Set the Country to Stamping

By  |  November 19, 2019
“Peptalk on PCH” (2017), by Alex Gardner; acrylic on linen. Courtesy of the Collection of Rodica Seward. © the artist “Peptalk on PCH” (2017), by Alex Gardner; acrylic on linen. Courtesy of the Collection of Rodica Seward. © the artist

 

Though we’d never seen the Big Apple, we’ve heard of it. We heard that at times the floors of the old Carolina gymnasium shook to its treading and trucking at the June ball last month. We heard, too, of its origin in a Negro dance hall in Columbia, but somehow did not feel that it touched our life particularly. We just put it down as one of those fads in violent dancing which come periodically, set the country to stamping and fade out.

—“Pawley’s Always On Its Feet!”
The State, July 1, 1937

 

The hot, sticky air makes it difficult for the dancers to breathe—but they keep going. Sweat glistening on their skin—rich mahogany brown to light peach—doesn’t slow the movement; it will continue at its breakneck, limb-flailing pace until the club closes or until the dancers give in to exhaustion. Whichever one comes first is anyone’s guess, but it’s usually the latter. Until that time, the Big Apple dance is its own power source, feeding off the energy of the crowd. Men and women—sometimes pairing off, sometimes dancing alone—cluster in the center of the club, lightly prancing just off their heels. In unison, the dancers then form a circle, shifting to the side counterclockwise from time to time, giving each other just enough space to continue moving their feet and legs. At times, they wind their bodies in place, moving unpredictably like twisting leaves in the wind. Whether they know it or not, for a moment or two, the dancers are linked back to their ancestors in coastal South Carolina in the previous century and, further back, in West Africa, also dancing—for tradition, for religious beliefs, for sheer joy. 

Tonight, however, the patrons of the Big Apple Club in Columbia just want a good time, a brief escape from Jim Crow segregation and the Great Depression. Eventually, the men and the women dancing pair up more consistently, and continue to hop, swing, and truck. The athletic prowess on display is impressive, especially to those watching from a balcony high above the dance floor. 

The dancers are black and the faces above are white, belonging to students from the University of South Carolina, mere blocks away, who are curious to see this new and exciting dance they’ve heard about. While the white gaze doesn’t have the same kind of power here as it does on the streets or other white spaces of Columbia, when the students take what they’ve seen back to their campus, it turns out they are able to ignite the dance into an international sensation, if only for a fleeting time. 

The significance of American culture is often obscured by the broader strokes of history—the military campaigns and government machinations. Fads come and go so frequently—one sheds a tear for the Macarena of 1996—that we fail to recognize or examine their importance. As an intellectual historian, I have come to realize that even those brief fads from the past can tell us so much about the era in which they were born, gained worldwide fame, and flamed out. The story of the Big Apple dance is one of those, coming as it did at the crossroads of race, culture, and the continuing development of Southern identity during the Great Depression. 

 

The history of an art form crossing American racial and ethnic lines is hardly new or unique. Certainly, the long arc of music history in the United States is filled with examples of white Americans observing creative expression developed (perfected?) by African Americans in an African-American space and riding it (perhaps with some adaptation) to new heights of cultural fame—without those same creators or originators receiving credit or financial reward. 

The rise of the Big Apple dance in the 1930s followed the precedent of another dance craze from South Carolina, the Charleston, but the circumstances under which they arose were somewhat different. The Charleston captured the popular imagination during the 1920s, an era of both massive economic growth and widening social ills. South Carolina had suffered early in the 1920s due to the collapse of cotton prices in 1921 and drought conditions throughout the state during the decade. The Big Apple grew during another era of economic, social, and political uncertainty—one that the American South was very much at the center of. 

The Charleston, like the Big Apple dance, had its origins in the African-American community, and some scholars believe it to have been derived from Gullah Geechee traditions. It didn’t take off, however, until it appeared in a Broadway show, Runnin’ Wild, accompanying a popular song written and performed by African-American pianist James P. Johnson. The Charleston represented one more example of America’s contradictory relationship with African-American art, culture, and music: embracing it as national craze at the same time the people who built and fostered the culture from which the dance sprung were continually oppressed all across the nation. But while both dances were born from the African-American community, the Charleston might be said to have had a top-down progression, from Broadway to the nation, while the Big Apple’s birthplace was a bar for working-class African-American Southerners whose joyful creation spread all the way to New York City ballrooms. 

The place where the Big Apple dance originated has become one of lore among South Carolinians, a representation of a diverse history not well known outside the state. The Big Apple building began its life as a synagogue; Jews have had a presence in Columbia since at least the early eighteenth century, with Jewish settlers from Charleston being recorded as having bought plots of land in Columbia in 1786—the year of the new capital city’s founding. (Indeed, as a worldly port with a tolerance for religious variety, in 1800 Charleston housed the largest Jewish population in North America.) By the early twentieth century, the Jewish community of Columbia was well established. However, it was not immune to the kinds of intra-religious schisms that plague any denomination. According to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, the Orthodox Jews of Columbia’s Tree of Life Synagogue broke away from the growing Reform majority in their congregation and built a new place of worship. This synagogue, opened in 1907, was known as the House of Peace. By 1935, the congregation needed a larger building in which to hold its services. The House of Peace was eventually closed and sold in 1936 on the condition that the space could never again operate as a synagogue. 

The building was re-created as a nightclub. Synagogue windows were still present, but the architecture that had been designed for a sacred space, including the balcony to separate Orthodox women from the men below, was transformed into a lively, if not profane, juke joint. For the club’s new manager, Frank “Fat Sam” Boyd, what mattered was that he had a ready-made clientele. Close to the growing African-American section of Columbia, the Big Apple soon became a cultural touchstone for the nearby residents. Opening in 1936, the Big Apple quickly acquired a reputation as the center of Black Columbia nightlife. According to The State newspaper, so many people were showing up that “frequent late comers are greeted at the door with the word that there is ‘no more room’ and are turned away.” 

By 1937, the state of South Carolina had been hit especially hard by the rapid economic downturn. President Franklin Roosevelt’s admonition that the American South was “the nation’s number one economic problem” was felt throughout the state, whose traditionally conservative outlook on government meant that it had little to no social safety net to help the poorest there. Major cities such as Charleston came perilously close to bankruptcy. Places like the Big Apple helped the most vulnerable population raise their spirits during the Depression. 

As with the Charleston, the actual origins of the dance come from the Gullah community of coastal South Carolina. The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896–Present cites the Gullah “ring shout” as the basis for the Big Apple. As for the story of how it spread beyond the building’s walls, it is commonly believed that Boyd and his partner in the nightclub, Elliott Wright, allowed three white students from the University of South Carolina—Billy Spivey, Donald Davis, and Harold Wiles—to observe the dancing from the old Orthodox Jewish “women’s balcony” in the club. The three have been credited with spreading the dance, as they would go on to demonstrate it for fellow college students. This was a unique inversion of the typical story of segregation: where we are accustomed to a story of African Americans demanding access to white spaces for the sake of equal resources, the Big Apple dance’s history is an example of white Southerners desiring to witness African-American culture in action. The story of the Big Apple is also a reminder of how intertwined American culture and African-American self-determination have been for centuries. Spaces such as the Big Apple were the testing grounds of numerous African-American dance and music innovations during the age of Jim Crow, and it is difficult to imagine the blues, rock & roll, or r&b without places like the Big Apple, where creators could feel free to express themselves and experiment. 

The dance’s growth can be followed in coverage by one of the leading lights of American media at that time: Life magazine, which first featured the dance in its August 9, 1937 issue and stoked the excitement surrounding it. Life referred to the Big Apple as the “new dance craze sweeping the South.” The photos in Life only show white performers demonstrating the dance, however. Almost five months later, the December 20, 1937, issue again featured several pages on the Big Apple dance. In that issue, Life does refer to the dance as one that “South Carolina college boys” learned from African Americans, and the magazine reported that nightclubs in the South had begun posting signs that stated SORRY NO BIG APPLE. NOT ENOUGH ROOM. Continuing its chronicle of the dance’s boom over four pages, Life proclaimed that “the Christmas holiday season of 1937 will be remembered as the year when nimble youngsters and puffing oldsters kicked, yelled, jumped and stomped about the dance floors of the nation doing a dance called the Big Apple.” Step by step, the magazine described the dance’s flamboyant movements and dashing allure; even the still images capture the frenetic pace. 

More soberly, in the earlier issue of Life, placed adjacent to the story on the dance was a shorter story about the release of four of the Scottsboro Boys, Alabama teenagers falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931. This should be a reminder that the dance was only a temporary outlet for African Americans living in Columbia and elsewhere. Despite the Great Depression and continuing racist Jim Crow laws, nightclubs such as the Big Apple provided some sanctuary, however briefly, from the hostile world faced by African Americans. 

 107 PS Greene Int“Big Elliott” Wright at the Big Apple Night Club. Courtesy of Richland Library, Columbia, SC

 

The growth of the dance across the country brought with it a stripping away of some of its African-American origins. A tension existed almost from the moment the dance became well known: In a brief story in the Aiken Standard in August 1937, as the dance was just beginning to spread across the South, Elliott Wright joked that he was “too big” to do the dance himself and also acknowledged that African Americans referred to it simply as a “swing dance,” whereas the Big Apple name was used primarily by white Americans. The Standard’s anonymous writer—and other media accounts—expressed a common truth of the origin with subtle implications: “The ‘Charleston’ and ‘Black Bottom’ dances are credited to South Carolina Negroes. Like them, the ‘Big Apple’ is being given its popularity by white persons.” These stories unintentionally expose a greater problem of South Carolina and African-American history: degrading the emphasis on the African Americans who crafted the dance and focusing instead on the dance itself and the white adopters who popularized it and “civilized” it. The history, culture, and politics behind the dance and its creators are at risk of being intentionally forgotten—like so much else of South Carolina’s history. Shift the focus away from the dance and aim it toward the people who invented it in the independent Black cultural space, and a different, more vibrant history emerges. 

South Carolina’s long history of white supremacy often overshadows the state’s African-American pioneers and fighters for social progress. South Carolina’s best-known political figures remain John C. Calhoun and Strom Thurmond, not Robert Elliott and Modjeska Simkins. Remembering the African-American space from which the dance sprung, regardless of who made it famous, also means digging into Southern culture more broadly—not to fashion a narrative ignorant of the struggles of the past, but one that recognizes that people have always fought against the consensus of white supremacy that ruled in the South. 

In a sense, however, the rise of the Big Apple dance might be seen as another manifestation of the preservation efforts undertaken throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by white Americans who worried about the end of the “traditional” cultural ways of once-enslaved African Americans. What historians Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts referred to in their book Denmark Vesey’s Garden as the “sounds of slavery”—the attempts by white Southerners to refashion spirituals and other musical performances during enslavement as nonthreatening songs—also speaks to the rise of the Big Apple. The hazy line between cultural appropriation and the longstanding blending of cultures is inherent in this story. That a diverse group of people enjoyed it is not in dispute, but the imbalance of power between those who controlled the dance’s public story and those who originated it should be recognized. 

 

By the end of 1937, even as Life was detailing the dance’s movements, its short shelf life was approaching its end, especially in the country’s cultural capital, New York City. Lucius Beebe, one of the best-known columnists in the nation at that time, warned that “the whole town is praying for an abatement of the Big Apple nuisance, which has had its run and is about to be consigned to history.” Prominent dance halls such as the Rainbow Room in New York City even banned the dance, due to it being seen as a danger to other dancers. When one watches a performance of the Big Apple by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, the popular Harlem swing-dance group, in the film Keep Punching (1939) on YouTube—the most commonly available contemporaneous performance—it becomes apparent why some nightclubs in New York City posted warnings and bans: The energetic movements stretched the limits of the dance floor.

Back in Columbia, the original space was also feeling the dance’s waning popularity. “Everyone seemed to have so much fun doing the Big Apple that we don’t understand why it died out so soon,” an advertisement for the club (under new management) in the Columbia Record stated on September 17, 1938, as it sought to formally expand its clientele. “White spectators are welcomed in reserved gallery,” it read. The club was closed by the end of the year.

The building’s afterlife was less notable, functioning as a warehouse and a heating and air conditioning company, among other things, for decades. Earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 likely saved the Big Apple club from demolition. The occasion of this designation caused Columbia locals to briefly reminisce about the moment in the 1930s when the city was at the center of the dancing universe. “It was THE place for the young blacks of Columbia to gather and dance,” Bill McDonald wrote in a column in The State in 1979. In this same column, University of South Carolina student Billy Spivey—who’d been given significant credit for spreading the dance across Columbia and then the nation—downplayed his role in the story. “Nobody really originated it,” he said. “Life magazine gave me credit for it once, but everybody contributed to it—let’s just put it that way. I was just one of the proponents of it in the early stages.” 

The Big Apple dance never completely faded away, however. When Historic Columbia, an organization dedicated to preserving the city’s history, purchased the building in 1993, it was primarily to honor its dance hall history. But the prohibitive cost of keeping the building in operation led to it being sold in 2015 to dance (and life) partners Richard Durlach and Breedlove (the stage name she prefers). Both swing dance aficionados, the two had worked with Historic Columbia in 2003 to organize an event that brought back to Columbia some of the earliest practitioners of the Big Apple dance.

Today, the Big Apple continues to serve as a venue that hosts parties and dances. The preservation of a once-Jewish, then-Black space in contemporary Columbia as an entertainment spot open to all serves as a symbol of how the city now sees itself as part of a more progressive South. Arguably Columbia’s biggest entertainment export to the world, the Big Apple is a reminder of the rich history of South Carolina and its legacy of cultural interaction. Like the dance’s exuberant steps, that legacy is not without complexity, the occasional stumble and bump, and, yes, joy.


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Robert Greene II is an assistant professor of history at Claflin University, and blogger and book reviews editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians. He has written for Scalawag, Jacobin, the Nation, Dissent, and In These Times, among other publications. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina.