07/07/13 By Joseph Powell
A Celebration of The Lindy Hoppers and Their Offspring: LINDY HOP MEETS HAND DANCE
By Joseph Powell
One of the greatest forms of American entertainment was the Big Band Swing era. Thousands of Americans on a weekly basis would flock to their local dance halls to hear the big bands perform. It's popularity ranged from the nineteen twenties all the way up to the mid-fifties. It's stronghold as a entertainment form was displaced by the invention of television and rock n' roll music. Along with hearing great music, patrons could dance along with the tunes the band was playing. This was known as swing dancing. One of the greatest dance venues in the era was the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem New York. The venue not only produced some of the greatest big band playing, it also produced one of the greatest styles of swing dancing. It was called the Lindy Hop which was named after aviator Charles Lindbergh's famous Atlantic flight. The dance was performed by a group called the Lindy Hoppers. Their style of dance proved to be so popular that it inspired other dance styles to be created. The Lindy Hop style still continues to be influential on dancing to this very day. A couple of decades after the Lindy Hop's birth, the Hand Dance was created. It's a dance style that comes out of Washington D.C. and it also continues to this very day.
To celebrate these two dance styles, a three day conference entitled, 'Lindy Hop Meets Hand Dance" was held. It was conceived by the Harlem Swing Dance Society and The National Hand Dance Association from Washington D.C. The event consisted of panel discussions, dance performances, and a dance which highlights both classic styles. It took placed from the dates of May 9th to the 11th.
A cold rainy and windy morning on May 9th didn't stop a crowd from gathering inside the Joseph P. Kennedy Community Center on West 135th street in Harlem, New York. "Hand dance is a descendant of the Lindy Hop and we're delighted to meet and dance with our DC cousins," stated Barbara A. Jones, President of the Harlem Swing Dance Society. The event captured the essence of Mrs. Jones words and more. Those who braved the lousy weather that morning were treated to a first rate display of dance history.
A dance presentation followed the opening remarks which showed the two styles. In the Lindy Hop performances, Michelle Puskes and Milo Saidl came out on the stage to perform the dance style. They captured the mood of the classic dance and it's era which spawned it. The performances by the Hand Dancers were extensive and a little modern in it's style. In the first part, three middle aged couples came out to perform the style. The first dance was done in the 'old school style' to Marvin Gaye's 'How Sweet It Is." The second dance was described by the MC as the 'Bop Style" It was performed to Gaye's "Your Precious Love." They closed out with a dance called 'The Birdland Style." It was described as a dance that was influenced by the late Peg Leg Bates. He was a former dancer and one of the first African Americans to own a resort hotel up in the Catskills region. The next group of dancers were from The National Hand Dance Association Youth and Young Adult Hand Dancers. They consisted of young pre-teens and those in their early twenties. They did contemporary dances to the tunes of hip hop and modern R+B.
The dance performances were followed by a talk by Dr. Katrina Hazzard-Donald, who is one of the nation's leading dance researchers and a professor of Sociology among other subjects at Rutgers University. She gave a very insightful talk regarding the history of dance and it's orgins which started back in Africa. She also talked about the various African dance styles were transported via the slave trade into the various areas of the New World. Dr. Hazzard-Donald also touched upon how these various styles and attitudes still exist to this very day. She demonstrated how people dance, walk, and how they displayed their fits of anger. She was able to show how all these elements indicate what area of the Americas they come from and what regions of Africa these actions originated from.
After the talk, she and co-founder of The New York Swing Dance Society Margaret Batiuchock moderated ad panel discussion. It was entitled, 'The History of Lindy Hop and Hand Dance" and it featured a long table of panelists made up from each group. The Lindy Hop panelists consisted of Norma Miller, George Sullivan, Sugar Sullivan, Sonny Allen, and Dave Butts. They spoke first and reminisced about the dances held at the Savoy Ballroom. One of the first questions Ms.Batiuchock asked, "Why did people admired the Lindy Hoppers so much?" Norma Miller answered with a very direct response, 'We were good-that's why.' Ms. Miller could answer with such ease due to she has been called. 'The Queen of Swing.' She is also one of the few remaining Lindy Hoppers who danced at the Savoy back in the 1930's. She like most on the Lindy panel was born and grew up in Harlem. Sugar Sullivan spoke of dancing at the Savoy back in 1948. She commented on the various dance styles back then in comparison with today's style. She stated, 'One of the main problems today is that people should dance together instead of dancing in competition only.'
The Hand Dancers panelists consisted of James 'Sparky' Green, Lee Ware, Lawrence Bradford and Maxine Grant. The first question posed to them was in regard to the very first dance they ever saw. Lawrence Bradford answered that the first dances he saw was the Charleston and the Jitterbug. Maxine Grant also named the Charleston as her first dance. But she added, 'Dance has allowed me to meet different types of people and helped me developed my social skills.' Lee Ware said, 'Dance bought me out of my shyness.' The Hand Dancers then reflected how dance was a important function in their neighborhoods. 'Dance was everywhere. It was part of our lives. We went dancing with our families.' said Lawrence Bradford. Maxine Grant stated, 'Dance was a big part of our community. It was there in our schools, church socials and so on.' Lee Ware confessed, 'I went to the dances even though I couldn't dance very well when I was young."
Norma Miller injected a very interesting point by adding, 'Dancing kept people off the streets in my era. Drugs happened to people who were idle and weren't involved in anything productive.' James Green added another positive spin by adding, 'The best thing about the dances were seeing the top bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and so many others.'
A very interesting aspect of the talk dealt with geographical location. The Lindy Hoppers come out of the Savoy Ballroom and it's history along with so many other dance and music venues in Harlem has been well documented. It has it's special place in African American, jazz and music history. But it is so well known that the many may find the information to be secondary at this point. But the Hand Dancers talked of a place called, 'Turner's Arena.' A venue which was located in Washington D.C. on 14th Street North West. They described it as the hottest dance venue in Maryland and Virginia area. It was also described as being a elite place for hand dancers in the D.C. area. James Green said, "I went there from the late 40's to the mid 60's when it closed.' All the Hand Dancers seemed to have special memories of the place.
The subject of Turner's Arena bought a fresh insight into the overall topic. Lawrence Bradford stated, 'Hand Dance changed when the Big Band era folded out to early R+B and rock n' roll. Hand dance starts to change.' Comments like that along with topic of Turner's Arena showed a generational difference between the two groups. The Hand Dancers who are middle aged seemed more contemporary than the Lindy Hoppers who were the elders up on the stage. None of the Lindy Hoppers mentioned other New York clubs that came after the Savoy closed down for good in the late 50's. When the history of early rock and roll is discussed, film clips of the dance shows at the old Brooklyn Paramount are always shown. Those teenagers who were burning up the dance floor there and other venues during the golden age of rock and roll are in debt to the Swing era, the Lindy Hoppers and the Savoy Ballroom.
Dr. Hazzard-Donald bought the code of ethics regarding the hand dancing by saying, 'If a girl refused a boy's invitation, she couldn't another one during the same tune.' I found that to be very interesting due to having being rejected by females to dance and then see them accept another guy's invitation during the same tune. Maxine Grant stated, 'People were more respectful. When the tune finished, boys would escort the girls back to their tables. While both sides spoke of good manners were always there on the dance floor, Lawrence Bradford was quick to add, 'However, cutting in was acceptable.'
Both sides agreed that the dance halls were a male dominated culture as compared to today. They pointed out that a trio of dancers would include two men and one woman. Today, the trio is two women and one man. Norma Miller and many Lindy Hoppers confirmed that the best dancers had their own area in the Savoy Ballroom. The Hand Dancers confirmed that the best dancers had their own area, but with lookers and so-so dancers watching them. The discussion finished out with both sides discussing how the dancers and musicians were not only influenced by the music and rhythms, but by each other as well.
The event got off to a great start and there would be another panel discussion later on that afternoon. Over the next two days, there would be dance lessons given, films on the subject of dance shown, tours thru Harlem showing the old dance venues and to finished it off, a big dance spotlighting both styles held at the Kennedy Community Center on Saturday night May 11th.
This recent celebration was only a glimpse of what these two dance organizations do. They operate year round and offer dance lessons, lectures, and social dances. If interested and live in the New York Tri-State area, visit www.theharlemswingdancesociety.webs.com Those who live in the Maryland, Virginia and Delaware areas, visit www.nationalhanddanceassociation.org