Today’s Google Doodle — the little graphics and animations that sometimes accompany its home page — celebrates the legendary Savoy Ballroom. The Harlem nightclub shut down a generation before I was born, but that didn’t stop me from learning about its importance in American cultural history, as in the late ’90s all of us who took part in the swing revival became amateur historians of this quintessential music and dance pioneered by African Americans. Even my local band — which I wrote about in 1997 — was named for the Savoy Ballroom.
The Savoy was so large, and dancing so popular, that it took up an entire block. If you weren’t close enough to the stage you couldn’t hear the orchestra, so a second band would play at the other end. If you were right in the middle, it was probably tough to keep the beat.
The Savoy was one of the first clubs to integrate, and where black and white would even dance together. It was commemorated or hinted at in many songs from the era. When Duke Ellington sings about taking the A train, the Savoy is probably the destination; likewise when a young Anita O’Day in her big band years sings “Let Me Off Uptown”:
The Savoy Ballroom is not only the place where our national dance — variously known as swing, lindy hop, or jitterbug — was developed, it’s also the place where the first acrobatic move was done. And the man who flipped the first girl over his head in time with the music was Frankie Manning. After the war, as the swing era came to an end, Manning worked for the post office for the rest of his life, his dancing career completely forgotten. Then in the late ’80s two young people who pioneered the swing revival tracked him down, and a decade later he was touring the world giving workshops, and I am fortunate to have attended one. The story of Frankie Manning’s twilight years is one of the most heartwarming stories I know, with a man in his seventies living a quiet and modest life until some kids knock on his door and tell him he’s a legend. Here’s Frankie at age 80, in the limelight once again:
The Google Doodle has a little animation game that’s fun for a minute. It may not make you eager to learn to dance, in which case just take it from me. The investment in time and effort will pay dividends for the rest of your life. Someday, even if it’s only in speakeasies or secret balls as in the German-set movie “Swing Kids,” people will dance again to that special dotted-eighth-note rhythm we call swing.
Here’s Frankie Manning and the rest of the star kids from the Savoy Ballroom, who were known as Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and their famous scene from the 1937 Marx Brothers movie “A Day At The Races.” — CC