9 Clips of Classic Black Lindy Hoppers Who Aren’t Whitey’s (Geek Version)
Recently it has dawned on me how much of our focus (including mine) regarding classic Black Lindy Hoppers comes from the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. And yet there are films of many non-Whitey’s Black dancers from the 1930s and 40s.
So let’s take a look at several examples of non-Whitey’s groups to get a broader understanding of what Black Lindy Hop was like during the swing-era, and perhaps pick up some new inspiration along the way.
(Another thing we’ll find is that my historian cred is so much based on Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers that I have almost no information on most of these dancers.)
The clips shown here have been taken off of YouTube, but I have restored them in the basic version of this article which you can see here.
“Rubberneck” Holmes & Others, Spirit of Youth (1938)
Someone in the comments of the video has reason to believe this group was from Chicago, and Bill Green himself found information that they called themselves the Big Apple Dancers. (The Big Apple was the big dance craze of the year, hence Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers also calling themselves “Whitey’s Big Apple Dancers” at the time.)
At first it looks like a typical Whitey’s setup: Four couples take turns jamming. But note all the things that are non-Whitey’s about this dancing: There are none of the classic Whitey’s moves like intricate Charleston patterns, no air steps (only drops and small “lifts,” I guess you would call them), and only one swing-out in the entire clip (Rubberneck’s from closed — no open-to-open swing outs). Tandem Charleston here is a one-handed move. There is no ending group choreography, just standing around and clapping (the Big Apple part of the choreography, I assume).
However, it does look like this team got some inspiration from Shorty George, as they do a variation of his jumping-while-turning-the-taller-follower move, his drop moves, and his lunge moves.
What is inspiring to me about this clip is it does have some pretty tight turn moves (the cool, vague swing-out-like thing the third couple does that they enter with that ends with a hand change behind the back), and, of course, Rubberneck’s Shorty-George head-first turns are pretty wicked.
Archie Savage and Marie Bryant in Jammin the Blues (1944)
The moves and technique here have the look of Harlem Lindy Hop. And, indeed, both dancers have a lot of history in New York. Unlike the Whitey’s, who worked with well-choreographed phrases and presentation, these dancers appear more spontaneous (though they clearly have a rough choreography worked out) and also use a lot of movements that keep them from having to move a lot to the fast speed of the song.
Archie Savage (1919-2003) was raised in Harlem and became a professional dancer, working with the revolutionary and prestigious Black dance troupe The Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. He was in 29 films and loved to swing dance. He also apparently contributed greatly to the creation of Afro/Cuban dance.
Marie Bryant (1917-1978) was well-known for her African exotic dancing and singing, both in film and on stage. She traveled as a dancer with many bands and was often on the great stages of New York clubs like the Apollo.
Down, Down, Down (1942)
These unknown dancers are doing all socially-led moves, movement, and technique in the Harlem fashion. It looks like there is no choreography intended. So, this is probably a good reference for what up-tempo social dancing looked like among historical dancers that were good enough to get a few gigs, but not trained in performance choreography.
Note also how straight the dancers are standing.
Mac & Ace, and Kit & Kat, Juke Joint (1947)
First off, the first leader pulls off triples at high speed pretty damn well, which is rare, and hardly ever seen. He also does some 540 degree swing-outs.
Between the two couples, you see a lot of things that remind you of Whitey’s in concept: The first leader is bent into a running stance; the second couple does slow motion and focuses on eye-catching tricks (though the tricks aren’t very Whitey’s).
For me, this clip seems like a good representation of the other dancers who would probably show up to compete against the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers at the Harvests Moon Balls. There were dance partnerships all over the city who competed, and probably even other dance troupes, and so year after year the Harvest Moon Ball contest brought dancers who developed a style of performance Lindy Hop based on high energy and crazy tricks.
The Jitterbug Johnnies, Juke Joint (1947)
Though the dancing is pretty mediocre in this clip, it’s interesting to see medium-tempo Lindy Hop on film. (Some of the dancers appear to be the same ones as above.) Their technique, to our modern eyes, seems clunky and rudimentary.
But that’s an important thing to understand: Not everyone was spending hours a day training and developing more complex and refined technique. The young Whitey’s during the late 1930s were the exception. (The same is true for the Southern California greats; the ones we know and are amazed by, not coincidentally, were the few who spent many years working hard to get their dancing to such a high level.)
However, it is worth pointing out that Harlem-style dancing did seem to look different than we expect when they danced to slower tempos. For instance, there is an interesting thing that happens to the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in “An Outline Of Jitterbug History” when they do jams at a speed much slower than we’re used to seeing them: They don’t look like trademark Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers anymore.
For instance, watch the clip, and see if it looks like the same group of dancers that did Hellzapoppin’? (It was, filmed on the same trip to California.) Even Frankie himself looks very different from his faster dancing, and his social dancing later in life.
A good example of up-tempo, very social-looking dancing. Note too how few moves and footwork variation there was. It looks like there are only four different moves being done on the entire dance floor. (And no Charleston moves.)
Most of the Savoy Ballroom probably looked more like the dance floor in this clip than it did the dance floor of Keep Punching.
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
This may look familiar. In a way that might seem contradictory at first, the heavily stylized choreography evokes a very social feeling about what a night’s dancing was about. And the throw over the table is pretty sweet.
Jivin’ N’ Be-Bop (1946)
This film has always struck me as interesting because of the crispness and style of the follower’s swivels. They have almost a Southern-California look to them and are different from every other swivels on this list and those of the Whitey’s.
The Spirit Moves (1950)
This list wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t take a look at the 1950’s Savoy ballroom dancers. Many of them are showing off their stuff in this film clip.
The Lindy Hop here is very different than the Lindy Hop of Frankie Manning, for instance.
One of the simple but important differences is that most of these dancers are wearing leather-soled shoes. Leather shoes offer less grip but in doing so allow for more pivoting and rotation. Sneakers are the opposite. (The Whitey’s started wearing sneakers in around 1938 and it altered their dancing, allowing for the kind of strong linear movement they were using in Hellzapoppin’, for instance.)
It’s very inspiring to me that these clips in many ways present a different idea of Lindy Hop than do Frankie and the Whitey’s — more rotation, dancers spending more time in place, and what appears to be a favoring of solo interaction with partners over partnered-connection interaction — but it is still Lindy Hop. The Spirit Moves opened my eyes to how wide the world of Lindy Hop is.
(Nathan Bugh, who dances very much in the spirit of The Spirit Moves, had a fantastic and inspirational talk on this very subject at Lindy Focus 2013.)
There are several reasons why we in the modern day have focused so much on the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, why almost every Lindy Hopper has seen Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’, but only a few have probably seen Spirit of Youth or Juke Joint.
The most important reason being that the Whitey’s were the most practiced, the most organized, the most performative, the most creative, and the most exciting — so it makes sense that we pay the most attention to by far the best group.
There is a much broader world of Lindy Hop out there, however, than people know if they only see Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’ films. For instance, our modern today is so dynamic partly because we have combined our inspirations of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers with those of the Southern California dancers, and all the additional things we have added to it as a scene. And I think we can make it even more dynamic — and more true to its original spirit — by simply seeing what Lindy Hop meant to others, like in the clips above.