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Savoy vs. Hollywood (Essay Footnotes)

June 15, 2011

These are the footnotes to the post Hollywood Style vs. Savoy Style: A Fight to the Death (Hopefully?)

Introduction

* — If you don’t know about the Hollywood vs. Savoy “style wars,” you will need to know the general backstory and a few lead characters, (and perhaps also take a few moments to appreciate the lack of such blatant style wars in the modern scene). Basically, 90% of the 1930s and 1940s jitterbug we have on film comes from two regions of dancers: The Harlem dancers (especially Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers of the Savoy Ballroom) and dancers from Southern California.

The Whitey’s and Shorty George (not a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper, but an older dancer many Whitey’s looked up to) are responsible for a lot of what many perceive as “Savoy style” dancing. The Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers mentioned most in this essay are Frankie Manning, their lead choreographer; Norma Miller, a follower who worked with the Whitey’s for a long time, is still alive and wrote a book about her life as a jazz dancer (Swingin’ at the Savoy); Al Minns, Leon James, Willamae Ricker, Ann Johnson, Ella Gibson, and Mildred Pollard.

Some other Harlem dancers who later appeared on film and are mentioned in this essay are Sonny Allen and George Lloyd. They were not Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, but both of them won the Harvest Moon Ball in the post-war years.

Around the mid to late 30s, a New Jersey dancer named Dean Collins, who had danced several times at the Savoy himself, moved to Southern California and taught his Lindy Hop to many people there. Many people have mentioned that Lindy Hop did not exist as a widespread dance unto itself in SoCal before he came.

Whitey got his Lindy Hoppers onto the screen by being business-oriented, and, by all accounts, in both admirable and sketchy ways. Most of his peers agreed that Dean Collins was the same. He was able to get involved in many films in the first half of the 40s and, regarding the original footage, he is the most on-screen jitterbug in film history. His main partner’s name was Jewel McGowan, and almost every original SoCal dancer regarded her as the queen of swing.

A group of SoCal dancers who had learned from Dean (or at least were greatly influenced by him and Jewel) were in many of the films. These included Bob Ashley, Irene Thomas, Jean Veloz , Wally Albright, and Lenny and Kay Smith. A few sets of So Cal dancers such as Hal and Betty Takier, were not as influenced by Dean and had different Lindy Hop mechanics.

** — I recently read that even some of the original dancers felt like the styles were so different that leading and following was a problem. Irene Thomas told Tamara Stevens in an interview that, after having moved from SoCal to New York in 1946, she found it difficult to dance with the New York jitterbugs. (Swing Dancing by Tamara Stevens, pg. 96)

However, anyone who’s danced with an old-timer knows that there are certain things they expect from a dance, and there are certain things you simply cannot get them to do, because their understanding of lead and follow doesn’t work that way. (I also wish we had the viewpoints of the other roles. For instance, what was a Harlem leaders’s opinion of SoCal followers? A SoCal leader’s opinion of Harlem followers? And vice versa?)

We in the modern era, however, have a much more advanced understanding of lead and follow, and on the whole are much more capable of understanding all the different dialects and can speak them fluently. It’s one of the great things about being a dancer in the modern era; a good leader and follower can play with probably every different aspect of the original swing styles in the same song. So please, please, please, don’t ever think you have to follow one style differently than the other.

*** — Bleyers are rubber-soled dance shoes that came in dozens of two-tone spectator designs. They were this author’s first pair of dance shoes, which were worn into the ground and well-loved.

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Problem: Terminology and “The Frankie Factor”

* — Just picture a grinning Frankie saying “Ah one, ah two, you-know-what-do!” and having his students do the “points” step, and you’ll get an idea of that force. Compare that to the shy figure of George Lloyd (interviewed at the end of the clip), or the aloof and bemused figure of Al Minns both of whom just didn’t pour on the charm the way Frankie did. Oh, and they passed away before the modern swing revival was in full gear. There is that.

** — Another great reason for saying “SoCal dancers” instead of “Hollywood style” dancers is because “Hollywood Style” has way too much modern history attached to it that doesn’t directly connect to the original dancers. Saying “SoCal dancers” should give readers a chance to look at the debate with new eyes.

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1. Hollywood style dancers stand up straighter; they don’t bend forward or as much as Savoy style dancers do.

* — For this one, let’s define counterbalance as a dance term. It describes when the dancers in the partnership are using each other to maintain balance. If you hold each other’s hands, then stretch away from each other to the point that you will stumble slightly backwards if you were to let go, then you have reached counterbalance—your balance is dependent on your partner.

Some old-timer dancers danced with small amount of counterbalance, some with a lot. For some it was an important part of all their basics; for others, it was just something that happened occasionally or perhaps only to specifically fast songs. It’s probably safe to say the SoCal dancers tended to use counterbalance more than the Harlem dancers in their basics, and that the method some SoCal dancers had of putting their feet in front of them *as their primary means of creating counterbalance* was probably unique to SoCal, as far as I know.

** — Upon reviewing this essay before publication, Sylvia Sykes mentioned that several New York dancers (such as Sonny Allen and George Lloyd) had led her in sugar pushes in the 1980s. She didn’t know if it was something they picked up once they began to teach and travel (thus mixing the styles) or if it was something they already did. She thought they might also have possibly picked them up in the 50’s-60’s.

*** — This essay is filled with a lot of “It appears to me that…” and “My guess is…” kind of statements. Most of the old time dancers didn’t really *know* what they were doing when they danced, and they often tell you one thing—only to do something different when you dance with them. Even though people like Dean Collins and Frankie Manning were above their peers in understanding the mechanics involved in their dancing, they still didn’t think about the dancing as complex and scientific a way as we do today. I doubt Dean Collins ever said to someone “You have to hold onto the counterbalance, understand? That’s what’s tricky about my style!” Let alone could they remember precisely how they danced in their youth when they were teaching their dance in their senior years.

**** — This is also possibly another occurrence of the Frankie Factor. In the 30s, he influenced many of his peers and competition dancers to acquire his dramatic bend. However, more importantly, he was the major teacher of the new generation—and during the 90s, he taught all of us his dramatic bend, which wasn’t the way all of his peers danced, and by all evidence wasn’t the way the dance was before and after his time at the Savoy.

Now imagine an alternate reality where Al Minns had survived to teach us Lindy Hop, and not Frankie Manning. First off, I think Lindy Hop would be very different today for many complex reasons, but that’s another post (that’ll be interesting to explore, actually). But specifically for this article, what if Al Minns’s dancing in his later years had been what he taught the new generation? Sure, a few dancers might have picked up on the fact that in the original footage, a lot of dancers had a bend, but would it have become a “rule” for the difference in styles if the modern generation of leaders was taught “stand up proud!” instead of “bow to your queen?”

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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.

* — Of course, the old-timers themselves had ideas about what smoothness meant. One SoCal old-timer once said “Lindy Hop?!? We don’t do Lindy Hop. That’s what those guys back east did. We took the hop out of it and just call it Lindy.”

Jean Veloz also mentioned that the West Coasters had taken the New York style and “smoothed it out.” (Swing Dancing by Tamara Stevens, 95.)

** — We’ll go ahead and throw in a bonus: groundedness. I’ve heard different people think one style was obviously more grounded than the other. However, for the most part, the original dancers are probably on the same page. For the Southern California dancers, I believe the heavier the counterbalance, the more grounded the dancer is, Dean and Jewel often being extremely grounded when heavy counterbalance is being used. For the Harlem dancers, people seem to assume that because of the African roots inherent in the dance, they are automatically grounded. But it depends on the clip. People like Shorty George and Al Minns don’t look incredibly grounded, but Frankie Manning usually does.

*** — The reason I haven’t credited this dancer is because he/she wishes to remain nameless.
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3. Hollywood dancers lead whips; Savoy dancers send their followers out forward or sideways.

* — The slowest swing-outs of Frankie’s that we have from the old days, at 230 BPM, show a similar trait: the follower goes forward at the beginning of the [5]area, sideways around the [5-6] area, and the momentum carries through so that by [7], she’s back to normal position.

** — Just out of curiosity, I double checked the other couples in Hellzapoppin. William Downes sends Mickey Jones mainly sideways/slightly backward during both [5] and [6] and his [3&4,5] looks about half rotational, half linear. Billy Ricker (the chef) sends Norma Miller out a little forward on [5] but then straight up sideways for [6, 7&8] (so much so that she crosses her right foot in front of her on [6].) His [3&4,5] is mostly rotational rather than linear. Al Minns’s swing-out is similar to Frankie’s, in that is begins forward soon around [4], but switches to sideways by the [5, 6]. I believe Frankie starts swinging his partner out a little sooner than Al does, and with a little more of his athletic weight behind it, however.

*** — This points to yet another complexity; what the follower does herself in the swing-out process. For instance, a leader could send a follower out sideways, and she’ll continue traveling sideways to the end of the swing-out. That same leader might lead another follower out sideways, and as soon as possible she’ll turn back around to face him for the end of the swing out. The result is that the second swing-out may appear backwards compared to the first.

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Note: Frankie and Dean’s Swing-Outs

* — Now, just for contrast, let’s look at some other examples of swing-outs from their peers. The first is the really cool looking, but totally mind-blowing swing-out of Wally and Mousie Albright from Twice Blessed. It took me a few minutes of going frame by frame to figure out what exactly the hell Wally was doing with his footwork. By my calculations, there are two possibilities:

(1) He’s stepping on beat during the counts [1,2,3,4] (he comes towards the follower like a panther on [2]), sending the girl out on [4], and then he kicks [5] onto his [6] left step, then throws his right heel up for [7] and steps down with it on [8].

(2) In thinking about it, this one’s probably more likely, he just might be a little dicey on the timing: He’s attempting to do his [3&4] with a simple scootch-step, and kicking out with his left foot as he takes his [5] step with the right. Stepping down on his left on [6], he then throws his right heel up [7] and steps down with it on [8].

Either way, it is, to say the least, one unique swing-out.

I looked for a basic swing-out from the same angle from some different Harlem leaders, but couldn’t find one basic enough. So, I went ahead and took one from Al Minns, dancing in The Spirit Moves, cause, you know, he’s Al Minns. (Actually, I don’t like his partnered dancing in The Spirit Moves footage, which seems overly bouncy and doesn’t have near as much flow or personality as say, Leon’s. But Al’s solo dancing is probably at its height in The Spirit Moves footage, and is, in my opinion, unequaled. Though you could make a strong case for Leon’s solo dancing of that same era…um…anyway…)

Notice how his swing-outs are very Dean & Jewel-esque in their [3&4]—how he comes around one side of the follower to the other with that triples-step, how it’s very circular and in place. However, it’s got a little touch of Frankie, too, in that he sends the follower out forward for a split second around [4] before turning her sideways/backward for the [5].

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4. Savoy dancers dance more circular; Hollywood dancers dance more “slotted.”

* — I think Leon James’s jam at 3 minutes of this clip is a good example of an often circular style of Lindy Hop of this definition. His follower seems to create any linearity by running across the floor when he leads her in a turn.

** — I think the dominance of strong linear patterns in SoCal is easy to explain when we think about the way many SoCal dancers tended to counterbalance. For instance, if SoCal dancers like Lenny Smith and Bob Ashley tended to use more counterbalance in their basic movements, that means both partners are putting force directly away from each other, creating a linear stretch to the end of most of their movements. Additionally, the natural reaction to release a linear stretch is also a linear movement, and so the result is a whole lot of linear momentum throughout the dance.

What’s contradictory about this, as the essay will explain, is how many of these SoCal dancers still relied on very circular and rotational momentum for their [3&4,5] area of swing-outs.

In Swing Dancing, Tamara Stevens attributes the slottedness of the SoCal dancers as a natural response to the crowdedness of the ballrooms. This could be a chicken-and-the-egg problem, where counterbalance comes from dancing slotted on crowded floors which allows for more counterbalance and so on, but I don’t currently buy the “crowded floor” explanation. I have doubts because (1) the Savoy was reportedly often extremely crowded and (2) I’ve danced in several cities where Lindy Hoppers crowd themselves into a tiny venue every week, and it doesn’t make their dancing particularly slotted.

I guess one possible additional answer is perhaps the SoCal dancers tended to be a little more OCD. They liked straight lines. (This is a joke.)
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Note: White Harlem Dancers and Black SoCal Dancers

* — So, let’s say you’re a swing dance blogger, and you begin writing a post that soon takes over your life for several months and it becomes an obsession to complete it and get it out of the way so you can get back to daily life chores such as eating. You’ve reread and re-watched your Frankie Manning book, your Norma Miller book, your Ken Burns Jazz documentary, and all the classic classic clips you can think of. Then, one weekend you finally say “Alright, the deadline is Tuesday, and that’s final. I will have no other time to finish it.”

Imagine your surprise to suddenly discover that a book on the history of swing dancing has just been released by Tamara Stevens, who lives in SoCal and has had extensive personal experience with Frankie Manning and the Savoy dancers.

I’ve only been able to breeze through it in time to get this essay out, but will read it more fully soon, and will probably do a book report post or something on it. In particular, there is a three page section (pg 95-97) on how the SoCal dancers were different from the New York dancers. It had a note or two that made me rethink a few thoughts in this essay, but also had some things that reinforced what I think of as erroneous stereotypes about the original SoCal and Harlem styles.

In it, Stevens whittled the differences between the styles of dance down to three mainly cosmetic differences. However, the way a dancer looks is usually mainly a byproduct of deeper things —their mechanics (like how the “Hollywood pike” look is often the result of the SoCal methods of creating counterbalance), their dance philosophy (like how Frankie’s athletic bend is linked to his desire to “run” or “fly” with the music), their time period and place (as I mention later in the essay, I’d argue that the prevalence of Charleston we see in Harlem Lindy Hop is more because of the time period of the clips), etc.

So, the book’s passages on this are oversimplified for my taste. On top of that, the cosmetic differences she mentions pretty much line up with some of the way-too-broad and overly-simple style rules mentioned in this essay. To her credit, she mentions that they are broad generalizations.

** — I mean, can you just imagine? Picture your local scene today, except, with no YouTube. Those are the only dancers you see, the only dancers you dance with. Now imagine you’ve never seen a group like, say, the Silver Shadows, or at least, you’ve only seen one or two of their routines, but that’s it. Now, imagine them coming to town for a month and coming out dancing almost every night. I can’t help but imagine that some of those SoCal dancers must have experienced emotions similar to that.
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5. Hollywood swivels are different than Savoy swivels.

* — I’d argue a lot of the elegance Jewel does have in throwing her arm down is the result of the fact she’s wearing poofy sleeves. Biting her nails would look elegant in that blouse.

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Note: Possibly the Most Important Part of This Essay.

* — The first couple or two who did this were really feeling it. However, it didn’t take long for it to become planned by other couples.

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6. Savoy dancers do Charleston moves in their Lindy Hop, Hollywood dancers don’t.

* — Then there’s the interesting passage in Frankie’s autobiography where he mentions that George Greenidge was the creator of many Charleston variations. (His jam in A Day at the Races is almost all Charleston, for example.) If one of the top Whitey’s dancers was always creating Charleston steps, then what we might see on film is a vast exaggeration of the amount of Charleston you would have actually seen on the Savoy dance floor. I’m not saying this IS the case, I’m just saying it’s interesting to think about. So, it’s like the Frankie Factor, only it’s the George Greenidge factor.

** — This is probably why most followers I know don’t feel inspired by the original footage. So, if you’re a follower who just doesn’t get all excited about old clips like your leader friends and partners do, don’t worry, you’re not alone. At all.

*** — Speaking of Lindy grips, this is interesting: Dean Collins would put his index finger on top of his follower’s hand while the other fingers were under it (so, like a pistol grip). Irene Thomas reported this to me, and David Rehm showed me proof in a picture.

**** — Here’s another possibly-dangerous wild idea I’ll throw out there by thinking out loud. If the Savoy Ballroom floor was really slick, as some reports have said, and as The Spirit Moves seems to imply, and that’s where Harlem Lindy Hop was developed, then perhaps it never was natural for the people who danced there to use much stretch or counterbalance in their dancing. Sneakers were used for performance or contests only, as far as we know, so dancing to uptempo music on a slippery floor would have been something the dancers there did often. Whereas the SoCal dancers would have had slower music and perhaps not-as-slippery floors throughout all their dance venues.

But, this is dangerous thinking because (1) it’s a whole lot of ifs that don’t necessarily add up and (2) the Savoy was not the only place Lindy Hop developed in Harlem. Frankie Manning mentions several other clubs he would visit, though usually only when bands he liked were playing that didn’t often play at the Savoy.

*****— See next section below.

Note: Hollywood vs. Savoy style clothing

In the early 2000s, we didn’t just exaggerate the differences we thought we saw in the style of the dance, we also chose a code of dress for the styles.

The dress code further exaggerated the differences between dancers of the styles in the 2000s, not to mention made it far too easy to create an us vs. them atmosphere. Late 1990s Savoy-style dancers were connected with two-tone shoes, peg-legged pants, and generally loud, bright clothing, while the modern Hollywood dancers expanded their wardrobe greatly but avoided almost all of the “Savoy stylings” like a plague. It almost got to the point where you were judged to be a Savoy style dancer or a Hollywood dancer before you ever stepped onto a dance floor, all because of your clothing. And I don’t think that would have happened in the 1930s/40s. (In that time, it was probably more your age that showed the fashion difference, as all of the dancers simply wore the clothes they normally wore, with the exception of some specific Harlem performance costumes.)

Think of the trademark Savoy style clothes we remember from the late 1990s and early 2000s:

Zoot Suits
Though zoot suits were around and certainly were worn by a small proportion of the swing-era population, we don’t have any evidence that any notable Savoy dancer ever had one or thought it was somehow important to the dance. Frankie Manning, for instance, had at one point only three regular-cut wool suits—he remembered this because he sweated through them all on the night Chick Webb battled Benny Goodman.

It’s the same story with “loud” outfits, with the exception of a few photos of Whitey’s performance teams from their stage shows.

However, where loud, bright colors would have come in was most often in flowwy wide-collared satin poet shirts for men and the same with halter skirts for the women. If we had to label it, that would probably be the Savoy performance clothing most seen. Beautifully illustrated by the photo above.

Two-Tones
The only major swing clip I know of that shows a pair of two-tones is ironically of Dean Collins, the biggest name in SoCal Lindy Hop. (In the same clip, Dean also wears peg-legged zoot-style pants.) Most Savoy dancers (both women and men) in clips or photographs wear simple basic leather shoes and heels, or Keds-like sneakers in (late 1930s+) Whitey speed choreography.

Now let’s look at the “Hollywood” side of the early 2000s. One important thing of note about the modern era of Hollywood style is that people *really* started caring about a sort of authenticity in their clothing. (Particularly if they were actual modern SoCal dancers. Those guys had some threads.) Many of the Hollywood style dancers tried to appear roughly the way a teenager or a college student of the era would have looked, not necessarily like a dancer from the clips.

White Bucks
Just as Dean is the most noteworthy wearer of two-tone shoes in the classic clips, Savoy dancer Shorty George is ironically the most noteworthy wearer of white bucks. Though, this one does have a bearing on reality, as there are a few white bucks on SoCal dancers in some other clips. But there are more loafers than white bucks, and way more simple leather lace-up shoes than either of them.

Letter Sweaters
…are hot as hell to dance in. Mainly, letter sweaters are only shown in pictures of dancers from the era, and in very few clips that I’m aware of. Besides, most of the original dancers were out of school by the time they were doing clips.

Oxford Baggies
Wide-legged pants in general were a part of the fashion of the time and a part of the swing dancers’ fashion—but the old-timers in films didn’t wear pants near as baggy as the usual baggies we came to wear in the early 2000s. Also, many of us wore the cuffs draped low over our shoes—almost every leader in the original clips, Savoy or SoCal had his cuffs hover over the top of the shoe. (See also: Sweden.) (It’s a style I’ve come to love, but it costs a lot in tailoring.)

Wedgies
All the girls in Groovie Movie wear wedgies. In Twice Blessed however, there are only a few pairs on a dance floor full of flats and heels, and this goes for most of the other clips. The heavy use of heels rather than flats by the SoCal followers might partially account for the less “athletic” nature of their dancing, the smaller pulse in general in followers, and the smaller amount of aerials on film.

In a small but telling way, this reinforces the performance differences between the two. The SoCal followers mainly wore dress shoes in their clips (the social dancing shoe) and the Whitey’s followers, after 1938, mainly wore sneakers in order to better perform their high speed and high impact aerials. (In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm writes that the followers of the 1940s East Coast would wear dress shoes to social dance in, and then change into sneakers for jam circle contests.)

Haltered Skirts (Jumpers)
Though popular in SoCal clips, we’ve also shown above how the Savoy followers wore them as well.

Sailor Pants for Women
These were all over the fashion catalogues of the 1930s, but we don’t see them on hardly any followers in the Savoy or SoCal clips, or really pants of any kind. The girls in Groovie Movie wear pants for the from-underneath shots, but that’s probably a taste choice made by the director. (However, I’m very glad pants are a style a lot of followers are embracing now—they can really bring out different styling.)

World War II Uniforms, Sailor Uniforms
These were popular among SoCal dancers because most of the SoCal clips were filmed during World War II, and almost every young man in film during that age was put in a uniform. It makes sense that to look like a SoCal style dancer did, a uniform would fit.
Many of the Whitey’s were in the service (Frankie himself, for example), and the Harlem dancers had no film gigs of note during World War II.

Striped Socks
These are often seen on both men and women of both the SoCal dancers and the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, in film and in pictures.

On Hats in General
Neo-swingers loved wearing fedoras when they danced, and a lot of 2001+ Hollywood dancers preferred newsboy caps.

Yet, no original dancer probably would have ever danced with their hat on if they were social dancing indoors. It was a basic code of etiquette to remove your hat when inside a building. We don’t have footage of dancers wearing hats indoors that aren’t part of obvious costumes or people meant to be seen as “strange.” We will allow an exception for Leon James wearing a beret-type hat in The Spirit Moves, because, let’s face it, he’s Leon James. He can get away with almost anything.
You can see the trend: We took clothes that were known to have existed at the time, and made them into our uniforms. (And, it really wasn’t ALL about trying to dress like them; a lot of it was us just making our own fashion based on the original fashion—which is cool, but they became so synonymous with the “style” of dance.) But the way we exaggerated the clothing is nicely symbolic of how we danced the styles of dances: choosing a small selection of things we saw in the old dancers and making them the entire “style.”

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Note: What Dean Collins, A Day at the Races and Ask Uncle Sol Have in Common.

* — It was also probably natural for Jewel not to straighten her arm because she was a Bal-Swing dancer first.

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Conclusion

* — Forgive the language, sensitive readers. Under the circumstances, I think you will agree that it was rhythmically unavoidable.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Liz permalink
    June 15, 2011 4:49 pm

    If these are the footnotes, I’m going to have to gird my loins before wading into the main post :) Ah, good idea about the two tabs. I’m reading the footnotes first but it’s like eating dessert before dinner.

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