As we all have too much time to practice our solo dancing these days, what better time to write a few lines about the three most common jazz routines in lindy land. The Shim sham, Tranky Doo and Big Apple. I am by no means an historian though so please let me know if I write something historically inaccurate.
Originally, the Shim Sham was a tap routine from the 1920s by Leonard Reed and Willy Bryant, comprised of four basic moves we still know today. The shim sham, pushes with cross over, tackie Annie and half breaks.
At the Savoy, we sometimes did the shim sham as a group line dance, without taps, but it was different from what swingdancers do nowadays. Mr. Buchanan1 never announced it, we only did two choruses, and it wasn't associated with any particular music. We danced to whatever made us feel like doing it, which usually was something with thirty-two-bar choruses. A bunch of guys would just jump up and start doing the shim sham on the side of the ballroom, over in the corner. Although a few people might join in, most everybody else kept on dancing without paying any attention to us. It wans't an organized thing, and it was not a big deal at the Savoy. p. 70 - Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop
It wasn't until the revival of Lindy Hop in the mid 1980s that the version currently danced worldwide was choreographed. While teaching lindy at the NYSDS - New York Swing Dance Society - Frankie created his version with freezes instead of breaks in the second chorus and a third chorus with boogies and shorty georges was added.
Later swingouts were added at the very end and playing around with shouting things like freeze, dance, itches.
Note that even though today the Shim Sham is mostly danced to 't Ain't what you do, there is an actual Shim Sham song, with all the supposed breaks in the right spot.
1 Charles Buchanan. Manager of the Savoy ballroom
Using different jazz routines was a way of varying our act a little bit for the patrons who sometimes stayed on from the first to the second show. We had another number called Bibeau (the nickname of the guy who created it for us), and one that I choreographed and named in tribute to the chorus girl who inspired it. I knew Tranky Doo (her nickname) from the Club DeLisa in Chicago, and she could really get down. Oftentimes, in show business, as the chorus girls were exiting the state, one of the best dancers would be featured at the end of the line doing a couple of special steps before going into the wings. Tranky Doo held that spot. I used her exit steps, fall-off-the-log, shuffle, and bogeys, for the beginning of a moderate-tempo, two-chorus routine, made up of a bunch of other jazz steps that I put in a certain order. We sometimes did the Tranky Doo for an encore. p. 209 - Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop
It was danced and later taught by Frankie Manning using Tuxedo Junction for music. The Rythm Hot Shots - now Harlem Hot Shots - added a few steps and dance the routine to faster music as done in this video.
In 1987 The Spirit Moves came out. A documentary on the history of black social dancing. They dubbed over the Tranky Doo using the Dipsy Doodle as the original footage had no sound, even though the structure of the song does not fit that of the routine. As a result, today, the Tranky Doo is danced almost exclusively to the Dipsy Doodle.
The Big Apple was a dance craze in New York in 1937. Dancers in a circle would perform the steps shouted by a caller in the middle. The craze didn't last very long, but the routine inspired by it is still danced at lindy events all over the world.
After filming Day at the Races, Whitey1 got a contract for the movie Everybody Sing (1938). A crew of Lindy Hoppers, including Frankie Manning drove out to the West Coast for filming.
Shortly after we arrived in California, I received a letter from Whitey telling me about a new dance craze in New York called the big apple. As I've mentioned, he liked mixing the newest trends in with the Lindy so it would be more popular. I had never heard of the big apple, but he explained that it had various jazz steps like truckin', Suzie-Q, and boogies. It was done in a circle with a caller in the middle who called out the steps and was supposed to represent the core. That's all Whitey told me in his letter. He didn't say where or when to do each step, or anything about the music, which was swing, of course.
And so the routine Frankie created for the movie got based on the big apple description in the letter.
I was the caller in Everybody Sing because it was the first time we had done the big apple, and Whitey's letter described it that way. Afterwards, I realized that we didn't really need a caller anymore because the order of the steps was choreographed and the dancers followed that. p. 143, 151 - Frankie Manning, Ambassador of Lindy Hop
Following Everybody Sing, a lot of slightly different versions were made. The big apple version we know and dance today, is the one featured in the 1939 movie Keep Punching.
The Harlem Hot Shots dancing the Big Apple to The Jeep is Jumpin'
1 Herbert White. Manager of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers