George Sullivan, An Unassuming Man

Written by by Paulette Brockington

George Sullivan, Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Division champ of 1955 with then-wife Ruth “Sugar” Sullivan, died at age ninety-three on September 10, 2021 in Miami. The cause was a stroke that left him hospitalized. Called Sully by his friends, he was wise, funny, smart, and inspiring, such a nice man. He will be missed.

Born in Augusta, Georgia in 1928, George came on his own to Harlem when he was 13. As an adult he would take his wife to the Savoy Ballroom. Sugar, who had begun dancing in 1947, was an avid Lindy Hopper, but George didn’t dance. He didn’t even want to. While at the Savoy, he would watch the dancers come off the floor with clothes soaked through with sweat. George was a real cool cat. The idea of perspiring to that extent was not something he was interested in doing. He said, “I wouldn’t wet my suit up. You kidding me? But Sugar was my wife.” So he would watch her and other dancers on the floor then would bring her home.

One night Sugar and Delma “Big Nick” Nicholson were dancing. They did an air step—an over the head—and Sugar’s foot got caught on his shoulder. She fell and broke her ring finger. Delma felt the 1951 Harvest Moon Ball was his to lose, so he told Sugar he was changing to a different partner. Sugar was distraught and crying. George felt he couldn’t do anything about Delma, but he could do something to stop her crying. So he told Sugar, “I’ll dance.”

“They had, like, little amateur nights [contests] on Tuesday nights. . . . And after they laughed, they gave me energy. I went off in the corner. ‘In three weeks,’ I told them, ‘I’ll be one of the six going down to the Garden.’” And I was. In three weeks . . . with the help of Big Nick and Lee Moates.”

Yes. The first night he took to the floor the dancers at the Savoy Ballroom laughed at George. But their laughter was the catalyst that helped him learn quickly. George moved off the floor to a section of the room away from the Cats’ Corner crowd to practice. He and Sugar were one of the six couples sent from the Savoy Ballroom to Madison Square Garden in 1951. It took four years, but George and Sugar took the top spot in the 1955 Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Division.

So George started dancing in 1950 and became, with his wife, one of the best dancers at the Savoy Ballroom during the 1950s. In the late 1950s Mama Lu Parks enlisted the best of the Savoy Ballroom, George, Big Nick and Lee Moates, to teach classes at her summer intensives. By 1959 students in the intensive became a performance troupe and George’s choreography graced stages all over the world.

Many swing dancers remember how George would take them to a corner of the room to teach them to dance. After all, personal attention was a formula which had worked for him. It got him to Madison Square Garden in 1951. He was demanding, almost like a drill sergeant with his students. I witnessed this myself after we met in 2018. He and Sugar were teaching a master class that I was running. The warmup was twenty minutes of jig kicks. His routine gave you stamina, endurance and the kind of speed needed to succeed dancing to fast music tempos.

George and Sugar danced on the Ed Sullivan Show (called Toast of the Town prior to 1955) twice. They also performed with the Dorsey Brothers and did a gig in Montreal, but George didn’t care for show business. According to David Butts, 1962 HMB champ, George was an integral part of Mama Lu’s teaching staff. Crystal Johnson, 1972 champ proclaimed, “He was the best teacher I ever had.”

George was humble and unassuming, and not one to make a big deal out of the legacy he created for himself. When I spoke with 1958 HMB champ Sonny Allen he said, “George was one of the smoothest of the Lindy Hoppers. . . . He danced on top of the floor. He was like Jimmy Slyde, the tap dancer. . . . George was a fantastic dancer. . . . He mentored me. I learned a lot from him.”

George said, “The secret is rhythm. Gotta have rhythm. And if you can do that you can do the dance. It’s easy.” He left us with the legacy of twenty-six dance teams he helped train to win the Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Hop/Jitterbug Division–many of whom went on to become part of Louise “Mama Lu” Parks Duncanson’s Parkettes—and a radiant smile which cannot be diminished by his passing.

by Paulette Brockington