Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Big Apple (dance) - A Secular Dance That Evolved From The African American Religious Ring Shout

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases three videos of the 1930s African American social dance called "The Big Apple". This post also includes history and comments about The Big Apple, including the fact that it evolved from the religious ring shout.

The content of this post is presented for cultural, entertainment, and aesthetic reasons.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the creators and choreographers of this dance. Thanks also to all those who a re featured in these videos, the publishers of these videos, and all those who are quoted in this post.

"Origins of the Big Apple
Despite it's name the Big Apple did not actually originate in New York. It evolved and first became recognized as a dance form in Columbia, South Carolina. Putting an exact date to the creation of a dance is always difficult. It seems most likely to have formed in the early 1930's with the dance slowly gaining popularity and spreading into other areas of South Carolina through to the mid 1930's. At that time of racial segregation the dance evolved solely in the African American community. However, as with many dances of the era it was soon picked up by the whites and quickly gained popularity and became more widespread as a result.

Betty Wood an original white Big Apple dancer said "It all began at an abandoned synagogue that had been turned into a Juke Joint". In 1930 she was aged sixteen and heard music coming from a juke joint when out driving with friends. They went in and were allowed onto a mezzanine reserved exclusively for whites. The racial segregation of the time meant there was no mixing of races (particularly in the deep south). The main floor and dance area were only for African-Americans with the whites confined to watching from a mezzanine above. They were inspired by watching the dancers doing lots of different Jazz steps and improvisations on the floor below them. They recognized some of the steps as coming from other dances they already knew such as the Charleston, Black Bottom, and original 8-count Collegiate Shag.

They came away with the idea of a dance made up of individual jazz steps, performed in a circle, as called by a leader. The dance was an instantaneous hit in the white community with people coming to South Carolina from all over the country to see the new Big Apple dance they'd heard about. There are also accounts that after a while a new variation developed called the "Little Apple". This form involved fewer dancers and people would take it in turns to grab a partner and move to the center of the circle and dance for a while in styles similar to Lindy Hop, Shag, or other dances of the era.

The spread across America
In 1937 the Roxy Theatre chain commissioned a travelling stage show based around the Big Apple. They held the auditions for dancers in Columbia and 16 local kids were selected (Betty Wood was one of those chosen few). The show was a great success playing for two years at Roxy Theaters all over the country. While the show was in New York it was seen by Herbert (Whitey) White, the manager and driving force behind Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. Whitey described the dance to his lead dancer Frankie Manning, asking him to create a Big Apple piece for their group.

Frankie had never actually seen the Big Apple but remembered the summers he'd spent as a child at his father's family farm near Aiken in South Carolina. This would have been in the 1920s and he recounts often seeing African American farm workers doing what he called a "ring shout". The workers would get in a circle, sing and clap, urging each other to get in the center and improvise. He reminisces "I remember my grandmother putting me in that circle". Many of the steps that Whitey had described were already part of the Lindy Hop. Frankie simply combined these into the circular concept and created the historical blue print for what is now often remembered as the Big Apple. He says "It had already exploded in New York. We started doing it in the Savoy every Saturday night, but it wasn't always the same Big Apple."

The version that Frankie created for Whitey's Lindy Hoppers was used in the movies and has thus been preserved for all to see. The film was called "Keep Punching" and is about a young black boxer on his way to the top. It premiered in Harlem on December 7th 1939 and the cast includes some famous black actors and performers of the time. The Big Apple sequence features one of the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers' troups [sic] including of course Frankie Manning."...
-snip- credits a different group of White young people discovering the dance that they termed "The Big Apple" from Black dancers in Colombia, South Carolina. That page includes information about the early dances and later days of the Big Apple dance that aren't included in the page that is excerpted above.

[Added April 17, 2015]
From The Swing Book By Degen Pener (2009) [no page given]
"The Big Apple [in section on group dances]
Created in Columbia South Carolina in 1930 the Big Apple was such a popular dance that there were hundreds of Big Apple clubs across the country. It requires a caller who stands in the middle of the circle and shouts out a variety of moves from the Charleston to stomp off to truckin'. "It's really fun, actually, even if you don't know what to do," says Sharon Ashe, "Because everybody repeats each move for a few eight counts, you can just look around and copy people." "

{Added April 18, 2015]
It occurs to me that the format for the Big Apple dance is a mix of the "show me your motion" children's ring games (circle games) and practice of a person calling out instructions at a square dance. In ring games, the group moves around one person who stands in the middle of that circle. At a point in that game, the person standing in the middle is told to "show me your motion". After she or he does that, the rest of the group tries to exactly do that same motion. In square dances, a designated person stands apart from dancers and calls out which dance movements the group does.

These videos are presented in chronological order based on their publishing dates on YouTube with the examples with the oldest dates presented earliest.

Example #1: Whitey's Lindy Hoppers performing the Big Apple (1939)

Tanoa Stewart, Uploaded on Jan 25, 2007

Whitey's Lindy Hoppers performing the Big Apple followed by some crazy Lindy Hoppin'. From the movie Keep Punching, 1939 - Brought to you by the San Francisco Jitterbugs,
Here's a comment from that video's discussion thread:
Latinsoul65, 2009
"African Americans are the innovators of so many american dances. THANK YOU!!! for posting this video. It's not that often I get to see film footage of African Americans dancing american popular dances like: swing, jitterbug, lindy hop, charleston etc on film. It's a shame that even though most of these popular dances stem from African American communites they never really spotlighted African Americans on screen dancing these dances especially the Charleston which is an African American dance."

Example #2: Big Apple Dance

judysavoy Uploaded on Jul 31, 2010

History of the 1937 swing dance craze that swept the nation. Fascinating look at the African-American roots of this dance in the Ring Shout from the days of slavery. Savoy Ballroom footage shows Whitey himself with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. Columbia, South Carolina roots of the Big Apple.
The dance segment begins at .40 of this video.

Example #3: The Big Apple & Shag 1937 (Very Rare)

Bill Green, Published on Jun 20, 2013

I have posted this entire film short because of it's rarity. It may be called The Big Apple but is really more about the Collegiate Shag, but who cares, it's great stuff. I only wish the print quality was better.

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