dancers, spaces and big bands

Savoy Ballroom.
Harlem, New York City. 1939
© Cornell Capa © International Center of Photography/Magnum Photos

The infancy of jazz

coincided with extensive artistic and commercial efforts to get black musical theater established on Broadway. As a result, jazz musicians had a recognized connection with professional dance acts prior to the thirties. From the orchestra pit, musicians backed professional dancers and singers in theaters across the country. Throughout the twenties, jazz musicians, singers, and dancers worked together in night clubs and cabarets; and they performed jointly in revues that toured the United Stated and abroad. As jazz bands became increasingly popular, they moved from up the pit to take centre stage. Earl Hines helped pioneer the move from the pit to the stage at the Apollo Theater.

Vaudeville declined rapidly around the early thirties and a new performance format called presentation evolved. By this time, radio broadcasts had helped create a demand for jazz bands throughout the country at hotels, supper clubs, theaters, colleges, night clubs, high schools, affluent prep schools, and at such dance halls as the Savoy and Roseland in New York City. Big city movie houses also featured bands on vaudeville-like bills that were presented between motion pictures. According to Cholly Atkins, the most popular venues of the thirties were dance halls, hotels and theaters. Dance halls were scattered across the United States, and any town with more than 150,000 people had at least one hotel with reasonably sized dance floor. And though they were always presented as a part of a musical package, bands were the headliners in these performance arenas. During the era of presentation, these packages were called "revues" or "units" and included dancers, solo singers, comedians, and of, course, a big-name band.

The diversity of dancing acts during the thirties and forties was astonishing: ballroom, adagio, eccentric, comedy, flash, acrobatics, and tap - the most prevailing style. "Adagio" dancers performed a style that consisted of ballroom dance with various balletic and acrobatic lifts, spins, and poses. Eccentric dance, a favorite with many jazz band leaders, may include elements of contortionist, legomania, and shake dancing, although these styles frequently overlap with others, and a dancer can combine something of all of them. 'Eccentric' is a catch-all for dancers who have their own non-standart movements and sell themselves on their own individual styles. One of the most famous of these dancers was Dynamite Hooker, who toured during the thirties with the bands of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford. By the midthirties, many dancers in search of new and exciting ideas had developed what became known as flash dancing - a compression of acrobatics and jazz dancing. The flash acts spice their routines with ad lib acrobatics. Without any warning or apparent preparation, they insert a variety of floor and air steps - a spin or flip or knee-drop split - in the midst of a regular routine, and then, without a moment's hesitation, go back to the routine.

Although dancers appeared with big bands in theaters throughout the country, the premiere stage and number one testing ground in America was Harlem's Apollo Theater. Beginning in 1934, stage shows were built around such well-known jazz bands as those led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Don Redman, Chick Webb, Lucky Millinder, and Fletcher Henderson. The Apollo opened around 10 AM and offered four to five shows per day starting with a short film, a newsreel, and a featured film, followed by a revue. Presented in the spring of 1934, The Golliwog Revue was a typical show that consisted of seven acts including Don Redman's band, the headliner; chorus line dancers; the Jack Storm Company, an acrobatic act; Leroy and Edith, the Apollo lindy hop contest winners; Myra Johnson, a singer; the Four Bobs, tap dancers; and Jazzlip Richardson, an eccentric dancer. Throughout the show Johnny Lee Long and Pigmeat Markham, comedians, joked with Ralph Cooper, the host. The role of chorus line dancers in the development of jazz has been consistently overlooked by jazz and dance historians. Many jazz musicians felt a kinship with chorus line dancers: "They used to be the biggest lift to musicians because we thought alike"; "They were more important that people realize. You might say we composed while they danced - a whole lot of swinging rhythm. That's when we invented new things and recorded them the next day" (Dicky Wells).

The Apollo's dance contests featured some of the most dedicated big band followers in the country. Their intricate steps devised to the swinging rhythms of America's jumpingest jazz bands could only be matched by enthusiasm by the contests held further uptown at Harlem's legendary dance hall the Savoy Ballroom, known among the initiated as "the track". When the Savoy opened its doors on March 12 1926, over five thousand people rocked the city block-long building to the rhythms of Fess Williams and his royal Flush Orchestra and the Charleston Bearcats. Dances that started or were made popular at the Savoy include the lindy hop, the flying Charleston, the big apple, the stomp, the jitterbug jive, the snakehips, the rhumboogie, variations of the shimmy and the peabody, and new interpretations of the bunny hug and and the turkey trot. At the Savoy, black musicians and dancers, armed with the musical innovations of Louis Armstrong, helped develop the formula for what was eventually called "swing music", which swept the country during the Great Depression and ricocheted far beyond the Western Hemisphere.

(materials by Jacqui Malone "Steppin' on the Blues")