‘The Jazz Dancers’ – Al Minns & Leon James
If you are a swing dancer who enjoys moving your backside to slammin’ Jazz tracks, then you should know the names Al Minns and Leon James. I’d even be so bold as to suggest that you might not be Lindy Hopping today if it weren’t, in part, for the effort of Minns and his legacy.
These two legends, self-described as “The Jazz Dancers,” first gained prominence as members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. They also appeared in several movies where the group was featured, including A Day At The Races (1937), Hellzapoppin (1941), Hot Chocolates (1941), Cootie Williams & His Orchestra soundie (1943), and Boy What a Girl (1947) – all of which are worthy of a viewing on YouTube. Minns and his partner, Sandra Pollard-Gibson, took first place at the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball in New York City. James and Willa Mae Ricker (also a member of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers) are featured in the legendary photo in the 1943 Life Magazine.
But when many dancers found careers beyond the stage and screen after World War II, Minns and James continued to dance, appearing on a Playboy-produced TV show that covered topics including Jazz dance and music. Again, worth going down a YouTube rabbithole, these television spots are great examples of and invaluable resources for vernacular jazz vocabulary. It was from these appearances that dance historian Marshal Stearns saw and subsequently interviewed Minns and James for the seminal book, Jazz Dance.
The “Al & Leon” Shim Sham
Minns and James are also featured in Mura Dehn’s The Spirit Moves documentary, filmed in the early 1950s, which chronicles African American/Vernacular social dances in New York City. It was in one of Dehn’s clips of social dancing at The Savoy Ballroom where Minns and James, along with several other dancers, demonstrated their version of the Shim Sham. Though the original tap dance was created by Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant, Minns’ and James’ version retained similar steps and structure while injecting some of their own moves and flair. Check it out here.
Leon James passed away in 1970, so, sadly, we don’t have very many reference points from his perspective beyond Stearns’ book, but Al Minns continued dancing and teaching into the 1980s. He found a home at Sandra Cameron Dance Center in NYC to share his knowledge and passion for dance, and it was the Swedish Swing Dance society that brought Minns to Sweden for masterclasses, which served as the precursor to what eventually became Herräng Dance Camp. (*according to legend, it was Minns who recommended that the Swedes bring Frankie Manning over to teach them what he knew).
But unlike Manning, Minns and James weren’t able to witness, participate in, and subsequently benefit from the renewed popularity of Lindy Hop and Vernacular Jazz. Their contributions to Lindy Hop, Jazz and Swing are integral to our current dance scene, and studying their movement and routines gives us a more well-rounded understanding of Jazz movement.
If you’d like to learn more, I’ll be teaching the Al and Leon Shim Sham on Saturday, April 24th from 1:00 – 2:30pm via Zoom. To register or get more information, go to https://syncopatedcity.com/workshops/
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