Q: You became interested in dancing at rent parties your mother took you to. How did you make dance your life’s calling? What appealed to you about it?
A: I wasn’t thinking of it as being important to me, but I was thinking about how much I enjoyed dancing—my friends and I getting together and having a wonderful time. The music was just so—I don’t know, what’s the word, exhilarating—that I wanted to dance to it. I had a regular job. I didn’t think I’d be a professional dancer. I didn’t feel professional until 1937, when I went into the Cotton Club. Then I thought, maybe there is something to this, and that people want to see me.
Q: You write about leaping between rooftops as a kid, and that being an athlete was a factor in creating the “air step” in the Lindy Hop. How did you develop this now-famous move than changed swing? Did you realize you were creating a sensation at the time?
A: At the time, no. I just started with a step—I wasn’t thinking that this was the first time anything like this had happened. I just though, I’d got a new step that will help me win this contest.
Q: Your fond memories of the Savoy describe a period of music and dance history that has never been equaled. What do you remember about that time?
A: What impressed me about the Savoy was that I had the opportunity to go to the Savoy at any time I wanted. It was my home. If there was a band that was rehearsing, we could go hang out and dance. It was a great place to be with my friends, exchange ideas about dancing. All of the top musicians would come there—Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, or Ethel Waters, Count Basie—to hear music and see the dancers. I got to dance with Ethel Waters quite a bit. I danced with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Pearl Bailey. I will always recall the very first time I started dancing with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, and he asked me for some music—and I didn’t have any! It was very special that all these people would come to the Savoy. It was a special place to everyone, but to me, it was my heaven.
Q: Herbert “Whitey” White played an important role as you say, “mentor, father, mother, sister, brother” in your career. What can you say about working with him?
A: Whitey had foresight. He was a wonderful man, inviting kids who wanted to dance—and who could dance—up to the Savoy, keeping them out of the street and out of trouble. And they learned to dance better. Whitey taught us how to respect ourselves, each other and our elders. There were no other studios that were even giving Lindy Hop lessons back in those days. They looked down on Lindy Hop until the mid-30s when it became pretty popular. That’s when Arthur Murray picked up on it. They had a watered down version. I once went down to the Fred Astaire studio because of the Lindy Hop lessons. I was curious. But I didn’t understand what they were teaching. I knew how to do the dance and was used to dancing to the music and moving our feet to the music. And this guy was counting 1-2-3-4-5….
Q: You write about touring and going pro, your various partners and dance troupes, working with Cab Calloway, and Count Basie, and Billie Holiday. How tough was all this work back then. You make it sound effortless and fun—was it?
A: It was all fun! It was not work! Count Basie has one of the best swinging bands in the land, and then you get a chance to dance 4-5 shows a day with this band right in back of you, and you get to know every musician and they get to know you and they are playing for you, and you are trading off each other. And we were getting paid for doing that! Oh, man! [Laughs].
Q: Your career spanned work on Broadway (Swingin’ the Dream with Dorothy Dandridge) and in the movies (Hellzapoppin’). What do you recall about your stage and screen experiences?
A: From 1935-1941 we had an illustrious career doing Broadway shows, night clubs, etc. and I was satisfied with that. When I made a movie, I didn’t feel that I was doing anything different than when I appeared at the Cotton Club. I thought I [performed] better at the Cotton Club. The movies were more [like] advertising. In hindsight, I am happy we made them so people today can see what we did back in those days. If we never made the movie, I think it would have been lost.
Q: Your career was interrupted by the war, and you describe your experiences in the Army as being some of the worst in your life—with tremendous racism. But you had bright spots, like dancing with Betty Grable in a USO show. How did you cope being so far removed from performing?
A: At that particular time, I thought I was doing something for the country. I didn’t think about being back in show business. I had to concentrate on what I had to do. That has been my way of life—concentrating on what I have to do now, not what I did years ago. When I came out of the army and formed my own group, and later went into a job at the post office, I did not reflect on what I had done before, I didn’t reflect on my life. I did what I had to do.
Q: After the war “the music changed” and the popularity of swing waned, but you kept dancing. How did you cope with this change?
A: Swing music was getting less popular, but Rock and Roll and R&B came in. It was not that I stopped dancing altogether. I would do the dances of the day—the twist, monkey, the frug—but only socially. I just kept plucking along, baby.