HEAVEN AT THE SAVOY
by Sally Sommer

Muhr Dehn with Al Minns and Leon James

(Review of Mura Dehn's film "THE SPIRIT MOVES: A HISTORY OF BLACK SOCIAL DANCE ON FILM, 1900-1986" that was shown at the Public Theater, New York on November 7 and 13, 1986. It was first published in the Village Voice, December 2, 1986)

THE SPIRIT MOVES is Mura Dehn's extraordinary five-hour documentary film about the evolution of black dance styles in urban America from the early 1900s to the present. It is also one of our most important dance films, a unique visual record of vernacular jazz dancing, that exuberant heritage of movement that shaped the way we dance, on stage and off. Born and nurtured in the hotbeds of Afro-American culture, richly varied dance styles like the cakewalk, charleston, lindy hop and electric boogie were snapped up by mainstream white America, spreading Europe and beyond. Jazz dance, like jazz music, is one of America's major contributions to world culture, and if you haven't seen the film, then you have been cheated of your own dance history.


Mura Dehn discovered jazz in Paris in the 1920s and it changed her life. A Russian Jew, Dehn began her pre-Paris career dancing in the style of Isadora Duncan. We saw a charming example of this in a film clip included in the documentary IN A JAZZ WAY: A PORTRAIT OF MURA DEHN (by Louise Ghertler and Pamela Katz). Dressed in a silken tunic, mussed hair entwined with flowers, the beautiful young Dehn swayed and leapt in front of dark curtains. Then, in her deep pan European accent, Dehn told about seeing Josephine Baker in 1924, "Before, European couple dancing was very formal - too pleasing and too relaxed. But life was not like that. We needed something to energize us, to give us abandon. The Charleston gave us the spice of rhythm and syncopation." In 1925, ecstatic with jazz, Dehn went to Vienna to present a concert of jazz dance, and she was truly wonderful. But this was jazz dance filtered through a European mentality, her movements precise, controlled, sharp and sweet. In 1930 she came to New York to be enveloped in the rhythm and spirit of jazz.


When she walked into Harlem's Savoy Ballroom she knew she had found her spiritual home, and when she naively asked about her dancing, "Am I not like you are?" they said, "Not at all." What amazed her most was their exquisite ease, because for the European "it was so tremendously effortful to swallow the rhythmic pill." But Mura Dehn saw what others had not: this extraordinary dancing needed to be recorded. "So, I sacrificed my career to promote the tidal wave of black jazz, to film the greatest dancers of the Savoy …. My contribution is to have assembled and preserved these dances as presented by their greatest exponents." Thank god for her vision. Without it, we would never know what it was we had lost.


The strongest section of THE SPIRIT MOVES are parts I and II, which move chronologically from the cakewalk (circa 1900) to the Savoy lindy hop in all its various styles - the mambo lindy, the old-time lindy hop, the bebop lindy, to the classic Savoy lindy as it was presented by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. Some of the greatest jazz dancers perform, like James Berry, Al Minns, Leon James, Teddy Brown, Frankie Manning, Sarah Washington, Sugar Sullivan, Sandra Gibson and Pepsi Bethel. Brilliant dancers, they move deftly from one style to another, so sensual and smooth that you find yourself hating the jazz that has been foisted on us by bad Broadway and the ugly stuff of Solid Gold.
There are about five varieties of Charleston. Berry swings and surges, legs kicking out in rambunctious rond de jambs. Brown is a lanky Spiderman who melts over the floor when he rubberlegs. James does a smartass stop-time Charleston whilst Minns performs one that is clean and classical. Later, nude except for a white, diaper like bikini, Minns performs a beautiful, elliptical snake-hips that somehow manages to be serene. Then comes the mooch, grind, drag - sleazy, lingering couple dances peppered with gestures like truckin' and peckin', and steps like the Suzie Q and fishtail.


At the ballroom, the floor is filed with so many fine dancers that you can't help but wonder what has happened to our social dance talents: Why were there so many then? Why are there so few now? Worse yet, why is it that the only lindy hop we seem to have kept is the aerial lindy, where the women are thrown around like rag dolls? Other styles like the mambo and bebop lindy are silky and sexy; the men slip around the women in creamy slides with fast, elaborate footwork punctuated by unexpected stops and witty shimmies. When Leon James leads four other men in a snappy little line dance called the "tranky doo," his white socks flash. The men flirt with the steps, sneak in odd amusing syncopations, tuck their heads, and flip off difficult turns, glancing over their shoulders at the last second as if they've just caught a surprising glimpse of a beautiful woman. Each is unique, and although they dance together, they never move in unison. The mark of a Savoy dancer was the splendor of his individual style.


Part II moves to bebop, mambo at the Palladium Ballroom, and Afro-Cuban dances as filtered through Harlem. Bebop is the most arresting (Scobie Strohman the most striking dancer) because of its dark and mysterious humor, the austere, inward focus of the dancers, the way movements and tempos fracture expectations. You've got to lean forward to catch this dance. In a typical bop gesture, the hand shoots out, grabs a hunk of air, then snakes it back to the chest. Shoulders bunch. Heads tilt in odd directions, but never face directly forward. Bebop is the true parent of the electric boogie, filled with the same pantomimic scenarios. A guy gets shot or stabbed. The dancers play ball, toss invisible objects in the air, then slide to catch them. Ever indirect, they skate around the stage on greased shoes, pulling up, sliding down, doing a fast little forward-backward skip-step that takes them nowhere. In contrast, mambo is wide open, gregarious. The women's hips swivel, they shimmy faster than is humanly possible, and the men seem mesmerized by these extravagant, vibrating creatures.


That's the final blast of good dancing until breaking and electric boogie. Unfortunately, Dehn moved to professional dancers (a group organized by Mama Lu Parks) for the rock 'n' roll section, and these performers were tainted by too many club gigs. The raw grandeur of vernacular jazz is compromised. The joyful spirit that moved the dancers is replaced by exhibitionism, ruled by the idea that if the you do it harder and bigger it will be better.
"Artists of the Theater" is the last section of THE SPIRIT MOVES, featuring performances by Pigmeat Markham and the insouciant James Berry. I never thought I'd see a cane handled better than it is by Fred Astaire - but Berry did it. With a life of its own, the cane flips in the air, somersaults, lays down on the floor, then levitates into Berry's hand. It is rarely used for walking. The "song and dance" routines that Berry thrilled 'em with in the '20's seem more fragile than funny, too subtle for 1986.


Dehn closes her monumental opus with electric boogie as danced by the Fabulous Force, bringing her film up to the present with the virtuosic performance. Like any labor of love which consumed a lifetime, this document reflects the ebb and floor of the maker's energy. At one point in IN A JAZZ WAY, she says, "I always felt that I could go back to my own dancing and pick up again. I was so strong. But now I can't, I'm too old." You never needed to Mura. What you did was more than enough.

 

 
   

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