Over the lockdown, we spent twenty two weeks teaching our superhumanly patient group what could well be the world’s longest Big Apple course. For the benefit of the group, and for anyone else who’s interested, it feels like a great time to share a bit more detail on the Apple – some of the history, who the dancers were, musical breakdowns, and a few fun details we’ve spotted along the way. After the fold – some of the history, and the dancers who we see in this classic piece of dance history.
The Classic Clip
The Big Apple in the form we’ve come to know it seems to have had a typically weird and convoluted history. Derived from Afro American ring shouts, it is believed to have been danced first by Afro American youths at a club called the Big Apple club in South Carolina. A group of white students were so taken with it that they kept coming back to the club to watch (the severe segregation laws of the time meant they were not allowed to dance at the venue)…. and ended up creating their own version, which they then toured with.
Arthur Murray (best known for packaging and franchising dance lessons, and quite frequently for appropriating dance trends) took note, and put it into his “swing dance” syllabus, and the resulting dance became a minor craze in a number of cities – a typical format was to have a circle of dancers, with a caller calling out the moves. Ultimately, it became one of the biggest dance crazes ever to hit America – although in typical fashion, the people who originated it saw none of the benefits.
The whole thing came round full circle after Herbert White, the manager of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers sent a description of the dance by telegram to Frankie Manning, who’d never seen it, but choreographed a version for Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers based on that description – and it was danced at the Savoy every Saturday.
To distill that down to the essence – an Afro American dance, appropriated by white students, appropriated again by Arthur Murray, then re-adopted by the Savoy dancers.
The Lost Film
The Whiteys dancers spent two weeks shooting a Big Apple sequence similar to the one we know for the Judy Garland film Everybody Sing – but Whitey had a falling out with the director, who then cut the sequence from the finished film. To this day there are rumours that the cut footage found its way into someone’s private collection, but that’s likely just wishful thinking, and certainly, it’s never come to light. The version we know is from the short Keep Punchin’ – also one to watch for its swing dance sequence.
The Spirit Moves documentary has a Big Apple section that’s definitely worth a watch. I’ve done my best to find suitable music (Basie’s Apple Jump seemed appropriate) and synchronise it, as the Spirit Moves tends to just random music added randomly on top.
At the Savoy
There’s a short (and blindingly fast) sequence of the Apple being danced at the Savoy Ballroom at the start of this clip.
Dancing the Big Apple 1937
Finally, there’s a short documentary on Amazon, iTunes and the like, called Dancing the Big Apple 1937, which is well worth a watch – made by Judy Pritchett. It’s a short, but fascinating, and well made film, with a lot of detail and insights into the roots of the dance and music.
It’s important to know who the Keep Punchin’ Apple dancers were, and to my shame, for the longest time I didn’t look into this. Frankie is easy to spot, as is Norma, but it was only recently that I’ve looked into this more closely. Here’s the line-up, in a slightly doctored picture – it’s almost impossible to find a moment in the film where you can see everyone properly – but it’s essentially the final line-up.
So who are these guys? A little bit about each of them:
Mickey Jones – 1919-1982 – described by Frankie Manning as a wonderful dancer, and exceptionally quick to learn new steps – she partnered William Downes in Hellzapoppin’ and other Whiteys performances, and continued to perform with him after Whiteys disbanded in 1942
William Downes joined Whiteys Lindy Hoppers not long before Frankie, and was with the group until they disbanded. Also, of course, to be seen in Hellzappin’, partnering Mickey Jones. After the war, in something of a career switch, he became a New York City policeman.
Norma Miller – 1919 – 2019 – author, choreographer, dancer, comedian, actor. An article about Norma Miller should span several volumes. A legendary dancer, first discovered at 14 (she tried lying about her age to become a Savoy dancer) and performer, and one of the great characters of the Lindy Hop scene from the early days of Whitey’s, right up until she died. Have a look at her website for more information on this incredible lady.
George Greenidge. I’ll say this now – it is incredibly hard to find good photos of George Greenidge. Another great dancer, you can see him dance in A Day at the Races, where this picture comes from – and winner of the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball with Ella Gibson or was he? If you head down a really a fun rabbit hole, head over to SwungOver for Bobby White’s wonderful article on the event, and some of the weird stuff that went on with it (and if you like the article, do check out the donation link at the top)
Joyce Daniels. Easily picked out in the routine as the only lady wearing a light-coloured skirt, to me she’s one of the two dancers I just can’t get enough of watching. The sense of wild joy and energy she exudes is mesmerising. Again – check out the wonderful article about her on Swungover.
Joe Daniels. Joyce Daniels’ husband. Frankie recalled the pair (who were nicknamed “Little Stupe” and “Big Stupe” respectively as being two of the wildest dancers in Whiteys’ – there’s also a story of them inventing a variation of the swingout that was nicknamed “The Submarine” – although I’ve no idea whether this was ever captured on film.
Lucile Middleton. Lucille joined Whitey’s at around the same time as Frankie, and was one of his regular dance partners (they can be glimpsed dancing together in the 1938 Radio City Revels. Known for her twists, comedic abilities, and air steps, and married Thomas “Tops” Lee around 1940
Frankie Manning. The most famous, (and perhaps the greatest) of the Whiteys dancers, a huge influence on the way the dance developed (despite being told by his mother at an early age that he’d never be a dancer) – an inspiration to generations of Lindy Hoppers. And importantly in this context, he choreographed this Big Apple routine.
Wilda Crawford.Winner of the 1940 Harvest Moon Ball – and a long time partner of Tops (for some years after leaving Whitey’s) – Tops and Wilda were spectacular dancers, and it’s worth seeking out some of the clips of their dancing. Apparently, her wacky behaviour earned her the affectionate nickname of “Quack Quack”
Thomas “Tops” Lee. The other half of Tops and Wilda, and co-winner of the Harvest Moon Ball. Interestingly, they were initially supposed to be in Hellzapoppin – but as Frankie tells it, they were dropped after a rehearsal no-show. For those interested in the origins of the Tranky Doo – a couple of the very early videos of the routine are from Tops and Wilda.
Thanks for Making it this Far!
And there you have it. A whirlwind tour to the routine’s history, and the people who brought us the classic clip. I feel it’s nearly impossible to do any of these wonderful dancers justice without an absolutely tonne of extra research, and a novel-sized post, but I hope I’ve managed to convey at least a flavour of who they were, and what they were about. Watch out for a follow-up post, where I plan to delve a little more deeply into things to watch for in the route, and the music. Until then…