Before we begin, a brief reminder on where we stood last week: (1) I stumbled upon some SoCal 1930s and 1940s swing dancing footage I and five or six of the hard-core clip geeks I talked to had never seen before. (2) Among the clips was a mysterious couple of minutes waist-down footage that looked like it was leftover from a film shoot. No specific movie stuck out to us, but we began searching for what it was from. (3) In the clips, most interestingly, was a dancer that reminded myself and several of the world’s leading Willie Desatoff studiers of Willie Desatoff’s styling so much that we agreed it *could* be the man himself. (4) This is incredibly tantalizing, as Willie himself claimed he wasn’t in films. If it is Willie, did he forget? Was he mistaken? Or did something make him omit telling anyone about this? If it isn’t Willie, who the hell is it? And now a few of, but not all, the answers…
Experts in Moscow Crack the Code…
Our small, ragtag group of Balboa geeks are continuing to research the mysterious “waist-down dancing” clip posted from last week, and already some great discoveries have been made. First off, Anton Olfert of Moscow, Russia gets major props for realizing that the “Possibly Willie” waist-down footage was extra footage from the film called (1944) The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.
He didn’t find this very easily, either. He recognized the setting was similar to a clip he had seen, one that was known only on his computer titled “joe-q.av.” But you can’t stop these Russian computer programmers so easily; he did some detective work of his own to track down the name by going through a giant list of swing movies looking for descriptions that fit the clip. So, thank you so much Anton! It very well could have taken us months or maybe even years to link the two, as it’s one of the lesser thought-of clips.
A quick side note; many people might not know that Willie Desatoff, one of the greatest Balboa and Swing dancers of all time, had a strong Russian heritage. Willie’s family was Russian-American (we’re still tracking down information on the specifics of when they immigrated) and he reportedly grew up alongside a Molakan community. Those who have heard Willie speak can probably still close their eyes and remember the slight Russian twist to his accent.
Though the whole film is available on YouTube in ten minute sections, I have taken the dance footage and added the waist-down extra footage to the end of it in the following clip:
So now that we see some faces, I compared notes with Nick Williams, master face-identifier, for some identifications: Sure enough, as we predicted, both Don Gallagher and Connie Wydell are in it. The dancer doing the jig kicks I thought might be Roy Lester is rather actually Jack Arken of the Three Little Words fame. Also, there’s Bob Ashley‘s face in the crowd, though we don’t recognize anything specifically descriptive of his dancing in the waist-down footage.
(Here’s where the story comes a little full-circle in terms of my studying swing clips over the last few years. Earlier this year, David Rehm and I discovered a few dancers doing out-and-ins and toss-outs in the original clip film clip The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. This made us really excited because you see a ton of clear-cut out-and-ins from the Bal-Swing dancers in their old age, but not a lot in the original footage. The dancer who does those out-and-ins and toss-out is Bob Ashley, and he’s on the left side of the column in the middle dance scene.)
The big question is: Who’s The Bal-Swing Dancer that dances so much like Willie Desatoff in the waist-down footage? (He’s dancing with the girl in the black shoes that several followers I know would kill a man for.) Well, there are a lot of bases that need to be covered, and just to warn you, we haven’t covered them all yet. However, here’s what we’ve learned since then.
Tracking Down the Young Willie Desatoff
Randy and Kara of San Francisco are not only master Balboa dancers, they also worked with Willie Desatoff a great deal personally and were very good friends with the Desatoffs for many years. They’ve really enjoyed taking on this mystery and together came up with some great research and theories. The first step for Randy and Kara was tracking down pictures of Willie when he was younger so that, if he were in the crowd, he could be identified.
While doing so, Randy was looking through an old year book of Willie’s online, hoping to find Willie. Above a picture of a sport team, he came across the name “Bill Datsoff” and thought to inspect it. He looked at the boy’s face, thought about it, and asked Kara to come look. She said something to the effect of “Holy Sesame Street,” or something like that, I imagine, because they have a toddler.
“That could totally be him, right?” Randy said.
“Look at the picture!” she said.
“I am,” he said, “I showed you, remember?”
“No, look on the picture.” Covering the picture of the alleged Bill “Datsoff” was an autograph: “Best Wishes to a swell friend and teacher, Bill Desatoff.”
So, Willie went by Bill as a young boy, at least when signing his name, and that is indeed him. They also came up with some other photographs, shown throughout the article (like at the top of the article, Willie while in the Coast Guard.)
Follow the Follower
Check out this detective work: Randy and Kara noticed the Possibly Willie follower in the waist-down footage had a sash or something tied around her waist that moved when they go across the front of the screen. Randy found that same scarf on a follower that’s dancing with Bob Ashley by the column when she does the toss out mentioned earlier(don’t blink). You can see it if you start watching in the clip above at about 1:40, and look just to the left of the column.
So, that’s probably the follower. Now, look for other defining qualities: her hair do is pretty luxirouious and big and easy to spot (it’s where she keeps her secrets). So look for her in other parts of the clip.
In the first scene, she’s dancing with a different guy (through the window pane at 0:04 seconds), one with a triangular jaw, dark hair and a smooth Balboa. Also, he looks slightly taller than her, which doesn’t go against the waist-down Possibly Willie footage. (Her knees are right below his in the waist-down footage, suggesting he’s a taller than her, especially because she’s wearing heels.) The way he holds himself, the minuscule out-and-in movement he does at one point in closed position, the way he smiles just before the camera cuts away; they all tantalizingly could be him, but it’s also not obviously him. For one thing, this is before he had a goatee and wore aviator sunglasses indoors, which, had he adopted in his youth would (1) have shown amazing forethought in coolness and (2) would make identifying him a lot easier. For a more serious problem, he seems a little taller than average, whereas, for the most part, we think Willie was simply average height for his day. The follower seems to appear dancing in other parts of the film, at the end with Bob Ashley again, and seems to be thrown in the air by a dark haired leader at the beginning of the final dance scene. However, the leader looks a little taller than the leader in the window pane. She might have taken off her shoes for the lift, and several followers I know would not blame her. If you’re going to kill a man for a pair of shoes, you’re not going to want to get blood on them. And that leader could very well be the same leader who throws the star of the picture into the mirror ball. He might have been specifically hired as a girl-thrower. (And no one else would be allowed to because of the powerful girl-throwing unions.)
The only problem with all of this is, guess what: The next girl who dances by also has a tassel-sash-type thing around her waist. In fact, the woman who walks in front of the camera at 4:06 in the clip above seems to be carrying them. Perhaps they are victory sashes, which is ironic, because for us it is a defeat. But don’t worry, we won’t let that stop us. Let’s compare the guys anyway.
Let’s compare the face of the guy in the window-pane dancing with the face of young Willie Desatoff:
Now, last week we commented on how similar the Balboa looked between the dancer in the waist-down footage and the tell-tale traits of Willie: the flat-footed, bow-legged, slightly-twisty and kick-and-flicky style with heavily syncopated timing. He even ends his brief moment on screen with a little hitch out-and-in move that was a favorite of Willie and Maxie Dorf. However, what about the Lindy Hop of the Possibly-Willie dancer, which is on the screen for only a few counts? Last week, we identified Don Gallagher because of the [7&8] of his swing out. Which, now that I think about it, isn’t a bad way to go about it at all. In fact, the possibly Willie dancer has a rather unique [7&8] of his swing out. But it does look like a styling Willie would occasionally do:
Now, what does this mean? All it means so far is that we found a guy who looks like he could be Willie (from far away) in the same clip where we have dancing feet that looks like it could belong to Willie’s. And the first guy is dancing with a follower who is possibly the same follower of the Possibly Willie dancer in the waist-down footage.
The main thing all researchers have to do is make sure they’re not just proving the point they want to be true. Even while rewriting and editing this article, I’m finding instances where I’ve fallen into the trap and didn’t realize it. Because, all of us Balboa historians want there to be footage of Willie Desatoff in his youth.(I’ve heard that something like 83% of scientific research validates the original theories the scientist wished to prove. And, just to prove the point, I made that exact figure up.)
As we’ve said before, Willie mentioned several times he wasn’t in films. Some remember him saying specifically, “I didn’t get paid to do films” which is not the same thing, though others remember him just saying he “didn’t do films.”
This film was released in 1944. Willie was at war from ’42 to ’46. So when we heard that, it added a pretty large doubt. However, Wikipedia says it was filmed in ’42 and ’43, and if that’s true, there is a possibility Willie was around at the time to do it. It also gives a good reason why one might forget having done a film. You can imagine Willie Desatoff showing up to a film shoot at the behest of his friends and fellow dancers. However, he soon after goes to war, and is preoccupied with a few more important things. The movie doesn’t come out until two years later, and by that time Willie’s in the heat of the war, and probably never sees it. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t have time to see himself dancing in it; after all, in the original film (if it is him) you only see his face for a few seconds in a crowd, and his dancing from the feet down for a split second, and during that time he’s dressed just like every other guy in the film, so it’s pretty hard to imagine him noticing himself, particularly if he blinked and/or sneezed while watching the scene.
Today, we notice these things because we can watch them over and over again and freeze them and compare footage against other footage. But had he seen the movie, he probably would have had only one time through at the theater to catch himself on it, and probably wouldn’t have had another chance until it came out on VHS in the 1980s. I doubt he had ever seen specifically the extra footage from the Corbis Archives, which is the only part that would have had his dancing in it for a long period of time, and if he did, it wasn’t until many years later. If he had seen it, who knows if he could recognize his own teenage dancing feet from that angle? I think most of us remember the first time we saw ourselves dancing on camera, and how foreign it looked. So he might have never seen his dancing on film, and had no idea what it looked like. To him, he might have assumed he never made it onto film.
Also, I want to note something about Willie, the man. Willie was a complex personality. Though I never heard it from his mouth personally, by all accounts he took a lot of pride in having a real job in his youth, and you get the vague feeling he might describe a lot of his fellow dancer friends who worked their lives around contests and film gigs as “dance bums.” Willie theorettically might have tried out a film gig or two and subconciously or consciously forgotten about the film experience to uphold an image of himself. Or, he just might have forgotten about it because he was asked about it fifty years after the fact, between which was a World War, a few rough years for him personally we don’t know much about, and a very eventful second-half of the twentieth century.*
It’s also interesting to note Willie’s greatest dance idol was Fred Astaire, who was first and foremost a film dancer. Knowing this, it would be understandable that someone as good as Willie, who lived in LA, and had friends who did film gig opportunities all the time, wouldn’t mind the opportunity to be in at least one film. But, this is just me speculating what I would do, and I’m not Willie. So, currently, these are all ifs, and some of them are big ifs.
But even those these are all a lot of ifs, I think I’ve persuaded you that it is possible that he might have done a film and forgot the whole experience. If not you, I think I’ve at least definitely persuaded myself. (Which isn’t necessarily a good thing.)
So, the case isn’t solved yet. We’ve now got Lila Desatoff and the original Balboa historian, Dwight Lupardis, involved and helping us out, and some old timers may be contacted. (Though the original dancers aren’t always as helpful in these sorts of things as one would hope. And it’s not their fault. Remember, for many of them, they haven’t thought about whether Willie was in that one film shoot or not for seventy years.)
I will of course, keep you updated as new facts come in. And, as I mentioned last time, even if it’s not Willie, it’s still exciting that we have footage of such styling from the day.
I’d like to thank all the people helping out with this project, especially Anton Olfert, Kara Britt, Randy Maestretti, and Nick Williams, following all the recent progress they’ve helped make.
* — I recently rewatched the Never Ending Story, which I hadn’t seen since I was ten, twenty years ago. I had watched this movie a hundred times, and it gave me reoccuring nightmares and was a somewhat meaningful thing in my otherwise uneventful life at that time. When I rewatched it recently, I only remembered three or four things that happened in it. Most of it I felt I was watching for the first time, with the exception of a vague sense of anxiety. That dog-luck-dragon does not look right.
10 responses to “UPDATE: New Discoveries on the Waist-Down Dancing Clip”
Props to the lady dancing in flats; proof they existed!
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Well done to everyone for putting such work in. I love that there are such expert Bal science geeks out there.
Have you considered whether the window-pane dude might have been Willy’s dance idol or some kind of mentor?
Also, it’s possible that the 7&8 swing-out similarity is coincidental: it may be that for a dancer with that style, that 7&8 may be more natural or convenient for styling. In other words, it may not be further supporting evidence but rather, a consequence of other similarities.
Very interesting discussion and investigation. I do admit that I thought of Willy when I first saw the clip.
If the mystery dancer isn’t Willy, surely with those mad skills he’d be someone that the surviving masters would have mentioned already, wouldn’t they?
(1) After seeing a dancer so like Willie, we began asking about what idols and what students he might have had at the time. We have the guy who first taught him to dance, but we also have the evidence that his dancing was unique and no one else danced like him. However, Willie was one of the few old timers that actually taught people how to dance. We have evidence of that during the war, where he taught some classes in Seattle while stationed there for a time. WE’re looking into those.
Also, we’re not sure if Window-pane-guy is the Possibly-Willie dancer. He’s just the best possibility right now.
(2) As far as the 7&8 style begin more natural, I might have misinterpreted what you mean, but I don’t think it would be. Forcing your right leg to turn out so dramatically seems pretty purposeful. I do agree that it isn’t hard evidence. For instance, Dean did a similar thing in Buck Privates, and a lot of those guys took Dean stuff and changed it slightly. Mainly, we were just double checking that it *could* be Willie’s lindy, possibly (us like the guy in the picture *could* but wasn’t without-a-doubt- Willie.
(3) You’re final statement is also one that keeps coming to our minds. Surely someone would have said “Well, their was Willie, and then there was of course, Hergopowitz — very similar to Willie, except of course he did films.” (We wish we had this kind of information.) But, apparently the SoCal swing world world was much bigger back then that we can even imagine. remember, California was pretty much the capital of swing dancing at this point and their were dance scenes in almost every small city in Southern California. Many of these dancers didn’t travel an hour down the road sometimes. For instance, we have yet to find more than one old timer who’s ever heard of Jack Helwig, the guy in all white in the Venice Beach Clip. He was in a feature film, seemed to be pretty damn good for a 1938 LA Swing dancer, and partnered with the follower who was in a ton of movies. Yet the only person who heard of him only had a name and no more information about him, from the story I was told. He basically disappeared form the memory of swing dancing. So, sadly, it happens.
Thanks for reading!
[…] of swing dancers from the 1940s which sent a number of dancers into a frenzy. The mystery of who is dancing in the clip continues, but the extended shots show moves that were known of but never before seen […]
[…] include the master Balboa and Lindy dancer Willie Desatoff himself. (Article one here, article two here) Also, a chance interview with Lennart Westurlund gave me the chance to explore the hazy origins of […]
this guy seems like a reallly goood dancer or use to be anyway but im doing a report on this guy and its kinda fun learning about old people b4 ur time huh
I have a thought. I was watching a you tube video called shuffle girls vs technotronic girls, the shuffle girls are like Beethoven with foot work and as a dancer I can tell you that foot work is dancing and the rest of the body automatically follows. Now although I don’t want to trash any dancing cause all dancing rules, but it seemed to me the technotronic girls watched to much tv, and think when a director tells extras to flail their arms around and act like they are having a good time that that is dancing. I have a theory that dancing is kept from the public by never showing the feet on TV. And as a result arm flailiers have no foot rhythm what so ever cause they’re taking the opposite approach, move the hands and try to get the feet to follow? Its sad cause the foot work really makes you feel like you’re flying that’s the only way I can describe it. Basically I notice people going to horrible extremes cause they don’t know it’s all in the feet.
I was in a dance group that toured to New York and met Dean Collins (although that wasn’t
his name then). At the time I was married to Donald Gallaher (no “g” in his name) and was
his dance partner. We were divorced and I married again. I have danced all my life – have
been teaching tap all my life. All say I am amazing because I still teach and perform. We
were the ones who encouraged Dean to go to Calif. from New York. My name was
If you watch Holiday Inn, before Fred Astaire’s first dance with Marjorie Reynolds, there’s some swing dancers: on the left (as Fred walks drunkenly through the crowd) a couple swings out; on the right, there’s a couple dancing close hold with the leader kicking in a style I thought might be shag. Check it out.