|Interview With Betty Wood|
One of the Original Big Apple Dancers
"It all began at an abandoned synagogue that had been turned into a Juke Joint," says Betty Wood of the origins of the Big Apple, the circle dance that set the country on fire in the mid 1930s. The scene was Columbia, South Carolina when sixteen year old Betty Henderson went for a drive one Saturday night in 1930. Her companions heard the music coming from the juke joint and decided to go in. Her life changed immutably as a result.
At the time, such places were segregated. The main floor and the dance area were for African-Americans only, while others were admitted to a mezzanine level and could only watch. There was no mixing of the races at this time in the Deep South. If you want to capture the "feel" of such a place, you might consider watching Clint Eastwood's biography of Charlie Parker, a film entitled Bird!, in which one of the scenes takes place in such a juke joint.
Betty's escort for the evening was Billy Spivey, who was well versed in the popular dances of the day such as the Charleston, the Black Bottom, and original 8-count Collegiate Shag. However, he saw many new things that night and was inspired to create a dance form based on the jazz steps that the dancers on the floor were doing. Were it not for the fact that the segregated venue forced him to look at the dancers from above, he might never have seen the potential of a formation dance
After several visits, Spivey came up with the idea of a dance made up of individual jazz steps, performed in a circle, as called by a leader. Apocryphal legend has it that Mr. Spivey had enough ballet training to refer to his group as the "corps", and what dance should be done by a "corps", but the Apple. Since the circle got larger and larger as newcomers were attracted, the "Big Apple" eventually became the name of the dance. So, the eponym for New York has its origins in the fancies of a group of teenagers in South Carolina.
Betty tells us that the dance was an instantaneous hit of gigantic proportions. People came from all over the country to see the Big Apple danced on Ocean Drive in Myrtle Beach. Betty remembers that the girls started wearing saddle shoes at that time, and that numerous big bands made an appearance on Ocean Drive to play for the throngs who were eager for the cool sea air and the Big Apple.
She says that by 1936, a variation had evolved in which a couple would move to the center of the circle and execute some Lindy-like moves. Since this variant involved a much smaller "corps", it became known as the "Little Apple" and is most likely the progenitor of modern Carolina Shag. This was also known simply as "Fast Dancing" at the time.
In the summer of 1937, the Hal Kemp Show had a contest in Columbia South Carolina for the Roxy Theater chain. The purpose was to select dancers for a travelling stage show built around the Big Apple. Of hundreds of contestants, only 16 were selected. Betty was one of them.
The show went on tour for two years, playing Roxy theaters all over the country with a special engagement at the Hollywood Restaurant/cabaret in Los Angeles and the fabled Paramount Theater in New York. The culmination of the tour came just after Niles Thor Granlev (known in theatrical circles simply as "NTG") built the Chicago Congress Casino, one of the grandest show palaces in the country. The Big Apple Dancers opened the house and enjoyed a five month run
The Congress Casino show attracted talented performers of all types including major bands, singers, and dancers. Betty remembers that one performance included a young, unknown drummer who seemed to be singularly nervous about his debut. He was Buddy Rich. Betty also mentioned that Baby Rose Marie was also in the show for a while --- yes, the same actress who, as an adult, was the foil of Morey Amsterdam on the Dick Van Dyke Show
After two years of fantasy on the stage, Betty returned to South Carolina to finish school, get married and raise a family. Although she kept on dancing, she had retired from show business.
In 1992, Lance Benishek, the dance historian was able to link up with Betty and brought her out of retirement. Today, she teaches original 8 count collegiate shag, the Big Apple, and the Little Apple
We want to thank Betty for giving us this interview. She really won our hearts and she is truly a great person and still a spectacular dancer. One of the really great things about Lindy Hop is that many of the originators are still dancing and are available to give their unique perspective on history. Thanks again, Betty for a wonderful hour.
Those of you who wish to write to Betty may reach her at:
Ms. Elizabeth Henderson Wood
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