Welcome back to the final part of our 3 Part series on Jazz Dances that Every Lindy Hopper Should Know. Next up:

4. The Big Apple (difficulty: hard)

Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers performing their Big Apple Routine in the film 1939 Keep Punchin’:

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In the context of swing dancing, the Big Apple most often refers to:

  • an improvised, free-form, social group dance performed in a circle formation that originated among African American dancers in South Carolina during the 1930s
  • a specific, routine version of this dance choreographed by Frankie Manning and performed by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers which has become increasingly common dance vocabulary among modern Lindy Hop dancers
It’s not unusual to witness modern Lindy Hoppers who have studied the latter routine to bust out an impromptu performance of Frankie’s Big Apple on the social dance floor at competitions, workshops and special events where many experienced dancers have gathered.
As a dance teacher, I usually try to distinguish between the two related dances by calling the choreographed version “the Big Apple Routine”, or “Frankie’s Big Apple (routine)” and referring to the free-from version as “the original Big Apple”, “social Big Apple” or simply, “the Big Apple.”

Original/Social Big Apple

At its heart, the social Big Apple is no different than the group circle dance that all of us have performed at a wedding party or while freestyle dancing at a dance club at one time or another. Dancers arrange themselves in a circle, all looking inward, and when someone performs an interesting step, everyone in the circle copies that step. My long-time teaching partner Audrey Kanemoto, often describes the basic format of this dance as “monkey-see, monkey do.”
In 1936, three white students from the University of South Carolina discovered just this sort of dance being performed among African American youth at the Big Apple Night Club in Columbia, South Carolina. The three students arranged special permission to enter the normally blacks-only club and observe the dancers from the balcony, from where they would toss nickels to the dance floor to keep the nickelodeon going for the dancers. According to some accounts of this version of the Big Apple, a designated caller would yell out the name of jazz steps for all the dancers to perform in unison, similar to square dancing. Thus the dance had both structured and improvised aspects.
During the summer of 1937, the three University students started dancing the Big Apple at the Pavillion in Myrtle Beach, where it caught on among local dancers. News of the dance craze began spreading, and soon New York talent agent Gae Foster was traveling to the Carolinas to recruit dancers to perform the Big Apple at the Roxy Theater, the world’s second largest theater at the time. Arthur Murray, after seeing the Big Apple at the Roxy Theater began incorporating the dance into his syllabus, further launching the dance into the public spotlight.

The Big Apple Routine

As the story goes, legendary swing dancer Frankie Manning was in Hollywood, California along with his dance group Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers during the fall of 1937, when he received a telephone call from his manager in New York, Herbert White, a.k.a. “Whitey.” Whitey had just seen the Big Apple dance performance at the Roxy Theater and excitedly described the movements of the dance to Frankie. Because the Big Apple incorporated many jazz steps that Frankie and the Lindy Hoppers already knew, Frankie was able to piece together his own version of the Big Apple and teach it to his troupe.
Frankie’s Big Apple routine was originally slated to appear in the Judy Garland film Everybody Sings, but it was cut due to a disagreement over working conditions between the film director and Whitey. Frankie later taught the routine to dancers at the Savoy Ballroom once he returned to New York, and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were eventually captured performing the routine on film in the 1939 film Keep Punchin’.

Learning and Spreading the Big Apple

Ready to learn Frankie’s Big Apple choreography?
Look no further than YouTube where international swing dance instructors Patrick and Natasha have posted a free, step-by-step video breakdown of the routine:
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Whew! That’s a challenging routine!
If you don’t mind spending a little cash, dancers Hanna and Mattias Lundmark – who, as members of the renowned dance group Rhythm Hotshots studied the dance directly from Frankie Manning – give an excellent treatment of the Big Apple Routine in DVD form.
Want to perform the routine to the original song from Keep Punchin’? Swing dancer/bandleader Solomon Douglas recorded an exact version of the song with his modern swing orchestra, available for individual track download or as part of his dance music CD Swingmatism.
But you don’t have to learn the whole exact routine to enjoy the fun! The original free-form Big Apple is little more than a group of friends dancing together in a circle and trading steps. Next time you’re standing on the sidelines at a dance, grab some friends and bust out your own Big Apple dance!
4 Jazz Routines Every Lindy Hopper Should Know (Part 3 of 3)