The Shim Sham: A Brief History of a Lindy Hop Institution.

Mary-Anne SlezacekHistory

You’re taking a sip of your drink, in need of a break after some particularly swinging swingouts, when a familiar stomping intro kicks in. There’s something so alluring about that bold and rhythmic statement from the brass section, with its syncopated motif, and you find yourself abandoning your drink to run back to the dance floor and join in the Shim Sham.

The idea is to get as many people as possible dancing along to ‘Taint What You Do (It’s the Way That Cha Do It). The Shim Sham is an integral dance for every Lindy Hop community; it gives us the chance to come together and dance as a unit.  

The great thing about this dance is that it’s simple enough for everyone to participate in and bring their flair to. If you’re a tap dancer, you can jazz things up with some fancy kicks and shuffles; if you’re still trying to follow the basics and stay on time, there’s no need for more. As long as you stick to the rhythm and framework, you can adlib and get creative or keep it super simple. There’s no excuse not to join in; this dance was created for everyone, not just the pros! 

Here’s CTS Shim Shamming at a recent social at V&A Waterfront. 

It started out a little goofy

The origins of The Shim Sham date back to the Black Vaudeville era of the early 1900s as a tap dance. The Whiteman Sisters, a song-and-dance troupe who directed their own shows, dominated the scene, with one of the longest-running and highest-paid acts on the circuit. One day, in 1927, it was decided that they needed a grand finale which could involve all the show’s performers. So Leonard Reed and Willie Byrant came on board to choreograph a routine consisting of a mixture of standard steps that everyone could join: dancers, singers, and other performers. It consisted of shuffles, cross-overs, tacky Annies and a fall off the log. They called the dance the Goofus because it was danced in a goofy way, to the light-hearted and slightly goofy bluegrass banjo track Turkey in the Straw.

As an interesting side note, have you ever wondered who Annie of the tacky Annie was? Well, there are a few versions of this story. In one, Tack Annie was a big, scary Irish woman, notorious for her illicit endeavours and general thuggery in the mid-1920s. Jazz pianist Earl Hines referred to her as the roughest woman he’d ever seen in his life, “So tough that it took several men to hold her down” (The World of Earl Hines by Stanley Dance, 1977). Other sources claim her to be a stripper who incorporated that particular move into her routine. Frankie Manning sheds a different light on Annie, saying that she was a chorus dancer with a unique style.

Then there is an entirely different story that goes like this: Tap dancer Jack Wiggins had a girlfriend called Annie, and one night, during a performance, he shouted to her in the audience, “Annie, next step may be tacky, but I’m gonna do it for you!” None of these versions is documented as fact, but I feel that they could all be true. I think Wiggins was doing a little wordplay here, referencing Tack Annie the thug/stripper/chorus girl and having fun with his aptly-named girlfriend. He was known for his audience interaction, and used to engage the audience in a comedic exchange which became known as “pull it”. He’d call out, “Do you want me to pull it?” and the audience would shout “Yes”. So it seems that he would have enjoyed this little joke with the audience. 

The Shim Sham Shimmy is born

Now, it’s hard to know for sure what happened next, because the history of vernacular jazz is largely undocumented, but the story goes that one of the dancers – Joe Jones– got fired, went to New York, formed a group called Three Little Words and the Goofus caught on. It was danced in clubs across Harlem, like Connie’s Inn, the 101 Ranch, La Fayette Theatre, the Harlem Opera House and Dickie Wells’s Shim Sham Club.

The name Goofus gave way to the Shim Sham Shimmy, presumably because of its connection to the aforementioned Shim Sham Club. Though this link seems pretty clear, tap dancer Howard “Stretch” Johnson claimed that the word “Shim” was a contraction of the term “she-him”, a reference to the fact that the female chorus line dancers at the 101 Ranch were played by men.

The shows would close with all performers and musicians shuffling along on stage. The Three Little Words would close their show at Connie’s Inn with the Shim Sham, inviting everyone to join in,

The whole club would join us, including the waiters. For a while people were doing the Shim Sham up and down Seventh Avenue all night long

Joe Jones, American jazz drummer

The Shim Sham soon found its way to the Savoy Ballroom, where a few Lindy Hoppers danced it as a line dance, though it didn’t gain a lot of traction. 

The evolution of the dance

The routine remained pretty much the same throughout the 1930s, but with some variations, such as the “freeze chorus” replacing breaks with freezes. Then in 1938, Dean Collins changed things up a little. His version starts in the same way as the original, but with some modifications, but then it goes in a totally different direction. It was choreographed for performance, not social dancing, with very precise steps and styling. Have a look at this video of Dean Collins himself dancing with Bart Botolo.

In 1948, while on tour with the World Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, Leonard Reed revised his original choreography for a simple duet variation of the dance, which he called “The Joe Louis Shuffle.” Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any footage of this dance, but here is a tutorial. 

Another side note: What was a tap doing on the road with a heavyweight boxer? It seemed an odd scenario, and I had some trouble finding an explanation! Turns out that the two of them became great friends when Louis went to Reed for wardrobe styling advice (which leaves me with some ???s but I can’t go down that rabbit hole of investigation). Not only did he learn how to dress, but he also learned to sing and dance, and subsequently featured in one of Reed’s productions, which toured the country. Every night they’d stage a knock-out fight. A big hit, apparently. Read more about it here.  

Back to the Shim Sham.

In 2022, at the age of 95, and no longer fake boxing, Reed came up with ‘Revenge of the Shim Sham’. This sounds quite dramatic, but from what my untrained eye can make out, it’s really just a slight variation. The steps are recognisable but with some extra-complicated looking footwork (but then all tap footwork looks complicated to me). Check it out for yourself here.  

This is the Leonard Reed Shim Sham timeline, according to Wikipedia:

  • The original Shim Sham from 1927, a 32-bar chorus composed of four steps and a break
  • The Freeze Chorus, circa 1930s, the original Shim Sham without the breaks
  • The Joe Louis Shuffle Shim Sham, 1948, a tap-swing dance 32-bar chorus number that Leonard Reed performed with the World Heavyweight Boxing champ Joe Louis
  • The Shim Sham II, 1994, a 32-bar chorus dance based on the original Shim Sham
  • The Revenge of the Shim Sham, 2002, a 32-bar chorus dance, Leonard Reed’s final Shim Sham, which builds upon his original four (the name was suggested by Maxwell DeMille at a performance at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles).

The Shim Sham becomes a Lindy Hop institution

Though it began as a tap routine and was not hugely popular among Lindy Hop dancers to begin with, over time it’s become a staple. This is because Frankie Manning got his hands (or feet) on it at the end of the 1980s and made it an integral and immortal part of the Lindy Hop world. He used the original version, but without taps, and also included another chorus with boogie forwards, boogie backs and Shorty Georges. Taps have remained an optional extra, however, for those who can tap. He also replaced full breaks with eight-count holds, and of course, added the Lindy Hop freestyle after the final Shorty George.  

Frankie taught his Shim Sham to Margaret Batiuchok and some of the other New York Swing Dance Society board members. Batiuchok suggested to the board that they do the Shim Sham at every NYSDS weekly dance at the Cat Club. Her idea was met with scepticism, as some members were afraid it would take up precious dance time, but she persisted, and finally they agreed. Frankie led the Shim Sham when he was in town and when he wasn’t, Margaret took the lead. And so, more than six decades after its creation, the Shim Sham tradition exploded onto the Swing scene. 

This video of Margaret Batiuchok leading the Shim Sham with Charlie Mead gave me shivers; not just because of the seamless, smooth dancing on stage and the swinging band behind them, but also because of the palpable joy in the crowd as they follow the routine en masse.

Breathing new life into dusty old dances was typical of Frankie Manning. His version preserves the essence of the original routine while incorporating his personal touches and variations. The dynamic footwork patterns and playful rhythms reflect his joyous approach to dancing. He would add unexpected twists and surprises, infusing his routine with a sense of spontaneity and individual expression. And he encouraged Lindy Hoppers to do the same: embrace their creativity and make the dance their own. I still get thrown by those crazy variations, but I’ll catch on eventually and bring some flair to my Shim Sham!

Frankie’s Shim Sham, which is now danced all over the globe, embodies the spirit of Lindy Hop, celebrating individuality, musicality, and the joy of dance. Since the days of the Goofus, it’s always been a routine of inclusivity; designed for everyone to come together and dance. It’s a dance that opens up the floor to everyone willing to give it a go. As we keep Frankie Manning’s Shim Sham alive in the swing community, let’s honour its origins and the long road it’s tapped along to get where it is today: a Lindy Hop institution.

I’ll leave you with CTS’s own Muriel Gravenor and Sam Sserwanga bringing their special flair to Saunder’s Rock, Sea Point.