Lindy Hop has been around a long time and has a rich and interesting history. Here are a few pioneers of the dance that you should know about:
George “Shorty” Snowden
The world’s first Lindy Hopper–often credited with inventing the dance after he and his partner, Mattie Purnell, did a breakaway step in the dance marathon at Harlem’s Rockland Palace in 1928. After winning the dance marathon he became a very sought after dancer and started the first Lindy Hop performance group Shorty Snowden Dancers He is also said to have come up with the name “Lindy Hop” though this may be an urban legend.
Herbert “Whitey” White
“Whitey” was a bouncer at the Savoy Ballroom (his nickname comes from the white streak in his hair). He convinced the management at the Savoy to turn a corner of the ballroom into a performance area where the better dancers could show off their moves in jam circles for the entertainment of wealthier patrons. Eventually Whitey started putting together a performance troupe, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, that would go on to tour the world and appear in several Hollywood films including Hellzapoppin’ and A Day at the Races
Al Minns & Leon James
Leon James won the first Harvest Moon Ball in 1935 (with Edith Matthews). Al Minns was also one of the more talented dancers at the Savoy. Both became members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. They also went on to play an important role in keeping lindy hop alive and sharing it with later generations. In later years Al and Leon often performed together both solo routines (including their own version of the Shim Sham) and partnering with each other. Both dancers contributed to The Spirit Moves, a series of video clips filmed in the 1950s that were the primary resource for many revival era dancers interested in learning lindy hop and vernacular jazz before youtube.
Willa Mae Ricker
I really wanted to include as many women as possible in this list. Unfortunately, because of the time period, it’s really difficult to find much information at all about the influential ladies of Lindy Hop (beyond just names). Willa Mae is one of the few ladies that I could find anything about at all. She was one of the original members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and appears in A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’. In the 1940s she went on to manage the Congaroos (considered Whitey’s greatest dance troupe). You may recognise Willa Mae from the 1943 LIFE spread about Lindy Hop. She also appears in The Spirit Moves.
Probably the most famous Lindy Hopper of all time and for good reason. Frankie was one of the more accomplished dancers at the Savoy Ballroom tapped for Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. He was a leader in the group and their primary choreographer. He also famously introduced aerials into the dance during a competition in 1935. Like Al and Leon, Frankie also played a huge role in bringing Lindy Hop back into popularity in the 80s and 90s. In his later years he was an extremely popular teacher and toured the world teaching at countless events. A lot of what we know about the origins of Lindy Hop come from Frankie’s stories and his autobiography, Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop
At only 14 years old Norma became the youngest member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers after winning a high school dance competition. She toured with the company and appears in A Day at the Races and Hellzapoppin’ (she’s the one in the chef’s hat). Norma went on to start her own dance company in the early 50s and had a successful performance career through the decades including touring with Count Basie and Cab Calloway. She also helped bring Lindy Hop back, teaching at Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden until 2018 (when she was 98). The Trickeration routine is part of Norma’s legacy.
For More Information about early Lindy Hoppers we recommend the Frankie Manning Foundation Archive of Early Lindy Hop and also Bobby White’s amazing blog Swungover