Five Beats per Second

by wjw on February 5, 2017

An excerpt from the surreal Helzapoppin‘, starring the comedy duo Olsen and Johnson. (Not to mention Slim & Slam, Shemp Howard, and Elisha Cook, Jr., as “the writer.”)  A film which, with its dreamlike action and constant breaking of the fourth wall, would nowadays would be considered metafictional, except the word didn’t exist back in 1941.

Dancing here are Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, who also performed as the Congaroos.  These were the dancers who dominated the Cat’s Corner, reserved for the best dancers, at the legendary Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.  The group held annual auditions and toured from around 1935 until World War II, when most of the male dancers were drafted.

Generally the bands at the Savoy played at a more sedate pace to accommodate the pace of the less skilled dancer, and only rocked it up on recordings, but these cats could actually dance as fast as the bands could play.

Those fast-paced recordings, by the way, puzzled dancers on the West Coast who didn’t have access to the Savoy or other New York ballrooms.  They couldn’t figure out how anyone could possibly dance that fast, and their response was to invent the Balboa, where the dancers could move really fast as long as the couples stayed very close together.

But here in the video the dancers are not only all over the floor, but are hurling each other into outer space.  Someone has kindly annotated the action with the names of the dancers, at least one of whom is still swinging.

Five beats per second.  Check it out.

Geoff February 6, 2017 at 10:24 pm

That is amazing. Thanks so much for posting this.

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