Pinning Down The California Routine
“You know what I’ve always wondered,” said my good friend and great dancer Adam Speen, speaking wryly over his Thai food, which is how he tends to speak over food in general, “is why the California Routine…looks nothing like the routine at the end of Hellzapoppin’.”
Adam was referencing the story of the origin of the California Routine. The choreography, it is often taught, comes from the ending group choreography Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performed at the end of Hellzapoppin’. However, it’s obvious from looking at the clip, that there is not a large correlation between the routine as it’s taught today and what they do in the film. (In fact, there is only one phrase of similarity, but we’ll get to that in a bit.)
To understand this story, some specific details are needed. I have been planning on writing about the California Routine for awhile, and something that happened at ILHC gave me the perfect opportunity: a great conversation with Lennart Westerlund, one of the founders of the Rhythm Hot Shots and a key figure in bringing Al Minns and Frankie Manning out of retirement. He also happens to have the secret of the California Routine.
Let’s start in the early 1980s. Brought out of retirement and shipped to Sweden with nothing but a beat-up suitcase, Al Minns taught the Swedes what he called “The California Routine” and said something to the effect that it was a routine they had worked on when in California filming Hellzapoppin’. So, you might easily assume the routine shown at the end of Hellzapoppin’ is the routine he was referring to.
However, this isn’t as straightforward as it seems. You see, Frankie and the Whitey’s came up with two endings for the Hellzapoppin’ routine, and while there, Frankie also choreographed a new flashy group routine for the Whitey’s to perform at a California club. (Frankie’s autobiography, p. 181)
According to Frankie’s autobiography, they went with the jump-over ending for Hellzapoppin’, and with the alternative ending for Cottontail/Hot Chocolate. Unfortunately, the Cottontail editor cut out everything but the very last part of the ending: a tandem Charleston front flip straight into a pancake. Also, there’s this photo taken of them practicing for Hellzapoppin’, doing A-frames in a row, something they don’t do in the actual Hellzapoppin’ film choreography. However, both the Cottontail ending snippet and the A-frame picture look oddly familiar to those who’ve learned the California Routine.
So, when Al taught the 1980s dancers the routine he worked on in California, he might have been referring to the other ending the group worked on for Hellzapoppin’ or he might have even been referring to the flashy group choreography the group had used in the night club gigs it had performed while in town for the filming. It’s also very well possible that Frankie Manning adapted the night club choreography from the Hellzapoppin’ one, so that all three routines in question could be only slightly different. (Choreographers know any good idea can be easily altered to fit into a few choreographies.)
Before we go any further, here’s a little collection of several different choreographies that have been referred to, at some point, as “The California Routine.” First, the Hellzapoppin’ ending. Second, Leon James’s California Routine from the 1950 Spirit Moves footage (notice the 6-count jig kicks added after the tango—which is different than the modern version.) And finally, the Rhythm Hot Shots’ version from 1994.
As the film shows, Hellzapoppin’ and the other two versions share only one phrase of choreography in common, which is probably the most recognizable part of the California Routine anyway: the phrase composed of kick-ups (in Hellzapoppin’ there’s not much kicking up — they pretty much just kick once and go right into the tuck-turn) , a tuck-turn, a side-pass, a six-count stop, and a throw-out into crazy-legs or break of some sorts.
Let’s go back to our knowledge that Frankie developed two endings to the Hellzapoppin’ choreography. It’s enticing to think that the California Routine Al taught the Swedes, and roughly what Leon does for The Spirit moves, is the alternative ending to the Hellzapoppin’ choreography the group had prepared. After all, there’s the A-frame picture (above) from the Hellzapoppin’ practices, and the tandem front-flip ending seen in Cottontail, and both the A-frame and the front flip-into-pancake are in the version as we know it today.
Also, when you look at the Hellzapoppin clip, look at Frankie’s feet in the background after the throw out (while all the others are just stepping in place or preparing for their aerials): Guess what he’s doing? The Lindy Hop “tango” move footwork. And he’s the only one doing it. (The tango footwork is what comes next in the California Routine as done by Leon and later, the Swedes.) Is this Frankie possibly having forgotten which ending they were doing? We currently don’t know, or at least, the very knowledgeable people I interviewed don’t know. (Thanks, Nick Williams, who pointed out Frankie’s tango to me.)
And, there’s even more unreliability involved. Frankie Manning apparently taught Lennart and the Swedes his version of the California Routine, which was different, a few years after Al did. Lennart himself said Al’s and Frankie’s stories on the matter were sketchy, and I think we can give them some leniency, since the discussion was about something they had done 50 years earlier. (And this was something Lennart himself is remembering from almost 30 years ago.)
The swing dance historian (and close friend to Frankie**) Judy Pritchett said that Frankie didn’t even think the “California Routine” existed until Mura Dehn called it that in The Spirit Moves. “Frankie thought it was her misunderstanding — that Al and Leon did a routine based on what they remembered doing in California and she thought that was the name.” So, now we have the image of Al and Leon just doing a bit of choreography they remembered from the old days for the Spirit Moves filming, and years later, us having the idea that this was THE infamous California Routine — that there was more behind it than a simple demonstration of performance Lindy Hop.
So, if we’re not sure which California Routine is which, or in what way the California Routine ever existed to the original dancers, how do we have the version we have today? The California Routine’s modern existence* is almost totally thanks to the restoration efforts of The Rhythm Hot Shots, and is a combination of the California Routine the Swedes learned from Al Minns and some steps Lennart added, mostly at the ending.***
So, what is the real California Routine? To me, it’s kind of an example of the old philosophical dilemma of the Ship of Theseus.**** Basically, Theseus’s great ship needs maintenance, what with all the blood and wine stains, and must have parts replaced on it. At some point, however, every original board is replaced, as well as every sail, spear, and wine keg. The dilemma goes like this: If someone were to go around and pick up all the original boards, sails, masts, and spears, and glue them together into a very-ugly-looking and soon to be sunken ship, which ship is now REALLY Theseus’s great ship?
Frankie Manning taught Lennart Wusterland and the rest of the Swedes a different California Routine than Al Minns did, which is possibly still different from what Leon James did in the 1950s. The routine itself possibly didn’t even have any status until the 1950s, when done for the Spirit Moves. So you see, the routine, over the years, has had its boards and sails replaced so much that it is probably very different from the original, and certainly different than the choreography at the end of Hellzapoppin’.
In thinking about it, it’s not really a big deal that the original California Routine can’t be pinned down. It might even be more in the spirit of Lindy Hop if it can’t. After all, the original dancers (and swing dancers in general) just weren’t often tied to doing things one way — over time, they usually allowed things to morph and evolve, either consciously or subconsciously. Judy Pritchett agrees. “There was never ANY routine that meant the same thing to every dancer who did it, and didn’t change over time. Frankie thought it was funny that people talked about so many ‘versions’ of the shim sham. He felt they just didn’t get it.”
Speaking from my own experience, whenever I’ve been a part of a teacher or team demo, we usually always go with the version of the California Routine as performed by the Rhythm Hot Shots, which for several reasons is what I think has the best claim to being The California Routine. (After all, if you’re going to rebuild a ship, who better to trust than svelte, aerodynamic Viking scientists?)***** We then change the ending, and possibly some of the moves along the way, to go with the song we dance to. Then it’s the California Routine as choreographed by several different Whitey’s from 1930s-80s, the Rhythm Hot Shots in the 90s, and then ourselves today. That’s quite a legacy to be a part of.
Besides, then it’s got a pleasing full-circle effect, and is a little bit more in the spirit of Lindy Hop than trying to pin down what the-one-and-only California Routine is. They replaced a few boards, we replaced a few boards. Helps keep it sailing strong.
Special thanks to Lennart Westerlund, not only for a fantastic conversation, but also for being, in general, a badass. Also great thanks to Lindy Hop historian Judy Pritchett, for helping clear up Frankie’s side of the California Routine story.
Also, this article is based on interviews with Lennart, Judy, and selections of Frankie’s autobiography only. If you have additional or conflicting information from a dependable source, I’d love to hear about it, either in the comments section below or by emailing me personally at robertwhiteiii at gmail dot com.
* — Regarding the California in its modern form, I’m referring to this:
Throw out into crazy legs
Tango choreography with 2-count frog jump
Tuck turn to the back
Barrel turn to the front
Frankie flip (AKA coat-hanger, AKA around-the-back, etc.)
The part everyone fucks up (except for the Hot Shots, who are all over that. Anyway, it’s more or less slip-slop-run-run-ba-dum). (Counts vary depending on who you ask. I tend to prefer Slip [8-1] Slop [1-2] run-run [3-4] ba-dum [&5]. Other opinions may vary.)
Charleston kick turns into tandem Charleston
Push-out and turn into pancake aerial
** — Judy also happened to be Frankie’s girlfriend for 21 years. So, yeah, when she says Frankie felt a certain way about something, there’s possibly noone’s opinion you could trust more.
*** — The main move he mentioned they added was the front flip at the end, which he possibly could have gotten from Cottontail. This means my theory about Cottontail being THE California Routine would be flawed, because the ending of Cottontail might simply have been added to the modern California Routine’s ending. I didn’t think to ask him about Cottontail at the time, and he has no email, so contacting him can be difficult. I think he lives in a small cabin he built by hand in the Swedish wilderness, where he writes soulful poetry and makes his own rope. Spearfishing is also possibly involved.
Word on the street is they also added the frog jump after the tango. I did send him this article, hoping he could give it a look over before I published it, but have not yet heard back from him. So, small changes are possibly coming. As always, if a historical article I write interests you, check back in occasionally for updates and/or corrections.
**** — Nope, you’re not mistaken. You have possibly read this before. I began this idea in this article.
***** — The analogy is made even stronger by the fact that Swedish waters allow for incredible shipwreck preservation. One of my biggest reasons for thinking of it as The California Routine is this: The Rhythm hot Shots’s version at this time was a group trying to “pin down” exactly what Lindy Hop meant, they weren’t even social dancing when Al and Frankie first came to teach them in the 1980s—they were simply routine focused. So it’s symbolically important that to me, they are the ones actually doing The California Routine, because the idea of there being only one did not come around until they, either on purpose or unknowingly, cemented it.