Swing History 101: The Golden Age of Harlem Lindy Hop (1935-1942)
Setting “The Scene”
As we discussed in the last episode, as the ’20s passed into the ’30s the new “swing” sound was evolving away from the hot jazz of the 1920s. Bands were smoothing out their rhythm into a steady, rolling-thunder beat. Drum sets were getting more drums and cymbals, and bands were getting more musicians and creating sections with them. They were also using more written arrangements that countered the sections off of each other in growing sophistication.
In the 1930s, the neighborhoods above New York’s Central Park, known as Harlem, became a hot spot for the new swing sound.
Clubs and bandstands littered Harlem, making it a destination not only for locals but for people all over the five boroughs and tourists from outside the city. The biggest of these clubs was called the Savoy Ballroom, at 141st Street and 7th Avenue. It took up an entire block length and had a sign that read “The Home of Happy Feet.” This integrated ballroom was the mecca of Harlem social dancing night life and where visitors of all races expected to see the Lindy Hop being done by the best of the best. Many visitors, knowing of the Savoy Hotel in London, pronounced it the “SAV-oy.” But if you were in the know, you pronounced it “Sa-VOY.”
The first real “King of Swing” was a short, slumped, slightly disfigured band leader who was barely visible behind his giant bass drum. But he never let his size keep him from being heard. His name was Chick Webb, and he led the bandstand at the Savoy.
The Second Generation
The first great generation of Lindy Hoppers danced in front of Chick’s drums at the Savoy in the late 20s and throughout the 30s — dancers like Shorty George and Big Bea. A spot near the stage where tourists and locals alike could gape at the best dancers showing off was known as “The Corner” (the name “The Cat’s Corner” reportedly came later). And by the mid-30s, the next generation started pushing themselves into The Corner and to make Lindy Hop their own. These young men and women had names like Frankie Manning, Willa Mae Ricker, Leon James, Al Minns, Ann Johnson, and Norma Miller.
They were mostly teenagers, which is important. They were young and carefree and had plenty of free time to practice and play with the dance. They dressed and acted like teenagers. They were the first people in the world to grow up with the Lindy Hop. They were wild, they were entertaining, and they were getting good.Among the Savoy’s management staff was a man with a white streak in his hair notorious for his street smarts. His name was Herbert White, better known by his nickname Whitey, and he soon realized that the Lindy Hop had a great deal of potential as a performance entertainment, and the younger dancers had a great deal of potential as cheap labor.
With the club’s permission, he started Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, taking the young dancers under his wing. His hustling personality just so happened to make him perfect for starting a company of performance dancers. He knew how to work people off of each other, and so before long he had the most talented dancers practicing hours a day at the Savoy, stealing moves from the social dancing at night, teaching each other their strengths, and showing off in The Corner for attention. He put the strong and charismatic Frankie Manning, probably his most-all-around-gifted dancer, in charge of putting together their performance numbers.
We will discuss Frankie Manning in greater detail later; however, we have to re-mention a story we discussed in the last chapter of this history, because it deals with these teenagers taking the baton from the first generation in almost a single moment. In the mid-1930s [1936?], in a contest against Shorty George himself, Frankie Manning reportedly took his partner into a new step he had developed that mimicked one of Shorty George’s where his partner would walk him off on her back: Instead of walking his partner off on his back, however, Frankie went all the way and flipped his partner over his back. In this contest, surprising everyone, he did the first known air-step in Lindy Hop.
The silence that followed before the crowd erupted into cheers was the sound of a dance changing forever. The very next day, Manning strutted into the ballroom to teach his air-step to the other Whitey’s dancers. They soon began making up dozens of their own air-steps, and to this day if you say “swing dancing” to an average person, they probably imagine people flipping each other in the air.
Once the first generation had moved over, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers took off. One could argue this is also roughly the time that Lindy Hop finally split into two distinctly separate dances: Lindy Hop the social dance and Lindy Hop the performance dance. Now, it’s important to note that Lindy Hop had always had elements of both, being born on dance floors with jam circles and from cultures with circle shouts. But with air-steps, and the other performance refinements Whitey’s dancers would soon bring to the dance, a specific species of performance Lindy Hop had appeared.
It didn’t help that, starting in 1935, New York’s biggest dance contest started a Lindy Hop division.
The Harvest Moon Ball took place in Madison Square Garden and was a night full of waltz, rumba, tango, and other dances. In the first Lindy Hop division, Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Leon James and Edith Mathews broke every rule in the contest and took first place. Other Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers took the other placements. For every year after the Lindy Hop division was the crowd favorite, and the contest quickly became an all-out throw-down of air-steps, wild moves, and choreographed shenanigans. Seeing the opportunity of such great press, and feeling a great deal of pride for his ballroom and his team, Whitey made it a goal to have his couples win the Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Hop competition — all placements — as much as possible, which they always fought hard for.
The Silent Majority
The Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were becoming the best Lindy Hoppers in the world. But Lindy Hop started off as a social dance, and for most Lindy Hoppers in Harlem, it was still first and foremost a social dance.
A night at the Savoy would go like this: Everyone would get dressed up to the nines. Upon entering the ballroom, they would take the stairs to the second story, where two bandstands stood side by side. One band would start playing right when the other band stopped playing a set, giving the room continuous live music. The dance floor was only about a third of the space; the rest was chairs, bars, and booths; the Savoy was a social club. Lots of people talking, drinking, flirting, laughing, having an evening out. Lines of famously attractive “taxi dancer” hostesses waited for men to purchase dances with them. In the booths celebrities could often be seen.
The band would play a variety of songs — a few ballads and waltzes, but mostly swing. During the ballads, everyone would do simple slow dancing, or ballroomin’. The dirtier “slow drag” would usually be reserved for rent parties or later at night. (There’s a rich history to those slower Blues dances as well, but I will leave that up to those much more knowledgeable about the subject.) During the fastest swing songs, some daring souls might attempt to Lindy Hop, but most would do a walking dance called The Peabody that would travel around the floor. Some people would race. (The long, thin ballroom floor surrounded on 3 sides by seats, and the sight of Peabody dances and racing, are what inspired one of the ballroom’s nicknames, “The Track.”)
Many people would go to the club to watch the “wild” Lindy Hoppers, including celebrities. During many of the swing songs, the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers would dance along the edges of the ballroom and The Corner and show off — advertising for the performance group. Most people who socially danced Lindy Hop at the Savoy Ballroom only knew a few steps — they didn’t need to know more. (The modern intermediate dancer probably knows two or three times as many steps as the average 1930’s Harlem Lindy Hopper.) They were mainly there for the social aspects.
The Whitey’s Hit Hollywood
In 1936, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers had gigs in dance revues all over town. Frankie Manning headed Whitey’s top troupe at the Apollo, which was the sign that someone had “made it” in Black entertainment. It was during this time that Whitey got called by Hollywood for the first time, and he sent a troupe to perform in the Marx Brothers’ A Day At The Races.
Two quick things about this performance a geek Lindy Hopper should know:
1 — Norma Miller and Leon James are the second couple. Norma’s still with us today, travelling and teaching and doing talks. Leon’s the leader mentioned above, who broke all the rules and won. He was considered one of the showiest Lindy Hoppers in history and one of its greatest male stylists.
2 — The leader who does the awesome slide is named Snookie (a term that meant “sweetie”) Beasely, and that move is called his “lock-up.” Frankie talked about how they all tried and tried, but no one could ever do it as well as he could.
The Whitey’s would do a lot more over the next five years, including tours all over the world, where they would even perform for and shake hands with royalty, which were unimaginable opportunities for a group of low-income Black teenagers from this era. Norma Miller was even one of the first people ever on television when she danced for a camera at the World’s Fair in 1939.
With the success of his first troupes, Whitey began making the Savoy a factory producing dozens of couples from teenagers all over the neighborhood, including a White Jewish couple. Whitey’s factory began to annoy his top dancers, as Whitey was basically giving the new, lesser experienced dancers all of the original group’s hard-developed material. Coupled with Whitey’s cheapness and shady character, Whitey was losing a lot of trust.
During those five years, the top troupe did a few more movies and film shoots, but two of the films stand out for their importance:
In 1938 the Whitey’s did two choreographies for the film Keep Punching. The first was some simple jam dancing for a contest:
Here’s what’s important about this footage: sneakers. Simple Keds had been around for over a decade, but here for the first time, some of the Whitey’s are using them to perform in. (In photographs of the group performing from 1938 and before, they are all wearing hard leather shoes. However, in pictures afterward, there are more and more sneakers, until they seem to only wear sneakers by the early 40s.)
Perhaps it was because they used them when practicing air-steps, or perhaps it’s just because they were teenagers and they liked wearing sneakers, or a combination of these and other factors, but this began to change the dance — sneakers allowed for more purchase but less pivoting, and so the dancing became more linear, more “stretchy,” more athletic. Less slipping meant they could dance cleaner at higher speeds. More cushioning meant they could do more air-steps safely. And it meant performance Lindy Hop was beginning to separate even more from social Lindy Hop. (A telling story occurs in Maclom X’s autobiography, where he talks about his younger days as a Lindy Hopper: When at a social dance, his partner would change out of her heels and into sneakers for the dance contest.)
Another important thing was that teenage women were wearing shorter skirts now that stopped right above the knee rather than below it. This also allowed for easier air-steps and more athletic dancing from the followers.
The second choreography the Whitey’s did for Keep Punching was The Big Apple. Whitey had heard about a popular new dance craze being done at a club called “The Big Apple” in South Carolina (which is currently owned by a Lindy Hopper, by the way). The dance was simple — people stand in a circle and do solo dance steps that someone calls out. Whitey described it to Frankie, who created a choreography based on the idea — which is now a favorite group solo-jazz choreography in the modern dance scene.
The final, and most important, choreography in Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers career came in 1941, for an otherwise strange and silly movie called Hellzapoppin’. Frankie, the lead choreographer for this piece, was looking to take the group’s performances to the next level. Choosing the team’s best dancers, he put them on a regimented practice schedule, and when the time came to perform the routine for cameras, he asked them to do it at a breakneck speed. The result is the group’s masterpiece.
You can tell what a difference the years of practice and refinement had made in the five years since Day At The Races — the dancing in Hellzapoppin’ is more efficient in its mechanics, more precise in its execution, and with a much greater number of air steps that were now more powerful and impressive. (Not to by any means knock the joyful and raw spirit of their earlier work.) And yet they both still showcase the great joy of swing dancing, which thankfully the Whitey’s never lost.
The dancers also saw a lot of change in themselves. They had gone from being “raggedy kids” in the showbiz world to being a well-honed professional act. In doing so, many of them became disillusioned with Whitey, feeling he had blatantly exploited them. Even had the Japanese not bombed Pearl Harbor, thus bringing America into a war which would draft most of the Whitey’s men into service, the group’s top dancers probably would not have stuck around much longer.
But, by 1943, most of Whitey’s men were in the military, and the troupe was more or less no more. And with it, Harlem would have to wait until after the war before a new generation would grow up at Savoy and take the reins of Lindy Hop.
Further Reading & Viewing
Special thanks to Nathan Bugh for his insight into some aspects of this article.