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The Rise of the Big Apple

February 4, 2021

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Big Apple IR

 

Guess what? You can listen to a reading of this article at the Integrated Rhythm podcast! Just subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, or check it out on YouTube here

 

Summer, 1937. Just a couple weeks after the 3rd annual Harvest Moon Ball in August, the Black American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier published an article trying to explain a new popular dancing experience taking over the ballrooms called the “Big Apple.” And, as we shall see, the dance’s future was entwined with the Harvest Moon Ball in a small but meaningful way.

Origins

The “Big Apple” was a specific way Black Americans were social dancing at a synagogue-turned-club called The Big Apple Club in Columbia, South Carolina. Dancers would be in a large circle, and a dancer would call out steps.

This dancing almost certainly has its roots in two places: first and foremost, in the ring shouts of the Black peoples of the Carolinas and Georgia — most notably the Gullah peoples — where dancers stood and moved counter clockwise in a circle in spiritual dance. (And those ring shouts almost certainly have their roots in West African dance cultures, where dance is most often shared through individual movement and a circle of one’s community. Sound familiar? Jam circles are also part of that lineage.) When Big Apple historian Judy Pritchett visited the club — which still stands — she hypothesized the spiritual nature of the dancing being done at the Big Apple club was perhaps encouraged by the stained glass windows in the club, holdovers from its days as a Jewish house of worship.

The second place the dance possibly has roots is in the local “square dances” of those regions, dances with called steps like the Virginia Reel. 

(By the way, Big Apple historian Judy Pritchett speculates that it’s possible the calling of dance steps in White American dances like in the Virginia Reel might have come from Black American culture. Traditionally, 1800s European popular folk dances were learned as choreography, and the calling of a dance, or the playing of a specific song, would mean the execution of that choreography. Think Jane Austin movies. In the South, during enslavement and after, Black people were commonly sought after by Whites as dance musicians. Those Black musicians might very well have been the first people in known European-American cultural dance history to take announcing the next dance  and turn it into actually announcing the next steps as they happened, similar to what they would have done in ring shouts and Black American worship services. Further research is needed in this, it’s just a speculation.)

Here is a spread done on the Big Apple club from the News-Press in Fort Myer, Florida (Aug 15, 1937): 

Big Apple spread News_Press_Sun__Aug_15__1937_

(If you are curious about the “Praise Allah” ending, it perhaps links to the fact that the West African peoples brought over for enslavement often had strong roots in Muslim culture, due to a millennia of cultural interaction with East African Muslim cultures.) 

The Big Apple club had a balcony, where the women sat during its days as a synagogue. As a Black dance club, that balcony became a popular spot for local White teenagers and college students to go and watch the dancing. They took it back to their schools and universities for their dances and proms — for instance, it was reportedly performed at the University of South Carolina’s graduation dance a couple months before the 1937 Harvest Moon Ball would take place in New York. Those students of the area then went on summer break to the Carolina beaches, where the dance spread like wildfire to all the other students on vacation there, and was reported on by journalists who used the summer beaches to catch up on the latest trends. Thankfully, rather than ignoring its origin, a lot of those students told people where they got it from, which is often mentioned in many of the first articles detailing the dance. By July, it was being written about throughout the South-East Coast:

1937-big-apple-early-mention-richmond_times_dispatch_wed__jul_21__1937_.jpg

Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 21, 1937

Quick But Important Detour: The Language of 1930s White American Media

There can be so much cultural subtext in these old articles that we arguably don’t have the proper time to responsibly unpack it all. But we want to go over a few basics: on the one hand, the journalist above has got a handle on the basic concept that Black Americans have traditionally taken elements of White Euro-American culture and created new art forms by combining them with their own cultural elements — and that those art forms then become very trendy among White people. Note they say that when that’s done, “The dance passes back to the White South,” passively, as if the Black people involved had any real choice in that. In our majority White society, White people taking up Black culture’s art form has traditionally not involved the opinions of the Black community in the process. Also, the columnist seems to think the Black American cultural elements come “out of the air” — instead of centuries of distinctive Black cultural creation and artistic labor by Black Americans, on top of their obvious ties to their African heritage and the incorporation of some of those passed-down elements in their artistic values.

Finally, the article ends with “All of which proves nothing important, except that culture’s got rhythm.” Angry sigh. This sentence miraculously both erases the importance of Black contribution to American art, and then ends with the racist stereotype that Black people have good rhythm.

For three HMB essays and several other newspaper-researched articles so far, we’ve shown you 1930s articles about Black people and their dancing that mention rhythm like it’s a newspaper regulation. That won’t change very much in the decade after, but we need to address this stereotype and why it exists, even if just briefly.

It is true that West African music and culture emphasizes rhythm heavily, much more than European music — specifically, it emphasizes a layering of rhythmic momentum and polyrhythms that create in many listeners the need to move to the music and experience it corporeally. It’s one reason dance and rhythm are so interconnected in African cultures — they emphasize music that makes people move. That artistic value has been passed down over generations and is still an important part of Black people’s different distinctive cultures today.  Think of how rhythmic and inherently danceable Afro-Cuban, Reggae, Swing, and Hip Hop are, for instance. Emphasizing rhythm has also passed down as a value in Black American dance. For instance, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, and numerous other pioneers of jazz dance have at some point said the rhythm is the most important component of Lindy Hop.

In Euro-centric cultures, however, rhythm is not as heavily valued, and therefore those who value it so much are considered “other” and thought of as not as artistically advanced as those with European artistic values. It also just so happens that drums, being one of the oldest instruments in the world, are the musical foundation of many indigenous peoples throughout the non-European world. And as such, Euro-centric culture over the last few hundred years has equated drumming and rhythm with “uncivilized” culture and even “savagery.” The obvious racism of this is apparent. But during the Jazz and Swing eras, a specific twist on this was very popular among progressives — the exotic “jungle” racism of the “noble savage.” Some of the more obvious examples of this in action are Josephine Baker dancing topless in her banana skirt, or Duke Ellington playing “jungle music” in the Cotton Club, a Whites-only club that featured this racial mentality — the same club regarded by many as the zenith of Black American performance, where Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers occasionally performed.

So, basically, every time a newspaper article from this era brings up Black people and rhythm, the historical social context underneath it is either “noble savage,” or simply, “savage.”

It’s also important to note that although rhythm may be culturally valued, it is by no means “natural” in Black Americans. And believing that to be true does two insidious things: first, it devalues the incredibly hard work that many Black musicians and dancers have done in order to achieve superb rhythm. Second, it implies that those Black Americans who struggle with rhythm are “broken,” or not “as Black” as others. This stereotype is so powerful that these Black Americans can also struggle with their cultural identity over it, and be taunted across cultures.

Having discussed these things, here’s another Big Apple article with some problems common of the time. Take a moment to read it over and think about what those problems are, and how they paint an unfair portrait of both Black Americans and Black American art.

 

The Craze

Alright, back to the Big Apple. By September of 1937, just a few months after its debut in Carolina and Virginia beaches, The Pittsburgh Courier was already reporting the dance was being done in Harlem. In his book, Frankie says that the Big Apple performance even replaced the weekly Lindy Hop contest after a while, at least during the Big Apple’s popularity.

The Big Apple became huge, and did so fast. In its home state, the Aiken Standard (a small South Carolina city’s paper) reported on July 16th that the original Big Apple Club had to bar Whites from going into the club because they were swarming the place. (Fascinating, right? Sadly it doesn’t say anything more than that about the situation.) Big Apple performance groups, both White and Black, came out of Columbia. A Black group performed regionally but suffered a horrible accident while travelling where two of its members were killed. The White group ended up doing a residency at the Roxy theater in New York.

And the dance craze soon became mentioned all over the country’s newspapers. One search in our newspaper archive for “Big Apple dance” in 1937 gave around 2,000 results, in newspapers from almost every single state, all of them from July and after. (For comparison, there were around 1,000 results for “Lindy Hop” mentioned in newspapers nationwide that entire year — and hundreds of those were from the Harvest Moon Ball announcements and articles.)

We’d like to take a moment to remind the readers that The Big Apple wasn’t simply just a new dance — like 1937’s “new” partnership dance the Shag, or 1937’s “new” Harlem solo dance step, pecking. A new dance step came along fairly often. The Big Apple, for many, was a whole new way of experiencing social jazz dance — in a circle of dancers, based on call-and-response, with dancers or couples taking turns shining — and it was a very Black American way to experience dance. And for many, “that was part of its appeal,” mentioned Big Apple historian Judy Pritchett, “Even and especially in the segregated South.” Once again, White America fell in love with a Black American expression of art, even while fearing, threatening, and distancing itself from, Black Americans.     

It was during the first crucial months of its  popularity that Herbert “Whitey” White learned about the craze and went to the Roxy to see the visiting Big Apple dancers perform. He took notes, writing down everything he saw. And by October, some form of Big Apple was already being performed at the Savoy

Whitey also got his notes to Frankie Manning, who was out with a team in California, preparing to perform for the upcoming Judy Garland film Everybody Sing. Whitey knew the dance craze was popular and wanted his dancers to be the first to put it in a film. In the grand tradition that still carries on with instructors to our very own dancing generation, Frankie Manning worked on the project in the lobby of the hotel. For the scene, he did a “called” a version for the Whitey’s dancers — though as it was for film, it’s possible it was all or mostly choreographed, and the calls were merely performed to make it appear in-the-moment.

Big apple circle

Savoy dancers around the “Apple” platform used for the Savoy Big Apple performances. Leon James is standing on the Apple. Photo provided by the late Lance Benishek.

According to IMDB, Everybody Sing was in production from September 2 through the end of that year, so the memory certainly matches up, time-wise. As per usual, Whitey went out to be on location for the filming. One day, when Judy Garland got to take a break one day and the well-worked Whitey’s didn’t, Whitey got in an argument with the director. Rather than back down to the director, Whitey told the dancers to sit down, which they did. Frankie doesn’t say when they stood back up again, but he does imply they eventually finished filming the scene. When the film came out, the former prize-fighter Whitey had learned the hard way how Hollywood could fight back: the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers — and the first Whitey’s Big Apple sequence on film — was nowhere to be seen. The movie had been rewritten. Instead of going to Harlem, Judy Garland went to Chinatown.

It is important to note that along with the stories of Whitey’s manipulation and profit-seeking, as Frankie remembered, Whitey also had a great deal of respect for his dancers and the dance. It’s also a reminder of what could happen when Black Americans demanded respect in show business — their art wasn’t seen. The two things are connected: Whitey stood up for his dancers, and the world didn’t get that Whitey’s Lindy Hop performance.

Another interesting thing appears in newspapers in October of 1937, a few weeks after the Harvest Moon Ball: the mentioning of a group called The Arthur Murray Shag Dancers. They created a film short called “The Big Apple.”  According to historians Lance Benishek and Forrest Outman, the dance instructor and ballroom owner Arthur Murray had heard about the Big Apple and went looking for it in clubs in New York, but couldn’t find it. So, he hired the visiting Big Apple performers at the Roxy theater to teach it to him. (Also fun fact: the story goes, it was while searching for the Big Apple in New York dance halls that Murray realized how big Shag was, and decided to start adding it to his curriculum.)

We don’t know what originally inspired Murray to start his own swing dance performance group, but, as a major force in the New York professional dance scene, and as a judge at the Harvest Moon Ball for the last three years, it certainly couldn’t have escaped his attention that there was a group called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers that seemed to be doing pretty well in the world of exciting swing dance performance and competition. The Shag and the Big Apple were the new popular dances — not to mention the newest wildfire crazes among his own market of White Americans — and so it sounds possible Arthur Murray could have started asking himself, “What would Whitey do?”

And do some of those dancers in Arthur Murray’s “Big Apple” performance clip look familiar? That’s because Murray’s Shag Dancers were Shag dancers from the 1937 Harvest Moon Ball. He was quick — he mentioned he would be using the HMB dancers in a film on the Big Apple within the few days after the contest.

1937 Shag dancers do big apple film Richmond_Times_Dispatch_Tue__Oct_5__1937_

According to Big Apple historian Judy Pritchett, up until this point, Murray had been only moderately famous as a dance expert — the Big Apple craze made Arthur Murray. Before the Big Apple, Murray had only a few dance studios with his name on the door. Only a year or two after, there were hundreds across America. 

So, Arthur Murray had noticed both the Big Apple and the Shag trend blossoming in New York at around the same time, and hired a bunch of young dancers right out of the 1937 Harvest Moon Ball Shag finals to make a performance group, with his name on it, that would do tours and make films on both the Big Apple and the Shag. How “Whitey” is that?

The Big Apple would be performed at The Savoy for several more years. 1935’s Harvest Moon Ball champion Leon James, and fellow Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Eunice Callen, would become favorite step-callers at the Savoy. At some point, they even built a round platform for the caller to stand on. (Late historian Terry Monnaghan has said it was apple-shaped, but we personally have not seen pictures that show its shape clearly.) After calling out dance steps for a while, the caller would call out a leader and a follower to come out (or up onto the platform) and dance together. The raised platform, the story goes, was just a little too small to comfortably do acrobatic partnered dancing on, not that that necessarily stopped them. There’s even a film showing scenes from one of the Whitey’s Big Apple performances in the Savoy:

In the film, you see Leon James in a white suit in the center of a ring of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, with Whitey looking on from the side. There is also Billie Williams and Mildred Cruse, Norma Miller and George Greenidge, Mildred Pollard, Joe Daniels and Joyce James, and possibly even Eddie “Shorty” Davis all dancing in the circle. This clip is almost certainly from August 12, 1938. (See notes at end for a geek out on how we know.)

We realized the Big Apple patterns looked familiar, and rearranged the footage from the original film reel, and modern Lindy Hoppers will probably recognize the result:

The reason Lindy Hoppers will recognize the order of steps is because, finally, two years after the craze hit, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers finally got to perform a Big Apple for another film, the famous scene in 1939’s Keep Punching. It’s possible that by the time of filming the Savoy Big Apple in 1938 above, the Whitey’s were either simply performing the routine, and the caller was there for the look — or, the called parts of the dance had become mostly the exciting, intricate, large pieces of the routine.    

Today in the scene, the Big Apple is most often performed and danced socially as the Keep Punching choreography. But it’s important to remember that the Keep Punching choreography was only one version of the Big Apple, frozen in time. Frankie himself often taught it differently each time he taught it in classrooms. It’s an incredible choreography, but only experiencing the Big Apple the one way is arguably missing the constantly changing spirit of the original Big Apple jazz dance, which is a unique Black American dancing experience. Though some local scenes still occasionally do a called Big Apple, we think it is often thought of as more of a novelty. Perhaps when our social dancing scene lives again, we can try letting the original Big Apple live again.  

The Big Apple Club is now owned by Lindy Hoppers who are preserving it in its original form and using it as a community art center.

For a great Big Apple history film, check out Judy Pritchett‘s documentary Dancing the Big Apple.”

For a fantastic article diving deeper into the history of the Big Apple, check out the history Marcus Koch wrote with insight from historian Lance Banisheck for Rock That Swing, here.

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Notes

We have not personally seen an accurate date labeled on the Savoy Big Apple footage. So then, how did we confidently get 1938 for the year of this clip? It’s a little bit of a spoiler alert for the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball essay, but here it is: the reason why is because the footage of the dance contest mixed with the Big Apple footage is definitely footage from the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball Dance prelims at the Savoy. Those took place on Aug 12, 1938. 

We know this because of several reasons we will go into in that essay, but the surest proof is that we have pictures from the newspaper that match the contestants’ clothing and numbers. However, that alone isn’t as strong a reason as you might think, because, in our experience, newsreel companies would go into their vaults of past footage in order to fill out their content — they could have easily spliced a Big Apple Harlem performance from a year earlier with the HMB prelim’s contest footage. But it just so happens that several of the Lindy Hoppers in this Big Apple performance are also in the prelims of the contest, wearing the same clothes. Hence, August 12, 1938. (BTW, there’s also different footage of Whitey’s performing at the Savoy that just so happens to be definitely better marked as 1938. In this one, they’re sweating in their Whitey’s varsity jackets, with tiny bits of Big Apple shown among their jamming and ending choreographies.)

Sources & Thanks

  • HUGE THANKS to Forrest Outman and Judy Pritchett for sharing their time, resources, expertise, and insight with me in working on this piece. 
  • When not otherwise stated, all other information regarding the opinions and experiences of the original dancers is 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.
  • Huge thanks to Jessica Miltenberger for her help in reviewing and editing the piece.

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