Hellzapoppin’ is the name of a 1941 film adaptation of an Oleson and Johnson Broadway musical of the same name. Among Lindy Hoppers, however, the term Hellzapoppin’ has a special meaning, referring to one of the final scenes of the film in which Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers perform a fast, furious and amazingly acrobatic ensemble dance routine. The dancing in this clip is often considered a pinnacle achievement in Lindy Hop dancing, and is one the greatest vintage swing dance clips captured on film.

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One of my favorite elements of the routine is actually the storyboard behind it, in which a group of workmen discover a set of musical instruments backstage and start up an impromptu musical jam session.  When the one of the worker/musicians starts to go wild on the bongo drums, the Lindy Hoppers – also dressed as day laborers – erupt on the scene and dance up a storm…only to flee when they are “discovered” by their employers.

The musician/workers at the start of the clip are actually Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart – who led a small combo novelty music act in the 1930s-40s – accompanied by other musicians including Rex Stewart and C.C. Johnson. The music you hear during the dancing is actually performed by the Universal Studios band. On top of that, this music was actually dubbed in after the fact. The original routine was choreographed and danced to Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside”; the dub was made due to copyright concerns.

Frankie Manning, who directed Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in Hollywood, takes credit for the choreography. Of special note is his use of ensemble/in-unison dancing at the end of the routine, which was an innovation at the time, especially  when contrasted with other contemporary performances such as those by “Shorty” George Snowden’s Paradise Club dancers who primarily performed as soloing couples. The seeds of what became the Hellzapoppin’ routine can be seen in other clips of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers:

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The dancers include:

  • William Downes (uniform) and Frances “Mickey” Jones (maid).
  • Norma Miller and Billy Ricker (chef’s hat).
  • Al Minns (white coat, black pants) and Willa Mae Ricker.
  • Ann Johnson (maid) andFrankie Manning(overalls).
  • When asked whether the routine was filmed in a single take (no, it wasn’t) Frankie often told a funny story about rehearsing his part of the routine with his partner Ann Johnson. Their particular shine/solo involves a bit of domestic wrangling, including a part in which Ann Johnson kicks Frankie in the behind and sends him flying. Frankie reported that he had to coax Ann into actually kicking him to make the scene look  realistic – she didn’t want to hurt him at first.  When she finally put some oomph into her kick for the actual performance, Frankie joked that he shouted at her “What are you doing! Not that hard!” Needless to say, Frankie must have been quite sore after multiple takes.

    The Hellzapoppin’ dance clip has provided plenty of source material and inspiration for modern day Lindy Hoppers, and it’s not uncommon to see movements and elements of the routine popping up in modern Lindy performances, for example:

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    We’re certain that this tidy little bit of dancing will keep inspiring swing dancers for generations to come.

    Classic Film Clips: Hellzapoppin’