My wandering feet (or restless ass, in Spanish!) have brought me to London, where I am experiencing the strangeness of being home and away, somewhere familiar but now “outside Europe”. I also happen to work just a few minutes from London’s West End and Soho, already famous for its nightlife in the 1930s. This is where the Savoy Lindy hoppers, among them Norma Miller, performed in 1935 on their first journey across the Atlantic. And so I find myself looking for the traces of “Harlem in London” (to cite a 1936 Melody Maker article), walking these streets seeking the locations for the theatres and nightclubs Miller remembers in her memoir, like the Piccadilly Theatre, the Nest on Kingly Street, the Shim Sham Club on Wardour Street or the London Palladium. While the date of the first performance of the Lindy hop in Europe may be debated, the arrival of the Savoy dancers was a significant event. Circumstances were not ideal on this first tour, and Miller gives a memorable description of the cool British audience. These are some notes from my wanderings (research is ongoing).
Lindy Hopping the Atlantic
Norma Miller first travelled to Europe in September 1935, when she was just 15, aboard the RMS Berengaria. The Savoy Lindy Hoppers had just won the Harvest Moon Ball Lindy hop division: Edith Mathews and Leon James in first place, and Norma Miller and “Stomping” Billy Hill as runners up. This competition was a turning point for the history of the Lindy and its global popularity, as well as for the professional careers of the Savoy dancers who became Whiteys Lindy Hoppers, in multiple dance team configurations, and went on to perform across the US, Europe, Brazil, Australia, Broadway and Hollywood.
The first edition of the Harvest Moon Ball was in 1935 and it was so popular that thousands flocked to see the dance competition in Central Park and it had to be cancelled and rescheduled to be held in Madison Square Garden on a later date in August. The Harvest Moon Ball held the finals in different dance genres, including the waltz, tango and foxtrot, but in that year the most exciting competition was the latest dance, the Lindy hop. It was the first time the Savoy dancers competed outside the Savoy Ballroom showcasing their own dance, a moment of great pride for Harlem, as described by Norma Miller. Their victory was especially important as the HMB was held following the Harlem riots. The Savoy dancers were also the only Black dancers competing in the HMB, evidencing the segregation still rampant in US society. The Lindy hop broke all the ballroom competition regulations of the day, and in Miller’s words: “the Lindy hop defied the judges’ imaginations”.
The 1935 HMB merits its own article, and Bobby White has already written an incredible series of articles about this competition. In particular, he has analysed the remaining footage and historical sources closely in order to identify the dancers in the newsreels. You can discover this treasure trove here and contribute to his research by donation. (Below left to right, Miller, age 15, and Bill Hill, following the Savoy prelims. Edith Mathews following her victory at the HMB, Daily News, 29 August 1935).
Being a finalist at the Harvest Moon Ball was a turning point in Norma Miller’s life and gave her the opportunity to come to Europe where she toured for nine months: she left school, and embarked on a life-long career in swing.
Miller and the other Savoy dancers (Leon James, Edith Mathews and Billy Hill) were joining a long lineage of Black American artists who had made this voyage to Europe, reaching back to the 19th century minstrel shows and Jubilee singers. Since the 1920s especially, Black dancers, musicians and singers had become very popular stage attractions throughout Europe, from the UK to France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Russia, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and beyond. Josephine Baker’s performance in 1925 in Paris in the Révue Nègre is often cited as the iconic moment for this phenomenon, but it was not an isolated event, and there is a wealth of Black performance history in Europe that has been largely forgotten.
The Harvest Moon Ball winners were not, strictly speaking, the first dancers to perform the Lindy hop in Europe, although they were the first dancers from the Savoy Ballroom. Dancer, choreographer, show producer and all-round top dance impresario in Europe, Louis Douglas, had presented a show with a Lindy hop number in June 1930 in Paris. The show was Liza, which he opened at the Porte Saint Martin Theatre with his company Black Flowers. Here the Lindy hop number was danced by Margaret Beckett. But more on Louis Douglas and Margaret Beckett in future articles. Charles B. Cochran, a British theatrical manager, had also presented a revue in London and Manchester in 1931 advertised as featuring the Lindy hop, although it seems to have had limited impact (see Heinila’s article for more details).
Nonetheless, 1935 was the first time European audiences would have seen the Lindy hop performed live by the Savoy dancers, who had created and perfected this imagination-defying dance in Harlem. Interestingly, there is British Pathé footage of the Harvest Moon Ball released in a September 1935 newsreel, where we can see Leon James, Edith Mathews and Norma Miller and Billy Hill dancing, as well as other Savoy dancers like Frankie Manning and Maggie McMillan or Mildred Cruse and Snookie Beasley.
So British cinema audiences could have had an advance viewing of the Harlem Lindy hop before the troupe’s arrival in October (for footage analysis and commentary see White).
Berengaria, the Ritz of the Seas
The RMS Berengaria set sail from New York and arrived in Southampton on 18 October 1935, as detailed in the incoming passenger record. Norma Miller and Edith Mathews are listed as dancers, age 16 and 21, respectively, and Leon James and Billy Hill as actors, age 22 and 28. Not only were international incoming and outgoing passenger lists maintained at that time, but arriving passengers were reported in the press. The Berengaria stopped in Cherbourg before docking in Southampton, and the arrival of the Lindy hop champions Leon James and Billy Hill was reported thus in the New York Evening Herald, Paris edition, on the 19 October:
“The world of Terpsichore, European Division, had cause to rejoice when the Berengaria, of the Cunard White Star Line, arrived at Cherbourg from New York yesterday carrying Ray Noble, British band leader, absent almost a year from London night clubs, and L. James and B. Hall, winners of the American Lindy Hop dance contest…Messrs. James and Hall, it is understood, although they have launched no campaign plans for their invasion of Europe, will match hops with the best Lindy Hoppers Europe has to offer.”New York Evening Herald, Paris ed., 19 October 1935
The paper proceeds to list most of the remaining passengers by name, although none receive such high billing.
The RMS Berengaria was the grandest of the Cunard transatlantic float, called “the Ritz of the Seas”, which carried many famous stars between Europe and the US in the 1920s and 30s, until it was decommissioned in 1938. Among those illustrious passengers, none other than Josephine Baker boarded a decade previously, in 1925, to perform in the Révue Nègre in Paris. Norma describes her impressions of this voyage vividly, and there is promotional footage of this transatlantic journey from a Cunard promotional film as well as numerous clips on British Pathé to have a better idea of the luxury of this liner. We also have a sense of the entertainment on board, although Norma describes dancing on the ship as particularly challenging.
Cunard News footage of Berengaria, c 1928.
The Savoy dancers’ first engagement was at the Piccadilly Theatre, which was reopening as a variety theatre. Located in the heart of London’s West End, next to Piccadilly Circus, this area was the hub of London’s nightlife in the interwar period (see Stephen Hoare’s recent publication Piccadilly: London’s West End and the Pursuit of Pleasure, 2021).
The variety revue opened on Monday 21 October and included the Kentucky Singers and other comedy and dance numbers. There is no recording of the Savoy dancers’ performance, but we can get an idea of the type of show in which they were included from this live recording of the Piccadilly Theatre revue from early 1936 (by then Miller and the Savoy dancers were in France).
The dance troupe were travelling without a band, with only manager Tim Gale, and Miller and the other dancers had already discovered the challenges of dancing away from the Savoy on the boat, where they had performed for the passengers with a band that had a rickety sound and no swing.
“Somehow we got through it, but it was an omen of things to come. We realized we were at the mercy of whatever band we were working with. Dancing the Lindy Hop was a very emotional thing, and a good swinging drummer could make you sail through a routine, you never got tired because everything was in synch. But this, this was a dance trial.”(Miller, Swingin’ at the Savoy).
Her comments highlight how intimately the Lindy hop is connected to its music and the often difficult conditions in which the dancers performed. The transition from a social dance that was created and thrived in a Black community environment like the Savoy ballroom in Harlem, where all the top swing bands played, to the stage, and a white European stage, was not smooth. Miller’s description of the cold British audience at the Piccadilly Theatre is memorable “they looked like a landscape, not living, breathing people”, and the contrast with the Savoy audience, “that did everything but join in the dancing”, could not be greater. The description also underscores how the Lindy hop was not just a partner dance, but a community dance, and the role all participants (dancers, musicians, audiences) played in creating the energy that drove the Lindy hop (CJ Wells discusses these dynamics in their recent book Between Beats).
“The next day we went to the theater, where it was even more intimidating. Unlike the Savoy, it was cold and huge. There would be no friends in the audience to inspire us, there was only the four of us dancers and Tim Gale.[…] Our act followed theirs [the Kentucky Singers] , and it was even worse than on shipboard. The band was in the pit. It sounded a hundred miles away, and didn’t have an ounce of swing. Billy and I danced first. Billy bucked his eyes, and I did my best to make the audience laugh, but they just stared. They looked like a landscape, not living, breathing people. When Leon and Edith swung out, the audience gave them a polite reception. When we retired backstage we were completely dejected. Tim Gale saw us all sitting around in a funk and tried to cheer us up. He told us that the British were different, they just didn’t give in to their emotions the way Americans did. He said he was sure that they really loved us, they just reacted differently. Maybe he was right, we didn’t know. Regardless, it was no help. We were used to an audience who sat on the floor and egged us on, screaming at the top of their lungs. An audience that did everything but join the dancing.”(Miller, Swingin’ at the Savoy).
They “survived” a couple of weeks, in Miller’s words, thanks to the refuge provided by Ike Hatch’s nightclub, the Nest, which was a meeting point for Americans in London. Soho had become the centre point of Black metropolitan London in the interwar years and there were several nightspots where Black musicians and customers congregated. Ike Hatch was a Black American entertainer who had moved to London a few years earlier, and the Nest was his nightclub on Kingly Street. Miller says they spent every night here, and met some of the famous Black Acts they had heard of back in school, and even royalty. Walking around Soho, it makes absolute sense that the dancers would converge here after their performances, as the Nest is only a four-minute walk from the Piccadilly Theatre. The Nest was located on 23 Kingly Street (according to the Futurecities commissioned project “Carnaby Echoes”), where now there is a Dishoom restaurant.
The history of Black people in London precedes 20th Century waves of migration and the arrival of touring American artists or the later 1950s Windrush generation. I recently visited the exhibition created by Emily Momoh about Black history in the Camden borough (adjacent to Soho), called We Were Here, where she recovers eight biographies of significant individuals of African and Caribbean heritage who lived, worked or studied in the neighbourhood over a period of 300 years. This history is of course closely linked to Britain’s colonial legacy. In the 20th Century London was fast evolving from a capital of Empire into a modern metropolitan capital, and the local Black community included Caribbean and African heritage people as well as American expatriates.
Judith R. Walkowitz has written about the Black clubs in Soho in her book Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London (2012). In the 1920s the “bottle party” was a popular format to circumvent licencing regulations (effectively, the nightclubs passed as private clubs) and the clubs, which often occupied basements and other discreet locations, tread a fine line between legality and criminality, as Walkowitz and other authors have documented. Originally these clubs catered to the Black working class African diaspora that converged in London, however, increasingly in the 1920s and 1930s the clubs gained popularity and started to attract White as well as Black clientele. The clubs were also jazz music and dance hotspots, with many Caribbean musicians embracing and bringing their own twist to popular American music styles. Among the Black clubs of London were the Nest, Frisco’s, Jig’s Club, Blue Lagoon, the Big Apple and Cuba Club. Walkowitz describes a mixed clientele of sophisticates attending these nightspots, people of “all colours, sexes, and professions”: intellectuals, businessmen, film stars, international Black artists, the press, higher bohemia, prostitutes and criminals as well as political pan-Africanists. According to her, “The Nest was tougher and noisier” than other clubs. Hatch’s club on Kingly Street came to represent the Americanized spirit of hot jazz, and among its patrons was Dizzy Gillespie when he visited London in 1937. It was also popular with West African students, and one former visitor (Azikiwe, later head of state in Nigeria) stated he was attracted to the casual “confraternity between black and whites” there. This type of confraternity would have been extremely rare in the segregated US at the time, where the Whites-only policy of Cotton Club, to name one famous Harlem club, was much more common than the integrated approach of the Savoy ballroom.
Ike Hatch was a well-known pianist, singer, actor, MC and club owner, who had moved to London in 1925 . In the early 1930s he opened the Nest nightclub and in 1935, the year Miller and the Savoy dancers travelled to London, he opened, with owner Jack Isow, the renown Shim Sham Club on 37 Wardour Street (also just a five minute walk from the Piccadilly Theatre). Hatch was recorded on British Pathé newsreels (screened in cinemas), as we can see in this 1938 clip where he performs a spiritual ‘Lawd You Made the Night Too Long’ and a lively song called ‘The Rhythm’s O.K. in Harlem’ .
Shim Sham Time
The Melody Maker, in a 1936 article, “Harlem in London: Year of Advancement for Negroes” features Ike Hatch “doing his stuff as host-entertainer” as the central image for their report. Although they are not specifically mentioned, the Savoy dancers came to London during this eventful 12-month period. This feature highlights the filming of Sanders of the River, with Paul Robeson in a starring role, and the employment it provided for hundreds of Black actors recruited all over England. Another major event was the opening of Aggrey House in Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, a club catering for affluent Black university students in London. Joe Louis’ pugilistic success is mentioned as a feat that reflected positively on Black people in the country, and the 1935 Italo-Abyssinian War is also noted. All of these events are perceived by the author to have contributed to the phenomenal success of the Shim Sham club that opened that year: “The Shim Sham Club represents the new outlook on the colour question.” Ike Hatch is considered central to this success, as is the Shim Sham dance. Interestingly, the article describes the history of the Shim Sham and other Black dances, starting with the Cake walk and reaching up to the Lindy hop and Truckin’ (which were presented by the Savoy dancers in London). While there was no formal segregation in the UK, there were still negative attitudes around racial mixing. The article also touches on some of the controversy surrounding the club and the responses to Black and White people dancing together, which was encouraged at the club and which was both one of its attractions and one of the reasons it came under such scrutiny.
The Shim Sham Club, located on 37 Wardour Street, currently part of the Chinatown area in Soho, was an ambitious project, involving significant investment, as per descriptions of the lighting, sprung-dance floor and decorative schemes for the club. Much of this information is also available thanks to the numerous police reports, as it seems the Shim Sham club elicited outrage among its neighbours due to racial intermingling, same-sex dancing and drug taking, among other purported activities. There were several police crackdowns before the club was forced to close. There are also reports from journalists who marvelled at its décor and the musical entertainment. We even have a clip filmed in a London nightclub in the 1930s which is attributed as the Shim Sham club (I have not been able to confirm this), where we see patrons arriving, the bar staff cooking and Trinidadian drummer George “Happy” Blake playing, as well as partner dancing and some solo jazz dancing.
Miller remembers visiting the Shim Sham Club regularly with actor Henry Wilcoxon. She was under-age and did not drink at the time, and describes a comedic incident where she drank whiskey mistakenly taking it to be iced tea. I have found a report of dancing at the Shim Sham club in December 1935 which makes me think the Savoy dancers also performed, formally or informally, at the venue.
For the Savoy dancers these clubs must have represented refuges from the somewhat hostile environment at the theatre, where they could meet other fellow American artists as well as local Black performers and customers. This aspect of confraternity with the Black diaspora is something that Miller discusses to a greater extent in her account of her stay in Paris.
The publicity for the Savoy dancers’ performances at the Piccadilly and other venues highlighted “Truckin’” as the new dance. It was quite common for the Lindy hoppers to brand their dance in the terms of the latest dancing trends (for example with the Big Apple or Suzie-Q). Truckin’ was also a new 1935 song recorded by both Fats Waller and Ellington (with Ivie Anderson). Truckin’ is described in one newspaper report as “the joy dance” (News Chronicle, 26 October 1935). The journalist explains that “truckin’” is Harlem slang for the strutting walk of someone who has just heard good news. The dance is described as a sliding step with a Charleston-like twist, capable of infinite variation. This characteristic strut, usually with a pointing finger, features in many filmed dance performances of the era. Edith Mathews is interviewed for this piece and quoted saying “But however you dance it, it makes you happy!”.
Another report in the Sunday Dispatch (1 December 1935) describes an exhibition of the latest dance at the Shim Sham Club in the early hours (Truckin’ and the Lindy hop, both terms used nearly interchangeably). The article suggests the Savoy dancers also performed here and this description of their dancing seems to refer to a swing-out: “As danced by these coloured [sic] people for exhibition purposes, it takes up a lot of floor space, as the partners leave each other, do steps on their own, and come back together. It was done to very fast time”.
The London Palladium
Miller also visited the London Palladium on her arrival, to see the Four Flash Devils performing there with Gracie Fields at the time. The line up of the Four Flash Devils varies according to different sources: Sammy Warren, Chris/Charlie Gil, Louis Simms and Percy/Charlie P Wade and Billy Cole, according to the Tap Dance America database. The group’s smooth performance can be appreciated in this clip in Soft Lights, Sweet Music, a 1936 British musical revue.
Duke Ellington had performed here a couple of years earlier, in 1933. When the Savoy dancers (with a different line up including Frankie Manning) next returned to London in 1937 they performed at the London Palladium to great success. On that occasion they were touring as part of the Cotton Club Revue, a more lavish production which included Teddy Hill’s orchestra and several other dance acts. The London Palladium has continued its illustrious history in variety to the present day.
Ballrooming about London
After two weeks at the Piccadilly Theatre, the Savoy dancers started performing in local provincial ballrooms in the areas surrounding London. According to Miller, their experience in these ballrooms was somewhat better, because here at least the bands swung a little. After their performance they would dance with the patrons: the contrast between the formality of the ballrooms and the Lindy hoppers’ style was great, but despite the oddness, Miller says the ladies had fun —and this is how the Lindy hop took off in England. There are many local newspaper reports of these engagements at places like Sherry’s in Sussex (Sussex Express, 6 December 2022).
The next steps
At the end of 1935 the troupe continued towards Switzerland and then Paris, which Miller enjoyed more than London, where they would remain until returning to New York in June. As a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, Miller would go on to tour the US, Hollywood and later Brazil, generally to more enthusiastic audiences than the Piccadilly Theatre. The Lindy hop was becoming a global phenomenon.
Copyright Karen Campos McCormack, 2022.
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Find out more
Miller, Norma & Jensen, Evette. Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer. Temple University Press, 1996.
La reina del swing: las memorias de Norma Miller. Ediciones Carena, 2018.
Heinila, Harri. “Who introduced the Lindy hop in Europe?”. Authentic Jazz Dance. (February 2018).
The Londonist. “How Soho’s Early Jazz Clubs Paved The Way For A Multiracial Britain”, The Londonist, April 2022.
The National Archives. The Shim Sham Club: ‘London’s miniature Harlem’ – The National Archives blog. February 2020.
Walkowitz, Judith R. Nights Out: Life in Cosmopolitan London. 2012.
White, Bobby. “The 1935 Harvest Moon Ball”, Swungover (May, 2020).
2 thoughts on “Harlem in London: walking in Norma’s footsteps”
Tan solo he hecho una lectura un poco por encima, pero… Magnífico trabajo. Enhorabuena.
Te tomo la palabra en cuanto a la versión en español. Si la tienes, me encantaría leerla, que me cuesta menos que el inglés. Muchas gracias.
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Gracias! Aún no está disponible en español pero tomo nota 🙂