This post is dedicated to Frankie Manning. Frankie died this morning of complications related to pneumonia He was one month shy of his 95th birthday. I will really miss him. Frankie is a lindy hop legend. He choreographed the clip below and is the dancer in the overalls.
In the 1980s, there was a lindy hop revival. Lindy hop is a partner dance invented by African American youth in Harlem dancing to swing music in the early 1930s. Named after the “hopping” of the Atlantic by Charles Lindbergh Jr., it became wildly popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, traveling from the East to the West Coast and from black to white youth. Since its resurgence, Lindy Hoppers have enjoyed a national scene with websites, workshops, competitions, and city-wide social events that draw national and international crowds.
Though lindy hop was invented by African Americans, lindy hoppers today are primarily white. These contemporary dancers look to old movie clips of famous black dancers as inspiration. And this is where things get interesting: The old clips feature profoundly talented black dancers, but the context in which they are dancing is important. Professional black musicians, choreographers, and dancers had to make the same concessions that other black entertainers at the time made. That is, they were required to capitulate to white producers and directors who presented black people to white audiences. These movies portrayed black people in ways that white people were comfortable with: blacks were musical, entertaining, athletic (even animalistic), outrageous (even wild), not-so-smart, happy-go-lucky, etc.
So what we see in the old clips that contemporary lindy hoppers idolize is not a pure manifestation of lindy hop, but a manifestation of the dance infused by racism. While lindy hoppers today look at those old clips with nothing short of reverance, they are mostly naive to the fact that the dancing they are emulating was a product made to confirm white people’s beliefs about black people. Let’s look at how this plays out:
This clip, from the movie Hellzapoppin’ (1941) is perhaps the most inspirational clip in the contemporary lindy hopper’s arsenal:
By the way, the dancers are in “service” outfits because of the way lindy hop scenes featuring black dancers were included in movies. Typically they would have no relationship to the plot; they would occur out of nowhere and then disappear. This was so that the movie studios could edit out the scene when the movie was going to be shown to those white audiences that were hostile to seeing any positive representation of black people at all. If you want to see how the scene above emerged (black “help” suddenly discovering musical instruments and spontaneously congregating), you can watch the extended clip here.
The clip features a dance troop called Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. You can see other famous dance segments in Boy! What A Girl! and Day At The Races.
The clip below, from the Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown (2006), reveals how powerfully contemporary lindy hoppers have been influenced by clips like the ones above. Watch for how the styling, moves, and trick reflects the clips above:
Another good example can be found here (but the angle, audio, and visual quality are not very good).
So we have a set of (mostly) white dancers who naively and wholeheartedly emulate a set of black dancers whose performances, now 70 to 80 years old, were produced for mostly white audiences and adjusted according to the racial ethos of the time. On the one hand, it’s neat that the dance is still alive; it’s wonderful to see it embodied, and with so much enthusiasm, so many years later. And certainly no ill will can be fairly attributed to today’s dancers. On the other hand, it’s troubling that the dance was appropriated then (for white audiences) and that it is that appropriation that lives on (for mostly white dancers). Then again, without those dancers, there would likely be no revival at all. And without those clips, however imperfect, the dance might have remained in obscurity, lost with the bodies of the original dancers.
As a white lindy hopper myself, for over ten years now, who desperately loves this dance, I find this to be a deep conundrum.
I don’t know what Frankie would have had to say about this critique. But I do know that he loved lindy hop to his last days and he was grateful for the revival. Here he is dancing with Dawn Hampton, another legend of lindy hop, at the age of 94:
I’lll miss you, Frankie. And I’ll keep on dancing, embodying, with ambivalence, all the great contradictions of the dance and the history of this country.
UPDATE: A couple commenters asked how, exactly, the dance was changed in order to appeal to white audiences. This is actually really difficult to say, since few films of social dancing (black dancers dancing only for other black dancers) exist. But we have some theories. Evan, in the comments, had this suggestion:
For white audiences of the time, Jazz was Hot Black jungle music – Black people were sex crazy hedonists, and you can see it in the moves, the exaggerated body undulation. the speed. the sweat. the rhythmical drum.
It was like watching a tribe around a fire.
I’m with Evan. I’d like to also add that, as a person with a trained eye for lindy hop, I see two things in those clips:
(1) I see incredibly effective technique. Unbelievable strength and precision. It’s fantastic. (By the way, Frankie explained that, by the time they got to the take you see in the Hellzapoppin’ clip, they’d performed that routine more than 20 times in a row… they were amazing athletes.)
(2) But I also see, layered onto and facilitated by that technique, an effort to make the dance appear more out-of-control than it is. They are wild-ing the dance.
At least, that’s how it looks to me.
More than that, though. As a dancer who has also been inspired by those clips, I know how to do that. I know how to exaggerate the out-of-control look. I won’t go into the technical details (I did, and then deleted!), but it’s do-able. And it’s not that it’s not cool… adding the drama is fun and exciting to watch… but there’s a historical reason why lindy hop has that dimension and that is worth thinking about.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Rachel — April 27, 2009
As a black lindy hopper, I've often noticed how I may be one of a handful of people of color at bigger events. It's become rather discouraging to go out and see so little diversity from a dance that was historically done by African Americans.
Christine — April 27, 2009
I can see where you're coming from, but regardless of how or why they were portrayed the way they were, the dance was still their own creation, their own movements and their own style. (Note: I'm also a black lindy hopper)
Elizabeth — April 27, 2009
I'm a white woman who took a class with Frankie Manning himself. As far as I could tell, he was absolutely thrilled to see so many young people interested in learning from him, whatever race they were. What was different about the dance as we learned it and the dance in the film? Absolutely nothing.
Frankie Manning loved dance, and we loved him. RIP
JAT — April 27, 2009
The following is a sincere commentary on Lindy Hop with regards to race.
In the Caribbean the concept of race is a mainland idea. This is where I speak from.
My Grandfather, a dancer out in Harlem in Those Days told me,
"... that it's not what you do, it's the way that you do it."
Are you seeing race?
Then don't look that way.
Look this way.
See the youth and their rise to the excitement of great sound; Jazz.
See the cultural borders crossed.
See the youthful frustration lost.
See these people as they move
and do not stop.
They are setting a higher standard for us.
They called it the Lindy Hop.
Its what you do when you listen to music
that makes you want to groove.
JAT — April 27, 2009
May God rest your soul Frankie!
Amy — April 27, 2009
I have nothing culturally insightful to contribute here, but you did introduce me to something new today! I watched the ULHS 2006 video with a huge grin on my face...
I guess I do have something to say - I enjoyed the hell out of Hellzapoppin'. But I felt guilty doing so because of the cultural context they were in. Should I feel guilty? Can I help feeling guilty?
AL — April 28, 2009
I definitely agree that it is important to consider the cultural contexts in which people of color have historically been portrayed and, accordingly, the ways in which racial ideologies may be perpetuated by such portrayals. However, the following quote stuck out to me:
"So we have a set of (mostly) white dancers who naively and wholeheartedly emulate a set of black dancers whose performances, now 70 to 80 years old, were produced for mostly white audiences and adjusted according to the racial ethos of the time."
Can you comment specifically on how the dance moves in particular were adjusted according to the racial ethos of the time?
Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing: The Case of Lindy Hop at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture — April 29, 2009
[...] by Guest Contributor Lisa, originally published at Sociological Images [...]
Frankie Manning, Requiescat in pace - In The Agora — April 29, 2009
[...] II: LA Times obituary. Also, a realy interesting look at the sociology of the swing revivial, with great clips. [...]
Rachel — April 29, 2009
I don't think it was specifically the dance moves that were adjusted, but rather the setting in which the dancers were seen. They were often dressed as servants, seen as taking a break from their work to do a little dancing. It could almost been seen as the white audience was getting a glimpse of what could be happening in their own houses.
beth — April 29, 2009
Thanks for writing this. While I love to lindy hop and I love watching the old clips of Whitey's dancers, the racism really stands out at me.
What's even sadder than the "ooh, we're going into the black part of town!" setting of the Day At The Races clip is that when the Marx Bros put out The Big Store about a decade later, there was a swing dance clip in that too - done by all white dancers. Some of the same extras from the Day At The Races scene are also in that number, but only singing a ditty about (I am not making this up) picking cotton. To advertise cotton clothing being sold by and for white people.
To be fair, the flashy moves used in performances are definitely descended from the old clips, but social dancing has perhaps somewhat less baggage. It makes me happy to know that the Savoy was an integrated ballroom.
I like to know about the history of lindy hop and jazz dances, and I totally realize how weird it is to go dancing with a mostly-white crowd. It reminds me of this: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/11/18/116-black-music-that-black-people-dont-listen-to-anymore/
AL — April 30, 2009
I completely understand what you say about the setting/context, and I completely agree.
My question was more in regard to the line I quoted from the blog post, which seemed to suggest that the performances themselves (which I took as including the dance moves specifically) were adjusted to appeal to a white audience and according to racial ethos of the time. I was just wondering if anyone could comment on how the dance moves might have been adjusted to appeal to a white audience, since I thought that was what the post suggested.
Evan — April 30, 2009
I'm of mixed race, black and white. I met Frankie Manning when I was a 15 year old cought up in the Swing craze of the mid-90s.
We watched those movies religiously. Stopped and rewound (VHS of course). We copied moves we saw, clothing and language.
For us it was reliving a golden age in Harlem which race had nothing to do with. I guess you could say we projected the optimism and racial togetherness of the late nineties on what we saw.
When we heard Frankie was coming to town - it was as if the pope himself was coming. I anticipated for weeks, planned my 3-piece zoot suite days ahead of time. Green tie, yellow shirt, red zoot suit and gold chain.
He taught us all the electric slide. I will never forget it.
Evan — April 30, 2009
For white audiences of the time, Jazz was Hot Black jungle music - Black people were sex crazy hedonists, and you can see it in the moves, the exaggerated body undulation. the speed. the sweat. the rhythmical drum.
It was like watching a tribe around a fire. Later generations, like the young white kids who brought it to the sock hop, made it their own by stiffening it and gave it better posture. they "technicalize" it.
They made dance competitions into competitive dance we see today. Something that can be judged, analyzed and benchmarked.
I think that is a notable difference
Lisa — April 30, 2009
Evan has it just right. As a person with a trained eye for lindy hop, I see two things:
(1) I see incredibly effective technique. Unbelievable strength and precision. It's fantastic. (2) But I also see, layered onto and facilitated by that technique, an effort to make the dance appear more out-of-control than it is. They are wild-ing the dance.
At least, that's how it looks to me.
George Hildebrand — May 1, 2009
Do not confuse the those who follow the fads and whims of popular culture (like that of the neo-swing movement that once came and is now long gone) with modern Lindy Hop Swing Culture that is made up of people who are serious about this dance and the history behind it.
That said, I think it is somewhat offensive to describe "white people" that today enjoy Lindy Hop as "naive" about the white/black culture crash that surrounded the evolution of Lindy Hop. To me it smells of trying to impose some sort of guilt trip on white Lindy Hoppers that is not at all deserved.
Moreover, the fact that so few members of the black race involve themselves in this undeniably black dance style has forever puzzled contemporary Lindy Hoppers dedicated to this vintage dance. In fact, a thread titled "Why So Few?" ran forever on Yehoodi.com to discuss this very topic; with no real resolution I might add.
I will forever maintain that the answer to "Why So Few?" certainly isn't because anyone of any race has been systematically prevented from enjoying this dance we want to share with everybody. The fact that the Savoy Ballroom, the very birthplace of Lindy Hop, was integrated long before anyplace else in New York (perhaps America) was, is something that all Lindy Hoppers are proud of AND proud to see continue.
Nique — May 1, 2009
Wow, it was great to see the dances! I'm not too familiar with dance styles, so I feel kind of guilty/ignorant for thinking this looked a lot like swing. Am I totally off here? The video from 2006 says swing, so I guess I'm not too wrong. I'll have to look it up. Maybe with all the dance movies that have been coming out recently (and by recently I mean within the past few years), someone could make a Lindy Hop movie that could be set in the time it was created and showing what the dancers faced. Put it all into perspective, I guess.
Whit — May 1, 2009
@ George, the answer to "why don't more members of this disadvantaged group want to play with us?!" is almost always "because you are making them uncomfortable with your privilege."
I only say almost always to allow for the handful of personal experiences that I'm sure some people have overcome their kneejerk reactions to preserve their privilege, but I'm skeptical. Most "movements" can't do that as a whole.
Fabian — May 7, 2009
Dear Lisa, thanks for this article.
Its obvious that the servants dresses in Hellzapoppin are a racist concession, but it never occurred to me that the wild dancing might be also a concession to the stereotype of a black dancer being wild, raw, animalistic.
I think you made a point here, although it more comfortable to think this is only "energy".
It's interesting to look at some other old videos: In the older, famous short "After seben" it seems to me that the couple dancing is less theatrical, wild, eye-rolling. It is of course also missing the not-yet-invented aerials.
On the other hand this short also features an eccentric/comic white dancer (in black face), who is probably playing the role of the wild black man. If you take a look at the spirit moves, you will also see a lot of this excentric dancing.
Talking about todays dancing, I see quite little of this eccentric dancing, to me it seems that - besides aerials - the dancing is much more "smooth". E.g. compare the eccentric dancers to Kevin and Carla:
Viewed with today's eyes, to me many of the old dancers have an almost awkward, weird way of moving there body and especially their legs and joints.
Disclaimer: I'm not a native speaker, so I hope this was politically correct :)
Frankie’s Funeral | betörend — May 7, 2009
[...] one interesting post that discusses how the dance was presented and that there might be concessions to a racist [...]
On Appropriation « The Thugout — June 3, 2009
[...] Images, a very interesting blog I do not always agree with, has a post called “Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing: The Case of Lindy Hop” with a lot of interesting information about a dance I have barely heard of (did you know it was [...]
Neville — July 20, 2009
How about this:most young POC's don't get involved because it's not the 'in' thing to do and its not rap, hip-hop, or any other kind of dance music popular now. It's their 'grandparent's music', and therefore too old for them. More often than not, that is the truth, and not 'white privilege'.
Of course, now that some schools have ballroom dancing clubs/classes, that might change....
How Django Reinhardt Survived World War II » Sociological Images — May 3, 2010
[...] see my post on racial borrowing and lindy hop, the dance that made me love Django. var addthis_language = 'en'; Leave a Comment Tags: [...]
Paul — August 9, 2010
Your dance history seems a little simplified. If you look at some of the old clips on the Charleston (as performed by both white and black dancers) you'll see the forerunner of some of the "wild" Lindy moves.
Thebobbymcgees — March 25, 2012
Interesting and thought provoking article.
Kinda falls a little flat when you hear what Mr Manning has to say about it;
In Frankie Mannings own words (Youtube video & his book) the dance routine for HELLZAPOPPIN was finalised in New York before the troupe set out for the studios on the West coast....and unchanged by the movie choreographers or film makers.
How Frankie Manning’s incredible dancing skills made him famous twice, 50 years apart | Artificia Intelligence — May 9, 2017
[…] often had no relation to the plot, Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College wrote in 2009 for the Society Pages: „This was so that the movie studios could edit out the scene when the […]
Race, Appropriation, & Lindy Hop: How to Honor our Heroes – 300 News — February 2, 2019
[…] hop raises difficult questions. In a post I wrote when the beloved Frankie Manning died, titled Race, Entertainment, and Historical Borrowing, I tried to capture the conundrum. I’m going to quote myself extensively, only because this is a […]
Billyjo — April 8, 2019
I am not a dancer but love watching "Lindy Hoppers" and all of the related forms that evolved from the dance regardless of race, but I am aware of the origins. Most modern popular music has roots in one way or another in "black music" as does dance. It seems destructive to get hung up on what is meant to be a joyful expression of life as well as a "universal" expressive means to cope. Our culture has evolved and those stereotypes were like baby steps, and can be imagined as non-threatening efforts to begin a long process of healing that continues today. From the founding of the United States (and before) there have been efforts compassionate and humanistic people to end the racial divide. It seems a mistake to judge history by modern standards or expectations. We are all products of our own times. I would prefer we look for more unifying perspectives and find ways to see each other as humans rather than clinging to negative historical divisions that are oppressive, burdensome, destructive and lead to unneeded conflict. "Perception is reality". The "conundrum" may be related to our inability to fully understand or experience the culture of the past and we rely on other negative stereotypes of our own making to assign motivations.
I think the Marx Brothers film "A Day at the Races" is particularly interesting and the film's title can be imagined to have a double meaning. In the film, the character "Judy" is crying, and outside the window some black children are happy and playing. Gil says "Look at those kids, laughing, happy. Your just a kid too." This line can suggest we have more in common than we might realize and "happiness" is a state of mind. And Gil begins singing "Tomorrow is Another Day", a song of hope for a better future (you think YOU got problems?!?). This then leads in to Harpo's piccolo playing bringing people together with "Who Dat Man, Why its Gabriel".and seques in to "All God's Chillun" sung by the great Ivie Anderson and the wonderful dancing by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. It is so joyful and uplifting and stands in contrast to the rather comparatively "sterile" musical number with the water ballet earlier in the film (excepting Chico and Harpo's performances). The Marx Brothers put on blackface to try and hide from Morgan and the corrupt sheriff. Notice Harpo is black on one side and white on the other, suggesting it is what inside that matters and skin color is only a surface. It does nit seem intended to be demeaning but more empathetic to me. The black cast returns at the end singing "All God's chllun got Money" and are parading with the Marx Brothers with everyone happy and singing. The film ends as they all sing together the line "Tomorrow is Another Day" suggesting a hope for the future.
The Marx Brothers had experienced prejudice and bigotry as "New York Jews" during their days in Vaudeville touring the south and opposed all bigotry. We can see this scene as racist stereotyping or have a more sympathetic and hopeful view.
Holly Smith — May 10, 2019
The Jitterbugging Nigger | Musings by Ravo — July 5, 2019
[…] Postscript: My younger and wiser brother (Harvard PhD) just read a draft of this post and had this to say: https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/04/27/race-entertainment-and-trans-racial-historical-borr… […]
How Frankie Manning's dancing skills made him famous twice,50yr apart - My Blog — December 3, 2022
[…] often had no relation to the plot, Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental College wrote in 2009 for the Society Pages: “This was so that the movie studios could edit out the scene when the […]