"a riding habit with gleaming knee-high boots. The pants were champaigne, the blouse iridescent burgundy, and the ascot powder blue. His right hand flicked a riding crop against his leg." As Al Minns recalls: "Leon waited till everybody had noticed him and then sauntered disdainfully across the floor to Cats' Corner. He was so nonchalant that he could hardly see where he was going."
As it turned out, if anyone had come to see King James dance, they would have to wait even longer. When he finally took the floor and danced with an unknown partner and finished, no one else danced in the Savoy Ballroom's revered Cats' Corner-- even though the Chick Webb Orchestra was still playing and the "squares" outside of Cats' Corner were still dancing. Stearns writes that an "invisible rope sprang up around the Cats' Corner... anyone of any importance stood respectfully still."
And then "the kid," Al Minns, grabs his partner and starts dancing in Cats' Corner, "performing the latest Savoy routines" and throwing in-- literally-- a few air steps. This was so shocking that nobody surrounding Cats' Corner could move. But when they found their composure, they-- the Jolly Fellows-- gathered around King James to see if he wanted them to "tear Minns apart."
Fortunately for Minns, James declined to retaliate because he is quoted by Minns as saying, "This cat is doing our steps. Maybe he knows something."
Following his performance in front of the "King," Minns walks up to his majesty and said with a daring, barely hidden disrespect, "Gee, Mr. Leon, I hope someday I can dance as great as you."
And James replies, "Well, boy, you keep on practicing and someday you will."
Stearns writes that for a year following Minns introduction of himself to James that "an armed truce existed between them." But by 1939 after working together in the same dance troupe, they had become fast friends.
So, it is with great fun and surprise to learn that this circa 1960 clip exists, that it shows these two great dancers and friends showing us the history of jazz dance beginning with the cakewalk. And Stearns telling Hef across a piano with cigarette in hand that what people see on TV variety shows is not jazz dancing, but a combination of ballet and modern. Jazz dancing to Stearns is a black street thing with roots in the south and slavery. And don't forget it.
Sadly, James and Minns have passed on. James went first in 1970 at the age of 57. Minns held on to 1985. He was 65. Our loss. Heaven's gain.