Harlem Dramaturgy Project, Part 5: Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance — Harlem Dramaturgy Project , Herbert White , Hoofer's Club , Jolly Fellow , Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance — AAPEX

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Harlem Dramaturgy Project, Part 5: Once Upon A Time In Harlem: A Jitterbug Romance

The Jolly Fellows, Herbert White, The Hoofers' Club
& the Jitterbug

Despite Jim Crow laws, Prohibition and the Depression, something magical was happening in Harlem in the 1930's and it was more than just the intellectual rise of the Harlem Renaissance. Something wonderful was going on below the radar of the intelligentsia. A street gang had become without any plan of its own the protector and champion of American "vernacular dancing," i.e., tap and swing.

The Jolly Fellows, was one of the toughest of a dozen "secret" street gangs in Harlem, i.e., they didn't emblazon the backs of their jackets with the names of their gang. But that's not to say you couldn't spot a Jolly Fellow on the streets of Harlem. Thanks to Herbert "Whitey" White, who

organized the gang in 1923, he instilled in his young members that they must at all times dress well and smell good. Described as a cross between a "penny-pinching Robin Hood and a hip Father Flannigan," White was a one-time prize fighter and a sergeant in World War I. He was also as much as 20-years older than most of the gang members who were for the most part "twenty-somethings" by the time my play takes place. To get accepted into the club, one of the initiation rights included walking into a store, punching the store owner and waiting to see what happens. Sometimes you went to jail, sometimes not. By the 1930's, membership had risen to over 600 (and I would suspect there were an equal number of store owners with black eyes, broken jaws, and concussions).

White wasn't a great dancer-- he was better at banging heads, intimidation, and entrepreneurship-- but because he loved great dancing, the Jolly Fellows (and their women's auxiliary the Jolly Flapperettes) became known as the dancer's gang. As the head bouncer at the world-famous Savoy Ballroom (a block long with a double-bandstand and a sprung wooden floor that could hold 5,000 people), his gang could dance as long as they wanted on a certain part of the floor called "Cats Corner." No one else could dance there. If for some reason a couple inadvertently

spent too much time "in the paint," it could mean a good beating (usually given through choreographed Charleston kicks). When it came to defending one's turf or a gang member's honor, it was done in the highest of the GQ style popularized by Edward G Robinson's gangster flicks: Jolly Fellows went to a fight wearing gloves, tight Chesterfields (see picture), and derbies. As a side note, besides not tolerating "coarse language," White also required that women were to be treated with "unfailing courtesy."

The Hoofers' Club
To get into the Hoofers' Club, you first had to enter the Comedy Club next door to the Lafayette Theatre on Seventh Ave ("Boulevard of Dreams") between 131st and 132nd Streets. The Comedy Club was a small storefront for a speakeasy and gambling house. It was also a favorite Jolly Fellows hangout. In an even smaller backroom, was the Hoofers' Club. It was big enough to hold an old, beat-up upright piano and a bench. The splintered wood floor is where men practiced tap dancing and new steps and routines came to life. Jazz Dance says this small backroom was the "unacknowledged headquarters for tap dancing" for nearly 40-years. Everyone who was anyone stopped by to dance including Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the "Mayor of Harlem." There were only two rules: don't bother guys like Bojangles and John Bubbles with questions about how to do a certain step when they came in to dance and most importantly, don't copy another's steps. "Thou Shalt Not Copy Another's Steps-- Exactly" was the unwritten law. You could imitate anybody inside the "club"-- it was taken as a compliment-- but you couldn't do it professionally, i.e., in public and for pay. It's said when a new act opened at the Lafayette or the Lincoln, as soon as the doors opened, dancers rushed down to the first rows and "watched you like hawks and if you used any of their pet steps, they just stood right up in the theatre and told everybody about it at the top of their voices."

The Jitterbug
By the mid-30's Herbert White began using his entrepreneurial skills to tap into America's growing passion for swing dancing. The earliest version was revealed to the world in June of 1928 through a Jolly Fellow when a Fox Movietone News reporter asked legendary gang member-cum-dancer George "Shorty" Snowden what he was doing with his feet? Snowden never stopped dancing when he replied, "The Lindy." Credited with adding the "breakaway" to the dance so he could improvise steps, Snowden was preparing the world for the dance that was yet to come: the Jitterbug. It was born at the Savoy Ballroom because of the Jolly Fellows. By the time the dance got airborne through "air-steps," it had become known as the "Jitterbug," thanks to Herbert White and Cab Calloway's 1934 recording, Call of the Jitter Bug, which used the word in its earliest iteration as an adjective describing someone with the "delirium tremors" from drinking too much booze.

If you'd like to be a jitter bug,
First thing you must do is get a jug,
Put whiskey, wine and gin within,
And shake it all up and then begin.
Grab a cup and start to toss,
You are drinking jitter sauce!
Don't you worry, you just mug,
And then you'll be a jitter bug!

At the height of the dance's popularity, White was managing as many as seventy dancers and a dozen dance troupes with names like The Savoy Hoppers, The Jive-A-Dears, and his most famous, Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. That troupe (which at one time included Shorty George and his dancing partner Big Bea) toured the world including Paris with a gig at the Moulin Rouge. It also appeared in the Marx Bros movie A Day at the Races (1937) and Hellzapoppin'(1941).

Herbert White (center) and his
Whitey's Lindy Hoppers

You can see Shorty George and his dancing partner Big Bea dancing here.

By the time White died in the 1940's he was a rich man and the Jitterbug had conquered the world-- if only for a short time. By the time I took my play to Harlem this March for a reading at the National Black Theatre, 80-years after the fact proved problematic: finding just one African-American couple who could dance the Lindy (much less the amplified Jitterbug) was nearly impossible. By the early 60's dances like The Stroll and especially the Twist finally took Shorty Snowden's "breakaway" (whether he was aware of it or not, he was reaching back to his African roots where partner dancing was basically unheard of) and made it permanent. Now it appears the only people dancing the Jitterbug today are white people, that they have in fact co-opted the dance born in Harlem. This "retro swing" movement began in the early 80's and can be traced to California and disaffected punk rockers who were exploring swing music. Still if you search hard enough you will find people like Ryan Francois (a black Brit dancing with a white partner) and, as far as I can tell, one of the few African American groups still carrying on the tradition like The Harlem Swing Dance Society-- but who have few, if any, young members (it's interesting to note that a member of that group offers up this explanation for its skewed older demographic: when the great Harlem ballrooms finally closed, no one passed on the dance to their children). Of course, it also had a lot to do with the decline in swing bands and the advent of rock and the natural tendency of the next generation to want to "break away" from whatever it was their parents embraced.

As for Mr. Francois, this dance comes closest to the one I wrote for my main protagonist. Billy Rhythm, dancing under a Harlem street lamp, uses only his feet and body to express his love for Tharbis Jefferson as she leans out of her second story tenement window. When watching it, try to imagine just one guy dancing in this "Romeo and Juliet" moment because what I was trying to capture was the magic of Gene Kelly's memorable Singing in the Rain dance number and reimagining it without singing or music (or rain); stripping it down to its joyful heartfelt African influenced American core: tap dancing.

DC Copeland

You can follow this series by clicking the "Harlem Dramaturgy Project" in the Labels section below.
Jaz Dorsey


  1. The story of the gangs at the Savoy in this article, validates what my father, Al Minns and his dance partner Leon James shared with researchers in the book Jazz Dance. So, to those who continue to state on their Swing websites and youtube videos that Al and Leon were giving disinformation, what say you now to Verticus Erectus's post? Is this person also a disinformation weenie?

  2. Interesting read but you should see what The Harlem Swing Dance Society has managed to do with help from Harlem and elsewhere. thay have a FB page too www.harlemswingdance.org