The atmosphere is electric and a buzz of anticipation runs through the crowd as spectators squeeze around the edge of the dance floor. Meanwhile, the dancers are preparing themselves on the side like prize fighters ready to enter the ring, stretching their bodies or restlessly shuffling from foot to foot, mentally running through choreographies and pre-prepared combinations of old and new tricks they know they will have to pull out of the bag when the time is right if they are going to make an impression. This is not any ordinary Lindy Hop contest, this is 1935, it’s Saturday night and we are at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.
Both audience and dancers know what’s coming, this is more than just another weekly Saturday night contest at the Savoy, where great dancers compete for $40 in prizes, this is not just about the money, this is a battle about being able to hold your head up high, of personal prestige amongst your peers. On this night, two teams of three couples will go head to head to find out who is going to be crowned the best of the best.
This is the end of the Jazz age and the beginning of a new swing era, these six couples are all pioneers in their own right. It’s their hard work, skills and creativity alongside a desire to be the best that created a new dance form that today, over 80 years on, dancers from all across the world, from all walks of life, from America and Europe to China and Russia, young and old alike are still discovering afresh today: the Lindy Hop.
Shorty Snowden's dancers: Madeline and Freddie Lewis, Big Bea, Leroy “Stretch” Jones, Little Bea and Shorty George Snowden
Just imagine the two teams on opposing corners: the first team out will be from George ‘Shorty’ Snowden, the reigning King of Lindy Hop. He and his group were the first innovators who created the dance, they spent years pounding the floors in dance marathons, competitions and dancing professionally with some of the top bands of their day including the famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra. On the other side, Herbert Whitey’s group of Lindy Hoppers, led by Frankie ‘muscle-head’ Manning, nervous yet at the same time excited about taking on the King and the very dancers they idolised and learned from as they watched and copied. Snowden must have felt threatened by those young upstarts from Whitey’s, armed with their youth and confidence; they needed to be taught a lesson and the world was going to find out if they were ready to challenge the King.
As always at the Savoy they will be judged by the 1000s of spectators who have crammed themselves into the ballroom that night. These are the hardest judges in the world to please, they know the dancers and they know the dance, and they are not afraid to express their opinion good and loud.
The first team out for Snowden is Freddie and his sister Madeline Lewis. They receive a warm welcome and have set the standard for the others to follow. Frankie sends out Billy Williams & Mildred Cruz, the Fred and Ginger of the Lindy world. Next comes Leroy ‘Stretch’ Jones and Little Bea combing grace & flash. Frankie retaliates with Jerome Williams and Lucille Millington: they work the crowd from the git-go and get them on their side. Each couple seems to be topping the one before and the crowd are getting whipped up into a frenzy. Then it’s Snowden himself and Big Bea – he’s barely 5ft and she towers over him at over 6ft tall – and together they tear the house up with plenty of fancy footwork. Boy, they can really move, and finish their routine with their signature step where Big Bea picks up Snowden on her back and walks off as he kicks his legs in the air, to the crowd shouting ‘Shorty! Shorty!’. How’s Frankie going to top that? Frankie comes out last with his partner Frieda Washington. From the stage, Chick Webb asks Frankie what song he wants him to play and he requests a real Swingin’ monster called Down South Camp Meeting. Duke Ellington once called Chick a 'dance-drummer who painted pictures of dances with his drums’. Tonight, Frankie’s dancing and Chick’s playing combine as one as Chick accentuates every one of Manning and Washington’s moves. Then Manning brings out his new finish move: two Swing Outs, a leapfrog, then, from a back to back position, Manning picks up Washington and rolls her over his back, and she lands right on the beat. The crowd suddenly falls silent as they gasp – then seconds later roar their approval as the first Lindy Air Step is born – and a new King is crowned!
Whitey's Lindy Hoppers: Lucille Middleton, Frankie Manning, Naomi Waller, Billie Williams, Mildred Cruse, Jerome Williams
Lindy Hop, and many of its derivatives that were to follow – Jitterbug, Jive, Rock n Roll – were never going to be the same after that night.
A special thanks to the many hours of live talks by Frankie Manning (1914-2009) I was lucky enough to attend over the 23 years I knew him.
You can see little Bea dancing with Snowden in ‘After Seben’: http://www.savoystyle.com/after_seben.html
Hellzapoppin (1941) featuring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers lead by Frankie Manning http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qkthxBsIeGQ
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