Part of Radeena Stuckey’s job as a lead instructor with local swing dance group Gottaswing Charlotte includes showing YouTube clips of old movies depicting famous originators of the art in their prime. The scenes are beautiful, but there’s a certain cringe element that can’t be ignored.
“The most famous [swing dance movie], it’s called Hellzapoppin’ and recently it’s been colorized, but it has pretty much every last [one of the] most important Lindy hop figures dancing in this amazing scene, but all of their roles are servants,” Stuckey says of the way the black dancers are dressed. “So it’s like a double-edged sword; it’s beautiful but then, man, why do they have to only have this type of role?”
The Lindy hop, jitterbug and other famous swing dances have a deep racial history that’s continuously co-opted to this day. Like many other art forms created by African-Americans throughout the Jim Crow era, swing dancing was sold to a white population that did not want to recognize their black neighbors as originators of the craft. Even in its later return to mainstream popularity, however, the art has been in many ways co-opted by white people again, as they make up the majority of participants at most events.
We spoke with Stuckey, who has traveled the country dancing and competing with her practice partner Lawrence Quinette, about why it’s important to her that the inclusivity of the swing dancing crowd works both ways, and how history plays a role in every move she makes on the dance floor.
Queen City Nerve: How did your journey in dance begin?
Radeena Stuckey: I got started at a young age. My mom tried her hardest to allow me to go to ballet classes, jazz classes, modern dance, but it became unaffordable so I kind of stopped it at a certain point and picked it back up when I went to college. I was much more interested in Latin dancing, African dancing, so I spent a few years learning about those techniques, practicing and performing and things like that. It wasn’t until I uncovered my love of early jazz that I realized — through the movie Malcolm X, there’s a really big Lindy hop dance scene in that movie — that I just kind of realized, “Oh, my love of early jazz, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, is connected to this dance that looks really cool, so why don’t I learn a little bit more about that?”
How did you get involved with Gottaswing Charlotte?
When I came back to Charlotte from going to school in Greensboro, that’s when I realized that there was a venue that gave lessons. So it started with a routine that they were teaching in the series, and from that routine I was able to gain a practice partner [Lawrence Quinnett] that I’ve had for a number of years now, and with that practice partner, we continued to travel to different locations around the U.S. to take classes under world-class instructors and to dance with people from all over the world.
How do you approach your classes now as an instructor?
We try to make things as natural as possible. What we teach today is inspired by these dancers: Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, Leon James. What we do today is inspired by them, so if I’m teaching a move that is inspired by Frankie Manning, the videos that we have of him, I always say, “There was a dancer named Frankie Manning, you can see him in this clip where he did this.”
I’m always careful of not presenting what I teach as my own, or our own, it belongs to the originators, and I’m always trying to reference back to that, either through clips or through pamphlets that have been put out by certain media blogs; Yehoodi in particular is very pivotal in making sure that people have access to info about the cultural context. So we’re trying to make sure that we have that available to people.
We’re also teaching moves within the cultural context, making sure that we’re not claiming it. We do this dance the Shim Sham, which is a popular line dance. We make sure that we give reference to the person that created it: Frankie Manning. We make sure when we do the Big Apple, we are referencing the fact that it was created 70 miles from here in a place called the Big Apple, which is still standing. So giving cultural context so that it’s not just a YouTube video that people are seeing, but it actually has roots right here in North Carolina and South Carolina.
Where is the Big Apple?
Columbia, South Carolina. There was a building that was a Jewish synagogue that was converted to a nightclub that became the Big Apple, so there is a line dance that people do all around the world called the Big Apple that originated right there. It has the same dance floor that these dancers danced on, so it’s really nice to have that connection and know that there are ties right here in the Carolinas to what people are doing all around the world, and still making sure it’s alive and relevant today.
I’ve read in some places that swing started in Charleston. Is that true?
There were pivotal dances in slave quarters that dancers did that we still do today — dances like Camel Walk, slaves originated those dances that continue to travel around the southeast. So from those slave dances, we have what was called the Breakaway that did come from Charleston, and the dance The Charleston. Then we broke off and we added more momentum, and that became swing and Lindy hop.
So I think there is some truth to saying that it started in Charleston, with The Charleston, with that solo jazz step, but the roots definitely come [from slavery]. There are a lot of books that deal with the history of a lot of these dances. So we teach people The Camel Walk, we teach them The Eagle Slide, things like that, but these dances come from African animals, or African shapes, or African movements that were still carried on through slavery.
Black and white people dance together in some of those old movies. Were there real-life instances of swing dance being used as a uniting factor, or was it kept segregated?
From my knowledge, there were different communities around the country that did allow segregated ballrooms, but a lot of times, if you look into Billie Holiday in particular, she would tell stories about where she could perform on stage and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers — Frankie Manning, Leon James, Norma Miller, they performed under that name — they would perform with Billie Holiday but they weren’t allowed to go into the audience after performing to watch. So I think in some instances there was segregation, and in some instances people could dance together, but those were few and far between.
Sometimes when you look at clips from that time period, old movies, you do tend to only see the face that was appropriate, which was white Americans, even with band leaders. So a lot of times when you’re looking at clips, you only see the white face of Lindy hop, you only see the white face of early jazz, even though we’re uncovering and understanding more about how that wasn’t in fact the case.
What is it like for you to watch those movies and see the beauty of the dance being tainted by what’s happening in other scenes of the movie or how the black dancers are represented?
It is definitely a contrast in which the dancing is amazing and the connection in the moments and the flow that the dancers had to the music and one another, it’s amazing. You can’t recreate that these days; it was something magical back then. But the circumstances that these people were allowed to present this art form [in were] very oppressive.
And I think sometimes we do look at these YouTube videos, black-and-white videos, out of context, when you don’t really look at the full movie that this came from making people have a submissive role where they’re not ever people in leadership, they’re always serving, and you perpetuate that saying “This is so cool.” Yes, it’s cool, but let’s take a look at the context. Why are all these people in this film dressed as servants? Is this OK? What can we do to make people understand that this is beautiful, but it came out of something that we want our society to go against.
You’re now a lead instructor at Gottaswing Charlotte. How has your role grown in the time you’ve been there?
I’m going on five years there now. I didn’t take leadership until one year ago. I never thought that I would be a lead instructor, just because I feel like my dance is still developing and I don’t know all the things to a degree that I could give someone a really strong foundation, but I realized that if I don’t take this opportunity to share my understanding of Lindy hop and swing dancing, then sometimes people can get a version that’s not the real thing and they’re willing to just live with that.
I would like to continue the true originators’ idea of Lindy hop, so I’ve had to step up and step out in a lot of ways and it’s been good, but then it’s also been very reflective of my own practices and my own understanding and my own confidence, being a person of color in a dance that is predominantly danced by white Americans at this point. It’s been a learning experience.
Why do you think it is predominantly white on the swing dance floors today?
There’s this idea of a “swing revival” that says that certain members of the Lindy hop scene “found” Lindy hop [in the 1980s]. They called Frankie Manning and they said, “Come teach,” so there’s this resurgence. These people were not white Americans, they were from Sweden, and so there becomes this narrative of white ownership, this idea that they “found” Lindy hop and they’re continuing to spread it, but a lot of people are realizing that, no, with swing music, the music changed, it became rock ‘n’ roll or bebop, so when the music changes the dance changes, and it doesn’t mean people stopped dancing lindy hop, it doesn’t mean communities stopped, maybe it just wasn’t as popular as it once was.
So I don’t think there’s any validity in claiming that there was a Lindy hop revival, or revitalization. I don’t think it was ever dead, perhaps it just wasn’t as popular. So because of that ownership that, “We found Lindy hop and we are the ones that are teaching it because you guys left it alone,” that is terrible, but that’s a narrative that is out there that people are believing. Not to say that I believe it or anybody in the Charlotte community believes it, but that is a narrative that is being spread.
So I just want to make sure that that is not taken as the truth, that people do see the whole picture; just as music changes, dance changes. And I think that perspective allows some people to take ownership of Lindy hop and say, “It’s ours, we found it,” but there’s more people now that are willing to hear the other side of that narrative and say that, “Well, maybe it wasn’t as popular but let’s make sure that we’re including everyone to learn this dance,” because the originators, Frankie Manning, Norma Miller, they went around the world during times of segregation and Jim Crow — which was only in America, but there still were some outstanding racial dynamics going on — and they made it a point to go around the world and perform and share this. So we need to make sure that we’re inclusive of everyone, whether they’re poor, wealthy, whether they’re black, Indian, this dance is for everyone, so no one can take ownership because the originators have all passed away. This is something that we can continue to share and pass down.
You talked about how your love for early jazz came before your love for the dancing. Can you speak to how the two are so connected, specifically in this style of dance?
That’s part of the investment. You have to learn how to listen to the music and allow your body to express that. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s something that you have to acclimate your ears to hearing, to hearing the patterns that different songs take on.
It’s definitely acquired, it’s something you have to look deeper into, and there is a strong connection that you can see with dancers that are on certain levels. They always know the breaks that are coming, they always know those drum solos, they listen to different versions of songs, they hear the saxophonist and they say, “Oh, I love this song because of the saxophone solo,” or, “I like this version because of the drum solo,” so you have certain people that are of a caliber of their dancing that really seek that connection.
And then you’ve got people that just type in swing music and get [Benny Goodman’s] “Sing, Sing, Sing” which is probably the most heard swing song. It kind of uncovers your understanding and your level of awareness about how the dance is connected to the music.
What have you learned about yourself over the last year in your leadership role?
It’s taught me to make sure that I always keep my purpose for dancing at the forefront of everything I do. Some days are good, some days are bad; some people give great feedback, some people give no feedback, some people give really negative feedback.
I have to make sure that I’m always reflective of why I’m doing this. It’s not about me, it’s about the originators, carrying on what they started, because Lindy hop did form in African-American communities, and I feel there is a strong connection, with my dad being a musician and playing jazz music and my love of music. So that’s what drives me, is making sure that people love to dance, they learn to dance, and that they are inspired to teach this to others and teach that camaraderie that Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers lived through, because they had some adversity but they still wanted to dance, and even into their 80s and 90s they still went around the world and were teaching people of different races, different backgrounds how to dance, and that’s what’s most important.