The Big Apple: A brief history of a dance that’s harder than it looks!

Mary-Anne SlezacekContributors

In March, I attended Muriel’s super-intensive three-hour Big Apple workshop at the Observatory Community Centre. I’m going to be honest: it was hard. There were moments in which I was praying for time to speed up so I could be released from the mental and physical ordeal. But those moments were few; mostly I tried to maximise every second in order to nail the routine.

Far from nailing it, I probably made Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers roll in their graves. But I wasn’t alone, and there was a lot of faking it till we just about made it through the final run-through. But as Muriel kindly pointed out, three hours was nowhere near enough to get it right. None of us were taking ourselves too seriously though, and we could laugh at our fumblings. I particularly enjoyed one of my classmates’ comments the following day at the Woodstock Brewry social, as we hugged in greeting,

“I feel like we’re connected by a shared trauma”. 

I enjoyed dancing at that social so much, I think because of the tremendous freedom that it allowed. There was no pressure to remember a routine; I could just allow my partner to lead me into some fun moves and enjoy the ride. That’s the great thing about being a follower: you never have to think “what comes next?!” which I suppose can make you lazy, and that’s partly why I wanted to challenge myself with the workshop.  

The thing is, I’ve always avoided choreographed dancing because I’m so bad at it. I can never remember what comes next. But it’s something I want to get better at, and at least nowadays I take it on with a lighter heart than I used to. 

What’s funny is that when Muriel first announced the workshop, I watched The Big Apple Contest with Frankie Manning and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and thought “Doesn’t look so hard; they’re just kinda jumping around”. 


But they really do make it look effortless and easy! They are wild and natural and so, so fast. After the workshop, I watched the old footage again with new appreciation, and I was compelled to investigate the history of The Big Apple, which is interesting not only due to its impact on the world of dancing, but also because of the race relations that it revealed and created. 

The dance wasn’t born in New York, as its name might lead you to believe, but in a black dance club in Columbia, South Carolina named The Big Apple. This was actually a converted synagogue, so it had a balcony which was once used by women in the congregation. When word got out about the crazy dance that was being performed there, this balcony became inundated with white students who cheered the dancers on wildly. They loved it so much that they would throw coins down to the dancers to keep the jukebox going. We’re talking about the segregated south of the USA in the 1930s: racism abounded. Yet white youngsters were magnetically drawn to a black dance club night after night, where they showered the black dancers with cheer and praise. 

In those early days, the dance was “called”, meaning somebody called out the next move. There was a lot of improvisation, and dancers had to think fast, as moves like “Truck to the right. . . . Reverse it. . . . To the left. . . . In place. . . . Stomp that right foot. . . . Swing it. . . . All right, shine. . . .” were announced by the caller. Elements of solo jazz and partner dance were combined to create a wild, spontaneous dance. According to Variety, “it requires a lot of floating power and fanny-ing.” I’m not sure what this is exactly, but it sounds pretty groovy and, the crowds couldn’t get enough. (I can’t find Variety’s original comment, but it was quoted in a report by Time magazine)

A dance that energetic couldn’t be contained, and soon the white audience began to attempt it for themselves. Referring to their immidated version as “The Little Apple”, out of self-aware deference to the original, the students took it it to their proms and university dances. From there it spread, and white Americans were fannying around dancefloors across the country. It soon became a national craze, and by September 1937, just a few months after its conception, it was being danced in Harlem, New York, replacing the weekly Lindy Hop competition for the duration of its popularity. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s local newspaper the Aiken Standard, reported that the original Big Apple Club had to bar whites because they were “swarming the place”. Time reported in September 1937 that The Big Apple, which was “too strenuous for mature ballroom dancers, threatened to make it a national menace like the Charleston (1920)”.

Both black and white performance groups were showcasing The Big Apple, and a white group landed a residency in the Roxy theatre in New York. This is where it began to really become associated with whites, and while newspaper articles from the time made sure they attributed its black origins, it was with the classic racist slurs you would expect from a 1930s publication, (as you can see in the image below) and more of a side note than a tribute.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 21, 1937.

The Big Apple seemed to provide a meeting point for black and white Americans. For many, the fervour for it was greater than the racial boundaries so harshly imposed during that time. But it did also lead to the usual white-washing of non-white art and culture. Notice the language employed in the article above: it insinuates that the black dancers took the moves from white southern culture, and now it was being “passed back” to its rightful home. It does not acknowledge the possibility of the black, and in fact African, roots which Swungover contributors hypothesise

“This dancing almost certainly has its roots in two places: first and foremost, in the ring shouts of the Black peoples of the Carolinas and Georgia — most notably the Gullah peoples — where dancers stood and moved counter clockwise in a circle in spiritual dance. (And those ring shouts almost certainly have their roots in West African dance cultures, where dance is most often shared through individual movement and a circle of one’s community. Sound familiar? Jam circles are also part of that lineage.)”

This extract from Times magazine, published on 13 September 1937 does little to dispel the idea that The Big Apple was the creation of white Columbian college students:

“Next to Negroes (but a long way behind them), white Southern youngsters are the most inventive and dextrous dancers in the U.S. They work hard at their fun, and to “shine,” or perform so as to attract attention, is accounted worthy. Last spring, at a prom at the University of South Carolina, a dance was launched which promised to give Southerners more scope for shining than they had ever enjoyed before. It was called “The Big Apple.” A party of students had seen Negroes cavorting through its steps in the “Big Apple Night Club,” a onetime synagog in Columbia, had given the name to the dance and practised it secretly for their prom.”,33009,770875,00.html

So while the students “worked hard on their fun” and the attention they attracted was “accounted worthy”, the original black dancers were merely “cavorting through the steps”.

It was also widely accepted that The Big Apple derived from the much less menacing Square Dance, popular in South Carolina, and seen as a very white, folksie farmer dance with European roots. Interestingly though, square dancing was in fact also heavily influenced by African Americans. Furthermore, its Native Americans roots date back to the 1600s (more on this here). You can see how this kind of cultural colonisation becomes a never-ending cycle.

As The Big Apple gained momentum and spread fast through the country, its connection to the dance club in Columbia got more and more lost in the excitement. And so it was that a group of eight white dancers were scouted for a residency in the Roxy Theatre, where they were paid $50 a week (a lot of money considering these were days of the Great Depression). While the white group played for money to packed out, cheering crowds, the black dancers remained in nightclubs, unpaid. They weren’t invited to the same contests that landed the white dancers their residency. It’s hard to know what the general feelings were, whether there was animosity, resentment, acceptance or indifference, but at least one original Big Appler expressed sentiment leaning towards the latter: 

“It didn’t make any difference to me. I felt honored that they carried it to New York. I didn’t get to go to New York. But I carried the history.”

Which does make me wonder whether we read too much into things sometimes.

Nevertheless, something that cannot be denied is the injustice of Hollywood’s ability to erase what they consider to be problematic, and how it’s pretty much impossible for marginalised groups to make their voice heard without being punished. By the end of 1937, Herbert White – or “Whitey”, as he is more commonly known – had been running the Big Apple at the Savoy in New York, and was now collaborating with Frankie Manning to choreograph a version of the Big Apple for the Julie Garland film Everybody Sing. One day, during rigorous rehearsals, Julie Garland took a break, but Whitey’s dancers were denied the same luxury. Enraged, Whitey instructed them to sit down regardless, and the result was their entire existence being erased from the film: instead of going to Harlem, Garland went to China Town. It’s frustrating that while Whitey was attempting to get the respect they deserved on set, the result meant that the dance didn’t get this important opportunity to be presented as an art form of black origin, and it remained colonised. 

I urge you to read the entire Swungout article and watch this video for a more in depth analysis of the whitification (is that a word? It is now) of The Big Apple and why it’s necessary to dispel false narratives.   

Two years later, Whitey finally got to showcase his dancers in the 1939 film Keep Punchin’. Personally, I see this as a great victory, because it makes the previous sacrifice, based on a quest for equality and respect, totally worthwhile. It shows that we should never roll over and accept injustice; the fight will be worth it in the end. The film is also important because the choreography used is the one that has been immortalised as the Big Apple. As I mentioned previously, the Big Apple did not follow a set routine, but spontaneously followed calls outs. As it evolved and spread throughout the country, various versions were choreographed and performed. But the version featured in Keep Punchin’ is the one that we see and learn today. 

The one I tried to learn.    

I’m still not sure what “floating power” is, but it certainly felt like there was a lot of “fanny-ing” around that community centre in Observatory, though without the finess of the 1930s dancers.

I really wanted to be able to perform this routine at Swing Camp and deeply regret not practising daily in order to do so. I scraped through the first half, but slunk away for the second. I will work on it, I promise! (along with the Shim Sham,Trickeration and footwork that I really need to actually practise and not just say I’m going to)

Solo choreography is still out of my comfort zone, but I’m happy to watch the pros and feel utter respect for their art and dedication. Learning these dances, as well as their origins, not only helps us to keep them alive, but also ensures that narratives aren’t perpetually distorted. This is why Cape Town Swing is so dedicated to the history of swing and jazz, not just the dancing.  

About the Author

Mary-Anne Slezacek