Savoy Ballroom Marquee
What happened to the Savoy?
Located between 140th and 141st Street on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, the Savoy Ballroom, mecca of the Lindy Hop, closed its doors in 1958 and was torn down to make room for a housing complex (New York Times, 2006). Frankie Manning, the godfather of the Lindy Hop, said of the ballroom:
“When I die, if I go to Heaven, I want it to be just like the Savoy.”
–Frankie Manning (2007) from Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, p. 74
The spirit of the Savoy is alive in many cities, big and small, across America and the world. Swing dancer subcultures are thriving from Canada to Australia, from Sweden to Singapore. The Savoy Spirit was alive in Hales Gym at Oberlin College, where I first learned to dance. It was alive at a beautiful dance hall in Barcelona where I took classes with Steven Mitchell and Freida Segerdahl and danced with people from Russia, Ireland, Spain, France, and Germany. It was alive in Québec at the first Québec Swing Rendez-Vous, with bilingual dancers swinging out in the Citadel Officer’s Club on a snowy day during the Winter Carnaval. It was alive at the Sunday Tea Parties at Studio Hop in Toulouse, France. The Christmas lights strung around the room made a Sunday afternoon in a dance studio seem like a Saturday night at a swing club in Harlem. The mirrors made the room look endless, and you felt that even when the music stopped, your reflection would go on dancing. The tea, biscuits, and “gateaux” made the Tea Parties friendly and informal, just old friends getting together to jam.
The Savoy Spirit is simply this: people who love swing dancing and jazz music getting together to jam, mingle, maybe drink, share moves, and social dance just for the sake of dancing, at a regular venue. While the glamor of the Savoy Ballroom is long gone, there are plenty of places across the world where dancers go regularly–every week or sometimes every night–to lindy.
The one place Savoy lindy hopping is not alive, sadly, seems to be New York City. There is Frim Fram, of course. Frim Fram is New York’s version of Studio Hop (Toulouse) or Dance Fabulous (Madison) or countless other dance schools trying to create a night club atmosphere for weekly or monthly dances. The studio-turned-ballroom succeeds or fails to varying degrees. Sadly, many U.S. cities long ago lost a dancing culture. In towns where night clubs are about hip hop not lindy hop, serious swing dancers make do with dance schools converted into dance parties. Fortunately, dancers in many cities are able to take advantage of old swing-era theaters, university ballrooms, and dance halls like Bohemian Hall (Cleveland) or The Grand Ballroom (Chicago) on special occasions. Most swinging cities also hold weekly swing nights in bars or lounges. So it’s odd to me that Frim Fram, a dance studio, is the only place to dance in New York if you’re serious about Lindy, according people serious about Lindy.
In New York City, city of night clubs, city of jazz, city that never sleeps, there is not a single regular commercial venue to be haven and heaven to the swing dancers. There used to be lounges, ballrooms, and theaters every other block, especially in Harlem. There was the Savoy of course, but also the Cotton Club (where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway played to a white audience), the Renaissance, and the Alhambra Ballroom (Archives of Early Lindy Hop, 2004). There were top bands playing every day of the week. Frankie Manning, George “Shorty” Snowden, Norma Miller, and Frieda Washington would be out dancing every night. The Savoy was their home. They practiced there. They stole moves from others there. They listened to Count Basie, Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald. Frankie improvised to Chick Webb, and Frankie danced with Ella Fitzgerald. (Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop, 2007)
Today, in New York City, you can find jazz music every night. You can find blues, bebop, and swing. But you can’t go out and reliably dance to it. Two nights ago, my husband and I went to Swing 46 on (surprise, surprise) W. 46th Street. It was a Friday, so we figured it would be busy. I didn’t know what to expect, but I definitely expected more dancers to be there. And by dancers, I mean lindyhoppers. I don’t mean people who do ballroom and happen to know foxtrot or jive. I don’t mean people, like the vivacious girl with bright red lipstick in the strapless Marilyn Monroe dress, who came to celebrate her birthday by doing something different and “authentically New York.” I mean real dancers.
You can tell a serious dancer by their shoes. First of all, dancers enter a club with a special bag for their shoes. They never wear street shoes on the floor. Nowadays, men who are into swing dancing typically wear white Aris Allen swing shoes. Black-and-white spectators are still floating around, but they were more popular in the early 2000s. If the Aris Allens are scuffed a little and have lost a little of their shine, that’s preferable, but even if they are out-of-the-box new, you know a dancer is wearing them. (This isn’t a hard and fast rule. A good friend of mine–an excellent dancer and instructor–often dances in Birkenstocks).
For women, any heels are suspicious. If the high-heels are flexible and low enough to be actual ballroom shoes, then that’s a sign of a dancer, but not a lindyhopper per se. These could also be the feet of a salsa or ballroom aficionado out to practice some East Coast swing. Spectator pumps are a good indication of a female swing dancer, but women’s swing shoes come in many varieties: Mary-Janes, Keds, dance sneakers, peep-toe wedges, retro bowling shoes, flats with ankle straps, character shoes. If you get a peek at the soles, make sure they are chrome suede. I have a pair of black Aris Allen canvas Mary-Janes. They’re not much to look at, but with six years of wear on my chrome leather soles, a newer, flashier pair just won’t dance the same. Women’s swing shoes are almost never the fashion high-heels you can buy at DSW or Payless. If they’re shiny, platform, ill-fitting, rubber-soled, boots, open-toed, or more than an two inches high, they are not swing shoes and the feet in them do not belong to a lindyhopper.
Looking around at Swing 46, on Restaurant Row (West 46th Street), I saw a lot of the wrong kind of shoes. There were a lot of men in suits that were too big for them and women in low-cut tight dresses made of non-stretchy, non-breathable fabric. Before I saw the evidence on the dance floor, I knew these people were not there to dance. They were there to think they were at a swing dance. Each couple stuck with their partner, all night. It was tourists, a smattering of ballroom enthusiasts, and excited young people wishing they were in another era but not wishing strongly enough to actually learn the steps. The experienced dancers had chosen not to come.
Not only was the communal lindy hop practice of mingling and trading partners lacking, there was also nowhere to sit. If you weren’t paying for the expensive dinner-and-swing-band experience, you couldn’t sit next to the dance floor or the band. If you were just a dancer (having paid just a $15 cover charge) you had to sit by the bar in another room. We were asked by at least three staff members to move at various points in the evening: “This table is just for people eating dinner, you can sit at the bar.” “These seats are for the band. You can scoot down.”
In the final instance, a waiter picked up the cocktail table in front of us and moved it over, so the musicians could have their 10:00 meal during a band break. At first we sat on a long, white leather bench across from the bar where the bartender was violently wrestling with a martini shaker. The light was suitably low. The night club atmosphere was oozing out of the place with neo-swing Harry Connick Jr. schmaltz. It would have been a very nice club– except you couldn’t see the band or the dancers from the bar. The management had remedied this problem by installing a closed circuit TV showing you who was dancing and what you were missing. Watching lindy on TV from another room is not in the Spirit of the Savoy.
At the Savoy, the dance floor was the thing. It was smooth. It was huge. It was bordered by booths and tables. You could sit or you could dance. Those were the two options. And if you were sitting, anyone could come over and ask you to dance. Dancers were not separated from diners or relegated to a back room if they needed to take a seat. While there were jam circles and performances by groups like Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, dancing was not a spectator sport. At the Savoy, “you had to be able to dance” (Bill London, New York Times, 2006).
Eventually, after the dinner hour had elapsed, we snagged a small table by the dance floor and ordered something to drink. The band at Swing 46, a regular Tuesday and Friday group there, was quite good. It was George Gee and His Orchestra, who I first saw at PittStop in 2004 in Pittsburgh, PA and who is widely known in the swing world. Unfortunately, George Gee, the “only Chinese-American swing band leader” wasn’t there (George Gee Bio, 2011). He’d hurt a finger and was on the mend. Although I was sad to miss George Gee’s animated conducting, his band did fine without him. The lead singer John Dokes had what my husband called “a classic American Look.” In a camel-colored suit with camel-colored Vans slip-ons (an increasingly popular alternative to white Aris Allens), John Dokes crooned into a silver microphone. His voice was smooth and classy. He could have been any jazz singer in the 1930s or 1940s singing “Muddy Water” and “Route 66”– until he threw in a fresh jazz interpretation of “Walk On By.”
We had a great seat to appreciate the music now, and we would be damned if we would let this opportunity–or our $15 a pop cover charge– go to waste. We found our seat just in time to see singer John Dokes dance with Dawn Hampton, an 83-year-old performer and lifelong dancer. She moved her hips with the smallest articulations. She was sassy and coy. Every shoulder roll or swizzle of her hips was perfectly in time with the music. Even though she was tiny and a little hunched over, she could move better than anyone in the room, with the possible exception of her partner Mr. Dokes. The crowd went wild.
When John and Dawn took their seats again, the modest dance floor absorbed its largest crowd of the night. People were inspired. My husband and I danced in front of the band to “Muddy Water,” and he almost swung me into the saxophonist. But after the enthusiasm sparked by Dawn Hampton has fizzled, the dance floor washed out again. Nobody crossed the room to ask a stranger to dance. This was not a haven for swing dancers. This was not the paradise Frankie Manning remembered. The guy with the white Aris Allens took off his shoes a little after 11:00 in the universal lindy signal of a night that is over. My heart sank a little. I couldn’t ask him now, and there was nobody left to dance with who was wearing the right shoes.
By the end of the night, I’d had a pleasant evening with my husband. I’m sure the other patrons of Swing 46 enjoyed themselves too. I know some of the guests at lipstick girl’s birthday party will probably go home thinking “We should do that again.” Maybe they’ll take some more classes and eventually find their way to Frim Fram on Thursday nights. But right now, I don’t have time to wait for them. My husband and I had a fun date at Swing 46, but we had not gone lindyhopping. We had not channeled the spirit of the Savoy, save for a few inspired songs and of course, seeing the inspirational Dawn Hampton.
We’ll go back to Frim Fram Thursdays and try to make more connections in the New York City lindy community. But I’m still looking for a modern day Savoy. I’d like to think that when I find it, whatever city it’s in, that’s when I’ll know I’m home.