Savoy Ballroom defined the essence of dance in Harlem. It
was a place where race was irrelevant, "...whether you
were black, green, yellow, or what. If you walked in the Savoy,
the only thing we wanted to know is can you dance?" It
was a place of elegant beauty, with a burnished maple dance
floor, colored spotlights, and crystal cut chandeliers. It
was a place where round tables were packed with people, root-de-toot
root beer, and ginger ale sold for a nickel. The crescendo
of the best big-band jazz in the world drove dancers to their
feet as the sounds of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke
Ellington, Fess Williams, King Oliver, and Chick Webb filled
the air. Saturday night dance contests at the Savoy featured
such Lindy Hop dance greats as Herbert "Whitey"
White, Leroy "Stretch" Jones, Frank "Musclehead
Manning, and "Shorty" George Snowden.
The Lindy Hop, an authentic Afro-Euro-American
Swing dance that drew on African and European dance traditions,
emerged as one of many popular dances during this time. It
was influenced by the Charleston, jazz and tap steps, ballet,
and complex movements from the Vienese Waltz. Dance partners
separated in a breakaway move as they improvised, adding their
own tempos, signature moves, and individualized acrobatics
to the six- and eight-count step sequences. As the Lindy Hop
grew in popularity, it evolved into many forms, such as West
Coast Swing, Rock'n'Roll, Boogie Woogie, the Jitterbug, Jive,
Bop, Shag, Balboa, and the Imperial. Lindy Hop dancers created
new steps as the music inspired them, much as jazz musicians
improvise. Some of the Lindy Hop steps are synchronized with
the musical phrases, and other steps cross the rhythm of the
music in the same fashion as polyrhythms found in jazz.
The Lindy Hop, and social dance in general,
formed bridges between different art forms. Dancers practiced
the Lindy Hop alongside bands booked at the Savoy Ballroom.
Jazz great Duke Ellington wrote a song as a tribute to Florence
Mills, a dancer, jazz singer and actress. Louis Armstrong
composed a piece for dancer Shorty George, "King of the
Savoy," who is often given credit for giving the Lindy
Hop its name. Countee Cullen wrote about the joy of dance
in his poem "She of the Dancing Feet Sings." Painter
William H. Johnson's work, Street Life, was inspired
by the stylish people he saw at the Savoy Ballroom. Jazz musicians
and dancers are pictured in Palmer Hayden's painting, Jeunesse.
Margaret Brassler Kane's sculpture, Harlem Dancers,
depicts embracing dance partners. And so on.
Painter Aaron Douglas describes the Harlem
Renaissance, highlighting the relationship between art and
culture. "...Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish
an art era. Not white art painting black...let's bare our
arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain,
through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into
the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth
material crude, rough, neglected. Then let's sing it, dance
it, write it, paint it." Social dance both reflected
and was a reflection of the culture of the Harlem Renaissance.
It was a way for people to celebrate, to escape, and to express
Chambers, V. The Harlem Renaissance.
New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1998.
Collier, James Lincoln. Duke Ellington.
New York: MacMillan, 1991.
Hardy, P. Stephen & Hardy, Sheila
Jackson. Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance.
New York: Groliers Press, 2000.
Rhynes, M.E. I, Too, Sing America:
The Story of Langston Hughes. Greensboro, NC: Morgan
Reynolds Publishers, Inc., 2002.
Rumme, Jack. Langston Hughes.
New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
Snead, Howard. The Afro-Americans.
New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989.
Archives of Early Lindy Hop
ARTAges: African Art in Summary
Columbia University: A Historical Background
of the Harlem Renaissance
Jitterbuzz.com: What is Lindy Hop?
Mixed Pickles’ Vintage Dance
Timeline: Jazz Age Dance
Northern Kentucky University: Harlem
PBS: Jazz, A Film by Ken Burns
PBS Online Forum: Harlem Renaissance
Smithsonian American Art Museum: Embraceabale
Smithsonian Institution: Harlem Renaissance
Studio Museum in Harlem
University of North Carolina: The Harlem
University of Virginia: The Harlem
Renaissance by Steven Watson