"Overlooked No More: Earl Tucker, a Dancer Known as ‘Snakehips’
Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. Well worth a read and a watch. https://nyti.ms/2tRsxQP
Help Mark Norma Miller's Place in Jazz History
"Born in Harlem on December 2nd, 1919, Norma Miller is one of the only jazz women buried at Woodlawn Cemetery’s famous Jazz
Corner in New York. Along with Frankie Manning, she is the only other original Savoy Ballroom lindy hopper laid to rest among many of the musicians she danced to and worked with. It is important to bring attention to her grave as both a female and a jazz dancer.
By raising funds for an attractive headstone, the Frankie Manning Foundation hopes to educate the world about this amazing
woman and the history she was part of. We want to honor her with a monument that will be a companion to Frankie Manning’s
headstone, nearby at Woodlawn."-- Houston Swing Dance Society
To learn more and to donate to a great cause, please click here.
FYI, our proposal to NYC re erecting a life-sized or larger bronze sculpture of Frankie dancing with his early partner Ann Johnson in the street across from where the Savoy Ballroom use to be, went nowhere but it would have cost a lot more than Norma's headstone.
You can learn more about that proposal seen above here.
Voguing at the Savoy. Pretty sure it never happened. But it does happen in Jitterbug! during the dance's break in the play and screenplay. The writer has always encouraged choreographers to "reach into the future" for dance steps that will win the climatic dance contest at the Savoy Ballroom for its hero and heroine, Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson. Anything that will blow the minds of the jaded Savoy regulars who have seen it all. That also includes dubstep, hip hop, breakdance, and more.
These dances are performed against music from the future, too. Duke Ellington's symphonic jazz piece Harlem from 1963 is used to signal something magical, heroic, and romantic is happening on the dance floor as the music segues from Chick Webb's drum and horn driven signature piece Liza (written by the Gershwins).
The image above reflects how Billy and Tharbis are being slashed with razors and knives as they dance close to the encroaching dance and music crazed crowd that includes the legendary street gang The Jolly Fellows who want Billy and Tharbis to lose so their champions George "Shorty" Snowden and Big Bea can win.
To see how powerful voguing is on it own merits and how its culture refers to their "balls" as "wars," check out the video below. Now envision using the dance in a duet with Billy and Tharbis mirroring each other while, with stone cold faces, fearlessly staring down those surrounding them who want them dead.
Jitterbug! began as a fictional romance inspired by American pop culture history. After many drafts, a series of subplots emerged, the most underlying one being race in America. Although the dancical touches upon lynchings in Georgia in conversation and implies racial tension between the white mobster owners of the Cotton Club and its black artists, it also shows how working together can create magic, ie, Cab Calloway's Orchestra plays music written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, two nice Jewish boys working for the mob, tasked with putting together a new Cotton Club hit revue. This symbiotic relationship also extends through the music from that period which is used in the dancical: 7 of the 17 songwriters are white-- and Jewish.
Damon Lindelof, creator of the new HBO series "The Watchmen," is quoted in Esquire as saying that today "it feels like you can't tell a story about America in any kind of real, historical context that doesn't talk about race." He goes on to say that "in order for this to be Watchmen, we have to start with an unsolvable problem, a problem that the most well-intentioned superheroes and vigilantes actually cannot solve." And that is racism.
Unlike comic book fiction, my heroes Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson can't rely on their superpowers to solve that unsolvable problem, in this case a much simpler one, winning the climatic dance contest amidst death threats-- and actual acts of knives and razors unleashed upon them as they dance. Of course, their dancing could be considered a superpower-- which surely helps them win the dance contest-- but it's what they bring to the legendary Savoy Ballroom dance floor that really wins it for them: human courage, the kind that bleeds when facing death.
Although Billy and Tharbis may not have solved that "unsolvable problem"-- something that may never be solved even with the greatest superpowers at hand-- they do manage to dance around it by bringing the black and white Savoy audience to tears and agreement that what they had just witnessed was... stunning and unforgettably beautiful.
And courageous, too, when these ordinary heroes, beaten and bloodied in the final moments, stand up to the bad guys-- both black and white-- to end the show triumphantly, gifting the audience as they exit the theater with a sense of... hope.
If you read him or seen his work, you can't shake the Bard from your mind. In West Side Story, it was intentional, appropriating Romeo and Juliet into a romance about Tony and Maria from different sides of the street on the west side of Manhattan with warring gangs replacing warring families-- reinforced with great music and dancing worthy of Shakespeare's timeless work. Only in reflection did I realize I did the same-- but without an original score. Jitterbug!s music comes from 16-hits from the Great American Songbook (performance rights secured) and its choreography from the current Jerome Robbins in our midst, men and women who can deliver dancing that includes swing, tap, and current styles (hip hop, dubstep, voguing and more for the jitterbug's breakaway-- the unexpected stuff ripped from the future that blows the jaded Savoy Ballroom regulars minds and helps my hero and heroine-- Billy and Tharbis-- win the dancical's climatic dance contest).
The first image reflects Billy and Tharbis at the end of the dancical running triumphantly away from the Savoy Ballroom where they faced down death and won the dance contest, freeing them for a better life. It shamelessly borrows West Side Story poster imagery. And, like the immortal play, it's warring families have been replaced with warring gangs, one white, the other black.
The second picture borrows from the "Balcony Scene" but with a twist: Billy uses his dancing to express his love for Tharbis as she watches him tap dance under the streetlight outside her Harlem tenement apartment. No words, no singing (or rain), just dancing. Oh, yeah, at one point Billy reaches into the future and borrows from Gene Kelly and Singing In The Rain by jumping up on the streetlamp-- but jumps off and lands in a split in homage to the Nicholas Bros.*
Like the above-the-title copy says, this is a "Celebration of America."
*Jitterbug! doesn't require "triple threats" from any of its performers. It just needs actors who can dance really, really well. :)
The dancical has always encouraged choreographers to reimagine the winning number for the climatic dance scene at the Savoy Ballroom. The picture above depicts how Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson-- bleeding from razor and knife cuts-- might look like just before he launches her over his shoulder and into legend.
Ryan Francois keeps popping up on our radar.* As stated in the play, we encourage choreographers to reach into the future for dance steps that will win the climatic dance contest at the Savoy Ballroom. Because the protagonists Billy Rhythm and Tharbis Jefferson are professional dancers at the Cotton Club, we expect to see tap introduced in the Jitterbug break-- and anything else that will blow the jaded Savoy crowd and, of course, the audience.
Mr. Francois is a choreographer specializing in the Lindy, teaching it around the world to sold out classes. Here he is with Lana Williams riffing on the sublime and showing that you don't have to reach into the future for a winning routine that showcases each dancer's skillset.
*Click the highlighted link above to see Francois in a 2017 video by scrolling to the bottom of the post.
Inspiration. It can come from anywhere. In the case of one of the dance numbers, it came from an old picture of men standing in line hoping to get hired during the Great Depression.
Jitterbug! opens with the dancical's hero Billy Rhythm returning to Harlem during that spirit-killing time after failing to make it on the TOBA* circuit, the black entertainer's vaudeville. And for years he just crossed 7th Ave to stop by the clubhouse of his gang, the Jolly Fellows.
But it wasn't until seeing this picture that I got the idea to add a song and dance number. Finding the song was easy. Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, two nice 20-something Jewish songwriters, were already in the script because they had been hired by the mobster owners of the Cotton Club (also in the play) to write a new show for them. At that time Arlen and Koehler had a national hit called "Get Happy," which was like an unofficial anthem for the Great Depression, promising "a land where the weary forever are free..."
Now when Billy crosses that street-- once known as the "Boulevard of Dreams"-- he sees an unemployment line of gray sad faced men holding onto a rope that keeps them from spilling out onto the sidewalk and although there may be music and dancing in the streets when the curtain rises, the audience is quickly reminded of the tough economic times with the perfect song.
And, since this is a "dancical," the men in line use the rope as a ballet barre, holding onto it with one hand while "trucking" with the other as they "plié, rise, kick-out, and lock step forward while the LIGHTS SLOWLY DROP on them until they disappear in the shadows."
And since this is also "musical realism," the music filters into the theater from a radio sitting on a tenement window. Ella Fitzgerald is singing this later truncated version that's just long enough to get Billy across the street.
On stage, this growing separation between the hopeless men in line and Billy is a metaphor symbolizing his indomitable spirit, propelled by his dancing away from despair toward hope which is found on the other side of the stage, the sunny side of the street, if you will, just behind the legendary "Tree of Hope."
*Theater Owners Booking Association
"Norma Miller, who danced the Lindy Hop on Harlem sidewalks as a child, and as a teenager dazzled crowds on international tours in the 1930s and early ′40s doing the same kicks, spins and drops that had made it a Jazz Age jitterbug craze, died on Sunday at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99."
She truly was "something else" and was our last touchstone with the original Lindy Hoppers. Blessed with an indefatigable spirit, sharp wit, athleticism-- and courage, too when you're talking about allowing yourself to be launched into space while doing the jitterbug-- she will be sorely missed.
The New York Times did a fine job with her obituary and is well- worth a read. Just click her name above.
Multi-hyphenate with a penchant for writing.