A Gaze into A Day at the Races

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A Day at the Races is recognized by many as one of the greatest Lindy Hop clips in history. In this essay we’ll take a deeper look — we’ll discuss the dancing, and then discuss the problematic context of the film and clip. The word “gaze” was chosen on purpose.

This version of the clip was colorized with computer-software by Karri Rasinmäki of Black Pepper Swing and shared with the community on YouTube. Though the program is guessing at colors, it does bring alive both the dancing and the rich variety of skin color that most likely existed among the cast. Please note it contains offensive material (White actors doing “blackface”) that will be discussed in the essay below.  

About the clip

The scene was filmed in March, 1937. It was the first time Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers as an official group appeared in a Hollywood film. They were listed in production notes as Arthur White’s Lindy Hoppers. According to Frankie Manning’s autobiography, it was Whitey’s second-tier group at the time. However, according to Norma Miller’s book, Whitey  was training Frankie’s group to replace this one. Apparently, Whitey was getting annoyed with this group beginning to demand fairer pay and better working conditions. Rather than contradicting each other, the different opinions sound more like the manipulations of their manager, who probably favored loyalty a lot more than  performance demand.

Regardless of what place they held in Whitey’s eyes, they were pretty much the most awarded team in Lindy Hop at the time: They were a team mostly comprised of Harvest Moon Ball champions — one 1935 champion and both first and second couples from 1936.

They were in California performing with Ethel Waters (as “The Six Lindy Hop Champions,” under one bill,) and a producer saw them and hired them for the film. Norma Miller suspected that Whitey was happy to have the film gig because it got the group away from touring with Ethel Waters, who was the main force behind encouraging the dancers to protests Whitey’s treatment of them.

The context of the scene in the film is very important to discuss. We’ll go into that after we geek out about the dancing.

The Dancing

Troy Brown
Actor Troy Brown, Sr. the solo dancer in A Day at the Races, according to Frankie Manning.

The scene opens with a solo dancer.  Many people, like the clip above, credit this dancer as the Whitey’s Lindy Hopper John “Tiny” Bunch, however the dancer is actually an actor named Troy Brown, Sr., according to Frankie Manning, as told to historian Judy Pritchett.  (You can see “Tiny” Bunch dance in Radio City Revels.)  Troy does some basic jazz steps, and then goes into an impressive jazz split while licking his fingers. The finger-licking part is from a jazz movement they called “Picking cherries” or “Picking apples.” Then Troy beams a very specific smile (Leon James will beam a similar smile, which we will discuss in greater depth in the second half of the essay.)

Then the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers enter (dancing at about 270 BPM), each doing just a couple moves before allowing the first couple to spotlight. Fun fact: Before the first couple starts jamming, the couple on the left side of the screen — Ella Gibson and George Greenidge —  both  nearly wipe out on a patch of floor that is clearly more slippery than they expect. One of the great unpredictables in film work is the surface you will be dancing on.

Our first couple is Dorothy “Dot” Miller (Norma’s older sister) and JohnJohnny” Innis. (As Frankie notes in his book, Johnny was also the group’s driver. Whitey flew Dot in from New York to dance with him, which Whitey would not have done if he didn’t think her a valuable addition to the piece. Norma is such a legend we can sometimes forget her sister was also a great Lindy Hopper.)

Their jam is almost nothing but swing outs, with one exception, a tuck-turn jump and side-pass with Johnny doing the jumping. It says something important about their values to know that they, and Whitey, were fine with going out in a jam with nothing but swing outs and a jump turn. Most dancers today would put pressure on themselves to do more in a jam. Take this lesson from our pioneers to heart: jams aren’t just about throwing down moves — they can simply be about throwing down yourself.

Dot’s swivels are made by her entire body rotating open and closed, and she lets her body rock back and forth as she dances. And, she is clearly having a ball. It reminds me of dancers I know who can’t *not* have a big grin on their face when they dance.

Dot’s infectious smile and Johnny’s leg-swing and mule-kick swing outs, which would become the signature swing out of Al Minns in Hellzapoppin.

Johnny’s swing outs are a leg-swing and mule-kick style that Al Minns would refine and showcase beautifully four years later in Hellzapoppin. Johnny’s feet keep a strong pulse throughout the entire thing but his legs have a lot of (literal) swing to them when they kick. Johnny doesn’t smile, but instead has a “Getting shit done” look on his face (which many of us can sympathize with, especially at this tempo).

The second couple is Norma Miller and Leon James.  Their jam: a couple swing outs with some styling, a move where Leon kicks and turns, a moment where they free-style in place, and finally Norma front rolls over Leon and falls into a “baby doll” drop. He pulls her back to her feet and they saunter off.

Norma’s kick-away and Leon’s kick-turn.

Norma’s kick-away in their second swing out is still one of the most satisfying variations of all time, isn’t it? Try it out sometime if you haven’t. She also notably has to hike her skirt up to the top of her thigh so she can do her front flip better. Over the next few years, skirts will go from below to knee to above the knee — a fashion that will make swing dancing a lot more comfortable, and as a fashion trend might have even been strongly influenced by the popularity of dancing at the time. It will allow for wider swivels, easier and safer execution of air steps, and more athletic dancing. Norma herself will say “fuck it” (as she was known to do — we miss you Norma) and dance in the shortest skirt possible for her jam in Hellzapoppin’. Which is totally understandable, when you see what she has to do.

Leon James’ dancing already has the smooth efficiency he would offer throughout his entire dancing career. His pulse is often smaller compared to his fellow dancers, allowing his dancing to showcase an air of control and relaxation, and inviting the audience to see how much he’s expressing in his movement. The close-up smile deserves a great deal of consideration; we’ll discuss more below.

Leon’s kick-and-turn move was perhaps popular at the time — not only does the next leader also do the move, but it’s one of the (relatively few) moves Dean Collins took with him when he took his version of New York Lindy Hop to California, where the move became a staple of his and other SoCal Lindy Hoppers’ dancing.

The third couple is Willa Mae Ricker and Pettis Dotson “Snookie” Beasley. (“Snookie” is a term that meant “sweetheart.”) After a swing out, Snookie does his “lock step” slide, the leader’s kick turn, and the (what we today call the) “Day at the Races” Charleston and mini-dip sequence. They finish with a circle, tuck turn, and then what we call the “Candlestick.”

They stand up relatively straight while they dance, with only slightly athletic postures, and their dancing is not extremely horizontal — they don’t let their connected arms get far away from them on the ends of their movements.

So far, the follower’s swivels have been more of a full-bodied, opening-and-closing-their-body style. Willa Mae’s, however, have a lot more hip-and-shoulder swish up-and-down and a lot less open-and-close.

Willa Mae’s swivels and Snookie’s kick-turn

Her arms are always moving with the momentum of the dance.  Her legs are constantly pushing her out of the ground with a lot of force, and if you watch her foot during the Charleston sequence you can see how much pulse she keeps in her legs. Willa Mae loved fashion, and she is clearly rocking her outfit with the belt on the outside, and shiny earrings (which no other dancers wore in the clip). She shouts something while she dances. If you want to learn more about Willa Mae, and how badass she is, I wrote a post on her in 2011.

Snookie Beasely does one of the coolest things in the history of leader shine steps.  His “Lock step”  slide was the envy of the early troupe members, according to Frankie’s autobiography, and all of them tried it and could never get it as well as Snookie could. A fantastic touch is how he looks down at his feet deadpan as he does it. Fun fact: Snookie automatically comes up into a ballroom hand hold whenever he’s in closed-position, a trait Frankie Manning and Al Mins often showed in their social dancing in footage we have from later in their lives. (Sadly we have hardly any social dancing footage of them earlier in their lives to get a lot of information from.)

Snookie also does this really cool hand motion as he drags Willa Mae off I’ve never seen before — he flicks his hand and points, then does it again. (Norma Miller talked about how Snookie always talked with his hands, and she always suspected if you stopped his hands he wouldn’t be able to speak.)

Finally, we have Ella “Rhythm” Gibson and “Long” George Greenidge.

After one swing out, Ella and George unfold a series of now-classic Lindy Charleston steps — (what we call) Hacksaws, Hand-to-hand (with a turn), and Tandem Charleston (also with a turn). The turn they do in Tandem is deceptively tricky and fast, even though they look solid and un-rushed when they do it.

Ella Gibson is worth a closer watch. Her posture belongs in a textbook, and her feet could be the band’s bass drum. Her solid balance and connected body movement, combined with her metronomic pounding legs overall, create the effect of great skill, control and boundless energy. Norma Miller mentioned her nickname in the group was “rhythm,” and you can see why. As International Jazz and Urban Dance Professional LaTasha Barnes pointed out to me, even as they drag back and join the ending line at the end of their jam, her rhythmic precision is notable.

Ella & George’s ending. Note how precise her rhythm is, even while being flipped, twisted around, dragged off, and put into and ending choreography.

“Long” George Greenidge is one of the unsung heroes of swing-era Lindy Hop invention as far as the modern scene goes. In his book, Frankie said he was their “master creative genius in Charleston,” and invented such moves as the “Turnover Charleston” (which is probably the move they do in their Tandem position) and “Long-legged Charleston.”  His torso is notably bent forward a great depth throughout most of this jam, and in a way that looks like it might not have been the best for his lower back. (Ah, youth.) It’s probably not a coincidence that his “bend” changes over the next few years into a more comfortable looking lay-out (see, for instance, this jam Norma and he do in the Keep Punching “jitterbug contest” clip).

George dancing with Norma in Keep Punching. Notice his back appears to be in a lot more comfortable position throughout his jam.

The Circle

A great presence in this performance (and most Whitey’s performances) that deserves a specific mention is that of “the circle.” The performance is set up as if you, the viewer, are watching from the other side of this intimate and expression-filled space.

“The circle,” or “jam circles” as we call them in the vintage swing dance community, is part of the dances’ West African heritage, where most cultures therein experienced dance as an activity that is done while being surrounded by one’s community. The community is not merely an audience, it is a reciprocal participant in the sharing of the dance. Black American musicians and dancers carried on this tradition throughout times of enslavement and after, taking it into the dance halls, juke joints, and ballrooms of the 1900s.

For instance, most of these Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers spent a portion of their night in “The Corner” of the Savoy ballroom, an area where dancers constantly showed off for each other, pushed each other, and shared their love for the dance with each other.  (This also required the control of dancing and expressing at often-intense speeds in very small spaces.) When the Whitey’s worked on their own in the ballroom during the day, they did the same thing — a group of peers watching and playing with each other. (Just, with, you know, more space.) A lot of Savoy contests were couples taking individual turns showcasing, just as they would in a jam circle.

Whitey and the dancers must have realized that the jam circle was a powerful part of the energy of the experience, and so it should be a part of their performances. Hence, the dancers in the background — the participants of the jam circle — are a spiritually important part of the experience.  So let’s take a closer look at them.

Watch A Day at the Races at least once looking only at the background dancers.  Dot loves to swing her arm in the air, Norma loves to move her head in sync to the moves, and Leon goes crazy over George and Ella’s jam. (Perhaps warning him not to take too much attention, Snookie actually pushes Leon offscreen!)  And actually, they all go crazy over George and Ella’s last jam sequence. We sadly can’t hear them because they did not have the audio of their screaming in the film. But just imagine it were a live show, and you could hear their screams and clapping get louder and louder until they all swung out together at the end — they knew how to build and showcase energy in a performance.

Whitey overlooking big apple
Whitey (left) overlooks the weekly Big Apple performance at the Savoy

One of “the circle” is Herbert “Whitey” White, the group’s founder himself. He has the white streak in his hair (it appears as simply light color on film, but reportedly it was pretty much white).  He spends the entire time clapping and saying things, probably switching between giving advice and hyping them up, just as you would expect from a passionate athletic coach. (You’ll see Whitey often in the background of their performances and photos — which may also have been a sign of his notorious controlling behavior.) According to Norma and Frankie’s books, he was not a great dancer, but had a real gift for choreography and coaching performance — he knew what looked good and got people excited about the dance.

Finally, the routine ends with a relatively new invention at the time — the ensemble Lindy piece. (Another reinforcement that their natural idea of performance was “the circle,” not group dancing.) Norma thought that the two most important innovations in performance Lindy Hop were air steps (also only a year or so old at this point) and the ensemble ending (as mentioned, they previously had always just done jam-style performances with no group ending). And, according to Norma and Frankie Manning’s books, it was Frankie who pioneered both. The ensemble section in A Day at the Races was coached by Frankie, and is a lovely flow of swing outs, turning, and Charlestons. Though note there are not ensemble air steps yet, which Frankie said would come later.

They end in the now classic three-person “Animals,” both of which Frankie Manning also helped invent, one of which he and George Greenidge worked out after seeing acrobatic shows and circuses.

“Right” and “Wrong”

It’s important to note that many of the things our elders do in this clip are things that many modern instructors would tell someone not to do in a class. “Don’t rock your body side to side while you do your swivels.” “Pump your kicks, don’t swing them.” “Stretch out your arms, make it more horizontal” “If you have a jam, better come with something big to throw down.” “If you perform, smile.”

The modern scene gets a lot of our vision of the dance from the later Whitey’s Hellzapoppin-era dancing and the 1940s Southern California Lindy, where the dancers are making many different choices than you see here.  Yes, you could argue the later dancing has more “refinement” on movement and flow, but that doesn’t mean the dancing of the early Whiteys is “wrong,” or is not as valid. It seems strange to look at what is undoubtedly one of the most inspirational Lindy Hop clips of all time and then turn to a student and say “but don’t do it that way.”

Individuality has always been an essential part of the spirit of this dance, and though there are some we would argue are objective goods (like not harming your partner, making choices that are healthy for how your body moves, respecting the dance’s origins, values, and spirit, etc.) there are many, many things that are simply choices. Furthermore, styling and improvisational choices are one of the biggest reasons dancers have done this dance form since the beginning — the basic steps and fundamentals are there because they are vehicles for personal expression and interpretation.

Ultimately, teachers might verbally express how much they value individuality, but what they teach and the way they teach can send a contradictory message.

Some ways vintage swing dance instructors can put individuality at a place more fitting the spirit of its origins is: (1) Spend part of class time throwing out other options for your students to play with. (2) Give the historical context of individuality by showing clips, mentioning different dancers, or giving people “homework” assignments to go out and watch said clips. (3) Allow class time for students to improvise on the things you teach. And, for all teachers, (4) remind your students you are teaching from your perspective, and offer that your students perspectives might be and are allowed to be different —- “This is the way I do it, but you might have reasons for choosing otherwise.”  “I make this choice because of X, Y, Z.” “There are many ways to approach this, this is what we like to do.”

As for the “smiling,” that one will take a little more discussion.

A Day at the Racists’?

(Sorry, we couldn’t help it. But, as you will see, we will argue it’s appropriate.)

porgy and bess parody in Day at teh Races
A scene depicting weary, gospel singing Black Americans in A Day at the Races.

When we look for examples of 1930s American racism and Lindy Hop, the usual, obvious example is the fact that all the incredible Black performing artists in the film clip Hellzapoppin’ are portrayed in maid and service staff outfits. Perhaps less obvious to modern viewers, but arguably even more pervasive, is how deeply the Day at the Races dancing scene is steeped in minstrelsy. 

First, let’s take the scene’s set up: Before the dance clip above begins, “Harpo Marx is playing his tin whistle in a song called Who Dat Man.” He goes around an obvious rural shantytown meant to portray a high population of impoverished Black people. He impresses a group of Black boys playing craps, he surprises a room full of Black adults doing monotonous tasks and singing as if they had the weight of the world on their shoulders (which might have been intended as a nod to, or parody of, Porgy and Bess, which had come out the year before), and he joins in with a juke joint swing band that’s literally rocking the house with its music. They all sing that Harpo Marx is “Gabriel,” the Biblical angel who will call the coming of Jesus with his horn. Poverty, blues, carefree dancing, spirituals, simplistic religious identity —  Already, the film is basing this entire scene on 1930s White American stereotypes of Black American life and values. (And there’s other things that are so deeply messed up that we can’t begin to unpack them here. For instance: we have a childlike, non-intellectual, “innocent” white man (Harpo) that is shown easily connecting with and becoming a guide to a large group of impoverished Black people. If you need a moment to facepalm, please do so.)

Then the clip as most of us have seen it begins. All God’s Chillun’ Got Rhythm is a song about turning your frown upside down by singing and enjoying music. If it were a song sung by an adult to try to stop a kid from crying over a scratched knee, you could argue it’s an innocent enough message. But the lyrics and the context tell the darker story.

First off, it’s not “All Gods children” it’s “All God’s chillun.” “Chillun” was a common rural Black dialect way of saying “children,” and all the rest of the lyrics are written in an imitation of that dialect. Because of the social brainwashing/insistence of stereotypes, almost every adult who heard the song at the time would have assumed the narrator of this song to be a Black person.

Next, they are saying all of God’s children “got rhythm,” which is pretty much recalling the prevalent race-based stereotype that all Black people are naturally good at rhythm. (You may argue the line is actually going against that stereotype, saying “All” God’s chillun got rhythm — but the context argues against that. It’s a Black woman surrounded by Black people dressed in impoverished clothes, singing in Black dialect.)

Then there’s the deeper context of the song, the true message it’s trying to support: All it takes for depressed Black people to be happy is music. This is part of the great lie mainstream (White) America was telling itself for centuries — Black people were/are naturally happy, therefore, the horrible things our society did/does to them do not affect them that badly.

When we talk about the context of the scene, it’s interesting to note this film was arguably quite progressive for a mainstream (White) film at the time. (Compared to Gone with the Wind, for instance — a film that completely white-washed slavery and the Confederacy, and simplified its Black characters not only into simplified minstrel stereotypes, but specifically dependent, neutered, and pro-slavery ones. It would sweep through the Oscars two years later and become one of the most “beloved” films of its century by mainstream audiences.) In contrast, A Day at the Races spends relatively a lot of screen time with (it’s idea of) a Black community and with the Black American artists that perform, which was rare. (To some, it was too much time and attention — parts of these scenes were cut from the film when shown in Southern theaters, a common practice at the time. The first time I saw the film on VHS was probably one of these cut versions, which did not have the dance scene.) In the filmmakers eyes, one could see them trying to be supportive and positive of what they think Black Americans were and how they were “persevering” — but what they thought Black Americans were, and how they were presenting them in the film, was still based on those previously mentioned racist stereotypes.

When our elders, the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers come onto the screen, they are wearing a variety of clothes. It’s clothing we know teenagers of the era wore — the plaid skirts, the bobby socks, the turned-backwards newsboy hats. I have not heard Norma discuss these costumes before — it’s possible they were the dancers’ own clothes, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they were told to not button the vests, to wear the hats backwards, to basically, look like they are kind of slapdash to fit in with the stereotyped Black, impoverished rural costumes around them. To put it in context, let’s look at the story the movie is implying about the culture of those who do this dance versus their reality. A few weeks after the filming, these dancers took a picture on Easter:

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers Easter 1937
The Day at the Races group on Easter, 1937, under the marque where they were performing.

After noting the obvious that every single one of them is sharp, you have to also admit they are two starkly different images of Black American Lindy Hoppers.  (Or, compare to the sophisticated outfits that Willa Mae Ricker and George Greenidge wore in a Life magazine shoot they had done a few months before.)

Humans are very susceptible to the idea that presentation and perception are true mirrors of reality. If you had only seen them in A Day at the Races, you would have had a very specific idea about who these dancers were, because the film basically covered it and framed it in a specific perception. However, imagine the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in their suits and dresses at the Savoy, in their Easter finery above, or in the type of clothes they performed in live. Already the perception is now of much more complex people and artists.

An early promo shot of one of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers groups. Note the use of eye-catching satin and movement-heavy poet sleeves.

Dealing with this problem of seeing performance and perception as reality, and especially the White mainstream’s version of it, obviously didn’t just affect Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers — but all Black American artists ever, and, on a basic level, every Black American, period. (Want to explore this important topic more? LaTasha Barnes recommends checking out a few books: The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. DuBois, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity by Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paul Freire.)

Alright, we’ve got to at least mention the sound effects, which show how much the filmmakers patronized Lindy Hop —  slide whistles, cartoon sounds — the filmmakers clearly felt the need to connect zaniness, or childishness, to this Black American art form. (They of course wouldn’t be the first or the last.) And this was not a random connection they made. The golden age of cartoons was based in a large part on the long-lived and popular entertainment of minstrelsy — think of the exaggerated characteristics, the white gloves, the seemingly ridiculous and unintelligent behavior  — cartoons were symbolic minstrels.

Finally, let’s talk about that smile.

The “Smile”

An actor from the BBC’s Black & White Minstrel Show. Which ran in Britain until 1978. You read that correctly. 1978.

Both the solo dancer at the beginning of the clip, and Leon James, put on a similar smile.  Leon’s and Norma’s close-up is probably the most famous close-up in Lindy Hop history (not that there’s much competition, which is probably why it sticks in the memory so clearly). It is bright, open-mouthed, wide, big-eyed, side-eyed, care-free, and obviously “acted” — meaning, he (and Troy Brown at the beginning) put on a specific, calculated smile for the camera. It’s understandable an innocent viewer who didn’t understand the context might not see anything wrong with the filmmakers’ decision to portray this. But think again about the context the scene exist in: Black people are naturally happy when they are experiencing music (so the things society does to them are not that terrible). — “See? Look at them smiling in this shantytown!”

If you’ve seen old minstrel posters, or pictures of minstrel actors before, you’ve likely seen them do a similar “acted” smile. For instance, here is a photo of a minstrel actor creating a similar smile. (Top right).

In this scene, Leon’s “acted” smile is the exception to the rule here — other dancers smile in ways that appear genuine, or make other expressive choices: There’s Dot’s genuine joy, Snookie’s deadpan sprezzatura, Leon’s wide range of facial expressions, and Norma’s intense background egging.

I can’t blame Leon James, or any of the Whitey’s, for the way they are portrayed or the things they did under the direction of filmmakers and/or society. We have to be careful assuming our moral principles should outweigh the realistic experiences of the people who lived/are living those experiences. First off, they were teenagers, and Norma stated in an interview I did with her that they weren’t thinking about stuff like that at their age.

Secondly, even had they been thinking about stuff like that, Leon and the other Whitey’s were doing what almost all other Black performers felt they had to do to make a living in the world they were given, to showcase their art, to get ahead in the world that kept them down, and used unfair stereotypes against them in almost every way. Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and John Bubbles, just to name a few, believed they had to do the same thing.

For instance, if the Whitey’s had seen the script and said “screw you” — as they would have had every personal right to do —  they probably would have been blacklisted in Hollywood, largely effecting their opportunities as professional entertainers. (And, selfishly, for the modern scene, we wouldn’t have A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin. These now immortal parts of the performative aspects of their art would not exist.)

The “smile,” and other such exaggerations and caricature, is important for every modern Lindy Hopper to think about — your image of Lindy Hop might be people dancing with a big, carefree smile, but remember there is a wide, more complex range of emotions and expression our elders felt in swing. And Black American dancers especially have used their dancing art forms to fight to show the depth of expression they are capable of, to refute the the simple stereotypes a film like Day at the Races tries to paint around them — or onto them. It was such an important fight they sometimes paid the price of portraying those racial stereotypes just in order to get the opportunity to simultaneously undermine them with their skill and talent.  

Finally, in case you needed something more obvious to convince you this scene is steeped in minstrelsy, it ends with the Marx Brothers escaping detection from people they’re hiding from by blackening their faces, joining the crowd, and dancing in an exaggerated fashion.

Marx Brothers in Black face
The Marx Brothers characters’ evading recognition by blackening their faces and dancing.

Final thoughts

I’d like to finish with one final thought to modern day Lindy Hoppers. Please, please stop putting on big fake smiles and making grossly-distorted faces when you Lindy Hop. I argue that it’s intensely disrespectful to the originators of this dance, who had complex emotional underpinnings to swing music and dance, and were sometimes forced to simplify that to the stereotype that “Black dancing = carefree joy.”  And they did that in order to prove otherwise with how skilled and passionate they were with their dancing — at least for those who could look past the stereotype.

Try to find your genuine smile, or don’t worry about smiling at all. Think of the wealth of emotions swing music brings to you, and work to understand and express those, genuinely. As LaTasha Barnes beautifully puts it, “Emotions are meant to be understood and conveyed — not performed.”

Instructors and coaches, don’t simply give people the advice to “smile more” when they are performing — push for the expression of genuine emotions. Judges, don’t simply give dancers a check mark if they perform with expression  — look for what those expressions say about the dancers and what the dance means to them.

In the words of LaTasha, “Recognize the stereotypes, and shut them down.”

And rise above them.


Huge thanks to LaTasha Barnes, who was a paid consultant (and contributor) for this post. LaTasha is a renown international educator and Tradition-Bearer of Black Social dance forms, as well as a mastered Ethnochoreologist, Black and Performance Studies Scholar. She is also an obsessive lover of Christmas movies.

Additional Notes

  • Most biographical information for this post was from Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman, and Swinging at the Savoy: the memoir of a jazz dancer by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen. Something that is interesting to note: Norma hardly mentions the experience of filming the scene at all in her book. Before hand, she goes in depth discussing how Ethel Waters helped Willa Mae Ricker and the rest of her group realize they were being exploited by Whitey, and after, discusses returning home to fight exhaustion and witness the Count Basie verses Benny Goodman battle, events she obviously thought were more important to cover in more detail.
  • Whitey’s first-tier of performers, Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs, had a contract working at the Cotton Club at the time A Day at the Races was being filmed. Frankie was in charge of that group, and when people asked him if he was jealous not to be in A Day at the Races because he was working at the Cotton Club, he always said that he never was — as performing at The Cotton Club was a huge honor.
  • Most of what we say about the filmmakers are about them supporting racist ideals of the time. For the record, the Marx Brothers were incredible humorists. The fact they held some beliefs common of their time, even if they were arguably progressive but still unhealthy in hindsight, should not stop people from enjoying the positive things about their artistry. It should merely put their work as a hole in better context. For his part, Groucho Marx said in the 1960s that though he liked minstrel shows, having grown up on them, he felt it was wrong to have them in the modern age.

5 responses to “A Gaze into A Day at the Races”

  1. […] Mildred Cruse and Billie Williams joined with Frankie Manning’s performance group, which did bookings at the most prestigious Harlem clubs like The Cotton Club and the Apollo. And in March of 1937, the definitely real Ella & George, Willa Mae & Snookie, and Norma & 1935’s HMB champion, Leon James, would all go on tour with Ethel Waters. We know they were the definitely real George and Ella now because Ethel’s tour would take them to the Black nightclub area on Central Avenue in Los Angeles — the city’s “Little Harlem” — where they would wow some film executives in the crowd, and be asked to be a part of a new Marx Brothers comedy they were about to film called A Day at the Races. […]

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