Last year I created this map when I was in New York and was able to walk around Harlem tracking down many of the locations mentioned by Norma in her memoir Swingin’ at the Savoy. Born in 1919, Norma grew up in 1920s and 1930s Harlem, round the corner from the Cotton Club, the Savoy Ballroom and many other famous venues that are sadly no longer standing. I have added images, video and other content to the location markers to facilitate a virtual tour, so whether you are lucky to be in New York covering this on foot, or you are touring Harlem at a distance, I hope you find this useful. Just click on each marker for more content.
A month in New York seems like years in other places. When I wasn’t in the library I was getting in as much live music and dance as I could: swing, jazz and blues. I heard some fantastic artists, saw some great tapping and enjoyed the dances, but my personal favourite in Harlem was American Legion Post 398 (thanks to Greg Izor for the recommendation). This venue belongs to the American Legion (a veterans association) located on 248 W 132nd St in the heart of Harlem and has become the home of jazz thanks to organist Seleno Clarke, who started the Sunday jam tradition. Seleno passed away in December, but the spirit of jazz continues, and every Thursday and Sunday there is a jam session led by saxophonist David Lee Jones and other resident musicians, with the best local talent and musicians from all over the globe joining in. The atmosphere is very welcoming with an audience that combines veteran regulars and music-loving tourists. Russell, Barbara and Karen behind the bar, made me feel at home watching the Oscars gala with them during the band breaks. The music is fantastic and on any given night you can find some well-known Harlem artists such as Anette St John, a singer who also performs at the Cotton Club and Smoke, among others. There is no cover charge (just a bucket collection for the band) and, a rare phenomenon in New York, –it’s possible to have a beer and a decent meal at a reasonable price. I cannot think of a better place to spend a Sunday evening and enjoy the jazz.
Paris Blues, Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. Live music every night.
The Cotton Club, a mythical name for any jazz or swing fan, has inspired countless songs and films. Despite being a nightclub that only admitted white patrons and perpetuated a segregated society, performing there meant attaining the top in show business for African American artists of the twenties and thirties (among others Duke Ellington or Cab Calloway). The club was located initially on 142nd St with Lenox Avenue, later it moved downtown to 48th St and its latest incarnation is on 125th St. Those seeking the legendary Cotton Club of the twenties should be warned that the current venue somewhat lacks the glamour, although it keeps alive the musical and dance show tradition that made it famous. It was an unmissable rendez-vous, so I headed there on a cold Monday in March. Attendance was low, mostly tourists, but the quality of the musicians and dancers was well worth the 25 dollar cover charge. An excellent big band was swinging with singer Anette St John. I loved the chorus girl numbers with their sparkly jazz dance and the incredible tap dancers. Some of the band numbers were danceable, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an event for Lindy hoppers unless you were going with a partner or a group. The night I went there were few social dancers, although I was lucky to dance several songs with Ice, a charming gentleman who is a regular at all the swing dance events I attended in New York (he told me he only takes Wednesdays off). Here I also met Shana Weaver: chorus girl, Lindy hop dancer and Ambassador for the Frankie Manning Foundation, she continues the Cotton Club chorus line tradition that gave rise to great stars like Josephine Baker or Lena Horne.
Guitar prodigy King Solomon Hicks stands out among the club’s performers. I was lucky to see him playing again at Terra Blues, a highly recommended venue on Bleecker St. The 22 year-old achieves a moving blues sound and he easily wins the audience over with his technical virtuosity and charm. The Harlem guitar player started by playing in local neighbourhood jam sessions, where he earned his stripes with high quality musicians. He was still a teenager when he participated in the Apollo Amateur Night and was promptly hired by the Cotton Club. Nowadays, when he is not playing in the city he can be seen on tour around the US and Europe (last year he was in Spain playing in venues like the Jamboree club in Barcelona or Café Central in Madrid, as well as other festivals).
If you like your jazz with spectacular views the place is Jazz at Lincoln Center, a unique institution led by Wynton Marsalis, whose mission is to promote the enjoyment of jazz through performance and education “in the spirit of swing”. I have to love an organization that has a “Swing University”. Located at Columbus Circle (very close to Trump Tower, that’s New York for you), the venue’s window façade overlooking the city and Central Park alone is worth a visit. Jazz at Lincoln offers a high-quality varied music programme, ranging from its in-house orchestra led by Marsalis in person to the late night performances at Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club. Those who cannot attend live performances (either due to location or budget) can enjoy these concerts in live-streaming. In addition, Jazz at Lincoln provides an excellent education programme. I was very fortunate to attend a Listening Party about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an integrated all-woman big band of the 1930s and 1940s. Kit McClure’sorchestra, comprising ten women musicians, played versions from the repertoire of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm as well as showing some original footage. It was a double discovery: of the fascinating history of these pioneering women in swing, and of Kit McClure’s band, who offered a really swinging interpretation of great classics like “Jump Children”, “Vi Vigor” or “How About that Jive?”. More about New York: in a city where a coffee can cost five dollars I was able to enjoy the best swing music for free.
Not all jazz plans need be nocturnal, and a musical Sunday can start with a delicious jazz breakfast at Smoke (in this case featuring a trio and vocalist). This well-known Upper West “jazz and supper club” offers quality music in an intimate and cozy setting. The brunch menu is not cheap, but a jazz fan has got to keep her strength up in a city like this.
Swing 46is a classic of the New York swing scene (located on 46th St). With live music seven days a week, Swing 46 was a favourite spot among dance legends like Dawn Hampton (several photos honouring her decorate a corner table where she used to sit). Tuesdays is the night of the George Gee Swing Orchestra, a band that has been playing for dancers for over thirty years, and their swing did not disappoint. Given the quality of this band and the discount price for dancers of only 10 dollars, I was surprised at the small number of dancers in attendance: barely a handful of couples and some inexperienced tourists (the weather might have been a factor: I learned the meaning of a Nor’Eastern during my stay). Luckily tireless Ice was there, always smiling and ready to cut a rug, with whom I danced some fun numbers — although I found it hard to keep up with this swing veteran.
A note to Dancers: the most buzzing dance night I found was the Frim Fram, which takes place every Thursday at a dance school (Club 412 on 8th Avenue). There is no live music but it is a meeting point for dancers from all over New York (and beyond) of all ages and levels. The atmosphere is relaxed and I danced non-stop: in summary, a night to dance your feet off and meet other local Lindy hoppers.
There is very little of Swing Era Harlem still standing, which is why the Apollo Theater on 125th deserves a special mention. With the Savoy and other major Harlem venues razed to the ground, the Apollo Theater is the only theatre that is still functioning, and very successfully, since 1934. That year Amateur Night at the Apollo started, the forerunner of the Got Talents and X-Factors of today, to which we owe the discovery of Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill or dancer Norma Miller, who also started her career winning a dance competition on this stage when she was only fourteen.
The list of stars who have performed at the Apollo is too long to detail, from James Brown to Michael Jackson, and a few years ago a “Walk of Fame” was installed on the sidewalk outside reflecting the premier place of this theatre in American culture. Many things have changed, but Amateur Night is still held every Wednesday (with a 10,000 dollar prize for the season winner). It is advertised as “The best fun you can have in this town for under $30”, and I can vouch this comedy and talent show makes good on its promise. Unlike other similar competitions, the audience not only chooses the winner by applause, but also has the power to boo-off performers: at which point a siren goes off and the famous “executioner” sweeps them off stage with his broom and dance. In this interactive show the audience is as much the protagonist as the contestants, of which there were all sorts: singers, dancers, rappers, poets…The Harlem crowd is not easy to please: if it does not like something it makes it known immediately and loudly.The night I attended they booed off the first three hopefuls as soon as they opened their mouths, which really makes me admire the bravery of the contestants who followed these acts on stage. Without question the best fun in Harlem.
My last week in New York I enjoyed dinner and a gig at Silvana’s Café, on 116th St in Harlem, thanks to my friend Loli Barbazán who now lives in the Big Apple. Less soaked in history, with a younger crowd and a friendly and multicultural vibe, Silvana’s brings together in its café cultural activities, good food and music. I was very pleasantly surprised by the different groups that played that night, anything from jazz to hip hop, and I especially fell in love with the tap dancers who went up to jam on-stage with the musicians. I wouldn’t mind going back.
I couldn’t leave without visiting Paris Blues, the well-known Harlem bar that was located round the corner from my apartment (also recommended by writer and occasional New Yorker Elvira Lindo). I wanted to spend my last hours soaking up all the neighbourhood music and charm that I could. The bar has been proudly run by Samuel Hargress, Jr. since 1968 and it remains true to its spirit: here you can find live jazz and blues every night until 3am for the price of a beer. The house band plays in a jam where other musicians join in, both young and old (a father with his teenage son for example). The warm atmosphere of this small bar encourages friendly conversation. There are few places like this left and it is worth enjoying them, even if it is just one for the road.
I read today that: “After all New York is a fiction, a literary genre that adapts to the traveller’s state of mind.” (Manuel Vicent, El País,19 August 2018), although in this case I experienced the city as a song or an album that accompanied me throughout all my wanderings (and in New York you can wander a lot, walking, on the train…). I haven’t tired of the songs at any time and I hope to return soon, although I know that a city like New York cannot repeat itself, with its constant rhythm and improvisation it never plays the same tune twice.
I want to thank the Frankie Manning Foundation for having given me the opportunity to stay in New York in order to carry out my research on the history of Lindy hop (which I will talk about in another post).
In March 2018 I was lucky to spend a month in New York, in Harlem, researching the history of Lindy hop thanks to the support of the Frankie Manning Foundation. I had previously researched the history of swing via the internet, Amazon, second hand bookshops and the limited resources available on this topic at my local library in Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and Trinity College Dublin (Ireland), but this would be the first time I had the opportunity to research the origins of swing and Lindy hop at its birthplace. I have been working on translating Norma Miller’s book Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer into Spanish for the last couple of years, and now I would be able to follow Norma’s footsteps about Harlem, not to mention everything else Manhattan has to offer. Needless to say I was excited.
I was interested in exploring the roots of Lindy hop in Harlem and gaining a fuller understanding of its local context and significance at the time, considering issues like race and gender, as well how the dance developed in relation to music and other forms of dance. I was especially curious to find out more about some members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers who visited Europe in the 1930s and have received little attention. Underpinning my research were questions such as: what is the legacy of swing in Harlem? How can we contribute to recovering the memory of this African American dance as a mostly white swing dance community?
I did not think one of the most thrilling parts of my visit to New York would be visiting the libraries and archives. I had expected to enjoy the rush of Manhattan city life, and it did not disappoint, but the Lindy hop joys I found in libraries and archives were a surprise. This is a personal guide to the libraries and archives that I visited.
The New York Public Library might just be the best library in the world. Having filled out a simple online form before my trip I was given a visitor library card, which grants full access to the NYPL’s digital and on-site collections for 3 months and the right to borrow up to 50 books (!) to any visitor to the city. If you are planning a longer stay in New York you could consider some “research tourism”. I spent most of my time at the New York Library for the Performing Arts (Lincoln Center) and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Malcolm X Blvd), but also visited the Microform room at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (42nd Street), the Institute for Jazz Studies (Newark) and other resources, including access to some fantastic private libraries.
Searching the catalogue
In advance of any visit to the NYPL I would recommend a search of its online catalogue (https://catalog.nypl.org/), starting with generic terms like “Lindy hop”, “Swing” or “Savoy” for example, to draw up an initial reading list and scope out the locations for different items. Once on-site I found the library staff were generally very helpful when it came to navigating searches for more obscure items like articles, papers or film material.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard (135th St and Malcolm X Blvd).
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses a great collection of books, papers and photographs for the curious Lindy hopper. Located at the heart of Harlem on 135th St, directly opposite the school that Frankie Manning and Norma Miller attended, this library is of great significance for the neighborhood and African American culture. Arturo Schomburg was a Puerto Rican of African and German descent who moved to the United States and became a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance for researching and raising awareness about African American history. His collections were purchased by the NYPL in 1926 and form the basis of the library, which was named in his honor. There is even a film clip of Schomburg in the original library c. 1937 (thank you to Julia Loving for this information).
The Schomburg reading room, decorated with Aaron Douglas paintings, is an excellent place to start finding out more about swing era musicians, performers and Harlem venues. I enjoyed in particular Stuart Nicholson’s Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, Babylon Girls by Jayna Brown and Jazz: a History of the New York Scene by Samuel B. Charters. No booking is required to access this room and books are usually delivered within a few minutes of placing an order. Staff were very helpful and it was even possible to scan many items for free.
The Schomburg holds some beautiful original documents relating to the Savoy. You can for example view the Savoy 25th anniversary booklet The Savoy Story, produced in 1951 (before its closing in 1956). My standout item of the collection is the catalogue for Richard Yarde’s Savoy exhibition Savoy: an installation. This exhibition was on view at the Harlem Studio Museum from June to September 1983. It included live-size cut-out images of dancers and musicians recreating the Savoy Ballroom and its opening was an opportunity for many of the Savoy dancers to gather and a celebration of the Harlem community.
I was not as lucky in my hunt for Lindy hop references in The Manuscripts and Rare Documents Division this time (I examined Alberta Hunter’s and Sam Wooding’s papers), but it holds several other collections of interest for future visits. A word of warning: getting an appointment in this division can be difficult and requires booking a few weeks in advance.
The Photographs and Prints Division has “Dance” and “Harlem nightclubs” collections that are worth viewing for their unpublished images of social dance and venues (appointment also required, usually one day notice will be sufficient for this division).
As any time handling original documents and photographs, these must be treated with great care and certain limitations are in place (some archives will not allow pens or personal belongings in the room, for example).
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Jerome Robbins Dance Division. 40 Lincoln Center Plaza (65th St and Columbus Ave).
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts has a fantastic collection of dance-related books, papers and films. In relation to the Lindy hop the star of the collection are Mura Dehn’s films and personal papers: it is one of only two places where you can watch the original five-hour The Spirit Moves documentary (the film is currently being digitized so viewing permission must be requested several days in advance).
Mura Dehn spent decades documenting and filming different forms of jazz dance and her legacy has provided us with unique footage of Savoy lindy hop dancers, both in the studio and dancing at the Savoy. Among her personal papers are several unpublished articles containing some interesting reflections on jazz dance and its history. These are available in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division Manuscripts section.
“The source of Jazz is rhythm. Rhythm is what one has to learn. The movement is just a byproduct. A visual manifestation of each rhythm pattern which takes approximately the same form once the best solution is found.”
(“The ABC or The Fundamentals of Jazz Dance”, Mura Dehn papers, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
A much shorter documentary that is recommended viewing at the Library for the Performing Arts is The Call of the Jitterbug(Sorensen, Winding and Ross, 1988), a Danish film that includes interviews with Savoy dancers and musicians like Norma Miller, George Lloyd, Delilah Johnson, Bill Dillard, Dizzy Gillespie and Sugar Sullivan, among others. Some clips may be available on Youtube but the entire film is not easily found. America Dances! 1897-1948 (Carol Teten), also available at the library, provides a comprehensive compilation of different dance clips, starting with the Cake Walk and including the Lindy hop.
“Dancing was our high.”
(Sugar Sullivan in The Call of the Jitterbug, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts).
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Milstein Microform room.
476 Fifth Avenue (42nd St and Fifth Ave)
This is the most famous NYPL building and I recommend visiting it even if it is only to admire its architecture or to access the internet on its public-use computers. The NYPL offers many digitized newspaper collections (including the Amsterdam News, a Harlem newspaper that is still in print), however, other newspapers such as The Daily News have not been digitized and must be viewed onsite at the Milstein Microform room.
The Daily News sponsored the first Harvest Moon Ball in 1935, which was a major launching pad for the Lindy hop and the Savoy dancers. In fact, the contest was so popular that the first edition on August 15, 1935 had to be cancelled and rescheduled to August 28 due to over 100,000 attendees overcrowding the park. Leon James and Edith Matthews were the Lindy hop division winners of this first edition and a very young Norma Miller (just fifteen) and Billy Hill were also among the finalists who later went on to tour Europe. I found many articles and photos in relation to the preliminary contests and the finals. The Daily News had several editions each day and it is laborious to work through them on microform, so it is highly advisable to know specific dates for searches. No appointment required for this division (only a NYPL library card).
NYPL Online resources
Among the many NYPL online resources I would highlight A People’s History of Harlem: A Harlem Neighborhood Oral History Project (http://oralhistory.nypl.org/neighborhoods/harlem). I have only started exploring this resource that deserves further attention, as it contains some accounts by residents who remember the swing era in Harlem and can provide some unusual insights into this fascinating neighborhood.
Rutgers University, 185 University Avenue, Newark, NJ 07102.
The heart of the Institute for Jazz Studies (IJS) is the Marshall Stearns collection. Author of the fundamental book Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance, he was the first to pay academic attention to this form of dance. The collection containing his research papers for this work gives an indication of the breadth and depth of his study (although with some notable gaps in relation to Lindy hop). I spent a very enjoyable day at the IJS exploring 10 boxes of papers (although there is a wealth of material) and seeing his notes on interviews with “Shorty” George Snowden, Leon James and Al Minns.
The absolute highlight for me was holding in my hands letters from Fred Astaire (where incidentally he clarifies that he does not see himself primarily as a tap dancer “I dance according to my own rules – in other words I just dance as it comes to me.”) and a beautifully handwritten letter by Fayard Nicholas, where he discusses his career with his brother (The Nicholas Brothers).
I contacted the IJS in advance of my visit but there was no problem scheduling a visit for the next day and I found the staff to be extremely helpful.
My guide to the libraries and archives I visited during my research stay in New York would not be complete without a special mention of the personal collections to which I was given access: Cynthia’s Millman’s and Lana Turner’s home libraries were a pleasure to explore and I am very grateful for their generosity and support in this endeavour.
Beyond the library…
When I was not at the library I made the most of my visit walking about Harlem (I recommend the Harlem Swing Dance Society tour), visiting exhibitions, listening to amazing live music, dancing and getting to know more about the local swing scene and dancers –too much to include in this single article.
The most worthwhile part of my trip was the people I met: other Lindy hop researchers and local New York swing dancers, teachers and artists. These conversations have been immensely interesting and valuable for my research and thinking about Lindy hop history. I want to thank Cynthia Millman especially for her support organizing my trip and during my stay, Buddy Steves and Rowena Young for an incredible Lindyfest experience in Houston, the Frankie Manning Foundation for making my trip possible, as well as the following people: Judy Pritchett, Barbara Jones, Margaret Batiuchok, LaTasha Barnes, Shana Weaver, Samuel Coleman, Robert P. Crease, Bobby White, Mike Thibault and Julia Loving, with a special thank you to Alice Pifer and Lana Turner.
Karen Campos McCormack is a freelance translator and swing dance, music and history enthusiast. She is currently working on the Spanish translation of Norma Miller’s Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer (Temple University Press). She is the founder of Compostela Swing and you can find more of her articles in English and Spanish on Atlantic Lindy Hopper.
I will be researching the origins of Lindy hop in Harlem: early press materials, the history of the dancers and the venues where they danced. The treasures of the NYPL await (this library even has its own film).
It’s not all going to be archives, there will also be an escapade to LindyFest in Houston, one of the major swing festivals in the US.
I hope to come back with lots of new stories for Atlantic Lindy Hopper, watch this space.
In December I was lucky to have the opportunity to meet Norma Miller, Queen of Swing, in Milan, where she was celebrating her 97th birthday…and the launch of her new album A Swingin’ Love Fest. I have been working on translating her memoirs into Spanish for over a year now, so as soon as I found out she was coming to Europe I was hopping on to that Ryanair flight, I had to meet her. It is impossible to describe the sheer energy Norma Miller exudes, but I managed to take some notes, and here are some of Norma’s words of wisdom on Lindy Hop, life and “ism”.
Norma Miller started dancing on the streets of Harlem as a kid, before making it to the Savoy Ballroom and becoming one of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. When she was 15 she came to Europe, and introduced European audiences to the Lindy Hop for the first time – and she is still teaching us what it’s all about now. To find out more about her incredible life and career dancing in the Savoy and performing with Cab Calloway and Count Basie, among many others, from Harlem to Hollywood and Rio and beyond…well I recommend her memoirs Swingin’ at the Savoy! (Soon to be available in Spanish too).
This is Norma performing her number Gimme da Beat with the Billy Bros. Orchestra on 10 December 2016 at Spirit de Milan. Gimme da Beat.
A swingin’ love fest in Milan
Norma arriving at Spirit de Milan, photo OlgaBSP
Norma arriving at Spirit de Milan, photo OlgaBSP
Chester A. Whitmore, photo by OlgaPSB
Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra, photo by OlgaPSB
The whole weekend was in fact a swingin’ love fest, organized by Maurizio ‘Big Daddy’ Meterangelo and Roberta Bevilacqua, Norma’s Italian family, also known as Italian Swing Dance Society. Maurizio recorded the new album with Norma and leads the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra in true hep fashion. The setting, the decadent industrial glamour of Spirit de Milan, and the local lindy hoppers lived up to Italian style expectations, so that you could be forgiven for thinking you had wandered in to a gangster movie set at times, including the 1930s vintage car that Norma pulled up in on opening night.
We enjoyed a screening of the documentary Queen of Swing, which Maurizio had subtitled especially for the occasion, followed by a personal interview with Norma each night. Jude Lindy acted as MC and interpreter and Norma was in (literally) sparkling form, she showed her star quality as soon as she was up on stage. We had two nights of fantastic live music and were treated to the dance virtuosity of Chester A. Whitmore, who was delightful at all times (Chester recently worked on La La Land).
The highlight of the event was of course a show-stopping performance of the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra with Norma Miller on the Saturday night. They have the best big band sound I have heard live, and the Queen of Swing certainly had the beat. Five of the album’s songs are Norma’s, which she sang live, including Gimme da Beat, They Call Him Louie, Swingin’ Frankie’s Way, Down in New Orleans and Swing Baby Swing.
We were celebrating Norma’s new album and her recent 97th Birthday!! (Which by the way, is very close to being a world record).
It was an incredibly intense weekend, filled with swing and joy. Maurizio and Roberta were truly welcoming and made me want to join the Italian lindy hopping family too.
But let’s hear what Norma had to say (recorded as best I could).
Norma Miller on…
“Count Basie had the greatest swing band ever. He was the one that was able to…Everything he did. He told arrangers to write the music to keep the dancers on the floor. Consequently, if you hear a Basie tune you can dance to it. He had one of the best rhythm sections ever. Walter Page on bass, Jo Jones on drums, Freddy Green on guitar and Basie on the piano. Which was the best rhythm section ever in the history of swing music. Now, you had a lot of great bands. You had Chick Webb who was the King of Swing. You had Jimmy Lunceford, another great band. But no-one swung like Basie. That’s why all our dances were choreographed to Basie music, because rhythmically it was perfect. And when you Lindy Hop, you Lindy Hop to great rhythm. And the two things went together perfectly. And that is why Basie was one of our best bands for dancing. It wasn’t that the other bands weren’t good, it’s just nobody was better at it than Count Basie.”
The most wonderful thing
“ Nothing’s more wonderfully enjoyable than a guy and a girl, enjoying a Count Basie tune. You take Corner Pocket, you take any of the great Basie tunes and you take a girl on the floor, well it’s an enjoyable thing. Lindy Hop is the best social dance there is. Ballet is wonderful, solo jazz is wonderful, but nothing is more wonderful than to be with a guy and you swing with him, it’s just the best there is. Nothing tops the Lindy Hop. I’m at the end of my rope now, but you got to enjoy it. I enjoyed it!!”
“Lindy Hop is the most sexual thing a guy and a girl can do…without going to the bedroom.”
Swing and colour
“Swing was doing integration before Martin Luther King. That’s what was happening in the Savoy. White people along with black people, dancing together. We were trying to do integration.”
“Swing has no colour. It doesn’t matter whether you are white or black, or even Muslim. Swing is music. Sound has no colour. You play a Count Basie song and you can’t think about colour. That’s swing. We rose above it.”
Getting out of the ghetto
“I was a woman and I was black. Swing, dancing, got me out of Harlem. We survived. I tried to be the best, all my life. You have to be the best at what you do to get ahead.”
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers
“We were good. We were good because we danced every night. For about five years, before the movies, we were at the Savoy dancing every night. That’s why we were good.”
“You got to dance to the music. You have to listen and dance to the music the band is playing. We danced everything. The Savoy was a ballroom and you had to dance to everything, one-step, two-step…We didn’t Lindy Hop all night.”
“I don’t give advice to dancers. Just dance.”
“Ism is mmmm, mmhhhh, it’s that something. ‘Ism’ is what made Louis Armstrong Louis Armstrong”.
Her first dance with Twistmouth George
“I was twelve and I will never forget it. It was the best day of my life. I was dancing with the best dancer, he was six foot tall, I was only twelve, I flew. I will never forget it.”
Her drink of choice?
“Mimosa, champagne and orange juice, what could be better?”
Norma hasn’t stopped swinging and she is full of plans. She wants to bring the Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra to New York to perform at Midsummer Jazz at the Lincoln Center. She also wants to bring a show to Broadway with Chester and the best swing dancers, if anyone can make it a great show that is Norma.
Norma’s advice for future generations?
If you want to recommend Norma for a Kennedy Center Honor you can do so here.
A Swingin’ Love Fest (Billy Bros. Swing Orchestra with Norma Miller, 2016).
This might not be a widely known fact among the Irish Lindy Hopping community, but Frankie Manning was in Dublin in 1937. He was performing with Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs, as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were billed on this European tour with the Cotton Club Revue. They landed in Dublin following a successful ten weeks run at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and six weeks at the London Palladium. In his memoir, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop (see notes below), after describing their tour of Paris and London, Frankie mentions briefly that they also performed in Dublin and Manchester. I was intrigued by this single line, and decided to do some research last summer when I was in Ireland. I was amazed at what I discovered in just a few days at the library and trawling through online Irish newspaper archives. Since I first fell in love with Lindy Hop in Dublin, knowing that Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers actually danced here and walked the streets of Dublin is especially meaningful for me.
The Cotton Club Revue was billed as ‘Harlem on Parade’ in its visit to Dublin. It opened at the Theatre Royal on Monday 30 August 1937 and ran that week, closing on Saturday 4 September.
‘Everyone should go and see the Cotton Club Revue’
The Cotton Club Revue set sail from New York on 25 May 1937 and showcased the best African American musical and dance talent. It was spectacular in all senses, with a travelling cast of sixty artists including the Teddy Hill Orchestra, the Three Berry Brothers dance act, singers Rollin’ Smith and Alberta Hunter, Harlem dancers Freddy and Ginger, tap dancer Bill Bailey, Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs, the Tramp Band (a novel musical act), and a chorus line of ‘25 copper coloured gals’, as they were advertised. The Revue performed in full in Paris and London, but the chorus line was dropped for their shows in Dublin and Manchester. For the European tour Teddy Hill was replacing the Cab Calloway band from the original New York show, and similarly, Bill Bailey replaced tap star Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Frankie said about Teddy Hill’s orchestra, which at the time included a young Dizzie Gillespie, ‘I always loved dancing to that band. They knew how to improvise on the spot.’ (Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop, p135). The Cotton Club was the epitome of show business, and performing there was a turning point in his career.
The show gathered enthusiastic reviews in its European tour. Playing at the Moulin Rouge in Paris it attracted Django Rheinhardt and Hugues Panassié, the famous French jazz critic, (the former went to see them perform every night according to Frankie, and Panassié went to see them fifteen or twenty times). For Panassié, ‘The biggest event of the 1937 season in Paris was the arrival of the Cotton Club Revue’, and ‘Everyone should go to see the Cotton Club Revue.’ (Quotes from Paris Blues, p77).
It was advertised in British papers as ‘The fastest entertainment in the world and given by Harlem’s foremost entertainers.’
Swing comes to town
It was late August 1937 when Harlem on Parade came to Dublin. These were dark times in European history, the Irish newspapers are full of news about the Spanish Civil War (refugees fleeing from Franco’s troupes in Santander) and thousands gathering at the Nazi Annual Congress in Nuremberg, on the same pages that Harlem on Parade is advertised. In the face of the Depression and increasing world conflict, Harlem was spreading its message of swing and joy across Europe, a ‘riot of music, dancing, song and rollicking fun’, as described by the Irish paper the Saturday Herald (28 August).
Down with Jazz
Ireland might not have seemed like the most swingin’ location. Just a few years earlier, leading religious figures and politicians, including President Eamon De Valera, had supported a ‘Down with Jazz’ campaign (1934). Jazz music, and dancing in particular, were seen as a pagan threat to Catholic morality and Ireland’s newly independent national identity, claiming that jazz dancing was ‘suggestive and demoralizing’, ‘a menace to their very civilization as well as religion’. To give foreign readers an idea of the sway of the Catholic Church at the time, just about a quarter of Ireland’s population (i.e. one million people) had gathered at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress High Mass in Phoenix Park (Dublin). Despite this campaign and the severe restrictions of the 1935 Dance Hall Act, jazz music and dancing were hugely popular—Swing music was the music of the moment worldwide, and American film and music were pervasive, as much in Ireland as in Franco’s Spain and even Germany. Dubliners who wished to evade the dark news coming from Europe had no end of jazzy entertainment options from cinemas to theatres or dances.
Harlem on Parade at the Theatre Royal
Harlem on Parade opened on Monday 30 August 1937 in Dublin’s top venue, the (third) Theatre Royal, located on Hawkins Street. An ambitious modernist entertainment venue opened in 1935, it was the largest theatre in Ireland, and one of the largest in Europe, with seating for 3,850 people. It included the luxury Regal Rooms (dining room and ballroom) and a cinema. Harlem on Parade was at the Theatre Royal in a cine-variety format, including local artists and two short films; the Theatre Royal had been especially designed for this type of entertainment, which was very popular before the advent of TV. Unfortunately, nothing remains on its former site to give us an idea of the splendour of the Theatre Royal, as it was demolished in 1962 (and replaced by probably the ugliest government buildings in Dublin). The only surviving element is the grand marble staircase from the Theatre Royal’s Regal Rooms, now located in the Marks and Spencer’s store on Grafton Street, which is open to the public if you wish to literally follow in Frankie’s steps.
Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs
Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs were Whitey’s top group and comprised three teams on the European tour: Naomi Waller and Frankie Manning, Lucille Middleton and Jerome Williams, Mildred Cruse and Billy Williams. They had started performing at the Cotton Club in 1936. Whitey had several dance groups going at that time under different names, such as the group dancing in the Marx Brothers movie. Frankie suggested the name of Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs because they were crazy, but over the years all the groups came to be referred to under the umbrella of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop, p125).
Harlem Celebrations in Dublin
The entirely African American cast of Harlem on Parade would have attracted quite some attention in Dublin, which was not as racially diverse then as nowadays. Although Irish audiences would have been familiar with African American performers from films and touring shows. I was excited to find several photographs of the cast around Dublin, including some of Frankie and other members of Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs, published in the Irish newspapers.
The big news story that week (aside from the Spanish civil war and the Nazi congress) was the heavyweight world championship fight between Joe Louis and Welshman Farr (the ‘white hope’ to regain the championship from ‘negro’ Joe Louis, Evening Herald 31 August) which was taking place in New York. The fight was given full-page round-by-round coverage, and there are two related photos of the Harlem on Parade cast, one of them reading the latest news scoop, and another celebrating Joe Louis’ victory. As Norma Miller explains in her memoirs, Joe Louis was an important hero for the African American community (Swingin’ at the Savoy). The Evening Herald photo of the Harlem cast celebrations (31 August), provides us with the first identifiable image of Frankie in Dublin.
The hottest thing in town
There is also a photo of the Harlem on Parade cast looking at the Gas Company Building window display. Cynthia Millman helped me identify this photo where we can see Lucille Middleton and Naomi Waller (possibly even Frankie and Billy, but this is more uncertain due to the grainy image). This is an image of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers walking Dublin’s streets in a recognizable location. The Gas Company on D’Olier Street, now the Trinity College Dublin School of Midwifery, is one of the few well preserved examples of Art Deco in Dublin, and is open to the public. The association between the Gas Company and the Harlem on Parade show seems to have gone even further, judging by the Gas Company advert that ran in the Evening Herald; also note the interesting jazz-inspired window display.
A Day at the Races
Harlem on Parade provided Dublin audiences with the first opportunity to see the Lindy Hop live but, interestingly, they might have already seen Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers on screen, only shortly after American audiences. The Marx Brothers’ film A Day at the Races, which featured a dance scene with a different Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers group, was released in June 1937 in the US and had a pre-London release in early August in Dublin at the Savoy Cinema (still Dublin’s foremost cinema today). The Harlem on Parade show arrived hot on its heels, and it is fun to imagine that it might even have been possible for Frankie to have seen the first Hollywood Lindy Hop performance while in Dublin, although there is no evidence to back this. A Day at the Races continued to tour Irish cinemas well into 1938.
From Dublin the Cotton Club Revue went on to Manchester before returning to the US in September 1937.
In the press:
The Evening Herald:
“Harlem on Parade”, the show which comes to the Theatre Royal on August 30, has been acclaimed as the greatest cavalcade of coloured artists in the world. Following a sensational ten weeks’ appearance at the French capital, they were engaged for six weeks at the London Palladium, where they broke all box-office records.’’ (Evening Herald, 26 August 1937).
The Irish Independent:
Royal’s Outstanding Show: At the top of the bill is “Harlem on Parade”…This feature is well worth seeing. The fine singing of Rollin’ Smith in “Ole Man River”, and “Poor Old Joe,” and the dancing of Bill Bailey, are notable in the performance. Several new dances are presented. There is the “Lindy Hop” by Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs. Then there is the music of Teddy Hill and his orchestra from New York. (Irish Independent, 31 August 1937).
The Manchester Guardian:
Then the first crisp trumpet notes of the Teddy Hill’s band are heard through the curtain. Immediately the whole atmosphere changes, and the Cotton Club artists from New York set out show this benighted continent what hot jazz really is…Whyte’s Hopping Maniacs abandon themselves whole-heartedly to the primitive ebullience of the Lindy Hop. (Manchester Guardian, September 7 1937. Source: Proquest Historical Newspapers, the Guardian and the Observer).
Hugues Panassié (French jazz critic):
Whitey’s Hopper Maniacs are three couples who specialise in a dance called the lindy hop (the name comes from the Lindbergh hop), a dance which has been raging for some time in America. The six dancers are remarkable, in particular Naomi Waller and Lucille Middleton. It is difficult to give readers who have never seen the lindy hop an idea of what it looks like. It is the most dynamic dance in the world. The dancers throw their partners up in the air, jump in front of each other and perform the most unpredictable gags. (Hugues Panassié, as quoted in This Thing Called Swing, p220).
Celebrating Frankie in Dublin
This research is an on-going project, and I welcome any further information other readers can add about Whitey’s Hopping Maniacs’ visit to Dublin or help identifying the members of the cast in the photos. I would like to thank Cynthia Millman in particular and the Frankie Manning Foundation for their encouragement and support. I would also like to thank the staff of Trinity College Library.
I am interested in commemorating Frankie’s visit and the Harlem on Parade show in Dublin next year, as 2017 would be the 80th anniversary. If you would like to get involved please contact me.
Karen Campos McCormack is a freelance translator and swing dance, music and history enthusiast. She is currently working on the Spanish translation of Norma Miller’s Swingin’ at the Savoy: the Memoir of a Jazz Dancer (Temple University Press). She is the founder of Compostela Swing and you can find more of her articles in English and Spanish on Atlantic Lindy Hopper.
You might have missed this hidden treasure of Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic craze. Cassino da Urca was Rio’s most spectacular casino dating back to the 1930s, the epitome of Rio’s golden era of glamour with its grand casinos and top level national and international performers. Carmen Miranda was the casino’s resident star attraction before moving to Hollywood. Some of the stars who frequented the Cassino da Urca included Josephine Baker, Bing Crosby, Walt Disney and Orson Welles. The place was swingin’ in the 1930s and 40s, and you could even see Harlem’s best Lindy Hop with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who performed here on tour in 1941-1942; in fact, due to World War II they were forced to delay their return and remain in Brazil several months for fear their boat might be attacked as the international conflict grew. The recently renovated casino building can still be seen overlooking a quiet beach in the Urca neighbourhood, across the bay from Rio, but it gives us little indication of the scale and luxury of the casino in its heyday.
Norma Miller was one of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe that went to Rio and describes her arrival in her memoirs Swingin’ at the Savoy:
The driver took us along Copacabana Beach where the road winds all the way to Cassino da Urca, a beautiful building on the beach, with an awning all the way to the street. It was just as we anticipated, like a fabulous movie setting. There was nothing in America to compare to this casino. It was on the beach, facing the harbor, and when you stood on the patio looking across the harbor, you had a breathtaking view of the statue of Christ. Rio immediately filled a special place in my heart. (p 173).
Is probably Brazil’s most iconic star, and she performed weekly at the Cassino da Urca until 1940, when she moved to Hollywood.
Joaquim Rolla was the entrepreneur who transformed the Cassino da Urca into the best casino in Latin America and beyond. He won ownership over part of the casino playing cards in 1933. After becoming the sole owner he turned it into something much more ambitious and reopened in 1936 following the renovations.
The casino had three big bands, a large chorus line like the Rockettes, and over one hundred band singers (each singer would perform just one number with the band). In Norma Miller’s words: ‘It was something like Las Vegas today’. The Carlos Machado Band was the leading big band in Rio at the time Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were there and Grande Otello was the local actor and singer star. There was a theatre, several gambling rooms and restaurants, as well as a boat service to other casinos.
Everything about the Cassino was beautiful and on an incredible scale of luxury. The stage was mobile, and as one band finished playing it would disappear underground as the next band started up (you can see this device in action in the Istituto Europeo di Design video included at the end of the post).
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers travelled down to Rio in December 1941. The troupe included three teams: Frankie Manning and Ann Jonson, Al Minns and Willamae Ricker, Billy Ricker and Norma Miller. The Lindy Hoppers loved the Samba and were a big hit on opening night according to Norma:
‘We loved Brazil, and Brazil loved us. When we hit the stage with the band, I knew something special was happening. It was wonderful, it was that Samba beat…The house roared and the band was swingin’ like crazy. When we finished the house went wild, everything else stopped. We bowed and bowed, and, finally, they let us go. We were a smash in Rio. We knew we had found a second home’. (p 175).
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers had been contracted for 6 weeks, but following the bombing of Pearl Harbour it became too dangerous to return by boat, and 6 weeks became 10 months, during which time they played all the major casinos in Brazil. They would do a first show at Cassino da Urca and then take a cabin cruiser across the harbour to play at Cassino Icarai.
You can read more about Norma Miller’s adventures in Brazil, where she learned to dance Samba and participated in the Carnival parade, her conversations with Orson Welles and their close escape from a mob, in Swingin’ at the Savoy.
Norma Miller on Samba and Swing:
The Brazilians have a Swing all their own, but it has the same African roots as American jazz. Brazilian blacks gave it a Samba beat, and American blacks swung it. The ties were there, and we felt them immediately. Everything about Brazil was swinging. (p 173).
The Cassino da Urca was also the location for Orson Welles filming of an unfinished feature film, Ain’t it the Truth, which included a section documenting Rio’s carnival (filmed during the same period as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers stay). Unfortunately, the project was never completed and not much footage remains. Welles was a great jazz enthusiast and had been working on a film documenting the history of jazz with Louis Armstrong before accepting to come to Brazil when he was appointed goodwill ambassador to Latin America as part of the war effort. The Carnival episode was also called “The Story of Samba”.
The Cassino da Urca today
Gambling was declared illegal in 1946 in Brazil and the building was bought by a TV channel. After laying derelict since the 1980s, the casino has recently undergone renovations with the Istituto Europeo di Design. You can follow in the steps of the Cassino’s history and renovation in this IED video.
If you are lucky enough to visit Rio, this is its location.
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
(Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, p227).
Even 13 year old Billie Holiday knew she had to go to Harlem. This New York neighbourhood exerted a powerful attraction on African Americans of all backgrounds in the early decades of the 20th Century. In the 1920s Harlem became the home of the New Negro Movement in the US, the first civil rights movement embodied in organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) or the National Urban League, and a focal point for black culture – in politics, literature, art and music; a phenomenon which also became known as the Harlem Renaissance (officially inaugurated in 1925). Originally a 17th century Dutch settlement, Harlem had experienced several migratory influxes, but in the early decades of the 20th Century it was the main destination for the Great Migration of African Americans who were escaping oppression and Jim Crow (seggregation) laws in the South for better opportunities in the North (Chicago was another important destination).
Nowhere quite captured the imagination and the spirit of the time as Harlem did. It attracted black intellectuals and artists (‘niggeratti’ as coined by Zora Neale Hurston) — writers like Langston Hughes, artists like Aaron Douglas, musicians like Duke Ellington – but it also attracted ordinary African Americans struggling for survival and respect. Here I have gathered some impressions of Harlem.
Elmer Simms Campbell. A night club map of Harlem, 1932.
During the 1920s and 1930s Harlem embodied the new spirit of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, with a significance that reached beyond the African American community, New York and the US. Here the best musicians played and swing was born. It was the hottest night-spot and there was no shortage of night-clubs as we can see in this 1932 image: the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, Small’s Paradise and countless other clubs, ballrooms, theatres and speakeasies attracted (white) party goers from downtown New York -including many famous Hollywood and Broadway stars like Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable or Tallulah Bankhead. Harlem provided the best opportunity to savour the freedom of the Jazz Age.
Romare Bearden (artist) was a regular visitor at the Savoy Ballroom in the ‘30s:
‘The best dancing in the world was there, and the best music…You’d want to be either in Harlem then or in Paris. These were the two places where things were happening’. (Malone, Jazz Music in Motion).
Norma Miller (the Queen of Swing) in a recent BBC interview:
‘Harlem was the epitome of a people who had found a certain freedom, so anybody who could walk, run, jive…they came to Harlem. It was the one place where a black person could feel he had a freedom’.
This song was written in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington referring to the New York subway line that connects Brooklyn with Harlem, it became Duke Ellington’s band’s signature tune. The Duke and his band play it here in a 1943 version for the film Reveille with Beverly.
‘Harlem, to our minds, did indeed have the world’s most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there.’
(Ellington, Music is My Mistress, p36)
Getting to Harlem
Norma Miller’s mother, Zalama Barker, was only 15 when she emigrated from Barbados to New York, then a two-week ship voyage:
‘She was on the way to New York –that magnificent city she had heard so much about was going to be her home. She was especially excited to see the place she had heard most about, the place where all of the colored people went – Harlem.’
(Miller, Swingin’ at the Savoy p.5)
Billie Holiday describes her arrival in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues:
And Grandpop put me on the train. I had a ticket to Long Branch, where Mom was going to meet me. But as soon as I got on the train by myself I decided, damn Long Branch, I was going to get to see Harlem some way. So I took off the big tag, decided I’d get off the train in New York, take the subway to Harlem, have myself a time, and then contact my mother.
I was only 13 years old, but I was a hip kitty. I was travelling light – except for that basket of chicken [from Grandma] – but I travelled.
(Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues).
Billie Holliday experienced the ugliest side of Harlem before she became a star, staying at a children’s shelter and prison at different times.
Ralph Ellison (writer). In his novel Invisible Man, he describes his protagonist’s impressions when he first arrives in Harlem from the South.
‘I had never seen so many black people against a background of brick buildings, neon signs, plate glass and roaring traffic —not even on trips I had made with the debating team to New Orleans, Dallas or Birmingham. They were everywhere. So many, and moving along with so much tension and noise that I wasn’t sure whether they were about to celebrate a holiday or join in a street fight. There were even black girls behind the counters of the Five and Ten as I passed. Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic – and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Sure I had heard of it, but this was real. My courage returned. This really was Harlem…The vet had been right: For me this was not a city of realities, but of dreams; perhaps because I had always thought of my life as being confined to the South.
(Ellison, Invisible Man, p159).
Many more followed this journey to Harlem: Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker (although Baker was not so impressed and soon moved to Paris) and a very long list.
Harlem Mecca of the New Negro
Harlem was swinging’ – but not everything was swing. The New Negro Movement was lead by figures like W.E.B DuBois, head of the NAACP, and philosopher Alain Locke. They believed a new Negro literature and art were the means for African Americans to achieve equal status and rights.
Harlem Mecca of the New Negro – Survey Graphic (March 1925), Ed. Alain Locke
Alain Locke in his 1925 essay ‘Harlem’:
‘without pretense to their political significance, Harlem had the same role to play for the New Negro as Ireland has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the new Czechoslovakia’.
(Locke in Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue).
Was Harlem a slum? Harlem, which had become a predominantly black neighbourhood by the 1920s, offered opportunities and possibilities for black Americans that were unavailable in other parts of the US, however, poverty was a widespread problem, as is evident in any of the personal accounts of that time.
David Levering Lewis:
‘Harlem’s statistics were dire…What the statistics obscured was the mood of the universe north of Central Park. Whatever its contradictions…the one certainty almost all who lived there shared was that Harlem was no slum. Ghetto, maybe. Slum, never. […] Jobs and rent money might be hard to come by, and whites might own more than 80 percent of the community’s wealth, but the ordinary people of Harlem –not just civil rights grandees and exhilarated talents from the provinces— exuded a proud self-confidence that, once lost, would not reappear’.
(Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue p109).
Harlem’s greatest legacy is probably still its music (and dance):
As I was sitting having a beer in a leafy beer garden in southern Galicia this summer, while attending a meeting of the local swing association, I came to reflecting about globalization, universal human passions for music and dance, and the mysterious and circuitous turns in history which have led to this meeting taking place at all…as you do. The place is the Aturuxo bar in Bueu, a small village on the coast of one of Galicia’s southern bays. It is a lovely early summer afternoon and we are sitting around a table in the shade of the garden, surrounded by the countryside. The Aturuxo is in fact a great concert venue and the alma mater of Lindy Hop in Galicia. This is where Jorge and Elena started their first Lindy Hop classes when they returned after living in Porto (Portugal) where they had been bitten bad by the lindy hop bug. They started with a small weekly practice group in 2012 and now, in just three years, it has grown into a busy swing dance school (Swing On Vigo) and has spawned an independent Galician swing association which was formally created last year (Ghastas Pista Swing). We were there to organize the association’s annual swing festival work programme and to attend a concert by Alo Django, a local swing band from Santiago de Compostela.
I think it is a fair bet to imagine that there was no Lindy Hop or other swing dancing occurring in Bueu in the late 1930s or ‘40s. For a start the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and tough post-war period under Franco’s dictatorship would have been a dampener on the swing spirit. Bueu would have been a relatively remote fishing village. I would be interested to know if swing music was popular at the time in the larger cities of Vigo or Coruña, but it is unlikely that a group of lindy hoppers would have gathered to dance to a live swing band at their local bar, as was the case today. So I looked into this a little, there isn’t much material on the history of swing in Spain, but if you would like to know more this is the best source I have found article by Jorge García. It suggests that even back then Barcelona was the main jazz route entry in Spain and that while the fox trot and Charleston made it, Lindy Hop would not have been widely known or danced. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers did a couple of tours of Europe in the late 30s, fitting in England, France, Switzerland and even a visit to Dublin, but did not reach Spain (which would have been in the midst of the civil war as mentioned). I also doubt even Frankie Manning (Lindy Hop inspiration) had an inkling of how far his legacy would reach when he was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1980s and the Lindy Hop revival started in the US and Sweden. Ah the marvels of a globally connected world.
This global passion for swing speaks of the joy its music and dance transmits, which veritably ‘hooks’ lindy hoppers from all kinds of backgrounds. Alo Django provided us with some swingin’ tunes — crazy beat, foot stomping versions of All of Me, Undecided, Sweet Georgia Brown and others, which had us hopping in the grass well into nightfall. Alo Django are Xabier Mera (voice and guitar), David Tato (guitar), Quim Farinha (violin), Alfonso Calvo (double bass), often in collaboration with Gail Brevitt (tap and voice), and have been very supportive of the local swing scene. They recently organized the II Foliada Swing in Santiago for example, including a film screening, dance workshops, and a joint tap and swing shim sham on stage.
The route to the swing (dance) revival in Galicia has been circuitous and also follows the ebbs and flows of emigration and return: via Portugal and the vibrant swing community that Abeth Farag (US) helped to create over the last 10 years, via Jorge (from Bueu) and Elena (from Madrid) who after living in Porto have gone on to work full time at fostering and growing a local swing scene in Galicia; via Ireland and a half Irish-Spanish ‘migrant and back again’ (me) who started dancing in Dublin and has been doing her best to continue dancing and to share her love of swing dancing in Santiago de Compostela; via Carlos Tomico whose travels brought him to Scotland, Madrid (where he caught the swing bug), back to Galicia where he has been actively involved in Ghastas Pista Swing and teaching in Santiago, and are now taking him abroad again to Portugal; via Leti González, originally from Madrid, who has sailed the seven seas before docking in Vigo and getting on board the Swing On team – and also some really enthusiastic local lindy hoppers who discovered swing in this very location, like Daniel Pérez and Laura Rosales, current Treasurer and President of Ghastas Pista Swing Association. The people behind the local swing scene do paint a picture of globalization at its best, that is, bringing together people who love to dance!
And at the same time the swing scene in Galicia is very much local, fuelled by Estrella Galicia and tapas, dancing on the beach or in narrow old town streets, gathering for a Galician winter stew (cocido gallego) or shim shamming on the pier or in front of the Santiago cathedral.
This was the Frankie 100 celebration in the Rías Baixas (the southern coast of Galicia) with the students of Swing On School.
Although the passion for swing music and Lindy Hop is now global and goes across all kinds of cultures –from the US, UK, Sweden, Spain, Korea, South America, Israel, South Africa…it also takes on specific forms in each locality. I have lived and experienced three different scenes mainly – Dublin, Barcelona and Galicia. In Galicia it is developing hand in hand with great bars, live music, and the special ‘swing vermouth’ modality, which combines a pre-lunch drink and tapa with dancing, usually outdoors. In Barcelona, thanks to the great weather, there is outdoor dancing every weekend in plazas and parks (but here sans tapas). The scene there has developed mainly thanks to very active swing dance schools and teachers (now nearly 20 schools in the Barcelona region, some with hundreds of students) which have contributed to one of the largest most exciting swing communities in Europe. In Ireland the scene has grown mainly as an evening activity in pubs – because what other kind of venue can you find in Ireland??- but as a generally beer-free form of pub-going (which doesn’t usually go down well with the pubs). It ends up being all your friends’ houses where you meet up to dance and party (Anita Walshe, thinking of your place especially). There are sometimes swing picnics, which are a nice Irish family-friendly version of the ‘swing vermouth’ where people bring along home-baked cakes, oh and there is usually some kind of roof, just in case.
These are the scenes that I am familiar with, but I can only imagine that the Lindy Hop community in Sweden or Korea have their own unique forms of swingin’. What is perhaps special about the global Lindy Hop community is that we are also very closely connected, frequently attending events abroad and finding fellow Lindy Hop addicts where we least expected. As Norma Miller said in her memoirs ‘Although Harlem created it, the Lindy belongs to the world’.
The swing community could not grow without great venues that support it by facilitating, a) a space to dance and b) promoting local swing musicians and events. In the south of Galicia the Aturuxo, Carycar club or Taberna O Rincón, and in Santiago O Ateneo 30, Gallaecia in Armis and Dado Dada club have been essential allies and great places to dance.
Let the swing spirit continue 😉
Note: this post is by no means a complete guide of swing in Galicia – I write about the people and places I know personally, so if you feel I have left anything important out…well just add it to the comments and let me know.
In fact, I would really like to know your views – what do you think attracts people to swing and Lindy Hop nowadays? What is unique about your scene?