Jazz roots

savoy-harlem-1952 It was the beginning of a new century in America. Jazz swept the nation, and amidst segregation and oppression, the first African American dances were born. The Texas Tommy in 1913, the Mooch and Sugar in 1916, the Break-Away in 1919. Charleston, Cakewalk and Black Bottom were wildly popular with black and white dancers.

Charleston was created by African Americans, living on an island off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina and was documented as early as 1903. It appeared on stages in Harlem, New York by 1913 and then featured on broadway. Black bottom, from New Orleans, gained popularity as charleston went out of style in the second half of the 1920s.

All of these dances have roots in (West) African dance and the stance, pulse and full body movement are distinct from the European ballroom tradition.

Dance with your knees bent, lest you be taken for a corpse.Congolese proverb

March 12, 1926 the Savoy Ballroom opened in Harlem; it was an unsegregated ballroom, unlike whites-only Cotton Club. Lindy Hop had the perfect laboratory – weekly competitions and live music drove dancers to consistently create new steps. The dance didn’t get its current name until two years later. In July of 1928, the New York Board of Health shut down an 18-day dance marathon at the Marathon Casino. Only four of the original 80 couples were left standing.

Contestant number 7, Savoy Ballroom dance star “Shorty” George Snowden, and his partner shared the prize with the other three couples. Earlier, when the event was still in full swing, people could post a small cash prize with the emcee for a brief mini-contest among the survivors. This was the backdrop in which Shorty’s spontaneous throw-out breakaway, and a flash footwork improv, capturing media attention. “What are you doing with your feet?” asked the Fox Movie Tone News interviewer. “The Lindy Hop,” replied Shorty George — Charles A. Lindbergh (aka “Lindy”) had recently “hopped” the Atlantic, landing on May 21, 1927. From Shorty George’s ad hoc reply, the Lindy Hop was officially given a name.from Just the Swing

“Shorty” George Snowden was one of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (originally called Whitey’s Hopping Maniac’s), a group of dancers rose to fame dancing in the Savoy Ballroom. The Savoy’s owner, Herbert White, was known as ‘Whitey’ and stamped his name on the group of his favorite dancers which included Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Al Minns, Leon James among others. The dance troupe toured nationally and internationally, and appeared in a number of films, the most famous clips being from Hellzapoppin’ (1941) and A Day at the Races (1937). Dance scenes in films featuring African American dancers in the late 1930s were made unrelated to the plot so they could easily be cut when the film was shown in segregated states.

As bebop and rock n’ roll replaces swinging jazz, lindy hop waned in popularity and inspired later generations of partner dance. In the 1980s, inspired by the vintage dance clip A Day at the Races, Swedish, American and British dancers hoping to learn the dance from its creators, found Frankie Manning and other original lindy hoppers.

Swing in South Africa

the-merry-blackbirds-image2In the 1940s, musicians in Sophiatown started playing music in the style of the American musicians they heard on the radio, such as Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. Local groups such as the Manhattan Brothers, the Gay Gaieties, the Merry Blackbirds and the The Synco Fans played American-style swing and before long, the neighbourhood became known as “Little Harlem”. This South African swing had a very distinctive flavour as the (often homemade) pennywhistles and guitars substituted for the traditional instruments. Some of South Africa’s finest artists, such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela came out of this era and ‘Kwela’, the genre that followed it, still thrives today.

hfaidebcIn 1955, Sophiatown was destroyed by the apartheid government, in an effort to stamp out what was perceived as a rise in black consciousness, and the bands were largely dispersed. Like the Lindy Hop in America, the South African swing era faded into memories… [Until now!]

For more information visit the website South African History online: Music and culture as forms of resistance.