Inspiration at 320 BPM

So school has got me really bogged down right now. Once this semester finishes (in February), hopefully I’ll be able to get back to posting on a regular schedule. But for now I’ll just leave you with an essay I wrote. It’s very much lame, so I’m very sorry in advanced.

Inspiration is not easy to find, especially for a dancer. There are not many opportunities to see dance performances within our daily lives; harder still to find one that is inspiring. What about the most inspiring? No, it cannot be found on an expensive Broadway stage or at a pretensions dance company. It is buried deep within the barely watchable Hellzapoppin’ (1941). In the film, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers perform the quintessential Lindy Hop routine of all time. Generations of dancers worldwide will consistently be inspired by this performance because of the incredible amount of energy, creativity, and pure fun that pours out of the original performers at the audience.

Lindy Hop itself has an inspiring history. Formed in the 1920’s at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, it evolved from partnered Charleston. As they danced, couples started to break away from each other. As music changed, so did the dance. It became smoother than the Charleston and turned into Lindy Hop. All the best dancers gathered at the Savoy every night to strut their stuff. The Savoy became the first integrated ballroom in America when the crowds coming out of the Cotton Club wanted to came in to see what was going on. Norma Miller, one of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, often said that at the Savoy people didn’t care what color your skin was, only if you could dance. It is the energy of Lindy Hop that brought people together in that two block long ballroom. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers also formed at the Savoy by none other than Herbert “Whitey” White, ex-boxer and bouncer at the Savoy. White would scout the most talented dancers in the ballroom and recruit them to his exclusive dance troupe. He was also a band manager and could get the kids gigs around town and even the country. Soon the dance started catching on and the Lindy Hoppers were being booked at the world famous Cotton Club and in small movies. When the studios were looking to feature more Lindy Hop in their next project they knew just who to look for.

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers was the top name in Lindy Hop. The producers promptly hired these kids for their upcoming Olsen and Johnson hit Hellzapoppin’. They had already been featured in a few other small Hollywood pictures or shorts, but this time around Frankie Manning, the artistic leader of the group, had time to prepare his troops: William Downes and Micky Jones, Billy Ricker and Norma Miller, Al Minns and Willa Mae Ricker, and Manning’s own partner Ann Johnson. Manning choreographed a simple routine to Count Basie’s “Jumping at the Woodside”. Each of the four couples has a solo that shows off their unique talents, then they all finish together in a wonderful flurry of footwork and aerials. But when the lawyers couldn’t secure the rights to Basie’s song, another tune was composed. Compared to the Basie’s “Woodside” at 240 BPM (beats per minute) which is considered fast, the new one clocked in at 320 BPM. The routine had to be performed multiple times in full for each camera angle the director wanted. Despite this, the dancers overwhelmingly managed to keep the energy bursting throughout the entire routine. Their vigor jumps off the screen as if to slap the viewer in the face to say “Wake up!”, particularly in Manning’s own solo with Johnson. They flood the audience with their energy. Manning’s barely moves vertically so all the movement is horizontal; he almost looks like he’s flying across the floor. The momentum with which he pulls Johnson in over his back, catching her upside down, absorbing her momentum (like a human trampoline), and throwing her back out is indescribable. During another trick Johnson kicks Manning in the behind sending him flying several feet to land on his face. Manning once told a story about how they were shooting take after take and the kick was not looking right. So he tolled her to kick him for real, so she did just that, take after take. That’s what putting out energy and staying true to the creative vision means.

There is heap of creativity in this performance. Creativity is being able to come up with new ideas even with binding limitations. Al Minns is a prime example this. He was not part of the original group that was going to shoot this movie. Another couple dropped out just prior leaving for California so Manning enlisted Al Minns and Willa Mae Ricker. Manning had to train them, teach them the routine, and help Minns choreograph the solo all within a short amount of time. Manning noticed that Minns had exceptional legs and his dancing should enhance that feature. Minns and Manning worked on the solo together. In the film we can see how Minns really propels himself forward with his legs by kicking wildly or shooting them out from under him to create momentum. At one point his foot kicks straight into the camera at lightning speed as if he was kicking the audience in the face! Another instance is when Ricker crouches down and Minns bring up his leg parallel to the ground and does three full spins whirling it above Ricker’s head. And for his final trick ending their solo, Minns flips himself up while Ricker holds him upside down while he flails his legs in the air above her head. Not only is that creative, it’s also fun.

Not only is there fun in Minns’ solo, the whole performance is overflowing with it. You can see it on all the kids’ faces when they are dancing, and you can definitely see it in their movements. These barely-20-year-old African American kids from Harlem get to go to Hollywood, make a movie, and get paid for something they love doing. It’s a dream come true. That dream is splashed across each of the dancer’s shining faces. And yet their actions speak louder than their faces! During William Downes and Micky Jones’ solo they break apart. Jones uses this moment to show off her arms. As she waves them with careless intent, she creates the feeling that she cannot be happier any place other than there at that moment. Also their final trick is a humorous salute. Downes, on the floor, on his back, shuffles his body away while moving his shoulders, crawling like a fish out of water. Meanwhile Jones does a crab walk in front of him while pushing her arms up vertically. It is very amusing. These dancers where not afraid to have fun and be silly, that’s what they were paid to do. Frankie Manning kept doing it until he passed away at the astounding age of 94.

Recently some have spoken out about the racial issues in the dance scenes of Hellzapoppin’ and other movies, perhaps spurred by the death of the creative center of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. The dancers are wearing maid’s, chef’s, mechanic’s, chauffeur’s, and gardener’s outfits while the “white folks” peak around the back to see what the “wild Negroes” are doing. In most movies at the time African Americans were represented as the crazy servants who would dance wildly behind the plantation. The accusation is that the performance is a racist caricature of African Americans, that it is not a true view of Lindy Hop. The racism cannot be denied, however, Frankie Manning’s artistic vision was never compromised because of it. He was never told to make the dancing faster, more wild, or more “black”. Manning choreographed the routine in Harlem, before he even entered the sphere of influence in California. The producers never got the chance to tell him how the routine should look. Once he did get there he was given time to practice while the film crew set up. Once they were ready the director said action and that was that. The performance is not an offensive caricature of African Americans. That is how Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers danced. That is how anyone at the Savoy danced . It is part of our history and part of our culture.

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers are inspiring to this day because they stand out culturally and historically. Their performance in Hellzapoppin’ continues to find new audiences through the Internet. Whether they are young or old, experienced dancers or just starting out, or people who have no interest, all are hypnotized for two and a half minutes. Some are fascinated by it, exclaiming that they want to learn Lindy Hop starting the next day, some simply think it’s cool. But no matter how you come across this little diamond in the rough, you will always remember it and definitely be inspired.

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5 thoughts on “Inspiration at 320 BPM

  1. I really enjoyed reading your piece above. I hope you keep your site going, mostly the sites I find and enjoy appear to run out of steam and then grind to a halt.Keep up the good work!

  2. Doug Mark says:

    Please correct.

    Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

    It was not a Marx brothers film but an Olsen and Johnson film.

    Dean Collins is also featured in this film dancing with Martha Raye.

    • Thank you! I don’t know where I read/got the idea that it was a Marx brothers film!
      Yes, Dean Collins in also in the film, but since I was only writing about the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performance, which is the one that stands out to me more personally, I thought it would be kind of going of on a tangent by mentioning them.

  3. Peter Cooke says:

    I just had to say thanks for posting. I stumbled over your website thanks to yahoo and I wanted say i’m enjoying your site.

  4. […] so much more than a dance, or a routine, or a performance. It will stand the test of time and will continually inspire every single generation of lindy hoppers to come. That is something worth performing […]

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