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The Mysterious History of the Tranky Doo

September 25, 2017

Al Minns showing off one of the Tranky Doo steps.

Along with the Shim-Sham and the Big Apple, the Tranky Doo completes the holy trinity of the original swing-era jazz routines. But whereas the histories of the Shim-Sham and the Big Apple are pretty well-known or easily found, modern dancers tend to know less about the history of the Tranky Doo. This post hopes to solve that problem.

The First Tranky Doo

It has floated around the scene for years that Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Pepsi Bethel invented the Tranky Doo. However, the legendary Frankie Manning describes inventing the choreography in his and Cynthia Millman’s book “Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop.” Here’s the basic story.

In the mid-1940s, Frankie and his performance group, The Congaroos, liked to add different flavors to their performances with non-Lindy Hop numbers. There was a chorus girl in a club in Chicago who was given the special honorof being the last chorus girl to leave the stage. The last chorus girl in line would often show off a little step before exiting, and this particular chorus girl’s show-off step was a fall-off-the-log into a shuffle into boogies. This chorus girl’s nickname was Tranky Doo.

Frankie took this step, used it as the first move of his routine, and then added to it, naming the routine after his inspiration. Frankie’s “routine” — he wouldn’t use the word “choreography” until the 1980s — was two choruses long. This is important, and will come up again. The routine was originally done to the song Tuxedo Junction.

In his book, Frankie further discusses how, when he and his fellow Congaroos would go social dancing at the Savoy, they’d do the routine there, and others caught on and soon it had spread to the social dancers of the Savoy. Here is a 1947 clip of former Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers Tops & Wilda performing the Tranky Doo, very close to the time of its creation. The first clip shows clearly the first chorus of the routine we have come to know and love:

However, a clip of them further dancing a second chorus shows a few differences with the choreography as we know it:

Was this the Frankie original, or did Tops & Wilda change it for their own choreography? I would conjecture this is the Frankie original — since they did the first 3/5 of it the way it’s done in every other vintage clip of the Tranky Doo, I can’t think of a reason why’d they change the final 2/5, especially when the changed part still has pieces of the Tranky Doo as we still do it.

So, these clips together might very well be the original Tranky Doo.

The “Spirit” Doo

In the 1950s, a Russian-born filmmaker named Mura Dehn came to the Savoy Ballroom to document American Black dance for a film project that would be called “The Spirit Moves.” She asked many of the Whitey’s dancers to take part in her project. Though Frankie was filmed for a brief amount of time, he was not interested in continuing to work with the project. Several of the other Whitey’s dancers, though, were. Three of them — Al Minns, Leon James, and Pepsi Bethel — performed the Tranky Doo for her, also ending at two choruses.

The result would be the primary source for breaking down the choreography as we do it today.

Al Minns is on the left, Pepsi Bethel in the middle, and Leon James on the right.

It’s important to know that the song “Dipsy Doodle” is dubbed over the film. We don’t know if that is the original song they danced to for the filming, — it may very well be, since it seems to be the exact same tempo, but because of its bridges and blues structure, it’s a strange choice for a choreography based on a basic AABA swing-song structure. (This is my veiled attempt to get dancers to try dancing the Tranky Doo to songs other than “Dipsy Doodle” when they want to do it at a dance, which will also allow different parts of the Tranky Doo choreography to be emphasized. Adapting the movement of the steps to different music is when the routine truly lives, in my opinion. “Chant of the Groove,” by Fats Waller, for instance, is a great song to dance it to. Peter Strom has used Graptown Grapple in his classes.)

Also might be good to know that the Spirit Moves title card says “Trunky doo.” This is almost certainly a mishearing or mispelling — on the same card they call Willa Mae Ricker “William” and imply that she is Frankie Manning’s wife (she wasn’t), and mix up the order of that dance with the California routine clip. They were not detail-oriented filmakers.

A Strange Ending

“Well, that explains the first two choruses,” you’re saying. “But what about the six box steps and entire phrase of shouts and knee slaps?”

Whenever I teach the Tranky Doo, I often joke that if you didn’t know its history, you’d think the first two choruses were choreographed with painstaking detail, and the last was choreographed when the dancers realized they had spent too much time on the first two and were late to teach it to the group.

Our ending for the Tranky Doo as it’s done on the modern dance floor is first shown in this clip of Al and Leon performing for one of their many television appearances with historian Marshall Stearns on the history of jazz and jazz dance.

Perform jazz dance with another person to live music enough, and there will come a time when you have to choreograph something super-fast, perhaps even while the song is playing (like when the band decides to play one more chorus than expected). We don’t know for sure whether this is the reason for the long, simple third chorus to the Tranky Doo choreography as it came to be, but I would not be surprised if the box-step-and-shout ending was Al and Leon’s quick-and-easy addition to make the routine longer for a performance.

Regardless, it’s part of the choreography now and is a great opportunity for variation and showcasing individualism. And at the very least, it gives you a chance to rest before doing the choreography again.

The “Frankie” Doo

In his later life, Frankie changed and added to the Tranky Doo. Many call this version the “Frankie Doo.” (But don’t let that make you forget that the original and the one we do today is also mostly the “Frankie Doo” because he choreographed the bulk of it.) Here’s the New York Swing Dance Society performing the longer choreography:


 
 

Did Frankie mind it that the Tranky Doo had changed over the years? Not as long as it “stayed in the same groove,” according to his book. “For Frankie it was alright for routines to change and change again. That is Jazz,” said Judy Pritchett, a swing-dance historian and Frankie’s longtime companion. “Frankie was alternately amused and appalled by attempts to codify steps and routines by the modern generation. Remember, he didn’t have to worry about accuracy or authenticity, that came naturally. All he had to do was his Frankie thing.”

I witnessed this first hand; having taken two or three Big Apple classes from Frankie in the early 2000s, he taught the “choreography” differently every time.

So, there you have it. Even though there’s still some mystery to the Tranky Doo, we’ve hopefully cleared up some of it. And the mystery that remains just shows how the dance moves and shapes and changes in unknowable ways, remaining a dance touched by who knows how many invisible hands.

Special thanks to Michael Jagger, for the article’s inspiration, and Judy Pritchett and Margaret Batiuchok for their input.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2017 5:31 pm

    So that leaves me with the question of how you reconcile the claim that Pepsi Bethel choreographed it? You mention rumor, but said rumor was strong enough to make it to the Wikipedia article – where did this rumor come from? Of course Wikipedia doesn’t list a citation (#citationneeded) and I hate to speculate (which is easy to do given the facts here), but do you have any substantiated information about why Pepsi would claim credit or why someone with authority would attribute the choreography to Pepsi?

    • Bobby permalink*
      September 25, 2017 8:03 pm

      Great question. And, to be honest, one I will have to investigate further to give a good answer.

      I actually tried to stay away from the word “rumor” in the post on purpose — I felt it carries too much the implication of being intentionally misleading or historically negligent. I wanted to allow for what normally happens in the scene — a game of telephone, where facts change after they go through a number of people. Our history of the dance is so oral sometimes, this is bound to happen. But I don’t know for sure. I’ll let you know what I find.

      I didn’t mention it in the article, but I believe the claim that Frankie was the choreographer, not just because he explained so specifically the story in his book, but because the choreography (1) includes very specific chunks of the Big Apple verbatim and, (2) the choreography *feels* very similar in the other move choices and flow of moves. (for instance, the use of boogie backs, hallelujahs/rocks, apple jacks, the moving forward and back as a constant major dynamic) Of course, one could argue that that feeling could have been a part of other whitey’s choreography styling, like the young Pepsi Bethel (at that time, I think he was pretty young), but the feeling is just another piece of evidence that Frankie’s story + the big apple parts + the flow of the piece would lead me to gamble he was the choreographer.

      I’ll investigate the Pepsi-as-choreographer charge.

      • September 26, 2017 12:30 am

        That would be awesome, I am genuinely interested because of Pepsi’s being from Greensboro and any influence coming from NC may have had on the Tranky Doo if he did choreograph it. Thank you for all the information and your thoroughness!

  2. Vincent Kruse permalink
    September 25, 2017 5:51 pm

    I was wondering if there is a reason (or what the reason is) for the Tranky Doo and The Shim Sham to start with the right foot on the 8.

    • Bobby permalink*
      September 25, 2017 8:26 pm

      I hope an expert on early jazz dance/music will be able to answer this better (I’m more of a swing-era dance expert who dabbles in the early jazz stuff.) I will ask around, but until then, here is my possibly wrong answer.

      (Also note, The Big Apple as well starts on 8, as do most non-Charleston jazz steps, and most swing outs, if you count the stomp-off.)

      The First thing of importance is that many of the dancers of the era didn’t often care about counts. They felt weak beats and strong beats, and when a phrase or melody was starting (which jazz music usually makes pretty obvious.)

      In early jazz the strong beats tend to be 1-3-5-7, the off-beats 2-4-6-8. In jazz music and dance, the weak beats have always been an interesting place. At some point, perhaps from the beginning, people realized it felt good to clap on the even beats when clapping along.

      In jazz terms, the start of a phrase or melody line just before the phrase starts is called a pickup. Think of that like the musical equivolent of a stomp off. IT happens all the time in jazz music.

      So far, this is all to say that jazz dancers not thinking about count [1] may naturally start their steps on the [8] before a phrase naturally just cause the music often might tell them to. The music kind of ‘skips’ into the phrase, and so dancers will skip into the phrase as well. Again, it’s why it’s so satisfying to stomp-off to start a swing-out.

      Now, specifically, starting steps on [8] is, as far as I know, a tap tradition before there was Lindy Hop, but which the Lindy Hoppers adopted in their solo dancing. This is my understanding through talking with people over the years, though I am happy to yield to better evidence-based argumentsif they prove me wrong.

      And, as I said, I will search for some better answers or at least harder evidence of this.

  3. September 26, 2017 12:27 pm

    Hi! Can I translate this piece to feature it, with credit of course, on our school’s blog? (blog.swingtiago.com)

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