Jazz Dance History Books and why you should read them

   

Introduction

HOLY COW!! A blog post that has nothing to do with fitness or practice or really dancing mainly studying dancing...anyways. These days of self quarantine or social distancing in loom of COVID-19, dancers are trying to think up different ways to occupy their time and still keep the dance bug at bay. Many folks have formed virtual meet ups to exchange solo jazz steps, instructors are offering online curriculum sense the risk of spreading this virus is too high for us to engage in classes in real time and DJ's have been hosting live streams of sets and Musicians are broadcasting jam sessions from their homes. Yet, at the time of me writing this post I haven't seen much in regards to utilizing the new free time of social distancing to read up on the history of Lindy Hop and African American Vernacular Dance Culture. I'm gonna write a brief review of books that I've read and one that I'm still reading through, highlighting why I feel these books are vital for any scene leader, instructor or dedicated Lindy Hop Community member to have read.

#1 Frankie Manning Ambassador of Lindy Hop

Summary from the book:

In the early days of swing dancing, Frankie Manning stood out for his moves and his innovative routines; he created the "air step" in the Lindy hop, a dance that took the U.S. and then the world by storm. In this fascinating autobiography, choreographer and Tony Award winner (Black and Blue) Frankie Manning recalls how his first years of dancing as a teenager at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom led to his becoming chief choreographer and a lead dancer for "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers," a group that appeared on Broadway, in Hollywood musicals, and on stages around the globe. Manning brings the Swing Era vividly back to life with his recollections of crowded ballrooms and of Lindy hoppers trying to outdo each other in spectacular performances. His memories of the many headliners and film stars, as well as uncelebrated dancers with whom he shared the stage, create a unique portrait of an era in which African American performers enjoyed the spotlight, if not a star's prerogatives and salary. With collaborator Cynthia Millman, Manning traces the evolution of swing dancing from its early days in Harlem through the post-World War II period, until it was eclipsed by rock 'n' roll and then disco. When swing made a comeback, Manning's 30-year hiatus ended. He has been performing, choreographing, and teaching ever since.

What I took away from this book:

Frankie Manning,is easily the most frequently named originator of the dance in our community, because of how much he gave to the dance as a performer, choreographer, competitor and towards the end of his life an instructor. You get a huge sense of his personality and who he was growing up. You get to hear funny stories that aren't talked about very often, like when Clark Gable (lead actor in Gone with the Wind) used him to win a bet, after he saw him jump across two tall platforms on a movie set. My personal favorite is when Frankie tried to imitate a jump over the band stand that the Berry Brothers did in 1942’s Panama Hattie and how he epically crashes to open up a performance.

The book not only gives you insight to who Frankie was and how he approached dancing and music. He communicates a lot of the jazz dance traditions that were in place when he started dancing and the ones he formed and witnessed evolve as a professional with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers and The Congaroos. Frankie talks about comedy teams, tap dancers, the organization of how chorus girl groups functioned and the culture behind the scenes of how the acts related to each other. How essentially the headliners were seen as the leaders backstage, so after Frankie got into a fight with a comedian for rudely shoving a chorus girl, Frankie had to meet with Bill Robinson as he was the headliner of the show they were in. There's so much insight to what jazz dance is and how everything functioned. Frankie spells it out beautifully and this is a great starting point to study and look into many aspects of jazz dance as a whole rather than just looking at Lindy Hop.

#2 Swingin' at The Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer

Summary from the book 

It was a time when the music was Swing, and Harlem was king. Renowned as the "world's most beautiful ballroom" and the largest and most elegant in Harlem, the Savoy was the only ballroom not segregated when it opened in 1926. The Savoy hosted the best bands and attracted the best dancers by offering the challenge of fierce competition. White people traveled uptown to learn exciting new dance styles. A dance contest winner by 14, Norma Miller became a member of Herbert White's Lindy Hoppers and a celebrated Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hop champion. Swingin' at the Savoy chronicles a significant period in American cultural history and race relations, as it glorifies the home of the Lindy Hop, and the birthplace of such memorable dance fads as the Big Apple, Shag, Truckin' Peckin', Susie Q, the Charleston, Peabody, Black Bottom, Cake Walk, Boogie Woogie, Shimmy and tap dancing.

What I took away from this book:

First off, long live The Queen of Swing. Like Frankie and all the legends and originators of this dance they all live on with us as we partake in these art forms. Norma Miller is the only originator I've had multiple in person encounters with. This book is amazing to read especially if you read it before Frankie's book or after. I highly recommend reading these back to back. I believe I read Norma's first as there is a crossover between how her and Frankie recount a story of a disagreement that Herbet White aka Whitey had with Chick Webb before the Battle of the Bands at the Savoy between Count Basie and Chick Webb. The book starts off with a bang as there's a Preface written by jazz historian Ernie Smith that gives a general portrait of the Swing Era, he not only discusses the music and dances how they were in different places outside of Harlem but he also gets into small snippets of other cultural things like fashion to name one.

What I appreciate a lot about Norma's book is that she and Frankie shared many of the same experiences but you get starkly different interpretations and outlooks on them. Norma digs much more into the politics and the cultures of the time. So you get a glimpse of how racism really plays into the day to day life of Norma and in turn influenced the direction of Lindy Hop and the many other dance forms. Norma's book covers more day to day experiences of her life and how things crescendo into different highlights giving a better sense of the growth of her outlook as a woman, dancer and choreographer. Norma like Frankie talks about a number of Jazz dances  outside of Lindy Hop which makes the history of these dances much more robust and she discusses how different dances faded in and out of popularity and how the Lindy Hop interacted with them as well. I feel this book is important for folks because Norma Miller is one of the most influential people in show business with what she accomplished and to be a black woman in this era with what she was doing her accomplishments are nothing to sneeze at. My mom who knows more black history than anyone I know read this book in a day and stared at me astonished, ASTONISHED and asked me "Shelby who is this woman?" Her story needs to be known and her legacy of excellence and her BLACK excellence treasured at that.

Jookin': The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African American Culture

Summary on the Book:

Katrina Hazzard-Gordon offers the first analysis of the development of the jook—an underground cultural institution created by the black working class—together with other dance arenas in African-American culture. Beginning with the effects of African slaves’ middle passage experience on their traditional dances, she traces the unique and virtually autonomous dance culture that developed in the rural South. Like the blues, these secular dance forms and institutions were brought north and urbanized by migrating blacks. In northern cities, some aspects of black dance became integrated into white culture and commercialized. Focusing on ten African-American dance arenas from the period of enslavement to the mid-twentieth century, this book explores the jooks, honky-tonks, rent parties, and after-hours joints as well as the licensed membership clubs, dance halls, cabarets, and the dances of the black elite.

Jook houses emerged during the Reconstruction era and can be viewed as a cultural response to freedom. In the jook, Hazzard-Gordon explains, an immeasurable amount of core black culture including food, language, community fellowship, mate selection, music, and dance found a sanctuary of expression when no other secular institution flourished among the folk. The jook and its various derivative forms have provided both entertainment and an economic alternative (such as illegal lotteries and numbers) to people excluded from the dominant economy. Dances like the Charleston, shimmy, snake hips, funky butt, twist, and slow drag originated in the jooks; some can be traced back to Africa.

Social dancing links black Americans to their African past more strongly than any other aspect of their culture. Citing the significance of dance in the African-American psyche, this study explores the establishments that nurtured ancestral as well as communal links for African-Americans, vividly describing black dances, formal rituals, such as debutante balls, and the influence of black dance on white culture.

What I took away:

This book was the most emotionally painful to read but so informative on why Jazz dances and Blues dances take on the characteristics that they do. These dance aesthetics and values were formed so much by the environment the people grew up in. Jookin' covers the formation of African American culture from before to during and after the middle passage and slavery. You see how the constant threat of cultural erasure t African Americans faced really influenced how and why they danced. A lot is spoken of how slave plantation overseers limited how many slaves could gather in one place to quell the threat of revolts and how the outlawing of drumming influenced dance styles. How venue space forced the people to dance in a particular manner so everyone could have a good time. Despite this constant threat of cultural erasure it shows how African Americans were able to evolve, innovate and thrive to maintain a cultural identity in a world that constantly wants to destroy that along with our humanity. This book is vital for our dance community because it shows the “why” behind the many characteristics of jazz dance. The oppression put on by mainstream society influenced values and characteristics of these dances. It opened my eyes how much mainstream society really sought to take away and how African Americans were able to thrive in preserving an identity in spite of these oppressive forces. This is something that the Lindy Hop and Blues communities I feel fall short of discussing and I’m happy to see more people looking to address that in both dance communities. Once again it’s extremely vital for people to read this book to further understand the spirit behind these dance styles.

Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance

Summary:

I'm including a brief part of a review that was written back in 2016 by hollajazz.com. Hit the link to read the rest of what they had to say about the book.

Jazz is undeniably an American art form. Marshall & Jean Stearns brought his book to the world detailing the history of jazz dance: Jazz Dance: The Story of the American Vernacular Dance. This book is literally the bible of American dancing that is performed to jazz music – jazz dance. The subtitle of the book is an important characteristic of the entire book – American Vernacular Dance – meaning the native and homegrown dance of the country.

Marshall Stearns takes a look at jazz dance in it’s authentic form. Not the jazz dance that has evolved into what is taught in studios around the world, but the jazz dance that grew alongside jazz music. The introduction to the book gives us a good idea of what this is about:

“The phrase jazz dance has a special meaning for professionals who dance to jazz music (they use it to describe non-tap body movement); and another meaning for studios coast to coast teaching “Modern Jazz Dance” (a blend of Euro-American styles that owes little to jazz and less to jazz rhythms). However, we are dealing here with what may eventually be referred to as jazz dance, and we could not think of a more suitable title.

The characteristic that distinguishes American vernacular dance – as does jazz music – is swing, which can be heard, felt, and seen, but defined only with great difficulty”…(xvi)

Marshall traces the origins of jazz dance and it’s development back traditional African movements. Africans had to find ways to adapt to their new environments and lifestyle.  But they also wanted to retain their native traditions. Dance was that way. In the end, the blending of African body movements, coupled with the European formal dances, produced a new form of dancing to create the Afro-American Vernacular."

My take away and thoughts:

This book is like an encyclopedia of Vernacular Jazz Dance forms, Marshall and Jean Stearns did a great job interviewing people to get stories and information on particular styles, trends and influences for the dances they come across. I really enjoy how they cover dances in the book throughout their time period but then back track for the next section they cover so if a dance started in 1910 and extended into the late 20's they'd go that far and then go back to around 1915 for another trend that started so it's a very logical progression. The book does feel very dry and academic though, I appreciate the effort that went into documenting these dances but I feel the language creates a huge barrier of understanding but his descriptions are good enough that I've been able to back track shared characteristics of dances that are quite nuanced and hard to catch if you don't know what you're looking for an example how cakewalk and black college marching band traditions are linked. I read through a good portion of the book but now mainly use it as a reference book as it's cited in so much academic literature regarding African American Vernacular Dance styles. I feel this book is important for people to read because as we're looking to reconnect Lindy Hop back to it's historical and cultural roots we need to talk about ALL the jazz dances and not just lindy. If we talk about Lindy Hop without talking about the many dances that were combined and used to make it up we have a very shallow understanding of what this dance is.

Steppin on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance

Summary 

Steppin' on the Blues explores not only the meaning of dance in African American life but also the ways in which music, song, and dance are interrelated in African American culture. Dance as it has emanated from the black community is a pervasive, vital, and distinctive form of expression - its movements speak eloquently of African American values and aesthetics. Beyond that it has been, finally, one of the most important means of cultural survival. Former dancer Jacqui Malone throws a fresh spotlight on the cultural history of black dance, the Africanisms that have influenced it, and the significant role that vocal harmony groups, black college and university marching bands, and black sorority and fraternity stepping teams have played in the evolution of dance in African American life. From the cakewalk to the development of jazz dance and jazz music, all Americans can take pride in the vitality, dynamism, drama, joy, and uncommon singularity with which African American dance has gifted the world.

My thoughts and takeaways

I haven't finished this book as of writing this blog but I'm loving every single page and word written in it. I feel it's important that we have the cultural contexts and customs to inform how we present this dance. Dance is a small facet of culture but that expresses other facets like language, traditions, mannerisms and commonly shared beliefs. Teaching African American Vernacular Jazz Dances without teaching the cultural values diminishes the art form because those values inform the dance and the dance reaffirms the values shared by the community that created it. Jacqui Malone dives into these cultural values in a very ingenious manner, though she's speaking on an extremely loaded topic her writing is very easy to read and doesn't take a lot of mental energy to take in, so I'm pondering the material rather than trying to decipher the language. I used excerpts from this book for a newsletter I wrote for Hot Jams in Atlanta, Georgia on The Aesthetic of Cool where I speak about common characteristics that are shared across all African American Vernacular Dances. Lindy Hop and many other jazz dances were formed by particular cultural values and outlooks. To leave those out of the curriculum changes what these dances are fundamentally so it's imperative that instructors and scene leaders know about these things, so we can responsibly move the dances forward. Innovation of an art form can only be made when artists have an understanding of the values and characteristics that shape their medium. 

Conclusion

Jazz dance history and culture are things that I've been building a huge passion for over the past 4 years. It has transformed how I approach dancing and it is a huge aspect of my teaching. I'm always looking to inform students about where the dance comes from and how particular concepts I value are part of African American social dance tradition. Being able to provide students a reference point for all these things is how we pass on a living breathing tradition as opposed to just teaching them steps. I am available for virtual chats regarding music, history and culture. Email me at [email protected] for rates and availability, I'd be more than happy to share what I know with y'all. If the subject matter that interests you I feel is out of my scope I’d be more than happy to recommend artists and organizations who’ve helped inform me over the years.


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