people get told such tired, outdated, overly-simplified, and flat-out wrong answers to those questions (and as I mentioned before, even if you think mine aren’t right, I hope they are at least new wrong answers to consider).
Perhaps it’s because I just want to publish the damn thing and get it over with, a feeling many authors can develop towards their more-obsessive projects.
Or perhaps it’s this: All of the aspects of the problem are connected; it feels wrong to separate the SoCal counterbalance discussion a few weeks away from the swivels section. The essay would be lesser, to some extent, if I didn’t mention the time period of the linear look in Whitey’s dancing on the same (long) page as the discussion on bent arms for followers.
What I hope in turn is that this essay serves a grander purpose as an introduction to a dialogue. For instance, what did I miss? What did I overlook? What are some other ways to look at these traits, ideas, theories?
When discussing the Hollywood vs. Savoy issue, a friend of mine added “My problem is when they take the easy way out and say Why discuss it anymore, it’s all swing! I hate that. There are differences, and it’s fine there are differences, and it’s perfectly fine to explore those differences.”
I agree with him totally. Hopefully this essay left you feeling secure that there were often differences of technique, vocabulary, performance styles, attitude, and all the other things discussed in this essay. And many of these are beautiful differences we have the luxury of choosing from, a luxury the original dancers didn’t get as much of chance to explore as we do today. In that respect, we are the richer for the modern scene having chosen to not stick with one “style.”
Just as jazz music itself proved musicians of all races or social backgrounds wanted to express themselves as individuals and release their joy of music both emotionally and intellectually, so did those select few swing dancers who decided that being a Lindy Hopper meant more to them than just a fad to pick up dates. They, too, wanted everything the jazz musicians wanted. They were the same mostly in their desire to express themselves as individuals. That, and they all clearly loved to swing the fuck out.
Thank you for sticking with me on this one, if you did. I really enjoyed researching and writing this post. I’m inspired to (finally) close this computer and go swing- out.
As I have put a great deal of time, research, and personal thoughts and theories into this essay, I would greatly appreciate it if you’d give credit when passing on any information or theories you picked up in this essay, or at least send them to this blog. Or, (shameless plug) perhaps consider hiring my partner and myself to come teach a workshop on this and/or other material.
Enormous thanks to Chelsea Lee, who helped edit this, several times. I really can’t thank her enough for her work on this. Any mistakes left are mine alone.
I would not have near as good a grasp on the history of the era if it weren’t for some fantastic discussions with Margaret Batiuchok, Irene Thomas, David Rehm, Sylvia Sykes, Nick Williams, Peter Loggins, Jeff Booth, Kate Hedin, and a few dancers who wish to remain unnamed.
The books Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman, Swingin’ at the Savoy by Norma Miller, and Swing Dancing by Tamara Stevens were instrumental for this project specifically.
I also want to give a shout-out to Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary, which has tons of stock-footage clips of swing dancing from the era. Though only a small part of it made its way here, it did offer a lot of support to the general theories listed in the nove—er, essay.
Finally, this project required looking at a lot of video, video that was easily linked to in my essay because of people like Peter Loggins and Mikey Pedroza, just to name a few, who were gracious enough to put the notable classic film clips on YouTube.