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December 30, 2006

big apple, tranky doo, cultural transmission in dance and nerdy jazz fans

Posted by dogpossum on December 30, 2006 3:26 PM in the category lindy hop and other dances

Look out: this post is a bit crapworthy. I think I've found my idea for the article, but it needs some work. But I just had to wack this down now while it's on my mind (and just before I ping ding to the Laundry to see a band and do some dancing). My current mission is to learn the tranky doo routine. I am crap at learning routines. Yesterday I spent an hour and half trying to learn this version of the tranky doo (because I love Manu), and only figured out three phrases. That's some sad arse transcription/learning on my part. These stoods (in that clip) would probably have learnt that routine in an hour or hour and a half.

Doing a little youtube browsing today (as one does when one is waiting for one's Squeeze to get up), I discovered the following neat clip:

That's the Silver Shadows (whose members include Todd & Naomi, Skye & Frida, Andy & Nina, Peter & Caitlin - all young, 'famous' dancers of the type generally referred to as rock stars) there, performing a routine at the midwest lindy fest. Now, that's some seriously excellent lindy hopping there (and you can see more of the Silver Shadows if you do a search for them on youtube - their 2005 ULHS performance was amazing), but even more interestingly, that's some seriously excellent use of music there.

Have a look at the following clip, but more importantly, have a listen to this clip.

You'll notice (well, you might), that the riff that pops up at about 1.29mins is repeated in the track on that first Silver Shadows clip (at about 1.44 - when the crowd goes utterly nuts). I'm not really sure, but that sounds like an edited combination of songs on the Silver Shadows clip (I could be wrong though). Even if it's not an edited collection of songs and is one single song referencing all those other important songs, this is still important stuff.
Historically, various riffs would pop up in a range of popular jazz songs across bands and often across moments in time during theh 20s, 30s and 40s - the 'swing era' (as that's my era of interest). Individual musicians would play a particular solo, or a particular bit of melody/arrangement would be reproduced in another song, elsewhere.
This is very textual poaching stuff - jazz was all about the 'cut and paste' or 'sampling' deal.

The thing that makes this Silver Shadows routine so fascinating (and so wonderful) is the way they've combined various bits of iconic dance routines, to a song (or song-melange) which combines iconic combinations of notes and arrangements.
If you're not familiar with the songs, or with the choreography of these iconic routines (and if you do a search of 'whitey's lindy hoppers' and 'harlem congaroos' you'll find the original sections of film on youtube), you won't recognise this stuff in the Silver Shadows' choreography.
That they began with the song Savoy (by Lucky Millinder I think), which is named for the famous Savoy Ballroom where the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers were based (and which is credited as the birthplace of lindy hop), and this is a fairly nice indication of where they go with the routine and their particular style of lindy hop. These are pretty solid recreationist doods, digging 'authentic' music and lindy.

So when you watch that clip, you see the dancers pull out a bit of the Big Apple routine from the film Keep Punchin'. And to make this moment of intertextuality/cultural transmission/textual poaching even more wonderful, that routine in the original film (as choreographed by Frankie Manning for a combination of Whitey's Lindy Hopper dancers) also includes parts of the Tranky Doo.

And here's Al Minns and Leon James (more Savoy dancers) doing the Tranky Doo (note the references to Marshall Stearns, who wrote the important book on African American jazz dance Jazz Dance):

And because it's difficult to see Al and Leon properly in that footage, check out Mike and Nina (Nina is in the Silver Shadows) doing a demonstration of the Tranky Doo steps here:

The Tranky Doo is another piece of choreography from this early era of lindy hop, one that's become a bit popular with young swing dancers today.

And to round all of this off, the Big Apple is a dance with its roots in Africa. Here's a big chunk of my thesis about Big Apples:

John F. Szwed and Morton Marks (32) discuss the importance of called dances in African American musical history, noting the relationship between dance and musical form. Dancers were challenged by callers to perform the called steps to the best of their ability in the earliest moments of black appropriations of European folk dances. Credible performances required dancers not only be familiar with named steps, but also be able to perform them immediately, and often with variations on the step that still maintained a recognised structure. This discussion echoes a tradition from earliest African dance. Hazard-Gordon notes that “the challenge posed by the fiddler-caller, familiar to West Africans, calls upon the dancer to perform difficult combinations of steps. The best performers are those who can meet the challenge while maintaining control and coolness” (Jookin’ 21).
Malone and others draw clear connections between the ring dances of Africa, the ring Shouts of African American gospel churches and with ring dances of the 20s and 30s such as the Big Apple. The Ring Shout was a slaves’ reworking of ancient African ritual, remade to accord with European religious expectations. Performed in a ring, most often in churches or religious services, Ring Shouts placed an emphasis on innovative interpretations of set moves (Stearns and Stearns 27). The Big Apple, popular in the 1920s and 30s and choreographed by New York dancer Frankie Manning, reworked the Ring Shout with new, formal choreography and was performed in a circle by partnered and solo dancers. A range of other ‘Apples’ were popular throughout the period, and are today in contemporary swing culture, joined by new pieces such as the Japanese swing dancers’ ‘Fuji Apple’ and unchoreographed version.
In their simplest forms, ‘Apples’ are ‘called’, requiring dancers to perform steps chosen and demonstrated by a leader, a role that is shared by all in the circle. The more complex and famous Apples were more strictly choreographed – as with the Big Apple – but individuals’ executions of these set steps were always marked by individual style and variation often with a competitive edge. Despite the constraints of called dances, Big Apples in swing dance maintained a strong sense of improvisation and a valuing of innovation. The proving of a dancer’s skill lay not only in their recognising the step called, but in their interpretation and performance of that step. Footage of Frankie Manning’s dance troupe the Hot Chocolates performing his Big Apple (Keep Punchin’ 1939), is still consulted by dancers today, and aptly demonstrates the importance of individual creative styling of choreographed steps in this historical moment.

I think the reason that I get all excited about these sorts of things, is that these connections between archival film, historical African American vernacular dance, jazz music forms and practice and so on are fascilitated by the internet (my use of youtube just there was pretty important), yet are also dependent on access to archival film footage, the instruction of surviving dancers from the 1930s, individual dancers getting together now to work on this stuff (and the Silvers Shadows' dancers are from all over the US and include Frida from Sweden), and then (perhaps most importantly), dancers in the audience (whether there on the night or later online) recognisingall this cross-referencing and clever textual poaching.
This is community media use and practice in action. And, I think, one of the most exciting parts of using dancers as a case study: here are some doods using digitial media in really complex and sophisticated ways, yet with this technology always subsidiary to the embodied dance act. The communal embodied dance act.

Useful references:
Peter and the crew discuss the big apple on

Posted by dogpossum on December 30, 2006 3:26 PM in the category lindy hop and other dances