100 Dance Treasures

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  • Savoy Ballroom
    an essay by Carrie Stern

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  • Frankie Manning
    Pictured above: Frankie Manning and Ann Johnson at the Savoy Ballroom in 1941. Formal and informal dance contests were a regular feature at the Savoy, and for the best dancers they led to professional careers performing in movies and theater. It was during such a contest that Frankie Manning introduced the first Lindy Hop air step, flipping his partner over his head. Such innovations were encouraged by the friendly rivalry among Savoy dancers.

Al Minns dancing the Charleston and an unidentified couple dancing the Lindy Hop
at the Savoy Ballroom, 1950s, filmed by Mura Dehn. At the Savoy, champion dancers
would show off their individual moves and styles, contributing to the evolution
of many social dances.

The Savoy Ballroom, known to visitors as the "Home of Happy Feet" and to locals as "The Track," spanned the block between 140 and 141 Streets on Harlem's Lenox Avenue and opened on March 12, 1926. Launched by entrepreneur Jay Faggen and manager Charles Buchanan, this second story ballroom featured an extended double band stand, and a 3,500-square-foot spring-loaded dance floor that needed replacing on at least four occasions, due to excessive wear. The collective rhythmic response of the 1,000 dancers who could fit onto it, ensured the floor pulsed to the music, which meant everyone kept exact time. Moe Gale replaced Faggen as the owner's representative, and presided as the ballroom began attracting capacity audiences to dance contests on Saturdays and special events such as Battle of the Bands, often on Sundays, in which top swing orchestras such as Benny Goodman's and Chick's Webb fought for supremacy. Low priced admission and room for another two thousand patrons - both black and white-in its carpeted areas kept the Savoy busy until 3:00 a.m. five nights weekly, leaving the other two for private parties. Superb music, efficient bouncers who ensured respectful behaviour, and the ballroom's celebrated "Savoy Lindy Hoppers," who constantly pushed dance developments, were the main attractions. Although devised elsewhere, the Lindy Hop became the ballroom's flagship dance, and influential on reworked versions of the Charleston, the Big Apple, the Mambo and swing line-dances like the Shim Sham and the Trankey Doo. Apart from one NYPD enforced six month closure in 1943 the dancing never stopped until 1958, when the legendary ballroom closed forever, despite many promises to reopen it.

The Savoy Ballroom, Photo © Bettmann/Corbis A crowd gathered outside the Savoy Ballroom, a major cultural hub and landmark for the Harlem neighborhood.(Photograph © Bettmann/Corbis.)

In this excerpt from Frankie Manning: Ambassador of the Lindy Hop, a tribute
video produced by Jeff Kaufman, Manning recalls his early impressions of the
Savoy Ballroom. Through his performances in films and on stage, and through
his later work as a teacher and choreographer, Manning carried the dances
of the Savoy to the rest of the country and the world. Full video available on YouTube.com.

Learn more in Savoy Ballroom, an essay by Carrie Stern.