It’s hard for Sonny Allen not to be noticed in the ballroom of the Renaissance Arlington Capital View Hotel. It’s not because he’s worked with Duke Ellington and on the extravagant ballroom dance scenes in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” It’s not even because he is one of the first inductees into the International Lindy Hop Hall of Fame. Allen, 75, stands out not for his black suit in a room full of vibrant colors, but for his black skin.
Allen was one of the few African Americans present at the International Lindy Hop Championships over the weekend. The Lindy Hop is a swing dance popularized and originated by blacks in Harlem during the 1920s.
“In order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you came from,” Allen said. “This is a fabulous event, but these are the most blacks that I’ve seen at a swing since I’ve been to it.” Of the hundreds of dancers who competed for the audience, only a handful were black.
“We have to impress on our young people how important this is,” Allen said. “This is our history. Don’t let other people define it.”
This was the fifth year of the competition, which brings thousands of Lindy Hoppers to the Washington area to compete for cash prizes. The competition includes dancers from 12 countries. Of the eight dancers inducted into the International Lindy Hop Hall of Fame over the weekend, seven of them are African American, including Allen, Barbara Billups and the late Frankie Manning, the most revered man in Lindy Hop.
“What we are trying to do is get more of us involved,” Billups said. “When Sugar [Sullivan, a fellow Hall of Fame inductee] first told me about helping her, I said, ‘If we don’t get any more African Americans then I can’t do it.’ ”
Allen and Billups’s work seems to be resonating, as young African Americans flipped and spun around the hotel, imitating the dances they saw. Billups makes sure to tell them: “Don’t stop dancing. Whenever we host classes, we tell them bring your friends in, too. Everybody can dance.”
Joanna Briskin of Arlington County volunteered as one of the event organizers at the championships. She reminisces about dancing with Manning and describes how he would throw down his cane to dance.
“I remember he had his hip replaced, so he had to walk with a cane,” she said. “But when the band started playing his favorite song [“Shining Stockings” by George Gee], he would toss his cane aside and say, ‘Hey Joanna, let’s dance. Leave that cane where it is.’ ”
The history of Lindy Hop has not been lost on everyone, like Bob Iuliano, 67, of Providence, R.I. Iuliano was impressed with what he saw at the championships, saying: “Just about every flip and spin I’d seen, Frankie Manning did. And that was in the ’30s.”
Iuliano has been swing dancing since he was 10 and says the effort to revive Lindy Hop was led by Swedish swing dancers who learned that the roots of Lindy Hop could be found in Harlem.
“They had no idea it originated out of Harlem until they did their research,” Iuliano said. “When the Swedish wanted to revive it, they [went to Harlem] looking for people from the ’40s and ’50s. They found some old Lindy Hoppers.”
Allen wants to see more African Americans learn how to swing dance, and to treat it much more seriously. “You have some who say they want to swing, but they learn five steps and stop,” Allen says. “These other guys, they practice eight hours a day, every day. How are you going to compete with that?”
Briskin recalls Manning telling her the qualities that held the key to restoring Lindy Hop among African Americans: “passion and rhythm.” Briskin said Manning told her how to improve her dancing. Everybody can dance, he said, but just like everything else, it takes passion to be great at something. Allen agrees with Manning’s words. “If just a few of us understand that, then I feel good.”