An Endeavor By Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943


An Endeavor By Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943
The dissertation discusses how Harlem-based jazz dance was recognized in the mainstream press, meaning, non-African-American newspapers and magazines, between 1921 and 1943. The topic was examined by exploring how Harlem jazz dance was perceived in and outside Harlem. Harlem-based jazz dance refers to jazz and swing music dances like the Lindy Hop, the Charleston, and Tap dance, which were danced and promoted by Harlemites in and outside Harlem. In addition to the mainstream press, African-American newspapers, dancers’ interviews, articles about dancers, their memoirs, various studies and different materials in archives, were used for building up the picture of Harlem entertainment both in and outside Harlem.

The study mainly analyzes dancers and dance groups like Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, John W. Sublett and Buck Washington, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and George Snowden. How they were seen in the mainstream press was examined by analyzing reviews and articles of the Broadway-connected plays, movies, the Harvest Moon Ball contest, other contests, and other performances.

Harlem dancers were reported on in a variety of ways in the mainstream press. As far as the reviews of the Broadway-connected plays are concerned, they mostly received mixed reviews. Bill Robinson, in particular, was recognized mostly positively when compared to other Harlem dancers. Where movie reviews are concerned, Bill Robinson and others got mixed reviews. The dancers were recognized mostly for their dancing, with the exception of Bill Robinson whose acting skills were occasionally praised in the movie reviews. Overall, the critics seemed to appreciate African-American, dance-related values like good rhythm which differed positively from white dancers’ rhythm, and they occasionally recognized the Harlem dancers as rehearsed dancers. In other words, they were not considered stereotypically to be natural dancers. The mainstream press coverage differed among dancers. Bill Robinson was reported on to a great extent in the mainstream press when compared to other Harlem dancers. In addition to the discussion of his private life, he was even quoted as a ‘political advocate’, and he was sometimes described even as a “superhuman” person, where his dancing was concerned. He broke racial barriers in that sense. Although Robinson was distinguished from racial stereotypes, even he could not be fully distinguished from a stereotype of African-Americans as people who merely dance.

Although the mainstream press reported on Harlem dancers positively and even sometimes stressed equality between races when publishing pictures of dancers, especially the Rockland Palace dance marathon in Harlem in 1928, the dancers were also occasionally dismissed. As far as the amount of pictures and articles, and sometimes dismissing tone of the articles are concerned, the mainstream press coverage of the Harvest Moon Ball underplayed Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers who participated successfully in the contest. A reason for that was possibly their success in the contest: They won the Lindy Hop/Jitterbug Jive division every year until 1942. The sponsor of the contest, Daily News, wanted to give other dancers an equal chance to win the Lindy Hop/Jitterbug Jive division in the Harvest Moon Ball. The Lindy Hop/Jitterbug Jive, which was the crucial dance in the Harvest Moon Ball because audiences acknowledged it as the number one dance in the contest, was recognized in a powerful way in the LIFE magazine article in 1943 where it was stated that the Lindy Hop was a national dance of the United States. Thus, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and George Snowden’s hard work to promote the Lindy Hop culminated in the article. George Snowden with his partner, Mattie Purnell, also created the Lindy Hop, one of the most successful dances in the 20th century, in the Rockland Palace dance marathon.

This thesis also explores how political movements like the Civil Rights Movement used jazz music and jazz dance in their events. In particular, the American Communist Party with its affiliates and the NAACP were notable for this activity. This happened mostly to gather people to events like the Scottsboro case fundraisers and raising funds for different purposes. They did not promote actively Harlem jazz dance as a remarkable cultural achievement. The leaders of the NAACP were also active in the Harlem Renaissance Movement which neglected the Harlem jazz dances because it considered them mostly as ‘lower art forms’. As far as the Communists are concerned, they mainly preferred modern dance to the jazz dance.

The study also examined how the Harlem riots in 1935 and in 1943 were connected to Harlem entertainment. It seems that the riots did not directly decrease the number of Harlem places of entertainment which mostly stayed intact after the riots. In addition, it explores how rising midtown, Manhattan entertainment venues competed with Harlem entertainment. It is possible that the rise in midtown and other Manhattan entertainment led to the decreased number of white people visiting Harlem places of entertainment, starting at the end of the 1930s. Thus, Harlem entertainment was challenged by this external entertainment.

African-American jazz dance was also compared to other entertainment forms like American football and basketball. African-American jazz dance was fully integrated before these other remarkable entertainment forms. It is presumable that Harlem jazz dance played a significant part in the racial integration process in the United States. Recognition of Harlem-based jazz dance diversified the image of African-American dancers as multifaceted dancers.
Helsingfors Universitet