Dance

In Harlem, They’re Still Dancing the Original Swing

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The marquee at the Savoy Ballroom, one of the few places where blacks and whites danced together
The marquee at the Savoy Ballroom, one of the few places where blacks and whites danced together

Limbs flail as if about to fly off; feet barely touch the floor; spines bend and twist like rubber. You might not think of the Lindy hop as a frenzied dance — the original abandon would get polished away over time. Watching it today, especially in old clips like Frankie Manning’s swing sequence in Hellzapoppin’, from 1941, you can see the seeds that would later become vogue ballroom, hip-hop, krumping.

It’s often said that the closing of the Savoy Ballroom, the Lindy hop’s great cathedral until 1958, was the death of swing, at least until its resurrection in the 1980s. For the dancers of the Savoy themselves, however, swing never died. Some of the place’s legends are even still dancing.

At the Pelham Fritz Rec Center in Marcus Garvey Park, on West 122nd Street, a woman drops toward the ground. She’s wearing a red slip dress with matching fringe and fishnets. She’s held horizontal: Her partner caught her just in time, her head an inch from his feet. She’s smiling with her teeth, catching every eye in the room, all on her.

She is 83 years old.

Other partners twist, knees dipping, swiveling on the balls of their feet, cocking their heels. The older men wear fedoras; one stands six-foot-four in a terra-cotta mohair blazer with cream trousers. The younger men wear baseball caps and jerseys. Trumpets blare from the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra on the sidelines.

This is the Harlem Swing Dance Society Ball, a celebration for Harlem’s African-American elders, for those dancers who once graced the floors of the Savoy and for the ones who have kept the Lindy hop scene alive. Founded by Barbara Jones, a tall, commanding Lindy hop enthusiast, the Swing Dance Society is a Harlem original, a last effort to preserve this local history. In the nine years since Jones founded the society, she has reached out to many of the Savoy’s great dancers, now in their eighties and nineties. A few more decades and their stories might have been lost. Stories like that of Barbara Billups.

Billups was nineteen or twenty — she no longer remembers exactly — when she first set foot on the Savoy Ballroom floor. It was around 1958, right before the venue closed. “When I first went to the Savoy,” she recalls, “it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.” By then in operation for 32 years, the Savoy was unique, the only ballroom where black and white patrons regularly danced together.

Billups had just moved from Athens, Georgia, to live with her mother in Harlem, on 163rd Street, but the Savoy became her second home. “Every time I had a night off,” she says, “I would go to the Savoy, and I would dance and leave just in time to go to work the next morning. Go home, take a shower, and go to work. I tell you, I almost fell on my face one time, being up so late.”

She recounts all this while seated on the bed in her Flushing apartment, the padded headboard covered in plastic, Judge Greg Mathis on TV in the background. Billups wears a black “King of Pop” T-shirt, black sweatpants, and her hair tied back. Just past eighty, she’s still in high demand as a Lindy hop teacher; she had a teaching trip to Sweden scheduled just a few days after the interview.

In 1958, Billups was asked to dance in the Harvest Moon Ball by Willie Posey. None of the other girls wanted to dance with Posey, because he “danced wild.” Billups, who had never competed before, protested — “You know I can’t dance!” — but Posey insisted, and after three weeks of practice, Billups entered the last Harvest Moon contest to come out of the Savoy. The pair ended up placing third.

The winners were Marcella Washington and Sonny Allen, who later became Billups’s partner both on the dancefloor and off; the two now live together in the home in Flushing. By the time he won the ball, Allen was already an accomplished and versatile performer. He’d gotten his start on television at age ten, on The Star Time Kids, and danced with Henry LeTang, the Tony-winning choreographer of Black and Blue. Allen was, in addition to swing, a tap and Latin dancer, and he was a regular at the Palladium Ballroom. “I never wanted to be considered a Lindy hopper,” says Allen, seated on the bed next to Billups, in a dressing gown but still sporting perfectly coiffed hair. “If you were a Lindy hopper they’d put you in a box, and you can’t get out. We were entertainers.”

Tradition held that the Harvest Moon’s winning couple would perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, which Allen and Washington did. Allen in particular saw this as his big break, his chance to realize a dream. Having answered phones for booking agents in midtown — or “downtown,” as he calls it — he thought it the right time to work his connections and secure his own representation. Trouble was, the Lindy hop was not an act you could sell. “You can’t do thirty-five minutes Lindying,” Allen reflects today. “Two and a half minutes and that’s it. Now what are you going to do the rest of the time you’re onstage?”

He needed a show. With the Savoy closed, Allen, along with Billups and their friends from the ballroom, got together to rehearse. Allen’s father worked at the Democratic club on 116th Street, which had a ballroom on its first floor where Allen and his group would practice. “I taught them how to tap, swing, ballroom, adagio,” Allen says. They even practiced etiquette for white resorts. “I got a table out and set it up with the forks and knives and everything else. In the Catskill Mountains they always said that black people don’t know how to eat.”

Eventually, Allen’s booking agent came through with a gig at the Piccadilly in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “Singing — not dancing,” the agent said. Allen protested: “These girls don’t know how to sing!” To which his agent replied: “You got two weeks to try and learn them.” Determined to make a go of it, Allen and Billups, along with their friends Lovey Farmer, Sugar Sullivan, and Charlotte “Mommy” Thacker, formed a group, Sonny Allen and the Rockets. Of the women, Billups was the only one with singing experience, having sung in church. The other three had to learn in the two-week rehearsal window.

“This is how we went to Bedford, Massachusetts,” Allen says. “We were supposed to be there for one week; we stayed there for two months.” They had only a tiny stage, but Allen, having plied his trade on TV, knew how to spot-dance, and he taught his group how to show off their Lindy hop dancing on the spot.

Sonny Allen and the Rockets went on to perform with “Harlem in Havana,” a traveling variety show out of Tampa, Florida, produced by Leon Claxton. Touring the country, the performers ended up working with some of the great jazz figures: Mario Bauzá, Sarah Vaughn, Candido Camero, Benny Moré.

These days Billups is something of a Harlem celebrity. In addition to her teaching, she still performs, drawing crowds at swing conventions the world over. This is how the form survives today. It’s a surprisingly thriving scene, but ask anyone about the global competitive circuit, and they’ll likely agree that South Korean dancers now dominate the contests. A recent documentary, Alive and Kicking, depicted the newer swing set but bothered Barbara Jones and those working with her Harlem Swing Dance Society, because none of the young dancers the film chose to focus on were black.

“What happened in Harlem was somebody dropped the ball, and it almost died out,” Jones says. “That’s why we have to be out there, too, saying, ‘Hey, the dance has gone all over the world. That’s why you have to be a part of it.’ ”

 

 

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