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Posted on Mon, Aug. 25, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
'You just got in a group and followed along'
Teens took Big Apple to the beach, and from there it swept the nation

Staff Writer

For Betty Henderson, the highlight of summer 1937 was to be her annual trip to Myrtle Beach. Days in the sun. Nights dancing in the Pavilion. A chance to meet new friends.

The 16-year-old didn't know she was about to embark on the adventure of her life.

One afternoon at the Pavilion, kids from Columbia taught Henderson and her friends a new dance called the Big Apple.

Six months later, after winning a dance contest, Henderson was "Big Apple Betty," touring the nation's largest cities and earning more than many adults.

"Most people get 15 minutes of fame," said Henderson, now Betty Wood. "I had 30."

Wood, 82, of Melrose, Fla., will be here this weekend when Historic Columbia celebrates its 25th annual Jubilee with a series of workshops and dances held to relive and revive the Big Apple.

The organization hopes to catalogue the memories and memorabilia of the young blacks who invented the dance, the white kids who took it to New York and the professionals of both races who made it a national craze.

"The Big Apple shows interracial play, a cross-fertilization of dance," said Columbia dancer Breedlove, one of the event's organizers. "We want to find the roots of the dance, keep it alive."

At its peak in 1938, the Big Apple was the most popular dance in the country and arguably the Western world.

Franklin Roosevelt's son had a Big Apple party in the White House. Life magazine ran a spread on how to perform different steps. And it popped up in Hollywood musicals.

Some say the dance even gave New York City its nickname.

"I consider it the third biggest dance fad in American history, behind the Twist and the Charleston," said University of Minnesota dance historian Lance Benishek. "It doesn't have age boundaries. It doesn't have class boundaries. Everybody can do it."


The evolution of the Big Apple from a local, informal swing dance to a national craze began in 1936, months before Wood made her trip to the beach.

Columbia teenagers Donald Davis, Billy Spivey and Harold"Goo Goo" Wiles were driving in Davis' father's "Flivver" (Ford), when they heard music blaring from the old House of Prayer Synagogue on Gates Street.

The building had been converted into a black juke joint, the Big Apple Night Club.

Inside, young people were blending modern swing with rural African-American folk dancing to create a new form. Davis was intrigued by the music. In those days, it was highly unusual for whites to go into a black club. But Davis asked the owner, Frank "Fat Sam" Boyd, if they could come in, said his son, Skip Davis.

"Don, Billy and Goo Goo screwed up their courage and went to the door," Skip Davis said. "Fat Sam made two conditions. They had to pay twenty five cents each and they had to sit in the balcony."

"If it hadn't been for the balcony, who knows how this might have turned out," Breedlove said.

Over the next few months, the three brought more kids to see the new circle dance.

Harold E. Ross, 87, of Columbia, visited the club often. He said the dancing was "exhilarating."

The white kids were so enthralled that they didn't want the music to stop. So they would toss coins down to the dancers.

"We had a lot of nickels with us because it took a nickel to play a song," Ross said. "If the music stopped and the people on the floor didn't have any money, we didn't get any more dancing. We had to feed the Nickelodeon."

The 18-year-old Ross and his friends would hold dances at the Columbia Hotel or at their homes.

"We always did the best we could to imitate the steps we saw," he said. "But we called it the Little Apple. We didn't feel like we should copy the Big Apple, so we called it that."

By the summer of 1937, the kids from Columbia migrated to the beach. There they met Wood and other kids from North Carolina. The Big Apple craze began.


Wood's trip to the beach was a working vacation of sorts.

During the day, her group from Charlotte's Henderson Dance Studio would teach dancing to tourists' children. At night they would perform.

But the real fun for Wood and her friends came each day at 3 p.m. when the band -- Les Brown and the Duke Blue Devils -- rehearsed.

The kids would gather and share the hottest new steps. There, Wood saw the Big Apple for the first time.

"You just got in a group and followed along," Wood said. "We knew how to dance, so it was easy to learn. And it was so much fun!"

More importantly for the teenagers, it was new.

"It wasn't square dancing." Wood wrinkles her nose. "We didn't square dance."

By the end of the summer the Big Apple had taken root. Dance contests were held in August in Columbia and Charlotte.

They would make the students from North Carolina and South Carolina unlikely celebrities.


It's unclear how a New York talent scout heard about the contests.

One story is that Billy Spivey had connections in New York. Others say Pullman porters took the dance north. Or maybe they read The State and other Southern newspapers, which had written stories on the new dance.

But a scout, Gay Foster, was sent south to pick the best white dancers for a performance at the Roxy, at the time the world's second-largest theater.

Eight couples were chosen:

• Wood and Kenneth Clarke of Sumter

• Spivey and Dottie Eden, (a dancer from South Dakota who joined the group in New York)

• Davis and Jane Crout from Columbia

• Jean Foreman and Raymond "Robin" Hood from Charlotte

• Genie Mitchell of Lexington and Jack Fallows of Columbia

• Dot Bradford and Harry Fowler of Sumter

• Maxine Martin and Blackie Lovell of Charlotte

• Frances Fetner and Johnny Campbell of Columbia.

Wood's mother agreed to let the 16-year-old go to New York on one condition: Mom would come along. So Wood and her mother left by train.

"It was my first time to go to New York," Wood said. "It was exciting! They made us costumes. They bought us shoes. They put us up in the Plymouth Hotel."

The kids from "the colleges of North and South Carolina" shared the bill with "Miss Rose Marie, America's Favorite Songstress," the top-hatted The Debonairs and The Five Co-eds.

Opening night put them on stage in front of 6,500 people. Wood was excited and nervous, but the group's two numbers went well.

"Everybody went crazy," she said. "People were yelling, screaming, stomping."

The group stayed on at the Roxy for two more weeks, performing six shows a day.

Then another promoter picked up the show, now called Billy Spivey's Big Apple Dancers, and booked them into the Hollywood Restaurant on Broadway. It was the first date in a six-month tour of cities like Baltimore, Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio.

"I met Boris Karloff," Wood said. "He was the nicest man."

The pay was $50 a week, which during the Depression "was big money," Wood said. "My brother would say, 'No wonder Daddy let you go. You're making more money than him!'"

Back in Columbia, the black dancers who invented the Big Apple were still at the club.

They weren't invited to the dance contests. They weren't asked to perform for talent scouts. They weren't making $50 a week and mingling with film stars.

Lucretia Cayruth, 86, of Columbia is the last of the black dancers from the Big Apple club. She said doesn't mind that the students co-opted their steps and profited from them.

"It didn't make any difference to me," she says. "I felt honored that they carried it to New York. I didn't get to go to New York. But I carried the history."

By January 1938, the Big Apple was spreading across the nation from east to west, from ballroom to ballroom, by newsreel and radio.

The dance drew the attention of some of the biggest names in show business. Tommy Dorsey and Teddy Wilson recorded songs about it. Back in New York, a dance teacher named Arthur Murray saw an opportunity to bring customers into his dance studios.

And a promoter named Herbert "Whitey" White, who managed a dance troupe at the Savoy Ballroom, was getting feelers from Hollywood.

He wrote a letter describing the Big Apple to his lead dancer, who was on the West Coast working on the Judy Garland film "Everybody Sing."

The dancer was Frankie Manning, one of the greatest Lindy Hop dancers of all time.

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495 or
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Updated Tuesday, Jan 06, 2004
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