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Happy 80th Birthday, Beach Clip!

September 6, 2018

This month, and most likely this weekend, marks the 80th year since “the Beach Clip” took place. What is the Beach Clip, you might be asking? It’s this:

While we’re at it, let’s answer a few other questions.

Where was the clip filmed?

The clip was filmed at Venice Beach, one of several popular beaches of the Los Angeles/Southern California coast. The dancers are most likely dancing on a beach-side parking lot that has a lot of sand on it. (One of the pictures of them dancing shows a car parked on the edge, and the large logs the sunbathers are sitting on would have been the type of thing to border a parking lot.)

Why was it filmed?

Most likely, the clip was an advertisement for one of the large swing dance contests in California. Several such contests occurred throughout the late 1930s and were so big they were held in stadiums. The photographs from this shoot reference an upcoming contest (see below), however they never mention an official name for it. The dancers dancing were likely a type of “living billboard” for newspaper photo journalists, news reels, and perhaps pedestrians. Couple Dancing on Clear Floor

We know of at least one way the footage featured on those short news film clips that they used to show before a movie.

The shots filmed from underneath the dancers were probably made by a special camera truck or platform with a glass roof (see picture).

What dances are they doing in the clip?

One couple is doing what we today call Collegiate Shag. Three other couples are doing what they would have called Swing, a native swing dance of California that was very popular before New York-style Lindy Hop took over in the years soon after this. This “Swing,” as you can see, is a dance characterized by a loose and relaxed “ballroom” style position, which involves quick rotational turning (rather than linear movement) and lots of footwork expression (with a little head and shoulders thrown in).

Some dancers in southern California took this “Swing” dance and added in Pure Balboa steps, creating what we call Bal-Swing today. (Though there is a tiny amount of chest-to-chest dancing from Hal and Betty that could be a sign of this Pure Bal influence, there are no obvious Pure Balboa steps in the Beach Clip.)

 

Who is in the clip?

The Collegiate Shag couple are Connie Wydell and possibly a partner named Barbara Plum he danced with often, though we aren’t 100% sure. Wydell came to LA from North Carolina, and according to original LA dancer Roy Damron, his style of shag dancing really impressed people when he showed up in town.

The Swing couple with the leader in the white top and black pants and the follower in the white dress with the black sash/belt are the famous Hal Takier and Betty Takier, one of the greatest known LA jitterbug couples of all time.

The couple in all white are Genevieve Grazis and Jack Helwig. And the final couple with the follower in the dark satin dress and the tall leader in the sweater vest are an unknown follower and Dick Landry.

What happened to these dancers after the clip?

Connie later learned Lindy and is in several notable clips—he is especially known among clip geeks for a move we call the “Dance Hall” spin that he does in different ways throughout his dancing in film, which is interesting, because not a lot of those original dancers changed their moves up as much as he did. It’s also a pretty awesome move. (The link should take you right to it.)

Betty and Hal continued to refine their dancing, winning many contests and dancing in many noteworthy clips, the most notable being Maharaja. Not wanting to dance like anyone else, they would take the inspiration of dance steps and make them their own. So,  for instance, even though they learned Lindy, Hal invented his own style of swing-out. Hal’s second wife, Marge Takier, learned Hal and Betty’s unique way of swing dancing and proved an incredible dancer in her own right.

In the years after this clip was filmed, Genevieve Grazis changed her name to Jenny Gray to pursue acting and dancing in film. (Her parents were Lithuanian, and it was, and still is, common for people interested in a career in Hollywood to create a more striking, and also less “ethnic”-sounding, stage name.) She performed in many Lindy Hop film clips with partner Johnny Duncan. She gave up acting and dancing upon her first marriage.

We don’t know much about Jack Helwig, except we have discovered him in a couple other clips, where he does some Lindy and a little Swing, though nothing that highlights his twisty-footed style of Swing anywhere close to what is shown in the Beach Clip.

Dick Landry apparently was in several film’s dance scenes but is not easily identified.

As far as we know, none of these dancers are still alive today, and we know for a fact that Hal, Betty, and Genevieve have passed away.

What’s this about the Beach Clip dress being rediscovered?

Thanks to swing historian Jennifer Halsne, who carried on interviewing Genevieve’s son after Swungover first contacted him several years ago, the white dress from the Beach Clip has returned to the swing scene. We are happy to announce it will soon be part of the Pacific Swing Dance Foundation‘s preserved collections. (What is the Pacific Swing Dance Foundation, you might task? A new non-profit organization founded by Laura Keat and Jason Swihart that will preserve and archive material related to the history of swing dance as it has developed in the Western U.S., to insure it is passed down to future generations. If this sounds important to you, please consider donating.)

Beach Clip Dress - 3.jpg

We made a film about the dress that you can see here. (Dear vintage clothes lovers, don’t despair. The dress was worn only in carefully supervised situations for only two demonstrations, and the PSDF will have it professionally preserved.)

By the way, you can purchase skirts and dresses patterned from the Venice Beach dress at Loco Lindo — and, if for some reason you needed further justification to purchase such a thing, a portion of all proceeds goes to the Frankie Manning Foundation. The “Venice Beach Skirt” is already available online, and the “Venice Beach Dress,” which debuted this last weekend at Camp Hollywood, will be available online soon.

 

How do we know the date of the clip?

Journalists who photographed this film shoot dated their photographs, which have been archived . There were two different dates marked, though we have no reason to believe there were two separate shoots, leading us to believe there is an error involved: One date given was September 8, 1938 (a Thursday), the other, September 13, 1938 (a Tuesday). One date given on Critical Past’s website for the newsreel is September 7, 1938 (a Wednesday). Two other photographs simply say “9/1938.” So, at the very least, the filming took place in September 1938. We recommend celebrating whichever day this month works best for you to wear all white and/or dance at the beach.

Jitterbugging on Venice Beach, 1938

08 Sep 1938, Venice, Los Angeles, California, USA — 9/8/1938- Venice, CA: Swinging in the sandtime…on the sandy beach of Venice, CA, the jitterbugs have foregathered to put on one of the world’s greatest swing jamborees. Some of the best in the country have entered in the California championships for all classes of jittery jitterbugs. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Before all of this stock photography and stock footage started being so well-cataloged on the internet over the last few years, we had nothing but clues of fashion and dance style to give us a very rough estimate, and it didn’t help that the beach clip footage was often mislabeled or mis-dated.

This stock footage was either reused or mislabeled as having happened in 1941, and one stock footage sight even labels it as coming from the 1950s. (Contemporary film clips show us the 1941 dance floors (and/or sandy parking lots) of LA would have looked pretty different, as many dancers were dancing Lindy by that point.)

What does the clip sound like?

To hear high-definition audio from the clip, check out the individual snippets of the clip posted on Getty images here (1 of 5). And 2 of 5. And 3 of 5. And 4 of 5. And 5 of 5.

You’ll hear the sound of shuffling leather shoes on sandy concrete, giggling and hooting, and even the sound of one of the dancers humming “Three Little Words,” making their own music while they danced. There are a few tantalizing statements spoken, but I have not been able to make them out clearly, except for Hal Takier saying loudly “Are we gonna move on?”

Why is the Beach Clip important?

BEach Clip celebration

Dancers of the recent Venice Beach Clip presentation at Camp Hollywood 2018, with (L to R) Valerie Salstrom, Jeremy Otth, Laura Keat, Augie Freeman, Beth Grover, Chris Grover, Tise Chao, and Nick Williams.

A few reasons. First off, it’s iconic in its uniqueness: teenagers throwing down near a beach in LA with nothing but the sound of shuffling feet as the soundtrack. The circumstances of the clip itself makes it stick in people’s memories.

When we discussed what these dancers did next after this clip, you may have noticed a theme: Everyone we know of in this clip went on to learn Lindy in some capacity and had it influence their dancing. One of the neat things about the Beach Clip is that it shows Southern California’s regional swing dancing before Lindy would change these dancers forever.

The clip also has very special place in the Bal scene’s heart: Most of our footage of Bal-Swing comes from the dance as it was later, matured — we have a few hours of footage of Bal-Swing dancers in their 60s-90s dancing a smooth, sophisticated, elegant swing dance during the age of the camcorder.

However, there’s very little footage of Bal-Swing from the original era. By the time the film industry really started filming a lot of dance scenes in the 40s, the Lindy was the popular dance. So in a way, these few minutes constitute the bulk of our early Bal-Swing-ish dancing on film. Without it, there would only be the few, teasingly short snippets of the dance from the swing era.

And, thankfully for us, the Beach Clip shows the early Swing of Bal-Swing in all of its excitement — sliding, snapping, swinging, shimmying, and wild in a good way. Sleight-of-hand fancy turns, partner tricks, head tossing. And even the strangeness of some of it to the modern swing dancer — the dancing with heels off the ground, the devil-may-care twisty footwork, the sing-songy pulse — brings constant inspiration to us in ways no other clips have.

For the modern Bal scene, the Beach Clip has always been, and will always be, a jaunty reminder of what is possible when we put “Swing” in our Bal-Swing.

 

Special thanks to editor Chelsea Lee, and historians Nick Williams and David Rehm for being so giving in sharing their knowledge with me over the years.

(Please note: I had to make a few changes after Chelsea edited it. If there’s a mistake, assume it’s mine, not hers. And yes, assume this for all articles.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 6, 2018 9:07 pm

    Thanks for this updated info! I’m celebrating in black and white this Friday 😉

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