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This continues our series on the history of swing era dances for beginner dancers. In Part One, we discussed the terms “Bal-Swing,” “Swing” and “Balboa” and their origins. This is Part Two of Southern California swing era dance history, and these two posts are meant to be read together. For extra geeking out, check out the footnotes.
We know of two different, important times when New York Lindy Hop came to SoCal and truly influenced the dancing there.
The first is when Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers first started coming to Hollywood in 1937. When in town for film shoots and performances, the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers would perform and social dance at Club Alabam, an integrated ballroom that specialized in Black American performances and jazz. This club, and its nearby Dunbar hotel, were part of L.A.’s “Little Harlem,” with its own rich role in Black-American history.*
Throughout the years that followed, the Whitey’s would come stay for stretches of time, and by 1941, when they were there filming Hellzapoppin’, Norma Miller mentions their “new-found friends,” whom she calls the “West Coast Lindy Hoppers.” With a little bit of help from the greatest performers in the dance, Lindy had been delivered directly to the Black American dancers of SoCal.
Unfortunately, we have very little evidence of what this Lindy Hop looked like. Even though Hollywood did put out a few films aimed towards the Black American community, we only know of one film that featured Black American SoCal Lindy Hoppers social dancing — 1943’s Cabin in the Sky.
Cabin in the Sky (1943)
The clip involves a lot of heavily-stylized (and very cool-looking) group choreography, but if you look around the edges, you’ll see some interesting social dancing (at 1:53-1:58, then at 2:50-3:05, and again at 3:12-3:20).
There’s a lot of rotation in some of the dancers. The use of linear energy seems to be in small bursts, rather than being used more as a common thread like the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers did. Some of the follower’s footwork looks more like the Venice Beach clip than anything you’d find at the Savoy ballroom. The very few swing outs on the floor look a lot more like Bal-Swing toss-outs with an identity problem.
I would conjecture that this is “Lindy Hop” via “Swing” mechanics. You can see it elsewhere in the SoCal movies — dancers who learned “Swing”/Bal-Swing first, and while they learned Lindy Hop when it came to town, they always had a “Swing” accent when they did it. To me, there are enough traits that taste of “Swing” that I’d be surprised if it weren’t a major ingredient here.**
There are also traits of SoCal’s very own Lindy style, developed over the few years before this clip, when it was first imported to the area. We’ll get into that in much more depth shortly, but here are two obvious SoCal Lindy traits they have: first, we see some send-outs, a way of going from closed to open the Harlem dancers didn’t do very much but that the SoCal dancers loved. Second, several of the followers “sit” into their swivels in a way that is the SoCal Lindy follower equivalent of a Southern drawl.
Yet they definitely dance more like New York Lindy Hoppers than the other SoCal Lindy dancers we know of did (as you will see). This was perhaps the mark of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers being around these dancers more when they were in town.***
All in all, I think we can consider the dancing in this clip a unique example of what a melting pot of three of our favorite swing-era dances — New York Lindy, SoCal Lindy, and “Swing”/Bal-Swing — might have looked like. And they even threw in some Shag on the side for us.
By the way, according to historian Peter Loggins, the leader who throws his partner over the table is a dancer named Ricky Burch. Furthermore, Loggins says, he was a roommate of Connie Wydell. Clearly, some of the dancers of this time were comfortable enough with people of other races that they were happy to live together. (It’s also fitting as he does shag which he might have learned with Wydell’s help.)
The other important missionary of New York Lindy was a permanent fixture. Sometime around 1937, a Jewish dancer from New Jersey named Sol Rudusky came to L.A. in hopes of being in films. He came with a New York style of Lindy Hop closer to the rhythmic, fast-footed dancing style of first generation great Shorty George in “See Uncle Sol,” than the Charleston and air step-heavy performance Lindy Hop the younger Whitey’s were developing at the time.
By his own account, he came upon a lost wallet one day. The billfold had a driver’s license in it that said Dean Collins — and Sol adopted it as his screen name.
By this time, there were apparently some dancers of Lindy among the SoCal dancers, but the New York champion was not impressed. There was one problem, though. Dean had come from New York without a partner. Since almost none of the California dancers had ever really learned New York style Lindy, he had to draw one from the hundreds of “Swing” followers around. Though he worked with a few different partners at first, he was soon working almost exclusively with an elegant and fierce dancer named Jewel McGowan, and started teaching her his “Lindy.” (The SoCal dancers almost exclusively called it just “The Lindy” or “Lindy,” and indeed many New Yorkers, like Shorty George himself, did as well.)
Rather than try to make Jewel exactly like the followers in New York, the partnership developed their Lindy in ways that used a lot of Jewel’s “Swing” mechanics, and therefore, there was a lot more rotational force at work in their dancing than we see from New York Lindy followers. Jewel used these rotational mechanics in almost everything she did, including allowing them to shape her swivels into a dramatic, powerful twist — Jewel’s swivels are pretty much unanimously considered the best swivels that ever existed by her SoCal dance peers.
Furthermore, Dean had a strong open-position stretch, and to counter it, the slight Jewel would bring her feet forward and sit away from him. They developed this as something they could hold for several counts at a time — for example, as long as the partnership wanted to do swivels for — and they mastered how to do it very dramatically. It took a lot of energy, but it was perfect to throw down in jams, or when the camera was on them in movies. We call this trait, especially in the sustained way Dean and Jewel used it, counterbalance. You can see that in the picture of Dean and Jewel above. Look at Jewel’s posture — her feet are in front of her. If Dean were to let go, she’d fall backwards.
You can also see it in their most famous clip, Buck Privates.
Buck Privates (1941)
In a way, this clip is considered the debut of Dean and Jewel, even though they had been dancing together for a few years by this point. But this clip, one of their earliest, beautifully showcase their unique style of Lindy Hop — one that inspired almost every other SoCal Lindy couple to come after.
When Jewel McGowan became a Lindy Hopper, creating this new set of mechanics and interpretations of the dance, a new branch of the Lindy Hop family tree began to grow. And over time it would become one of the biggest and most influential branches coming from the trunk of Lindy Hop. It reaches every Lindy Hopper today, many of whom don’t realize how much, and in how many subtle ways. As you watch the dancing in this article, we think you’ll start to see what we mean.
With Dean and Jewel as the main models for this new Lindy style, the Southern California dancers began learning it either by asking them about it, or by stealing it. Though none of them would ever be able to duplicate Jewel’s incredible (and difficult) swivels, or truly nail the way Dean and Jewel used counterbalance, it didn’t stop hundreds of dancers from doing a pale imitation. (Which you can see among the other dancers in Buck Privates.)
By the early 1940s, however, a small group of SoCal’s new Lindy dancers — including Irene Thomas, Jean Veloz, and Lenny Smith — had taken the basic ideas of Dean and Jewel, developed and perfected their own versions of this new Southern California-style Lindy, and turned it into a new generation of inspiring, unique Lindy Hop voices. This happened right around the time the movies started putting a swing dance scene in any flick with a teenage dance or a soldier in it, of which there were about to be many.
One of them, Swing Fever, gave Jean Veloz and Lenny Smith (the sailor in the clip below) a chance to dramatically show off their own takes on SoCal Lindy.
Swing Fever (1943)
As you can clearly see, Jean is a very expressive and inventive follower. Along with her best friend Irene Thomas, the two were responsible for dozens of variations and moves that are still replicated, revised, and reinvented today, including Irene’s famous “quick-stop” turn. (By the way, this isn’t saying Harlem follower’s weren’t expressive; they were very expressive. But we don’t really get to see how expressive they were at this tempo, because when Harlem followers were on film, they were mostly speed dancing at 300BPM and flying through the air half the time.)
By the early ’40s, almost all of the SoCal swing dancing highlighted in film was SoCal’s own style of Lindy.**** But individualism was still highly prized by a lot of the dancers — as you can see in the clip Twice Blessed.
Twice Blessed (1945)
This clip is a great example of the variety found in SoCal dancing at the time. Aside from all the background dancing that shows Bal-Swing and Lindy, three highlighted couples — Hal Takier and Alice Scott (doing everything-and-the-kitchen-sink “Swing”), Lenny and Kay Smith, and Wally and Mousie Albright — all dance differently from one another but still throw down.
Screen vs Scene
It can be easy to look at the old movie clips of SoCal dancers and think that the dance floor was pretty, well, White. And certainly White Americans were the majority. (Though this is more complicated than it looks, as we shall see.)
When we watch this footage, we have to remember Hollywood maintained a White mainstream-friendly, racially-biased attitude in everything they filmed. And the movie industry is our major source for preservation of the swing era’s dancing. So when the movie industry failed to seek out non-White ethnic SoCal groups for dancing in films, their dancing was not preserved. The movies of the era also tended to stick to the kind of swing music that had a wide appeal, which was a more novelty style of swing.
All of this is to say, the movies’ white-washed dance floors and cheesy music don’t quite paint a realistic picture of what a night on the SoCal dance floor could look like.
For instance, look closely at this photograph from the 1939 International Jitterbug Championships in L.A.:
So, what was real dancing life like compared to the “reel” life seen in movies?
As we mentioned in the previous article, the dance floors of Southern California were integrated. And we know for a fact there were groups of Black Americans who danced on them.
Recall how original dancer Roy Damron said his group of friends would often travel to the Black neighborhoods to attend their dances, and the Black American dancers would be at other dances. Roy said “They did everything we did, but looser.” — In the context of that conversation, this meant “Swing,” Shag and Lindy, Jigtrot and Balboa. When asked if the dancers of color did Balboa, Damron said “Everyone did Balboa.” It’s how you danced to the really fast songs. Damron mentioned specifically dancers of color doing “New York dancing,” which was Lindy, or at the very least trick-heavy dancing as seen in the Harvest Moon Ball news reel clips (and perhaps a sign of the influence of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers occasionally coming through town as we discussed above).
We do not currently have evidence that a notable population of Latinx Americans or Asian Americans danced in large groups on those same integrated floors in the ’30s. Though there is evidence Latinx individuals danced at the dances, and that, furthermore, Latinx swing dancers had their own communities.
We also know that Californian Japanese Americans were dancing swing dances in WWII internment camps (an unfortunate piece of American history where the government uprooted more than a hundred thousand West Coast Japanese Americans and put them in prison camps during the war). And, Asian Americans most likely had their own individual communities of swing dancing in SoCal before the war as well. (All of this is still being researched by the modern scene, and there are almost certainly are answers out there that haven’t been dug up yet.)
We also currently have almost no evidence of what these Latinx American and Asian American communities of dancers would have danced like in the pre-war era, except that there is no reason to think it wasn’t heavily influenced by all the swing dancing they could see around SoCal.
By the 1940s, the White-dominated movie industry seemed to view swing dancing as falling in two different categories — one was Black American performance entertainment, like acrobats, and the other, a popular, generic White American teenage hobby. If Black Americans were dancing in mainstream films, it was sadly often in a racially-manipulated context, like the Whitey’s dressed as servants in “Hellzapoppin.” If Whites were dancing in films, it was usually depicted at a social dance where drama or comedy could take place — often as a vehicle allowing a person who was drunk or weightless or had one foot on fire to win the jitterbug contest. And in either case, it wasn’t exactly taken seriously as an art form.
The movie scenes also trick modern viewers in another way. It’s easy to look at the footage of original California dancers and see them mostly as generically White American teenagers, in the way we would most likely experience a dance floor that looked like that today. But it was by no means that culturally homogeneous.
A lot of the White California “Old Timers” we remember and study today were the children of immigrants — Hal Takier came from a Turkish family, Genevieve Grazis (whose stage name was Jenny Gray) was from a Lithuainian family, Anne Mills was from an Armenian family, Bart Bartollo was from an Italian family, and Willie Desatoff was from a Russian family. This is a much more culturally diverse idea of “White” than you might use the term today. *****
It’s also very important to note that the White SoCal dancers preferred to dance to the great swing music of the day, with a lot of fondness for Black-American swing bands like Basie and Lunceford — not the corny, saccharine swing they often danced to in their movie scenes.
The Powers Girl is a great example of the California dancers dancing to the music they preferred to social dance too; music like Benny Goodman’s “Roll ‘Em.”
The Powers Girl (1943)
(By the way, there were some other reasons to show this clip: a Lindy Hop scene filmed in the rain is pretty badass, and it has Dean and Jewel doing some awesome stuff with an umbrella. So there’s that.)
With all its many flaws, Hollywood filmmakers’ flood of interest in swing dance — first as the new mainstream teen craze, then in the ’40s as the young soldiers’ off-hours social hobby — cemented the Southern California dancers in history. Whereas we only have about half a dozen routines on film from the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, we have dozens and dozens of clips of the Southern California Lindy dancers dancing. Dean Collins himself was in more than forty pictures, making him the most-filmed Lindy Hopper in Hollywood history.
It would be wrong of us, however, to paint the era as being more racially harmonious than it was. We mentioned earlier how Roy Damron and his friends felt comfortable and friendly with Southern California’s Black dancers, even if they were the only White dancers in the room. The fact that they were sometimes, perhaps often, the only White dancers in the room tells us that Roy and his friends were probably in the minority among the White dancers. They might also have been accorded the unconscious privilege as White Americans to travel more freely between dance scenes.
Indeed, many of the SoCal Old Timers held at least some of the racist and sexist beliefs that were the norm in that era, even among the relatively progressive California culture. (What happened in their older age, when a new, diverse generation of dancers found them and bonded with them, is an important part to this story, but that will have to wait for a later chapter.)
The movie industry did take one opportunity to show us a more realistic view of what a SoCal dancing floor could look like. The 1944 film Hollywood Canteen finally showed movie audiences a dance floor with both White and Black swing dancers, and America finally saw what New York City and Southern California social dancers had had the chance to see for years.
In, like, two ten-second wide-angle shots. (O:20 and 2:20)
Hollywood Canteen (1944)
Apparently, some barriers had already begun to crack in the film industry. Had it only happened ten years earlier, perhaps we could have preserved much more of the diversity in SoCal’s swing dance story.
Now that war films were popular, and it was typical for them to have a USO dance scene, the SoCal dancers who were neither drafted nor enlisted appeared in films throughout the era.
Though the war is commonly cited as the ending of the golden age of swing, it was arguably more of a propellant than the cause. Before the war, the swing music and dance craze had already been going on for several years — just about as long as a generation of teenagers lasts. How likely was the fad to continue going strong when those dancers were all growing up, regardless of a war, and the sounds of bebop and rock ‘n’ roll were already peaking around the corner?
Whether or not the war was a major cause, by 1945 most of SoCal’s young adults seemed occupied with moving on with their lives, starting their “real world” jobs, settling down, and beginning to raise children. Many of the SoCal dancers, like Jewel McGowan and Roy Damron, used their years swing dancing in movies as a way to transition into “professional” background dancing in films (as in Ballet, Tap, and Modern dance — perfect for the golden age of musicals on the horizon).
Whether it was starting new jobs, new families, or new ways of moving, almost all of them let go of their youthful hobby of swing dancing, rarely to do it again.
Some of the most devoted, however, would never let go.
The Pacific Swing Dance Foundation is a new non-profit working to preserve the history of the California swing dances. Some of the essential research in this piece was possible because of their support. Readers of Swungover can play a role in preserving these dances and the stories of those who danced them by donating. Check out their website for more details.
Special thanks to Sylvia Sykes and Nick Williams for their great help with this article, as well as David Rehm for his historical work and his willingness to share so much of it so freely to me over the years. Also special thanks to Peter Loggins for his research and sharing it with us, Nicholas Centino for his cultural insight, and historian Dwight Lupardis, who’s preservation of the Balboa and “Swing” dances and their history is one of the greatest treasures we as a scene have. (Most of the films of the Balboa and Bal-Swing dancers in their older age was documented by him.)
And huge thanks to Jessica Miltenberger for editing this piece — Swungover’s usual editor Chelsea Lee had to take this one off due to a very busy schedule.
* — Further Reading: Central Avenue Sounds – Jazz in Los Angeles.
** — For those who really want to geek out about this, let’s go into detail.
First off, around 1:53, as the camera pulls back from Duke Ellington, you will see two couples right in front of him start rotating, one in a ballroom hand-hold position. The way both couples move, but especially the couple in ballroom position, it looks very Bal-Swing, at least until they get into open position. If the move had then turned the follower from that open position, it all would look like a text-book Bal-Swing toss-out. But instead, they stay facing each other and come back in, like a gentle swing out. But if you watch it looking for it to be a swing out, it looks not really like a New York style swing out at all. It rotates a lot, the partner is out for only a short amount of time, it has hardly any focus on linearity.
Next, look at the main couple’s dancing and see how it might have been influenced by the Whitey’s Lindy hoppers in its flow and use of a Charleston pattern (the Charleston might have been the choreographer’s desire, though, since they all end up doing that step) — but, they don’t have a strong amount of linear energy, which may be an accent from the other SoCal dances, which don’t use a lot of linear energy. They also don’t know how hand-to-hand Charleston works the way the Whitey’s did it. Again, this is simply conjecture.
The other couples that dance on their right at 3:10-ish look much more like “New York” Lindy in the way they step and how linear they are, though though they still like to keep their hands high and their swivels have a SoCal Lindy accent in the way they both “sit” into them. They also never swing out, but instead send-out, a real SoCal thing.
The couple on the left of the main couple right after their jam does a similar strange swing out as mentioned earlier, though these look a little more like a New York swing out. The follower, however, has a moment when she’s straight up doing “Swing” footwork the way the followers did it in the Venice Beach Clip. Other followers around have very similar moments when they’re in closed position.
Overall, I think this is something a dancer can discover on their own terms. Try an experiment. Watch all the social dancing in this clip (1:53-1:58, then at 2:50-3:05, then at 3:12-3:20) first with the belief that what you are watching are “Lindy Hoppers.” Then watch the social dancing again with the belief that what you are watching are, let’s say, “Bal-Swing” dancers to have learned some Lindy Hop. I argue that if you watch it believing you’re watching Lindy Hoppers, you will think “They are Lindy Hoppers who are dancing kinda weird.” And if you watch it believing you’re watching “Bal-Swing dancers who have learned Lindy Hop,” you will think “Ah, the things that don’t look like Lindy make a lot more sense now.” Lots of rotation. Spotty use of linear forces. Leaders putting their arms really far around their partner’s backs. Swing-outs that look more like Bal Toss-outs. (By the way, I’m not saying they were Bal-swing dancers specifically — I think they were probably “Swing” dancers, I just used the specific dance Bal-Swing so that modern dancers could imagine it more clearly.)
*** — Explaining why this is is trickier than you would think, hence my desire to put it here in a footnote rather than take the main article off in too much of a tangent.
How dancers dance is very complex. Briefly, I’d say that what looks “New York” Lindy about them more than other SoCal dancers is in the way their bodies moved with their feet, and in the way they expressed their arms and upper body. (In fact, some of this dancing looks like it would be right at home on the 1950s Spirit Moves-era Savoy ballroom. That’s oddly because they have less linearity than the Whitey’s did in their Keep Punching social dancing, the main source we have for the Whitey’s swing-era social dancing, by the way. It’s not by any means a perfect data pool.)
Some would argue the traits I mentioned are part of African American culture — a way of moving passed down through generations, going back to African dance and movement. This is why I said these traits were perhaps a sign of influence from the Whitey’s. I don’t think anyone not there at the time could say for sure whether the leader was throwing his arm in the air because that was a natural expression of his cultural up-bringing, or if he saw a Whitey’s dancer do it. In all likelihood, it’s probably a true and interlocking combination of both.
**** — Some readers may have noticed this article does not, except for here, mention the term “Hollywood” style Lindy. Invented in the late ’90s, the term did indeed begin as a way of describing this very style of mechanics and movement. However, the term morphed over that next decade into a term more associated with the caricature of that original dancing style and culture. And now, ten years after that, “Hollywood” style refers more to the early-2000s “Hollywood” style dancing mechanics and culture than the actual original era’s dancing mechanics and culture.
Ultimately, “Hollywood style” is a concept that I think is very important to understanding the dancing of the 2000s, but actually not very helpful for understanding the dancing of the 1930s & 40s. Hence why I do not even mention “Hollywood style” in the main text, I think it only gets in the way. At Swungover, we use the term “SoCal Lindy” to refer to the current, more realistic understanding of the dancing of the SoCal swing-era Lindy. (Theoretically, this series will eventually come to that great, awkward, and hormonal adolescence of the modern swing scene known as “The style wars.”)
And, a fair warning to all newer dancers who might get someone explaining dance history to you — if anyone mentions that, back in the day, there was “Savoy style” and “Hollywood style” Lindy, and doesn’t very soon afterward say something like “Of course, in reality, things were a lot more complex than that,” then you are very likely listening a viewpoint fifteen years out of date, and a pretty lazy one at that.
***** — Nicholas Centino, Professor of Chicana/o Studies at California State University (and one stylin’ swing dancer) had some further insight on how cross-cultural-ism worked in SoCal.
“Just for context, while California was not a Jim Crow state, restrictive covenants in housing led to de facto segregation in employment and leisure that this generation of Angelenos (like Roy Damron) would willfully defy in search of the best music… The other wrinkle is that while different neighborhoods would see a concentration of this ethnic or group or that ethnic group, L.A. neighborhoods (and to that extent high school) weren’t strictly segmented along ethnic lines, so Willie [Desatoff’s] neighborhood surrounding Roosevelt High School (Boyle Heights) would have been equal parts Jewish, Russian, Japanese and Mexican, although it would have the reputation of a Mexican-American neighborhood. This might explain why some of the teens could have been more open (at least for the time) to embrace Black artists of the day. While this might not seem like a big deal, keep in mind that a generation later during the rock and roll era, the recording industry would still produce two copies of the same song, one for the pop (white) market and one for the R&B (Black) charts, assuming that white kids would never go for a black performer.”
You can learn more about this and its effect on the SoCal Latin-American community in this book.
5 responses to “Swing History 101: Lindy Comes to SoCal (1937-ish-1945)”
[…] of Swing-era dances. This is part one of two for Southern California swing era dance history. See Part 2 here. For extra geeking out, check out the footnotes. Such as this […]
Dropping in to say that I’m in the middle of reading Sherrie Tucker’s “Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen” and curious to know if that was one of your sources.
It was not, but now I’m interested. Will look into it.
[…] Swing History 101: Lindy Comes to SoCal (Part 2) […]
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