Thursday, April 03, 2014

Harlem's Heritage: Lindy Hop and Swing Dance…. Frankie Manning and His Influences Harlem Roots -World Impact

Part 2 -The Beginnings: Influences and Innovators - the 1920's thru 1935

"Never doubt or underestimate that a small group of dedicated dancing Harlemites can change the American tapestry of dance - and the world. 

They already have."  B.A. Jones

Culture...Dance...Jazz....Lindy Hop...SAVOY....Swing!  These are the lively rhythms and sounds of Harlem that came alive during the Harlem Renaissance.  This was especially true at Harlem's famed Savoy Ballroom that was on West 140th Street and Lenox Avenue.

It was at this landmark venue where a new dance called the Lindy Hop was perfected, and one of its innovators groomed this dance to new heights.  His name?  Frankie Manning.  Such was his influence and vision that in May of 2014 there will be an international celebration in New York City and Harlem of this Lindy Hop Legend.

In Part 2 of this series celebrating Harlem’s historic dance and its history makers, we’ll go back to Harlem’s humble beginnings and its most celebrated era of culture, music, jazz, and dance.

Before Lindy Hop Legend Frankie Manning and The Whitey's Lindy Hoppers hailed as a premier group from the Savoy Ballroom there was another legendary pioneer group of youngsters leading the way with innovation and steps - that influenced Frankie.

This group started a trend in Harlem's Savoy Ballroom that continued for close to 30 years.  And Mr. George "Shorty" Snowden lead the way also, as legend has it, in naming what was to become a national dance craze of its time.

 A Classic Era: 1920’s Harlem, The Savoy Ballroom and The Birth of Lindy Hop

The Cultural Renaissance of the 1920s raised the profile of African American vernacular culture in whitecommunities within the United States, but in particular in New York. The HARLEM Renaissance: The popularity of African American dance and music - became a fascination. Harlem's increasing popularity as an entertainment district, as well as a vibrant creative center for African Americans in the 1920s and 1930s eventually saw both the creation and popularizing of Lindy Hop.  This happened both in social dance spacesand on the stage.

Did you know there were over 30 ballrooms in Harlem at one point for social dancing and special events?  Long before TV and the internet, folks were out dancing to the sounds of jazz, blues and more!  Just to name a few top ones: There was the Renaissance Ballroom (or the Renny), the Golden Gate, the Dunbar, the Alhambra, The Rockland Palace and the Audubon. 

But the one where Lindy Hop was honed, crafted and developed was the Savoy Ballroom.

 The Crown Jewel of Harlem: Savoy Ballroom

The Savoy has been described as the largest
and most elegant ballroom Harlem ever had…

Owned by Moe Gale, a Jewish man, and managed by Charles Buchanan, a black man, the Savoy Ballroom opened its doors on March 12, 1926 right in the middle of Harlem, between 140th and 141st Streets on Lenox Avenue. The vision of the two young men created one of the first racially integrated public places in the country.  The ballroom was on the second floor of a two-story building stretching the entire block. The block long ballroom, 50 by 200 feet, had two bandstands, colored spotlights and a spring-loaded wooden dance floor. Approximately 700,000 patrons visited the ballroom annually.

Over 250 name and semi-name bands were featured at the Savoy. The most famous house band was led by Chick Webb, and later came to feature a singer named Ella Fitzgerald.  Webb’s popularity and musicianship had him come to be known as “The Savoy King”
Two bandstands allowed continuous live music all night, and provided the stage for the famous battles of bands. The most famous was the battle of Chick Webb vs. Benny Goodman, when both bands were at the crest of their popularity.
Herbert White, a.k.a. Whitey, an ex-boxer and bouncer at the Savoy, organized and cultivated a group of young Lindy Hoppers.  Eventually he had them appear in theaters around the world as well as in films.   According to Norma Miller in her memoirs  Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer:  “The Savoy played an enormous and largely unrecognized role in the history of jazz. The Savoy should always be remembered along with the men and women who created music that America danced to… they deserve the admiration and respect of all who love good music.”

The Savoy Ballroom was built for black patrons, and for the first time in history a beautiful ballroom was made even more beautiful with no segregation.

 The Lindy Hop: Harlem’s Signature Cultural Dance 

 The Origins and Name
 The origins of the name 'Lindy Hop' are still debated in Lindy Hop communities today... almost 90 years later.  A very influential revived was started back in the 1980’s by American, Swedish and British Dancers.  And since that time Lindy Hop and Swing dancing is enjoyed throughout North America, South America, Europe, Asia...  seemingly everywhere than where it began…

“Lindy”: In one account it is argued that, in the slang of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a 'Lindy' was a young woman.  The word "hop" has been documented as early as 1913 as a term for swing dancing, used by early Texas Tommy dancers to describe the basic move for their dance.

In the more colorful account dancer "Shorty" George Snowden renamed the breakaway dance as the Lindy Hop in a dance contest. Snowden was one of the 24 couples that competed in a negro dance marathon that began on June 17, 1928 at the Manhattan Casino, a ballroom that was located at 8th Avenue and 155th Street in Harlem (later to become the Rockland Palace ). During the contest Snowden stated that he decided to do a breakaway:  fling his partner out and improvise a few solo steps of his own. Fox Movietone News was there to cover the marathon, and took close-ups of Shorty's feet.   An interviewer asked him what was he doing with his feet, and Snowden replied 'The Lindy'".

Whether Snowden meant it or not, Lindy Hop became associated with Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic airplane flight, completed in 1927 ("Lindy" was the aviator's nickname).  This three way association between the aviator, George Snowden and the dance continues in Lindy Hop folklore.

Lindy Hop was a combined number of dances popular in the United States in the 1920s and earlier, many of which developed in African American communities. Just as jazz music emerged as a dominant art form that blended and joined with other forms of music, the Lindy Hop could absorb and integrate with other forms of dance. 

 For many Lindy Hop historians, the Charleston has Lindy Hop's basic footwork and timing. The transition from Charleston to Lindy Hop came by means of the Breakaway, a partner dance which introduced the 'Swing out' and 'open position' of dances such as the Texas Tommy to the 'closed position' and footwork of partnered Charleston.  As jazz music in the late 1920s changed likewise did jazz dances.

Frankie Manning in his memoirs Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop stated that “the Lindy Hop developed out of three social dances being in done in Harlem in the late 20’s: the Charleston, the collegiate and the breakaway.”  The Lindy Hop rode on the popular trend of the Charleston and took it further… so much so that the Lindy swept the country in the mid thirties.

Often referred to as the "first generation" of Lindy Hop, dancers such as George Snowden, Leroy "Stretch" Jones, Twist Mouth George and Edith Matthews inspired many other dancers and troupes (including Frankie Manning) to take up Lindy Hop.  Gradually the Lindy Hop was danced across Harlem in ballrooms, night clubs, cabaret clubs, rent parties, private apartments, and street parties — almost anywhere people came together with music to dance!

George Snowden – Pioneer and Innovator

“Shorty” George Snowden ranks among the most famous of the original Lindy Hop dancers at the Savoy Ballroom and had a huge impact on the dance as it developed. He was the reigning dance champion at Savoy, until up-and-comer Frankie Manning and Frieda Washington unseated him in a dance contest at the Savoy Ballroom in 1935 in which they introduced the first airstep to Lindy Hop.

This pioneer group set the pattern and wave for many other Harlemites who were intrigued with Lindy Hop.  George Snowden is immortalized and honored with the famous dance “The Shorty George” being named after him.  And the Shorty Snowden Trio was the first professional dance team to take the dance out of the Savoy with performances. It included the three couples you see pictured.
 There has been a lot written about this dance master – here is but one of many links  And below see him and his partner  Big Bea strut their stuff

Enter Frankie Manning

Frankie Manning got his start as a teenager at the Alhambra (still standing on West 126th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard), and then worked his way to the Renaissance Ballroom (the shell of which is on West 138th  Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard).  After that he “graduated” to the Savoy Ballroom which was located on Lenox Avenue and West 140th Street (the Savoy Park House are now there).  Frankie was lured into the Savoy by hearing the great swing bands of the day and seeing dancers from the Savoy go to the Renny… and show off their smooth moves! Since the new dance craze of the Lindy Hop was being honed there he just had to go.

In his words: “The Savoy was the ballroom because it had the best orchestras, and from that they got the best dancers.  Even though a lot of people went to ballrooms to listen to music, back then bands played for the dancers… they were called dance bands.  Band leaders knew the temps that would keep people on the floor, and played a range from slow to fast to please us”

Norma Miller, The Queen of Swing:  A Reminiscence 

 Norma Miller is a Lindy Hop Legend and versatile Entertainer willing to share her cherished insights.  She continues to entertain, teach, dance, write, travel and more at the ripe young age of 94!

Norma lived right across the street from the Savoy, with a birds eye view to the music and more.  She first entered the Savoy at the age of 13 with the help of Twist Mouth George on Easter Sunday 1932 to be his dance partner. However she, like Frankie Manning, worked her way up to the Savoy thru dancing at other ballrooms first…

According to Norma Herbert “Whitey” White had two main dancers: Leon James and Frankie Manning. He was determined to take Lindy around the world.  However Whitey “picked Frankie. You could see it in his eyes as he watched him dance – the love of a proud father.  Frankie represented everything that was the best in Lindy Hop dancing.  He could execute, swing, lift a girl effortlessly, and never miss a beat”.  Through Frankie Whitey could see Lindy Hop going professional, and despite this seeming favoritism Frankie did not think of himself only. Through Frankie’s efforts Whitey eventually invited him and his friends to be a part of Whiteys superior dancers on the 141st street side of the building (came to be known as Cats Corner).

The First Harvest Moon Ball - and Harlem’s influence


In the beginning the Harvest Moon Ball was held usually on a Tuesday or Wednesday in August or September and was sponsored by the Daily News in New York (News Welfare Association, Inc.This contest ran for nearly 50 years and was highly popular.

Prelims would be in many clubs and ballrooms thru-out the city… such as the Savoy Ballroom, (later the Savoy Manor) and even the Roseland Ballroom.  There were six to seven contest divisions one could enter, and in the coming years would include Rumba, Conga, Lindy Hop, Jitterbug Jive, Fox Trot, Rock and Roll, Polka, Tango Waltz and even the Hustle.  At the end of the contest an “All Around Champion” was awarded.  Prizes included cash, medals and trophies … and in later years a spot on the famed Ed Sullivan television program.

This contest was to become very famous around the world: It’s official song and theme was “Shine On, Harvest Moon”.  The music at these contests were provided by first class musicians of the times such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tito Puente, Nan Rodrigo, Machito, etc. 
Here is a glimpse of the 1935 event

Harlem in 1935: Norma Miller recalls....

“Every weekend I fell into the fantasy world of the Savoy…  I was blind to the frustration and anger building…  But in March 1935 the rage exploded and could no longer be ignored”

Norma Miller
 By 1930 Harlem had an almost entirely black community numbering more than 200,000.  This number would swell and eventually have Harlem termed as The Black Mecca.

But the spark that led to an explosion in Harlem began at 2:30 in the afternoon on March 19, 1935. The rumor was that Lino Rivera, a sixteen-year-old black Puerto Rican, had been beaten by an employee at the Kress Five and Ten store (just across the street from the Apollo Theater) after Rivera had tried to shoplift a 10-cent penknife.

According to reports the employee admitted to intending to “‘beat the hell out of’” Rivera, and Rivera acknowledged that he had bitten the hand of the employee in the struggle.  This led to the police calling an ambulance. In the meantime, a crowd had begun to gather outside around a woman who had witnessed Rivera's apprehension and was shouting that Rivera was being beaten.  When the ambulance and a hearse coincidently arrived at the scene, a rumor spread  like wild fire that Rivera had been murdered. The crowd became a mob increasing in size … and in utter protest and anger stores were looted and vandalized.  Over 600 windows were smashed, deaths occurred and hundreds of thousands in damages. The devastation continued until the next day.

According to Norma Miller eventually a meeting was called between Mr. Charles Buchanan, Whitey and two men from the Daily News to discuss a dance contest.  The Daily News wanted to boost the city’s morale as well after the riot, and felt a city-wide competition with the Savoy Ballroom in there featuring Lindy Hop would be good exposure and morale for all. 

There were concerns for Whitey and Mr. Buchanan that the dance had broken away from the traditional dance aesthetics, and about judges judging a new dance that in their minds may have inappropriate standards.  After that initial meeting Whitey had an intense meeting with his favorites Leon James and Frankie Manning - before Norma and the rest of the group would know the full situation.

Later she states “when we learned about the contest we were told it was our chance to put Lindy on the map, and we needed to start rehearsing yesterday.  Whitey told us that we would meet at the ballroom daily and work out routines”.

The first official start date was in the Fall of 1935 at Madison Square Garden....  and we will wet your appetite with that incredible story in our third installment in February 2014. Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Leon James and other enthusiastic and innovative Harlem youth would be on their way - BIG time!

Contributor: Barbara Jones


Frankie Manning quotes are from “Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop”, by Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman.  Temple University Press, 2007

Norma Miller quotes are from “Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer”, by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen.  Temple University Press, 2001

To learn about the May 2014, The 5 Day Frankie Manning Centennial Festival and World Lindy Hop Day in Harlem please go to

To take lessons for dancing Lindy Hop and Swing dance socially contact The Harlem Swing Dance Society (THSDS) at or 347 – 709 - 7022