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R.I.P. Irene Thomas (1921-2020)

February 26, 2020
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Irene Thomas dancing with Chris Grover. Photo by Dave Welch. Courtesy of Rusty Frank.

It is with great sadness we announce the passing of Irene Thomas, one of the greatest Southern California swing dancers of all time.

Well, we may be sad, but Irene was thrilled. On a visit with her a few years ago, she had mentioned several times that she was ready to go (and even seemed a little annoyed it was taking awhile). And, when her good friends — swing dance instructor Rusty Frank and others — visited her for the first time in hospice, Irene greeted them by saying “Hallelujah! Strike up the band! Here I come!”

So even though we have lost Irene, we take comfort that she was prepared to go.

Irene was born November 23, 1921 in Missouri. She grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma, and spent a lot of her childhood learning and performing tap, ballet, and gymnastics. She moved to the Los Angeles area as a teenager and, around 1939, learned some Lindy Hop steps from a dancer named Bill Alcorn in just one sitting before becoming a Lindy social dancer and, soon after, performer.

She learned the other Southern California swing dances Balboa and “Swing” as well, began auditioning for films, and developed a close friendship with fellow SoCal dancer Jean Veloz, which would last her entire life.

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When she learned steps others had done, she would quickly change them and put her own spin on them. For instance, when she saw Jewel’s continual swivels, she added a tap-influenced kick-ball-change styling. “Dean taught [Jewel] the pure Lindy. I have a bastard version,” She said. “Cause if it didn’t feel good, I didn’t do it.”

And Irene’s “Switches,” as she called them, is just a taste of her contributions; Irene was one of the most inventive dancers in the swing era. Aside from a ton of tap-inspired rhythm variations, she developed a style that constantly used her shoulders (and eyebrows), and a movement where she would plant her feet and stretch her hips back at the end of moves (“The Bump”). She pushed the envelope for what was expected from a follower when she invented the “Corkscrew” (I don’t think this was her term) — when a leader gave her an outside turn, she could pop the turn twice as fast under the arm and get two turns in before the leader knew what happened. But her most famous invention is the move she called “The Drop,” but which Jean Veloz renamed “The Quick-Stop” (It’s at 0:46 here.) It’s yet another way Irene played with the outside-turns leaders would give her, and has gone down in history as one of the greatest follower-initiated moves of all time.

Irene was in many films of the swing era, and was often spotlighted due to her humorous personality and expressive dancing. Her agent often made her wear a big bow on her head so it was obvious where she was in the film clips.

Here is footage of her in several of her films, as well as her dancing Bal-Swing and Lindy in the early 80s with Jonathan Bixby (in which she’s really, really playful and stylish).

After the war, Irene moved to New York for awhile and stopped dancing professionally. She did still social dance some, but found that it was difficult for her “bastard” SoCal style to sync up well with the New York Lindy. In her later life, she spent her retirement in California.

In the 2000s, the world-wide Lindy Hop scene fell in love with the Southern California-style Lindy Hop, and Irene’s dancing had an especially potent impact: Every year from approximately 2000-2004 was the year of the Quick-Stop. (So, 2020, we’re gonna have to really bring it.)

Irene was thrilled a new generation was picking up the dances of her youth, and in an interview in 2011 she told me how impressed she was with what the modern dancers could do with the dance, saying it was far more than they could. Problems with vertigo, however, kept her from being able to dance much and take part in the scene the last few decades. The last year she has spent in hospice care with close friends to watch over her.

On a personal note, Irene Thomas has always been one of my favorite dancers of all time. Witty, sly, creative, smooth, mischievous, joyful — she captures and expresses so many of the emotions I find in swing music. And often when I dance, I realize how much inspiration I have to thank her for.

Love you, Irene. We’re gonna miss you.

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Even though she didn’t want to leave her home much, Irene had several people from the Lindy scene always making sure to keep in touch and let her know she’s loved. Though we won’t name them all here, we do want to quickly give a huge thanks to Rusty Frank for all that she has done to support Irene Thomas and Jean Veloz (who is still with us) both personally as a close friend of theirs, as well as supporting them as legacies of the dance.

The picture shows (from the left) Hilary Alexander, Rusty Frank, Irene Thomas, myself, Kate Hedin, and Jean Veloz.

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