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
They already have." B.A. Jones
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
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.
Era: 1920’s Harlem, The Savoy Ballroom and The Birth of Lindy Hop
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
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:
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.
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
“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.
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'".
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.
|“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.|
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.
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
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
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.
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
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”
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
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!
quotes are from “Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy
Hop”, by Frankie Manning and Cynthia R. Millman. Temple
University Press, 2007
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 www.frankie100.com