Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Collegiate Shag

What is this dance all the kids are doing today called Collegiate Shag?
where did it come from and what is it's history?

The truth is the history is very spotty, very little documentation and to make things worse the term "Shag" has come to mean many unrelated dances just like the term Jitterbug.

One of most popular dances in the United States today is called Carolina Shag, or too many in that region just Shag. To make things more complicated the city of St Louis, has it's regional dance called St Louis Shag, that traces even further back into the 1930's, but again to the dancers it's simply called Shag.

The enormous popularity of the Carolina Shag over the past couple decades, has caused enthusiast to try and research it's history and, all it seems have made the mistake of relating the "Carolina Shag" of today with the Shag done previous to WW2, done by the dancers who made the Big Apple famous.  However, before we get into that lets start with square one with the term Collegiate Shag.

The Term Collegiate, was simply a descriptive term used to explain who, or the way a dance was done. for instance Collegiate Waltz, or Collegiate Fox Trot, simply put, this was the way the College Kids did the dance.

This style was not tied to any studio standard or structure but rather to whatever they felt was the way. This could be consider a rebellious type of dance, but not so much in that they just had their own way which was or could of been the trendy way to do it. Different schools had there way to do things and this is what set them a part, the College set.

So now, we just have Shag. where does this word even come from? well, I know the word is in fact used in a 1890 book with the definition being a Vaudeville Performer. This definition of the term Shag continued to be used all the way into the 1920's, however it's definition changed to be more specific describing Burlesque acts, and not just any Vaudeville performer.

One of the most knowledgeable historians in this field is Lance Benishek. He reminds us that these Vaudeville Performers did a step called the Flea Hop which consisted of a Step Hop which alternated right to left, and that is one of the possibilities.

Just as possible, i recall doing a performance Turkey Trot at a large camp in Sweden, and the legendary Norma Miller who started dancing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem during the early 1930's, told me it was were the Shag came from.    

Let's put all this Term History to rest for a second and let me introduce to you the first use of the Partner dance called "The Shag" .

I found a Book called "Land of the Golden River" by Lewis Phillip Hall. During the Winter of 1927 he came up with a dance routine called "The Shag", Lewis introduced this in august of 1928 in Wilmington at the Pirates Festival. Then in 1930, Kay Keever who was married to the Band Leader Jelly Leftwhich who played at the dances remembers singing in his band and jumping off stage to dance the Shag with Lewis Hall, and backs up Lewis claim that he was the one that invented the dance.

July 25th, 1929 (Blytheville Courier News, Arkansas)
Virginia Beach, VA. Sun back bathing suits and beach pajamas are the costume, the sands are the dance floor and the fastest time know to the terpsichorean art. The tempo for "The Shag" is the latest test for the energy of the southern colonist. While classified as a dance, the Shag essentially requires energy rather then grace. It apparently is the embodiment of all the movements of Highland Swing and the late Charleston.  Unlike the Charleston, the feet of the dancers not lifted.

Although, in the south there were contest every summer at the Ballrooms starting in 1929, there was no mention until 1932.

July 22,1932 (Ironwood Daily Globe)
When the convention of dancing teachers opened at the Hotel New Yorker recently, an announcement was made that the Lindy Hop remained an outstanding ballroom dance. During the several days which elapsed, someone must have gone over the more recent dispatches. Toward the final session the statements read that the Earhart Hop would be "the thing".
This Winter the Shag at eve will have it's fill. The teachers have decided upon the Shag as one of their favorite dances. I'm told that it's a mild form of Tango and an improvement on the shuffle. Well the milder the better, so far as I'm concerned.

Followed closely by this advertisement 2 months later:

September 1st 1932 (Wilmington Morning Star)
"SHAG Dance contest to be held tonight at Wrightsville"

Is this the same Shag dance being done today or called the Collegiate Shag today?

No, it's not, but it was the original Collegiate Shag, and it was from the Carolinas.

Somewhere along the Lines, Dance studios started using single, double and triple Shag, to separate the styles but i think it just made things more confusing. I'll explain why as i go along.

The Collegiate Shag of today is commonly refereed to as "Double Shag". The Double consist of a step and Hop on your left, and then a Step hop on your right this takes up 4 beats of music, and then a step-step , or left right which is 2 beats of music completing the 6 beats of music. You can also simply say slow-slow-quick achieve the same timing.

Now to do the triple Shag, you simply add a Step Hop, making 3 step hops, before doing the quick quick.Triple Shag however can also mean adding "triple steps" to any basic shag, which is a syncopated 3 steps within 2 beats.

i can think of 3 basic's that fall under the term Single Shag. 1)  you start with a Step-hop , quick quick which is 4 beats, and then you do the same thing starting on the other foot, step-hop quick quick. completing the 8 beats of music. 2) step, step, step-hop...and then alternate starting on right, step, step, step hop. 3) last is same as Cat step, Balboa, Jig Trot step and hop on 2 and 3.

So the Terms single, double, triple simply add confusion to a set of dances, that already have names which are separated by regions. these could all be considered Collegiate Shag, even though they are different dances done in different area's of the country during the Swing Era.

Now lets dig a little deeper...

One of the most famous film clips of Shag is no doubt Arthur Murray teaching the Shag in 1937 with his students and performers. How did he find the dance? well, it goes back to a dance called the Big Apple, and the original Big Apple dancers who all did the Shag, the Southern Version or single Shag. This was their swing dance, and what they did when they "Shined" or went into a circle to "Jam".

Upon their arrival to New York with the National Popularity of their Big Apple dance, Arthur Murray and one of his pupils Tom Gallagher took a trip to one of the most popular Collegiate Ballrooms called the Club Fordham. Upon their arrival they discovered an entire crowd of Shag Dancers, all doing the dance which we are discussing in this article. Well, it didn't take long for Arthur Murray to recruit dancers and a month or two later to come out with the Video we know of today.

So that's it? 1937? nothing earlier for this 6 count Shag? well, not necessarily so. A dancer who i came to know as Connie Wiedell, who's real name was Conrad, brought this dance to Los Angeles in 1935, and I've know a quite a few dancers that remembered that moment very well, as he first pulled up in his green Cord automobile. He became very famous in the Los Angeles dance scene as being a Shag dancer and appeared in films during the swing era, not to mention he taught a lot of dancers and it became his "Style" or "Look" of Shag that would forever become famous for being used in Cartoons.

Connie was from Minnesota, and was working in a theater in 1934 when he learned to do the Shag from some professional dancers. These dancers were on tour doing a dance called the Peabody. On his way to Los Angeles he thought he would call the dance "Chicago Shag" to make is sound more exciting and also accepting with the new dancers he would be coming across, however, thankfully that term never stuck, which would have confused history.

The dance simply became a "step" to use in their Swing dancing, such as Maxie Dorf, Ricky Birch, Fred Christopherson, Hal Takier, and even Dean Collins. One of my favorite clips is in the movie Cabin in the Sky with Duke Ellington's orchestra. Ricky Birch who was Connie's roommate at one time, comes in the Club and Jumps over a table with his partner before going into the Shag.

Today most dancers look at Connie Wiedell who dances in the beach clip (1940), Freddie and Betty Christopherson in 1937 adding Shag into their Swing, also Ray Hirsh and Patty Lacy in Blondie Meets the Boss (1939) and Mad Youth (1940). Also, there are some short clips of the Harvest Moon Ball which was held in Madison Square Garden, between the years 1936 and 1939 it had a Shag division, lastly, as mentioned before Arthur Murray's Instructional Video comes to mind as a great source, followed by Vitaphone shorts with Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman.
These are just a few of the clips that have become famous for today dancers.

I know, it's one of those dances that almost just seems to appear out of now where, becomes the most popular dance for kids for a few years and then disappears.
Obviously these kids in their saddle shoes who laid claim to doing this dance grew up and learned sophistication in dance was more important then hopping around the floor, that and the music they loved took a back seat to new music forms that did not fit the swing mold.

My personal opinion is the dance came from Turkey Trot which was a basic step for the Tommy dance as well. We know from film this dance was based on a step hop, step hop, when the quick quick came in we don't really know, however during the teens the two step and fox trot became a huge hit across the country which at least explains the possibility of added a variation of timing, which here means adding a quick-quick or step step alternating feet. In the Turkey Trot we see the same posture, same turns and patterns. The earliest i have this on film is 1914, however oral history of interviews puts the dance at least 5 years earlier. It was Al Jolsen that discovered these dancers and brought them from San Francisco to New York around 1914 which helped spread the dances popularity on both coast.

We've also heard of dancers claim that the Turkey Trot or Texas Tommy helped influence the Lindy Hop,  If that's possible certainly it makes a lot more sense that it helped influence the Shag, if not created it.

anyways, this is my research and look at the dance which has become more popular in the last few years. Although, I started doing it over 10 years ago after discovering the Arthur Murray clip and practicing with friends, Learn as many steps from old timers, and spent unknown hours with Connie Wiedell. It seems to have recently had a small revival, with Shag weekends slowly popping up around the world. In the late 1990's we had Shag Contest all around Southern California which was real fun, but it didn't seem to last long, as most dancers were interested more in Lindy Hop, Swing, Charleston and Balboa. However, there were those countless nights in the back room of the Derby in Hollywood of all of us Shag dancers going off and Jamming! Imagine that on a regular night out....those were the days!

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Thing about Dean

The thing about Dean

What makes me enjoy the dancing of this Dean Collins guy who danced in so many movies during the 1940's? I've been asked this countless times, while out and about, and I have never actually written about my personal opinion.

I've inherited many of his belongings and collected tons of memorabilia which allowed me to create an archive in his name but that all has nothing to do with my personal fascination.

I could use perhaps simply use two words, "It's real" , but that would be to easy and would not really answer anything for people wanting to know the details or my in depth thoughts.

So I'll start with simply the way he dances on film, to me watching Dean is simply like watching someone that is very confident. It's as though he has nothing to prove, because he knows what he is doing and doesn't care either way what the viewer thinks.

All of his dancing is so genius, his subtle movements, foot work and the way he moves his girl, is all part of his master plan or agenda in dance. He take you with him, you watch him, you watch his feet, then his partner, back to's a visual roller coaster in time with the music.

Sometimes, his magic is created with some type of tension against the music or movement with his partner which then becomes to synced It can only be described by me as a swell in the water pushing a floating object along so effortlessly.

Other times, it's as simple as him knowing what to do in order for the viewer to watch certain parts of his dancing. He has control, he can manipulate the viewer no different then a magician. He is a performer who uses as little as possible most of time and then can or will explode into a specific trick or movement that's necessary to dazzle the non-dancer, for Dean is no doubt "The dancers dancer".

Although Dean Collins will go down in history as the guy who brought the Lindy Hop from New York in Los Angeles, he claimed what he did was "The Lindy" once he had developed his own style which became the standard type of dancing by those in Los Angeles. Dean's "Lindy" could be described at a watered down version of what was being done by the dancers in Harlem's famous Savoy Ballroom, however that description would mean you could simply add water to something that is already there which is simply not true.

Dean "Lindy" is something he created using the foundation of what was already there. His strict discipline of body movement, his being able to separate the lower half of his body with the upper is an isolation rarely scene by any dancer of any form. His foundation of his dancing was created by syncopated steps in succession as opposed to the former style of sparring using these steps strictly as decoration, or the generation that would come after of over killing these syncopations as we see in European Boogie Woogie dancing. Dean's formula was just right.

Another thing about Dean's dancing was knowing when and how to show off his partners. He knew not only when but how to show of his partners, in way that had not been done before. Certainly, this was in part to the era in which he developed his type of dancing, but none the less he was the first to be documented in film showing off the follow, as a lady as opposed to showing her off as an athletic counter part.

This aspect surely gained hi popularity among the ladies of that time, allowing them to feel like a glamorous movie star such as Lana Turner or Betty Grable, instead of the next gold medalist in the high jump. Dean's most popular partner Jewel McGowan was allowed to shine in ways that no Lady has ever been able to do, and Dean's style with Jewel will never seriously be replicated with out Jewel.

When the two dance it was magic undaunted and unequalled since, However, when Dean Performed or in many times competed he teamed up with Irene Thomas. Irene was a master Hoofer and performer, who graduated in 1939 from Hollywood High school and too her going out and Jitterbugging was something all the kids just did. To her it was easy child play and she loved to push the limits of footwork variations as well as hamming it up for the audience or camera.

When Dean and Irene danced it took on a whole different picture, one of intense footwork variations one could almost see as a battle, or perhaps two musicians using a vocabulary so advanced that only the baptized could understand it's true greatness.

Regardless of what is going on through their feet, and movements and patterns the atmosphere around the dance was always one with ease, confidence and an attitude of genius that was never over done with cockiness. If anything, I would say most of his dancing tilted towards modest, which perhaps was an alter ego off the floor, none the less for many dancers that is the very escape, or explanation of dance.

As dancer, watching him we can sometimes cut through the persona we see on film as we witness in "Junior Prom" as he parades through one girl as a time with ease showing each one off until he finally ends with the actress for whom he taught a simple routine too. Some clips of him are downright silly, in which he dances with complete non dancers creating a catastrophe, but what the heck it was simply a paid gig, which meant paying rent and eating food, because few People realize today that during these war years him and his friends shared one suit, which they would trade off using when going to casting calls.

Even on uptempo songs such as "Hi Neighbor" in 1941, he retains the attitude, confidence and sophistication in his style that until then would have not been seen by any dancer. But then we witness his humble dancing in "Hellzapoppin" also in 1941 as he dances with film star Martha Raye while later in the film we witness the worlds best Lindy Hoppers dazzle in what is considered the best filmed Lindy Hop number in history.

Dean Collins was a one man act who knew what he needed to be his best, he was a master jitterbug who used his abilities like a credit card, and used it to the fullest it was worth. Frequenting the right dance spots around Hollywood he would not only constantly check his talent against other local dancers but also make the right appearances in the upscaled bars and clubs to rub elbows and make contacts with the movie stars of the silver screen.

While he was simply a Jitterbug dance bum, As Jewel referred to him as, he was able to show of his genius enough to give monthly private lessons to Arthur Murray, go on dates with stars such as Lana Turner, become good friends and hang out with Musicians like Harry James and find time to teach Shirley Temple how to dance.

His clothes unless costumed by the film department were at best simply nice casual, certainly nothing special of that time. Today's vintage aficionados' do their best to recreate that look, but certainly it was a look for the entire population of Jitterbugs and not just Dean's.

Carefully disciplined to a point where eccentric and sophistication met like never before, The focus was not just the feet, the timing or the movement, it was also his partners, the subtraction or addition of and where he wanted you to look was Dean Collins and his style of dancing. Unlike so many many masters from the 1930's and 1940's who have been recreated, Dean's will always remain the challenge unsolved, like an amazing dish of food which will never be recreated until the missing ingredients are finally discovered. Even if they are, as any cook will tell you , it's putting them together just right...

In 1984 The Los Angeles Times, had a nice obituary for Dean when he passed away calling him "The King of Swing". I wouldn't disagree that he was a King, but there is a lot of Kings, I think a more suitable title would have been "The Genius of Swing", for too me there has simply never been anything like him, and that's my fascination.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Jitterbugs are back!

One of the The most misunderstood terms and commonly asked questions I've come across in my travels, "What is a Jitterbug"?

It doesn't matter where the term came from, and it doesn't matter how it came to be, at least not in this writing. What does matter is it was....and even to this day is being thrown around in various ways.

Unfortunately, the answer of "what is a Jitterbug" really is not that easy, unless we take a closer look back in time. The time and era i draw my answer starts in the 1930's during the swing era when Bands played for dancers, and these dance bands were at the height of being popular music.

The best example i could site would be a newspaper clipping from Los Angeles advertising a contest in 1938 at the Paramount Theater.

In Bold letters it said "JITTERBUG CONTEST" and then under that it said, come see the The Shag, Truckin', The Lindy Hop, Randy Swing and the Susie Q!
The simple truth is Jitterbug was not a dance at all but rather an umbrella term used to label hardcore enthusiast who were normally in heir teens, but of course not always.

It was these teens that lived the popular music, by that i mean collected the records, bought the magazines, got autographs, danced until they dropped and converted their parents to listening and even dancing to their generations music. Which was different to their Parents generation and would be different the following generation.

Something I've come across in various interviews was how the Jitterbugs were looked upon by not only the public but also musicians. Many musicians embraced or at least respected these kids for their overall knowledge of knowing who was playing in what bands in what cities, something musicians simply didn't have time to do, and commonly didn't find it always important. One such player while on tour not knowing were a fellow friend and musician was playing kneeled down to the edge of the stage and asked a group of dancers "hey Kids, do you know were is Krupa playing right now?" to which they replied "They just hit Atlantic City!"

Of course, it goes without saying not everyone liked "The Jitterbug" for them it meant a reckless teen hell bent on smoking reefer and ditching school, and at one moment in history one of the greatest band leaders in history came out and called them "MORONS" , unfortunately Artie Shaws comment was taken out of context, and in response to the activities surrounding that nights Concert.

That night while in the height of his Big Bands Popularity, this being while Buddy Rich manned the drums a group of his fans outside like a frenzied group of piranha's cut up the new convertible top to his car and wrote all over his vehicle, destroying the paint job as well, while inside the Ballroom one Fan jumped from the second balcony breaking their leg, and lastly one Dancer so entranced by the music jumped on stage and accidently kicked Artie's Clarinet which in turn jammed the mouth piece into his lip. So backstage, when the Newspaper reporter "So what do you think of these Jitterbugs?" the response could be none other. Artie regretted his answer later, and recounted in interviews and to myself, that he truly enjoy dancing, and like music , he enjoys great dancing and great playing however most are not great.

What did the Jitterbugs think of this term, that the media deemed onto them? Well, this depends once again. Some dancers, who were very serious hated it, and went so far as to dismiss it as a racial term, That Jitterbugs were nothing but white kids who couldn't dance. While this person's belief might have in fact always been their opinion, we know it isn't true from the information, photographs and articles we have today. Check out how many white kids danced in Jitterbug contest from the 1939 movie "Keep Punchin". None, what we see are Jitterbugs from the famous Dance Troupe "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers" doing a dance called "The Lindy Hop". One of the dancers in that Scene Frank Manning, would agree, while another Norma Miller would quickly exclaim "We were not Jitterbugs, we were Lindy Hoppers!", now i too was confused.

So I went on speak to Venna Archer who one of the legends of dance on the west coast about the term. She simply accepted the term and stated "some dancers might disagree with the term to try and feel more important then everyone else by calling themselves something else, Like a Shag dancer, or Lindy Hopper, that's just them sticking up for their dance but like it or not, that's just what we were, Jitterbugs".

After the War the styles of dance began to become slightly more homogenized as the temperament around the dance floors changed, and slowly the media and other "removed sources" started to call the dance it self "The Jitterbug" , one such moment was when the Daily News changed the division name in the Harvest Moon Ballroom in 1943 from "The Lindy Hop" to "Jitterbug/Jive" , why this was done we will really never know, but possibly to give them the benefit of the doubt was to include all types of dances being done to uptempo dance music. Regardless, we began to see the trend of dance and instructional books start including lesson's in Jitterbug. From here the term takes directions, and new definitions....forever, loosing it's origin.

For one moment during the 1950's one Los Angeles paper got it correct, with an article and photograph of George Christopherson doing his trademark move of doing a front flip onto his back with his then partner Freda Wycoff with the Caption reading: "The JITTERBUGS ARE BACK!"

Friday, March 6, 2009

well, it's about time...

What is this thing called Jassdancer? well, I guess it's my play on words,in an attempt to be specific, different, crafty or perhaps all?

Nowadays, if you call yourself a Jazz dancer, people think of some type of modern dance, or having to do with "Jazz Hands" be it Jack Cole or Bob Fosse.

Obviously, I could use the term Authentic Jazz Dance or even Vernacular Jazz dance which would be specifically what I focus on however, the terms can be confusing to people not familiar with history.

That's brings me to Jass, one of the popular and in my opinion miss spellings of the world. simply because places like San Fransisco were using the term earlier, at least what we have documented in print and they were spelling it "Jazz", one such group was Sid Leprotti's So Different Jazz Band.

However, as accurate this may be historically, it's what the history books say, and Ken Burns Documentary in which people subscribe to as being the Bible of Jazz which brings us to that 1917 recording by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, who soon after changed the spelling to Jazz.

so using the term Jass Dancer, as correct term, and then spelling it with the jaSS, it just a simply nod to a time when this art form was being incubated, and growing like crazy soon to kick off an era that would forever be remembered as the Jazz Era....

In the future I will be writing articles pertaining to the entire culture that surrounded this era, which includes whatever I find interesting to share in music, dance, fashion, art and writing.

Thanks, The Jassdancer

Sid Leprotti's So Different Jazz Band, San Fransisco 1915