AT THE SAVOY
by Sally Sommer
Dehn with Al Minns and Leon James
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)
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
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
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,
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.