In the past few months we have covered two specific groups of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in detail:
In A Gaze into A Day at the Races we learned about Norma Miller’s main group in 1937. And in Whitey’s Lindy Hopping Maniacs at the Savoy, we learned about Frankie Manning’s main group in this same time period. And in the 1935, and especially the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball essay, we learned about the nationally-spotlighted contests that helped shape these groups.
Having gone through these early years in depth, we think it’s important to talk about the way some dancers today might perceive these groups thanks to the main retrospectives on the era available to the scene — 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. And even if you’re not a big geek about this stuff, we think it still raises some fundamentally important points about the past.
In Frankie’s memoir (pg. 123), he mentions how he was leading the top-tier Whitey’s group that was doing a gig at the Cotton Club in 1937, at the same time the other group was touring with Ethel Waters. (You can read about them here.) He says Whitey “put together his number-two group” to perform with Ethel.
Norma, however, remembers it this way: she says Whitey was preparing Frankie’s group to replace them, implying that Norma’s Ethel Waters touring group was the A-team and Whitey was getting annoyed with her group’s new demands for better pay and working conditions (pg. 127).
Though they might appear to be contradictory stories, it’s important to remember that even though we’re dealing with incredible dancing pioneers, we’re also dealing with human beings. And both Frankie and Norma were very competitive in their dancing. By 1937, Frankie was heading a pool of dancers that performed at the Apollo and the Cotton Club — widely regarded as the highest echelon of Black performance — as well as performing around the Northeast. As a team, they worked together often and were finely-honed. They were likely the group Frankie tried out many of his early air step and choreographic innovations with.
Meanwhile, Norma’s group had veteran Lindy Hop performers and top-placing Harvest Moon Ball dancers just like Frankie’s team, and were touring the entire country, not just New York. And both she and Leon James had previously traveled Europe on tour, the first (though not the last) of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers to do so. Norma mentions in her memoir that Frankie and Leon were Herbert Whitey’s best dancers and each had their own place in Whitey’s heart, implying they were in some ways like sons to him. Norma’s group had Leon James — who was the most veteran dancer in the groups, and the first Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Hop winner. From this perspective, it would be understandable if she saw their national traveling team as the top tier group. (In contrast to Frankie’s group, we don’t know what air step and choreographic innovations this group might have been up to, as that information was not passed down in history. Norma tended to concentrate more on stories of life as a Lindy Hopper in the era, rather than discussing innovations and creativity in the dance as Frankie often did in his book. But almost certainly all Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were taking part in innovating and creating.)
It’s also important to remember the source of both Frankie and Norma’s comparison: Herbert White. By all accounts, Whitey knew how to manipulate people. Just one example, for those who don’t know much about him: Norma remembered one time when Willa Mae Ricker and Snookie Beasely — feeling exploited by Whitey — had taken a job without telling him. When Whitey confronted Snookie, he intimidated and hit the young dancer. When he confronted Willa Mae, he dropped his lower lip and, with “tears in his eyes,” asked her “how could you do this to me?”
It does not seem out of character for him to make each group believe they were his top act. And if he did lead each one to believe they were, both groups had good reason to believe him. So perhaps it’s Whitey’s opinion we’re also seeing reflected on both Frankie and Norma’s accounts, and, therefore, his hierarchy of values. For instance, he could very easily have valued loyalty (and the arguably the profitability that comes with it), over either group’s resume and skill, especially when both were so impressive.
This is all conjecture. But, regardless of where each group was in Whitey’s eye, we should all take the opportunity now to reframe these groups in our head — if you have been thinking of one of these groups as “the best” by taking one dancer’s word for it over the other (as we did until doing this research), take a step back and don’t worry about how they compared to the other. Simply remember they were both two of the greatest early Lindy Hop performance groups in the world.
In general, something we’re reflecting a lot on is that we should be careful when applying superlatives to the original dancers, and when framing our ideas about them around those superlatives. That can cut us off from honoring other dancers and their legacies deservedly. Our primary accounts of this era are richly detailed and full of wisdom, but these memoirs only represent two perspectives out of many — a wellspring of knowledge that runs deep but narrow. (For instance, Frankie mentions Whitey had three main groups at this time, the third being John “Tiny” Bunch’s — what would he have said regarding all of this, had he been asked about it?) Though Frankie and Norma were certainly gifted dancers, choreographers, and innovators, Harlem Lindy Hop history was filled with individual dancing voices capable of amazing feats of dancing ability and expression.
We hope, like us, you’ll revisit some of those Harlem Lindy clips with fresh eyes, and find inspiration in some perhaps overlooked places.
Huge thanks to Judy Pritchett for helping review this material in its middle stages, and to Jessica Miltenberger for help in editing it.