Joyce James AKA Joyce “Little Stupe” Daniels ISDFNKA #5
Dear readers, I apologize that Swungover has not been very good at staying on schedule the last few months. I am officially going to move our publication dates from Tuesdays to Thursdays, though, which should allow me to stay on schedule better. Meanwhile, here is a new addition to the Incredible Swing Dance Followers No One Knows About series.
When most people talk about incredible solo jazz dancers among the original jitterbugs, the names Al and Leon are probably the most mentioned. Next, perhaps Pepsi Bethel or even Frankie Manning, though there’s very little footage showcasing his solo jazz, especially compared to Leon, Al, and Pepsi. A name you probably haven’t heard before is Joyce James, or Joyce Daniels, her married name. However, I’d argue she’s one of the greatest original jazz dancers, based on the only film footage we have of her: The original Big Apple clip from Keep Punching.
Don’t be upset if you don’t know much about her; very few people alive do. Frankie Manning remembered that she came to the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in 1937, the same year Al Minns and Joe Daniels (whom she would later marry) did. She and Joe were given the nicknames “Little Stupe” and “Big Stupe,” reportedly because they had a hard time catching on to steps. (However, I think you will agree that once she had the steps, she obviously knew exactly what to do with them.)*
So, which one is she in the Big Apple? Easy: the one in the light skirt. (All others are in dark skirts.**) In the clip below, look for her between other dancers, and for the long moment the camera showcases her. Following the Big Apple in this clip is her jam with Joe Daniels, which is short, but still hints at her strength as a solo dancer.
First there’s her “coots, the clapping and scooting move that all of them do before they start the Big Apple. She adds a unique swiveling twist to it that’s a nice touch.
The next thing that sticks out are her rocks (she’s in the back by the stage) and her spank-the-baby, which start to be really visible on the right side of the screen at 0:46. The camera really showcases her starting at 1:00, which really shows off her main strength, to me: She has a great flow through her upper body coupled with an attitude and spirit that always shows in her movement.
For instance, when the camera’s on her beginning at 1:06, notice first there’s a small flick of her skirt. Then, when she begins clapping, look how dramatically she turns her body for that first clap. It’s like she allows the momentum from that wind-up to carry through the next movement and slowly dissipate just in time for the boogy forward. Once there, watch how she twists her body for the boogy forward, snapping and throwing each hand back, one after the other, looking to each side of her body as she does so.
Finally, there’s the way she does her knee slaps and fall-off-the-log: When her hand slaps the knee, you can see the wave of energy travel up her body, ending only after it’s traveled through her head. Her dancing could be described as wild, but I hesitate to use that word, as there’s too much control for that. No, “control” isn’t right, either. But there is such a focused use of momentum, that it actually is wild in the sense it describes nature at both its most powerful and powerless, the kind of wild found in a tiger mid-leap.
Yes, I’m kind of in love with her.
One last thing. Check out her entrance into the drags at the end of her and Joe’s jam. Watch how she allows her head to fall ever so gracefully away from the motion.
It’s a tiny thing — a small, subtle use of energy and anatomy and emotion, which perhaps is what makes the difference between falling and dancing.
I recently discovered that Joyce may be alive, and I possibly may be able to track her down. If I do so, of course, there will hopefully be more on her. Also, I seem to recall reading, at one point, that Joyce was one of the Lindy Hoppers who quietly moved on from her life as a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper after only a few years. I’ve been looking, and can’t find it anywhere, so don’t quote me on that one, but it would make sense that she might have done that, given how little we know about her. The early dancers who didn’t stick around are often the ones forgotten.
Shameless plug: I recently taught a classic Solo Jazz Styling class focusing on her moves, and would love to do it again, so watch out for that if we’re in the same camp.
* — “Stupe” being a slang term for “one who is stupid,” though Frankie assures us it was all meant and taken in fun. The couple even began making it an act to play dumb. All the Joyce James info in the main article is in Frankie’s autobiography, pg. 142, 250 and Notes: Chapter 10, note 4.
** — How DO I know this is Joyce James, you ask? Well, the Lindy Hop couple in the jam is her and Joe, according to Cynthia Millman in Frankie Manning’s autobiography. That’s how I spotted her skirt and could pick her out of the Big Apple, where, sure enough, she’s next to the same leader as in the jam. (A later jam couple has a follower named Eleanor “Stumpy,” also with a light skirt; however, that skirt is belted, and that dancer is obviously not the same dancer as in Big Apple.)