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Posted on Sun, Aug. 24, 2003

'The music would just take you'


Big Apple dance had roots in Columbia



Staff Writer

Lucretia Cayruth wags a finger in the air, slides across the Big Apple's dance floor, and time evaporates.

She's "Truckin'," transported back almost seven decades to a time when the former synagogue turned juke joint was the hottest dance club in Columbia.

You can almost hear Duke and Dorsey blaring from the jukebox and see the 350-pound manager, "Big Elliot" Wright, lording over the front door.

"The music would just take you," says Cayruth, 86, the last of the original Big Apple dancers, "like it does in church."

Though they didn't know it at the time, Cayruth and her friends had invented the Big Apple, a swing dance that took its name from the club and became a craze that swept the nation and the Western world in 1937.

Winston Churchill danced it (pretty well, we're told). Yugoslavia banned it as decadent. And some say the dance even gave New York City its nickname.

Next weekend, Historic Columbia celebrates its 25th annual jubilee with a four-day series of workshops and dances to relive and revive the Big Apple.

The group hopes to catalog memories and memorabilia while those who were there still are around to tell the story.

"This (dance) is distinctly Columbia and distinctly South Carolina," said Historic Columbia's John Sherrer. "We're interested in any type of Columbia history, but particularly when Columbia history has national prominence."

The dance didn't have a name when Cayruth and her friends began doing it in late 1936.

White kids from USC watched from the club's balcony, co-opted the steps and named it the Big Apple. They took it to the Grand Strand in 1937, where it was the hottest dance of the summer.

Promoters from New York eager to find new dances for Northern clubs snapped up the Big Apple, importing kids from Columbia and Charlotte to give demonstrations.

Soon the Big Apple became a phenomenon. But unlike fad dances like the twist and the Macarena, the Big Apple had deep cultural roots.

Now the dance is experiencing a resurgence, riding the crest of the 1990s swing revival and being taught to children as a first step toward artistic expression.

And some of the steps in the Big Apple are still being done on dance floors, drawn from swing and morphed into new forms from the jitterbug to boogie.

"All the children today are doing the Big Apple," Cayruth says. "They just don't know it."

'IT JUST CAME FROM INSIDE OF US'

On weekend nights in 1936, shouts would ring out from the old House of Prayer synagogue on Gates Street.

Inside the Big Apple, as the club was known, young people would form a circle, steppin' out to the sweaty beat, waiting for their time to "shine."

Cayruth was 19 in 1936. Her father had moved to Columbia from Barnwell during the height of the Great Depression to work on what would become the Lake Murray dam.

Cayruth would sneak out on weekends to dance with her friends. They didn't think they were making history.

"We were just swinging," she says. "I was just thinking how I would sneak back home."

The dancing was relentless and competitive -- rug cuttin' with roots so deep it stretched all the way back to Africa.

"It just came from inside of us," Cayruth says.

The Big Apple was swing at its most elemental, not too far from the black folk dances called ring-shouts that many of the dancers' great-grandparents did to deal with the pain of slavery.

For 200 or more years, African-Americans in South Carolina, whether free workers or slave laborers, would gather in circles and make their own music. One by one, they would take the center and do a few steps .

The ring-shouts were the offspring of African dance, modified to meet the religious ban on drums and other musical instruments in the early South.

In South Carolina, particularly, the ring-shout would become the primary black folk dance.

New York choreographer Frankie Manning remembers visiting his family's farm near Aiken in the early 1920s. He would spend summers there with his father, far from Gotham, where he lived with his mother.

"People would just start making music and someone would get in the circle and dance," said Manning, 89. "I remember my grandmother pushing me into that circle. I didn't really want to do it. But I guess that's how I started dancing."

A TIME TO SHINE

The Big Apple wasn't a distinctive step or series of steps, like the Charleston or the tango. It could have dozens, even hundreds of moves.

The form the dancers used to perform those steps -- not the moves themselves -- made the Big Apple revolutionary.

The steps were "called" like the square dance. The dancers would "swing left" or "swing right" in a circle until the "leaderman" called popular steps -- "Spank Yo' Horsey," "Piggy Back" or "Scratchin' Fleas."

Then the leader would call out "Shine!" and someone would jump into the center of the circle and take the spotlight, or "shine the apple."

The dance would end with the circle growing tighter, the dancers throwing their hands to the heavens and shouting "Praise Allah!"

University of Minnesota dance historian Lance Benishek has cataloged more than 400 calls that developed as the dance spread.

"Every part of the country had their own," he said.

Many of the steps were well established swing steps like the Suzy Q, the Charleston, Black Bottom or Ballin' the Jack.

Other steps were made up on the spot, taken from life and adopted as a signature step.

For instance, Truckin', a saucy shuffle with a finger wagging in the air, was created by Harlem waiters, who would spin trays on the way back to the kitchen.

FROM THE BALCONY TO BROADWAY

Done in a group, the Big Apple was inherently social and fun.

Eventually, word spread that something special was happening down at the Big Apple.

White kids talked their way into the club. In an ironic reverse segregation, the owner, Frank "Fat Sam" Boyd, wouldn't let them into the ground floor.

But after several pleas, he let them stand in the club's balcony, where women used to worship in the former Orthodox synagogue.

Soon the crowds in the balcony grew. The white kids would throw down nickels and dimes to see their favorite steps.

Today, some might view the act of throwing money to urge blacks to dance as racism. Cayruth didn't see it that way.

"People were prejudiced about everything back then; it wasn't just color. It was money, religion, everything," Cayruth says. "Didn't make any difference to me. It was the Depression. Those nickels and dimes meant a lot to us."

Cayruth doesn't remember what many of the steps were called in those early days or if they had established names at all.

"We didn't call it anything. Everything we did we learned from each other. We just wanted to swing."

In the following months at USC's fraternity and sorority houses, the dance would enter another phase.

The students were anxious to show off the Big Apple, as they called it, to friends throughout the Carolinas.

They looked forward to the end of school and the annual migration to the Grand Strand, anxious to "polish the apple" at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion.

The summer of 1937 would be the Big Apple's debut. And the Pavilion would be its springboard to the bright lights of Broadway.


Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495 or jwilkinson@thestate.com.

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