Swing Story

ONE DAY TWO years ago, in the back room of a Stockholm wrestling club, a sixty-four-vear-old black American jazz dancer named Albert Minns showed a Swedish television crew a clip from the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin’, in which Minns had performed. In it he whips his partner twice around in a circle, picks her up, throws her over his back, and whirls around with one leg straight out while she crouches underneath. He begins a cartwheel; she grabs him while he is upside down and lifts him up and shakes him; then, with his legs still in midair, she drags him offstage. Minns explained that this sequence—only twenty-five seconds long, and employing no doubles or fancy camera tricks—is a typical example of a dance called the Lindy Hop, a savagely energetic improvisational dance that arose in Harlem in the 1920s. Sometimes referred to as America’s one true folk dance, the Lindy Hop is the most frenzied, exciting, and controversial social dance that the Lnited States has ever seen.

Minus’s arrival in Stockholm to give lessons in the Lindy Hop had been something of an event. His classes were reported in newspapers and over the radio. One was filmed for the television variety show Razzel, the most popular program in Sweden. It was then that Minns showed the clip from Hellzapoppin'. Even as he spoke, a group of dance students gathered in another room of the wrestling club for their daily practice session. Some, on wrestling mats, flipped their partners over their backs; others lifted weights or did tumbling exercises. How had a black American jazz dancer come to be teaching in a Swedish wrestling club? the television interviewer wanted to know. Minns drew a deep breath and slowly shook his head. “That,” he said, “is the mildest story.”

JAzz DANCE is an American concoction that developed after the turn of the century. Just as jazz music was the offspring of the musical miscegenation of West African rhythms and European harmonies, jazz dance was the blending of West African body movements and European steps. As in African dances, the body motion is largely improvisational and centered in the hips; as in European dances, recurring footwork binds the motions into a sequence. Harlem was a center for jazz dance in the 1920s, and in its nightclubs one could see a number of jazz steps with such suggestive names as the Black Bottom, the Fishtail, the Shimmy, and Snake Hips.

Soon, however, the greatest of them all evolved: the Lindy Hop. A couple would begin the dance with deceptive sobriety, embracing each other ballroom-style. Then, whenever he pleased, the man would suddenly fling his partner away and improvise. (These “solo hops” caused the dance to be named for Charles Lindbergh, who had flown across the Atlantic alone in May of 1927.) A dancer doing the Lindy could be wildly expressive yet still experience the delights of give-and-take with a partner. The Lindy also had an extended rhythm—its basic dance phrase consisted of eight counts rather than the usual four—with plenty’ of leeway to incorporate elaborate twirls, Hips, and all the other jazz steps, including the Charleston. The dancing became hotter still with the arrival of the swing style of bigband music, in the mid-thirties; the swing sound developed when bands substituted bass and guitar for tuba and banjo in their rhythm sections. (The term swing soon spread from the music to the dance. Today dance studios use swing, Lindy, and jitterbug synonymously, although dance connoisseurs make distinctions among them, considering swing dancing to be the whole genre and jitterbugging to refer to a bouncy, six-count variant of Lindving.) Swing’s faster, more pulsating beat drove Lindy Hoppers to still further frenzies, and to be on the dance floor during a swing number was to be in the middle of a thunderstorm of activity, the dancers crazy with life, their energy discharging into form after form. Malcolm X said in his Autobiography that it was the Lindy that first awakened in him his long-suppressed African instincts. Here he is dancing with his partner, Laura, at the Roseland State Ballroom, in Boston:

The spotlight was working mostly just us. I caught glimpses of the four or five other couples, the girls junglestrong, animal-like, bucking and charging. But little Laura inspired me to drive to new heights. Her hair was all over her face, it was running sweat, and I couldn’t believe her strength. The crowd was shouting and stomping. A new favorite was being discovered; there was a wall of noise around us. I felt her weakening, she was lindving like a fighter out on her feet, and we stumbled off to the sidelines.

The scene at Roseland was “small and shabby,” Malcolm X wrote, compared with what he later found at the Savoy, Harlem’s elegant citadel of Lindy dancing, on Lenox Avenue between 140th Street and 141st. The Savoy’s 200-footlong, hardwood dance floor had to he replaced every three years—it just wore out under the constant pounding. Two and sometimes three orchestras appeared nightly. Among the wildest dancers was the young Albert Minns.

For Minns, the Savoy was a second home. He would go after school, do his homework there, practice dance steps, go home for dinner, and return. One evening a little over a year ago Minns took me to where the Savoy used to stand. In its place was a huge housing project and a Woolworth’s, whose metal security gates were covered with graffiti. Music blared from a radio, and a crowd of teenagers stood on the corner, eyeing in silence the elderly, neatly dressed black man and his nervous white companion. But Minns was oblivious of all that; the only reality for him was the memory of what had been the one truly happy period in his life.

“It was a beautiful place,” he said. “Black people and white people and, oh! everyone dressed in suits and furs. You had to act like you had class. No loud talking and no cursing, or they’d throw you out. You kept your jacket on. and by the end of the evening your jacket would be black with sweat.”

The Savoy held a dance contest every Saturday night, and Minns won his first in 1937, at the age of seventeen. Winning earned him admission to the Cats’ Corner, the northeast section of the Savoy dance floor. There Minns and other members of the elect improvised new steps for the Lindy rhythm. Minns told me, “I haven’t seen nothin’ the break dancers do that we didn’t do in the Savoy in the 1930s—except maybe spin on our heads.”

In 1938 Minns achieved the pinnacle of celebrity by winning the Lindy contest at the Harvest Moon Ball, a dance competition sponsored by The Daily News. He went on to dance at the Cotton Club, which by this time had moved downtown from Harlem to the Times Square area. Minns was still an amateur dancer with no professional training whatsoever; nevertheless, he was asked to tour with bands and do bit parts in a series of stage shows, including Hellzapoppin’ (1938, three years before the movie version), Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), and a jazzed-up Gilbert and Sullivan production, Hot Mikado (1939).

EVERY so OFTEN a popular dance form will prompt the sentinels of high culture to proclaim the downward slide of civilization, the decay of social ties, and a return to primitivism. Some Austrians at the end of the eighteenth century, for instance, saw in the waltz a primary cause of the younger generation’s spiritual weakness. A century later the tango, the steamy, erotic invention of the barrooms and brothels of Buenos Aires, was banished from polite society for a time even in Brazil. Both of these dances originated in the lowest sectors of society and involved sensuous movements. Moreover, their popularity threatened to bring different social classes into intimate contact: an aristocratic girl might be literally swept off her feet by a longshoreman. Later, suitably cleaned up, both dances became symbols of elegance in the ballroom.

The Lindy was the dangerous dance in the America of the thirties, and it was all the more disturbing because it mixed races as well as classes. Blacks and whites mingled in dance halls and nightclubs called black-and-tan clubs, where the Lindy reigned.

According to an article by the Associated Press wire service, Dr. John J. Lalli, of the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy. deemed the Lindy a throwback to “the war and religious dances of primitive tribes.” An anxious reader of Hygeia, a magazine of the American Medical Association, wrote to inquire whether Lindy Hopping led to sexual perversion. Hygeia replied that the dance could “be compared to the waves of mass hysteria known as dancing manias which swept over Europe in the Middle Ages,” and that it was an “escape mechanism” from “harsh realities, such as unemployment, financial stringency, political confusion, and personal bew ilderment.”

Particularly threatened were professional dance teachers, who had charged themselves with responsibility for bringing culture and elegance to social dancing. Naturally, this was directly challenged by the Lindy’s sometimes violent, sometimes erotic movements. Furthermore, because the Lindy was improvisational. it couldn’t really be taught. While the Lindy was spreading nationwide, various associations of dance teachers began to mount efforts to discredit it.

In 1939 the Dancing Masters of America recruited Irene Castle, the doyenne of American ballroom dancing, to deliver a broadside at their annual convention. “Jitterbug dancing is neither graceful nor beautiful,” she proclaimed. “One should float to the music.” Meanwhile, the Dancing Teachers Business Association warned that Lindy dancing was “a form of hysteria that will prove harmful to the poise of the present generation.”

But the call to float to the music and the warnings of the potential for poor posture fell on deaf ears. Celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Lana Turner began to visit the Savoy; Turner is said to have given the Savoy its nickname “The Home of Happy Feet.” In the fall of 1943 the New York Society of Teachers of Dancing, Inc., became one of the first associations of instructors to face reality and recognize the “Lindy-Jitterbug” as an official American dance. They would bring the dance “under professional control”—which meant, they explained, that they would teach it sans the wild steps that were an affront to nice dancing. No head jerks, no hip thrusts, no air steps, would destabilize their ballrooms.

Just when the Lindy had finally “passed”—made the transition to whitesociety—Harlem began to decline as an entertainment capital. A recording ban and a 20 percent entertainment tax imposed to support the war effort dealt a heavy blow to the dance halls and clubs that were Harlem’s major source of income. In 1943 New York City’s mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, closed the Savoy for a short period — to stop blacks from dancing with white women, said Harlem’s leaders. In August of that year the shooting of a black soldier by a white policeman sparked a riot, and with the subsequent police crackdown Harlem’s night life hit rock bottom.

Minns, meanwhile, served with a detached regiment in Europe, where he entertained black troops in a revue called the Harlem Express. “When I left Harlem,” he said, “it was jumping. When I came back, it was limping. The streets looked like they had been in the war. Many of my friends had moved out.”

Thereafter the Lindy persisted only in the lifeless form taught by the professionals. Recently I took a Lindy lesson at a Fred Astaire Dance Studio in New York City. “The Lindy is great for dancing to top-forty music!” the pert young instructress told me after showing me a sanitized and virtually unrecognizable step. “It’s perfect for Billie Jean!”

SPONTANEOUS and deeply individualistic, the Lindy is the ultimate American dance. For this reason it was slow to catch on abroad. The Continent somehow just didn’t suit swing, observed the veteran New York limes European correspondent Frederick B i re hall, in 1939: “Away from home it becomes pallid and anemic,” he wrote. Birch all lamented the absence of “real alligators, jitterbugs or hepcats truckin’ the kingkong, shagging or doing the jeepers in an Italian ballroom. They do like their dance tunes soppy and have no idea of anything ‘wacky.’ ”

The Germans, at least, took the Lindy seriously; the Nazis recognized a threat to civilization when they saw one. The Lindy was banned in many cities, and nightclub owners were instructed to expel swinging couples. Hitler’s Elite Guard, smarting from victories by American blacks over Aryan athletes at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, published photographs the following year of black Lindy Hoppers which purported to prove the impossibility of civilizing blacks and the concomitant fraudulcnce of American ambitions to achieve racial equality. The Guard’s official newspaper, the Black Corps, commented, “On the one hand, equality of all men; on the other, the Lindy Hop—a mixture of cannibalistic abdominal contortions and obscenity. Such a reckoning simply does not balance.”

Amazingly, the Lindy met with the greatest enthusiasm—as well as with a proportional amount of outrage—in Sweden. Who would have thought that this ethnically homogeneous country, which had only recently gone from agrarianism to industrialization, and whose rigidly hierarchical society and culture were dominated by the Germans, would prove to be fertile terrain for jazz? Nevertheless, as early as the 1920s Sweden had jazz nightclubs and jazz radio programs. By the 1930s it had a full-fledged jazz culture, including one of the world’s first jazz magazines {(Jrkester Journalen, founded in 1933), topflight musicians, and its own jazz slang: a snilla was a woman, a snork was a trumpet, and a negerben (“Negro’s leg”) was a clarinet. American bands made Stockholm a regular stop on European tours. Louis Armstrong visited in 1933 and Jimmie Lunceford in 1937. When Duke Ellington celebrated his fortieth birthday there, in 1939, the occasion was virtually a city-wide holiday.

Swedes likened the Lindy to their own Hambo, an improvisational, fastpaced folk dance; the Lindy quickly became known as the American Hambo. Stockholm’s swing citadel was the National Palatset, or “Nalen,” on Regeringsgatan, near the center of town. Nalen had a large dance floor and two orchestras each night; its walls were decorated with portraits of black American jazz greats, bare-breasted African women, and fanciful Harlem street scenes—Harlem as Oz, a magical place with clean streets where life was a party twenty-four hours a day. In a smaller, adjacent room, named Harlem, jazz musicians performed for listening only; on a typical night the audience might include Greta Garbo and the young Olof Palme, later to become prime minister. With dance competitions every Saturday night, Nalen was Stockholm’s Savoy— and in it the Lindy was king.

Swedish church and government authorities and community leaders attacked jazz savagely. Magazine articles demanded the deportation of jazz musicians. A priest in Växjö reviled jazz dancing as “negroid mating rites”; another, in Sigtuna, described it as “a refined means of masturbation.” In Stockholm the pastor of the Katarina church called Nalen a “den of iniquity” and the activity there “Satanic fool’s play.” One preacher actually entered Nalen and, between sets, delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon against dancing.

On September 28, 1941, when Nazi panzers had overrun Allied positions all over Europe and many clergymen in other lands were risking their lives for the Resistance, the Swedish Council of Churches launched an extensive investigation into the declining morals of Swedish youth. Part of this investigation concerned the Dansbane-eländet, or the “Dance-Hall Calamity.”

Questionnaires about the effects of dancing on youth were sent out to every parish priest, every doctor employed by the state, 1,700 teachers, and numerous social workers. According to the preliminary returns, these community leaders felt that the new dances led to uncivil behavior, immorality, drunkenness, free love, venereal disease, and abortions. The respondents did not view dancing as a morally neutral activity that happened to have undesirable side effects; they considered dancing itself to be a poison.

On a recent visit to Stockholm I asked Jonas Frykman, a sociologist at the University of Lund who has studied the Dance-Hall Calamity, why the dance halls had provoked such a violent reaction. “Prior to the 1930s,” Frykman said, “there was no real youth culture in Sweden. Children of the rich attended German-style schools, shunned dance halls, and listened to Wagner. Priests, teachers, and doctors were the only ones who crossed class lines. Suddenly all that changed. In dance halls, for the first time, youths of all classes came into contact with each other, and with other cultures. Not surprisingly, their elders viewed these dance halls as a threat to the social order, and community leaders of the 1940s spoke of the Dance-Hall Calamity the way community leaders of the 1950s spoke of juvenile delinquency. In a sense, it was a classic bourgeois mentality—to view every kind of ecstasy, and bridging of social classes, as a threat. But in Sweden this was taken to incredible extremes. If you read the police blotters of the time, you find an astounding paranoia about dance. Nalen was raided repeatedly, and undercover police would enter jitterbug contests, then throw off their disguises and arrest people.”

Frykman paused a moment. “You know, Sweden is a most exotic country,” he said. “The more I study Swedish culture, the more exotic it seems.”

Eventually the uproar abated. The church council’s final report on the Dance-Hall Calamity, issued in 1945, concluded that young people should be encouraged to find better uses for their time—but also that there was no cause for alarm. That same year Sweden’s most famous newscaster, Gunnar Skoglund, visited Nalen and reassured parents that the American Hambo was healthful; with all the energy it takes to do the dance, he said, “it’s constitutionally impossible to think about sex.” (I have it on the authority of Albert Minns that this statement, however well-intentioned, is erroneous.)

By the end of the 1940s Sweden, too, had tamed the Lindy. Professional instructors were teaching a dull version that came to be called the ute-bugg, roughly translatable as “the jitterbug that you do when you go out someplace.” Nalen fell on hard times. It is now a church-run rehabilitation center for alcoholics—a different end from that of the Savoy, but no less desolate. When I visited the place, I was served coffee in the room once called Harlem. In the ballroom a soft carpet covered the floor, and the bare-breasted African women and Harlem street scenes had been painted over. One bandshell had been removed; the other was miked for a choir, and over it was suspended a huge white cross.

AFTER THE WAR Minns concluded that his dance career was over. There was no longer a market for performing or teaching his craft; swing was giving way to bebop, for listeners only. In 1947 an expatriate Russian modern dancer, Mura Dehn, sought out Minns, who was then working in a paint factory. Dehn, the widow of the American painter Adolf Dehn, loved the Lindy and had gone to the Savoy regularly after her arrival in this country, in 1930. She arranged for Minns and a few other black jazz dancers to give performances; the first one took place in a Manhattan art gallery. A few years later Marshall Stearns, a white authority on jazz music and dance, asked Minns to perform to illustrate his lectures; he also put Minns in the Newport Jazz Festival. These occasional appearances were well and good, but Minns missed the social dancing he had done at the Savoy in the thirties, and he was barely able to support lumself with menial jobs. Furthermore, he was embittered by the fact that younger blacks viewed his generation of black entertainers as Uncle Toms, content with bit parts while whites held the lead roles (Minns played a busboy in Hellzapoppin’, for example). Minns couldn’t interest the kids in his Queens neighborhood in the Lindy. “We don’t want to learn that old stuff,” they said. He began to drink heavily. When Stearns died, in 1966, Minns’s opportunities for concert appearances became still rarer. As a final setback, he was attacked by muggers outside his home and the beating left him legally blind.

In 1981 Minns attended a reunion of Savoy dancers thrown by Mama Lou Parks, an old Lindy Hopper. There Minns was spotted by Larry Schulz, a jazz enthusiast and a news writer for a television station in New York City. “I learned more about swing from watching Al that one night than I did from twenty years of listening to records,” Schulz recalls. Immediately Schulz began to arrange for Minns to audition for the movie The Cotton Club and the Broadway show My One and Only. But Minns failed when he had to act professionally for the first time in his life, at the age of sixtytwo. Like a child, he had to be coaxed to perform. He stumbled over his lines; out of vanity he refused to wear the thick glasses he had needed since the mugging. After the audition for My One and Only, Schulz took Minns out for coffee; Minns was trembling so much he couldn’t hold his cup. He was rejected for every part he tried out for.

Schulz finally persuaded Minns to teach at the dance studio run by his wife, Sandra Cameron, a three-time Lnited States Professional Ballroom Champion in International Style— which is where I met him. His classes were disorganized, and he usually reeked of whiskey. But he had infinite patience with us, and our wooden hips, and our altogether rudimentary sense of intricate jazz rhythms. He didn’t seem to care that all of his students were white. There were moments when a look suddenly came over his face and he forgot us completely, as he threw himself into the kind of dancing he loved, agile and limber as a teenager. For his students this was pure magic.

At Cameron’s studio Minns began to acquire students from outside New York City. One of these was Erin Stevens, the head of the Pasadena Ballroom Dance Association, of California. Stevens had grown tired of the country variant of the jitterbug called Westcoast Swing, popular in the West and the Midwest. Much more restrained than the Lindy, Westcoast Swing is sometimes called slot dancing, because the man stands in one place and passes the woman back and forth to either side as if she were in a slot. (The U.S. Open Swing Dance Championship, which is held in Anaheim every November, is for Westcoast Swing dancers, its name notwithstanding.) In movies like Hellzapoppin’, Stevens had seen what she calls traditional American-style swing, and she enrolled in Minus’s class to learn to dance like that. “I knew most of the steps from the films,” she says, “but Al taught me how to give them the right energy, how to dance my heart out.”

Minus’s efforts ro teach the old Lindy style were given a boost in February of 1984, when an old Harlem landmark, Small’s Paradise, began to hold Mondaynight dances to big-band music. Minns and his devoted coterie of white students became regulars. They were able to see other Linds Hoppers from the Savoy, such as Frank Manning, who had choreographed the Hellzapoppin’ dance sequence, and Norma Miller, one of Minns’s partners from the old days. When Minns met Cotton (Tub chorus girls and musicians with whom he had worked fifty years before, I sometimes saw him moved to tears.

IN 1977 LASSE KUHLER, a dance teacher and choreographer who could be described as the Bob Fosse of Sweden, started a class in the original Lindv. Kuhler had learned the dance at Nalen in the 1950s. His first crop of Lindy Hoppers quickly absorbed all he could teach them. Spurning the ute-bugg, which they snidely called the Swedish walk, they set our to recover more of the 1930s American Lindy style. With Scandinavian thoroughness they rented a dance hall, in which they played recordings of American big-band jazz, and they persuaded a local wrestling club to let them use a room for practice during offhours in exchange for Lindy exhibitions between wrestling bouts. They founded a two-week Lindv summer camp. They began to collect film clips of the Lindy and religiously watched every American musical-comedy film of the thirties that came to Stockholm, hoping for a Lindy scene. And they decided to form an amateur club, the Swedish Swing Society.

One night two of the club’s members, Anders Lind and Lennart Westerlund, went to see Hellzapoppin', which was playing at an old theater in Stockholm. It changed their lives. Anders told me, “When we came out of that movie, it was pouring rain, and all we could do was stand in front of the theater and shout at each other, ‘Did you see thatV ‘Did you see what he did then’:' We stood there for an hour, sheltered by the marquee, screaming at each other about that dance sequence.” Obviously, they concluded, they would have to find Albert Minns. In June of 1984 Lind, Westerlund, and another member of the club, Henning Sorensen, left for New York City.

It took the Swedes just three days to find Minns. On June 7 they went to a midtown nightclub to attend a memorial dance for Count Basie, who had died six weeks before. Among the dancers they noticed one in particular who looked familiar and whose motions were especially elegant. They stood and watched.

“I was dancing, minding my own business,” Minns said, “when I saw these three Vikings staring at me. I grabbed my partner and we danced over to the side. There they were again! I thought it must be the FBI or something.” The Swedes introduced themselves and then for several weeks proceeded to dog Minns’s steps. They tracked him to Cameron’s studio, where they interviewed him for hours. They met him at Small’s. Every time he turned around, there they were. When the Swedes left, they told Minns that they would see him again. In August he received a plane ticket in the mail; in September he went to Stockholm.

MONTHs BEFORE THE Swedish Swing Society sought Minns out, it had discovered that the Dance-Hall Calamity had never really ended. This fact began to dawn on the society when it attempted to register with the organization administering government funds for amateur dance groups, the Svenska Danssportfdrbundet (DSF). Although supposedly an amateur organization, the DSF is a stronghold of professional dance teachers—half of the present board members are professionals.

As the society quickly learned, the DSF was not interested in administering the Lindv. In late 1983 the society, together with several other Swedish amateur dance clubs that were interested in Swedish folk dance, ballet, dancing for the handicapped, and so forth, petitioned the DSF at its annual convention to administer any dance club that asked to be included. When they were rebuffed, they formed an unregistered rival organization, the Svenska Amator Dansforhundet (SAD). The SAD decided to try to elect some of its members to the hoard of the DSF at its next annual meeting. When the DSF found out, there followed a series of maneuvers worthy of fifteenth-century Venetian politics. Voting at the DSF meeting is by clubs, with each club having one vote no matter how many members it has. Suddenly, dozens of amateur ballroomdance clubs sprang up, each with a handful of members and “advised” by a professional dance teacher.

The showdown took place on September 23, 1984, at a high school auditorium in Stockholm. The president of the DSF, Hans Frennessen, expressed his “great pleasure” at the new interest in dancing reflected by all the new clubs. A stormy meeting ensued at which the DSF refused once again to administer the Lindy. Frennessen argued that there simply weren’t enough resources to administer all the dances people were interested in; “We can’t teach dancing football players!” he said. John Christopherson, a DSF member and an international skating judge, who was wearing his skating medals on his chest, told me during a recess in the meeting, “Many of us want to make ballroom dance an Olympic sport. But you can’t make an Olympic sport out of the Lindv Hopit’s so disorganized, it’s hardly a dance at all! Admitting it could seriously hurt our chances at the Olympics.”

The swing dancers and their allies got nowhere. After the meeting I asked Henning Sorensen what the defeat meant for the Swing Society. “I think everything now goes to hell,” he said. “But at least hell is a fitting place to Lindy.”

Four days after the DSF meeting Minns arrived in Stockholm. “I felt like a raisin in a bowl of milk,” he said later. But he was appreciated in Sweden as he never had been in the land of his birth.

Despite its tiny budget the Swedish Swing Society gave Minns money, housing, and tours of the country. In exchange he taught several hours a day, five days a week. He gave up drinking. His classes were touted on the radio and in newspapers, and they attracted hundreds of people—from the ages of six to eighty, from beginners to couples doing the most dangerous flips. (“They do Warm-ups before class!” Minns told me, incredulously.) He appeared on Razzel, accompanied by his students. Smiling and happy, oblivious of his sweating apprentices behind him, Minns danced as if the entire sixty-four years of his life had been nothing hut joy. For a few weeks it began to feel to Minns like the thirties again.

WHEN MINNS REI’I RNED to the Lnited States, in early November, he found that his students, including me, had formed the New York Sw ing Dance Society, then patterned on the Swedish example. Minns was delighted, and at the first anniversary party for the revival of big-hand dancing at Small’s, on February 11, 1985, he watched one of his students, Margaret Batiuchok, a founder of the fledgling group, win the Lindv contest. Before he left that night, he danced a slow, bluesy Lindv with another of his students. It was A1 Minns’s last dance. The next morning he awoke with a painful burning in his chest; later that day, at Queens General Hospital, he was diagnosed as having pneumonia and sent home with an antibiotic. Two weeks later, frail and trembling, he was back in the hospital. This time the legacy of years of heavy drinking was found in his esophagus—a large, inoperable tumor.

On April 25 Albert Minns died. A memorial service was held at a rundown chapel in Sugar Hill, once Harlem’s finest neighborhood. On the walls black and white angels frolicked together. A pale blue sky dotted with clouds was painted on the ceiling above Al’s coffin; he was in heaven. On each side of the dais was a stand of flowers, one from the Swedish Swing Society, the other from the New York Swing Dance Society. To make myself believe he w as really dead,

I touched his cheek. It was stony and cold. The spirit had left him. passed along to his students—in New York, California, Stockholm, and elsewhere— in the form of a little wildness they had learned to put into their dancing.