History of Big Apple

Origins of Big Apple

big apple juke jointIn spite of its name, Big Apple did not originate in New York. It appeared in Colombia, South Carolina in the early 30’s. In that time of racial segregation, it was unfortunately confined to the African-American community. Nevertheless, as many dances of the time, it was taken up by white people and gained momentum and a wider dissemination.
Betty Wood, a white Big Apple dancer of the time said:”- it all began in a deserted synagogue that had become a Juke Joint. In 1930, at the age of 16 and as she was going out with some friends, she heard music coming out of the Juke joint. Curious, they came closer and were allowed in provided that they would go to a white only mezzanine. There were only black people on the dance floor. Forced to remain passive bystanders, they admired the Black people dancing these new Jazz steps, mixed to others they already knew, inspired by other fashionable dances: Charleston, Black Bottom or even Collegiate shag.
They came out with the idea to invent a dance made up of solo Jazz steps, but danced in circle and called a Leader. This dance was instantly successful among the white community and dancers came from around the country to South Carolina to see this Big Apple they had heard of.
After a while, building on this success, a new variation was created, called “Little Apple”. The latter involved fewer dancers in the circle. The male dancers would grab the hand of a partner, go to the centre of the circle and dance for a while in similar styles (Shag or other dances of the time).

big apple danseDissemination of Big Apple in the United States

In 1937, the Roxy Theatres chain ordered a Road Show based on the Big Apple. They auditioned dancers in Colombia and 16 local youngsters were chosen (among which Betty Wood). The show was very successful for two years in the Roxy theatres. When the show was on in New York, Herbert White (Whithey), the manager and creator of the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, saw it. He described it to his lead dancer Frankie Manning, asking him to create a similar show for his troupe.
Frankie had not seen the Big Apple yet, but he remembered the summers he had spent in the family farm near Aiken, South Carolina. This took place in the 20’s and he often remembered the African-American farm workers who were doing what he called the “ring shout”. They were dancing in circles, clapping their hands, pressing some of them to get to the centre and improvise.
Most of the steps Whitey was describing to Frankie were already part of Lindy Hop. Frankie Manning combined them in a circular concept.  This choreography became popular thanks to the film “Keep Punching” and became known as Big Apple.

Big Apple, a cultural phenomenon

danse le big appleBig Apple was without any doubt one of the most popular dances in the United States. This fame was also due to Arthur Murray’s dance studios.  Actually, according to their Website, “Big Apple made Mr. Murray’s dance studios the world’s biggest dance studio chain”.
Arthur Murray was a very energetic white dance teacher who owned two dance studios in New York. He discovered Big Apple during a show at the Roxy Theatre and began to organise Big Apple classes in his studios. The classes had become so popular that he quickly had the opportunity to open franchised studios in numerous cities across the United States.
As from the spring of 1938, Big Apple became very fashionable. Life Magazine had already published an article on “How to dance the Big Apple?” This dance became so popular that some nightclubs displayed at their entrance: “Sorry, no Big Apple. Not enough room”. There were dresses, bags and all kinds of Big Apple accessories to be displayed in parties. Even President Franklin Roosevelt’s son celebrated his engagement dancing the Big Apple at the White House.
Big Apple from The Spirit Moves    Big Apple at Hawkeye Swing Festival

Big Apple from The Spirit Moves Big Apple at Hawkeye Swing Festival

Big Apple Fall

As usual, fashion quickly comes and goes.  This is what happened to Big Apple. The young lost their interest for this dance that became popular among the elder ones and high society.  It was no longer credible for the youngsters who adopted new ideas.  Even the souvenir of Big Apple quickly faded away.

Big Apple Renewal

keep punchin big apple

Fortunately, in the 50’s, Mura Dehn included Big Apple in her report on Afro-American vernacular   dances. The Big Apple figure is present in the “Spirit Moves” chapter. Her remarkable archive work consisted in “Authentic Jazz” demos, studio dance by artists from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The film shows many original dancers from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and is a reference for some historians doing research on dance roots.
One of these historians is Lance Benishek, who, in 1992, managed to find Betty Wood and took her out of retirement.  He learned numerous original dance steps with her and they began to teach the original 8-time Collegiate Shag and the Big Apple. Lance took Betty to Sweden, England and everywhere in the United States to teach.

Big Apple Today

Today, Big Apple is very popular among Lindy Hop dancers. It is now part and parcel of most of Swing Dance events. Numerous Lindy Hop instructors teach the Big Apple to their dancers, and it is quite common to see a Big Apple during a Swing Party.

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