Act 3: Some Shim-Sham-Shenanigans

Is this really appropriate in their age?

Choreography by: Leonard Reed & Willie Bryant

Performed by: Emily Oleson, Matthew Olwell, Che Shabazz, Chelsea Freeman, Raha Behnam, Ashley Haymaker, David Yates, Connor Voss

Music performed by: The New Band

Music composition: “When I Get Low I Get High” by Ella Fitzgerald

Until recently, I didn’t know that anyone in particular choreographed the Shim Sham Shimmy, a famous dance widely considered the “Tap Anthem” and routinely done at Lindy Hop dances.  I thought it was kind of like the “Happy Birthday to You” song, which is so everywhere-around-you that it seems to be more a part of the environment than a thing someone did.  Surely it sprouted spontaneously out of the collective subconscious!  Nope.  Aaaand, “Happy Birthday” has a long and complicated history sodden with copyright confusion.  But back to the Shim Sham: my friend Caleb Teicher, whom I call “Caleb Tiger” since he’s such a fierce tap dancer, was the first to put me on the path to Leonard Reed (1907-2004), pictured below.

He was a fascinating man with a long and varied career, and there are many wonderful anecdotes about him, but my favorite, as told by my friend Rhiannon Giddons Laffan of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, goes thusly:

When Reed was a teenager in the ’20s, he mastered the Charleston and started entering competitions.  He entered a competition that was supposed to be open only to white dancers, but as he was multi-racial and quite light-skinned, he “passed” (nod to Faedra’s class) as white and not only entered but won the competition.  As he was handed the prize (money if I remember correctly), one of the African American ushers who knew him already blew his cover to the theatre manager, who demanded that Reed give the money back.  Instead Reed ran away, off the stage and down the aisle toward the front.  The theatre manager shouted “Stop that n*****!”  And Reed, continuing to run out the door and into the street, took up the call, yelling “Stop that n*****!” as well, and the crowd joined him in “the search.” Eventually, Reed slipped away to safety.

I don’t know if this is true, but it sure makes a good story . . . and I intend to find out eventually . . .

Side note:  my professor Faedra Carpenter turned me onto a cool website called Abolish the ” N” Word – check it out.

Also instrumental in the formation of this piece were our friends Gay and Andy of DanceStore.com, who helped us with our Lindy work and have hooked us up with shoes on several occasions. They are passionate dancers and excellent teachers!

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