top of page
  • Writer's pictureOlivia Fortunato

The Harlem Swing Dance Society – WZUP in Harlem

FMF logo 1

By Barbara A. Jones

The Harlem SWOP – with The Harlem Swing Dance Society

Culture …. Dance…. Jazz…. Lindy Hop…. SAVOY and Swing! These are the 6 main components The Harlem Swing Dance Society (THSDS) has been highlighting in the village of Harlem and elsewhere for the last 6 years. Slowly and steadily awakening and support of this non profit organization has happened in a variety of ways. Sadly the demise and reconstruction happening within the Village of Harlem of many cultural shrines has been an impetus of sorts.

Breaking News: WZUP in Harlem

As we write the Savoy Ballroom, after 57 years of it’s own demise is on the verge of losing its nearby “cousin” Ballroom: The Renaissance Ballroom and Casino (or the Renny). True it hasn’t been in use in over 30 years – in fact THSDS thought it had been demolished (the Renny also featured a theater). This has been cleared up with recent protests to perhaps keep the long lingering facade of the Renny and then build around it the proposed housing complex. Sadly no one entered paperwork for landmark status which really complicates things…

Paperwork for the project is in – yet there is a chance to halt the demolition. Thus every Sunday from 11am to 11:45 for a little over 4 weeks there is a growing amount of concerned citizens (led by Harlem Historian Micheal Adams) bringing attention to the possible demise of another Harlem icon. So much history, including The Rens a famous basket ball team that graced the floor and Kareem Abdul Jabbar recently illustrated so well in a documentary. Ken Sargeant of Harlem Cultural Archives and others from various places and positions have also been alerting others locally. And of course we know Frankie Manning , Norma Miller , Leon James, Al Minns , Ms. Mickey Jones and others of the future Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers also frequented the ballroom to get their dance on at times.

The Harlem Swing Dance Society has been on hand to talk to locals, visitors and more about the need to preserve Harlem history and remaining neighborhood staples. Currently there is talk of more organized approaches to bring attention and support, especially from Harlemites. There is an online petition all can sign and help circulate thanks to the power and speed of social media – NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio: Halt the Destruction of Harlem’s Historic Renaissance Casino

We will keep you posted as a community tries to unite to further prevent another shrine of Harlem history becoming a pile of dust…. seemingly being done so it will be much easier for future generations to forget it.

A One of a Kind Harlem History Gem

Is there anyone around that can tell us the Savoy from an Insiders perspective? THSDS is confident there are still a few out there within the Ballroom’s 30 plus year span who can spill the real beans on the joint: you know, non sugar coated. We happened to meet such a young man about 2 years ago who knows and can prove the “inside scoop”.

Mr. Charles Dorkins is an accomplished film maker, historian, photographer, writer, Tuskegee Airman and more. He has traveled the world, and at 93 years old he is full of wit, wisdom and humor… and still “runs around” with no cane, glasses or hearing aid (but he does have his trusty red classic Ford Pinto). His winning punchlines include “What does this all mean?” and “Why am I still here?” The Harlem Swing Dance Society assures him there is great reason why he’s hanging around…

Born in Baltimore he eventually made his way to working at the Savoy Ballroom in 1947 when he says he saw the music (Be Bop was getting popular) and the dancing change. He viewed swing dancing of course but he also recalls a dance called the Applejack being popular. Surprisingly he didn’t learn to dance (he blames his strict Seventh Day Adventist upbringing) but he loved standing in front of the bandstand to listen to the jazz legends and watch the crowd. He saw Lindy Hoppers preparing for the yearly Harvest Moon Ball contest at “the old” Madison Square Garden in the Savoy. One of his dreams and hopes is to see a play he has written about the Savoy come to life on a stage.

So what exactly was his job?

“I worked in the basement taking portrait pictures and developing them” he says. He still has a unique collection of some of his work formal and informal work, which includes pictures of musicians that visited him during breaks “down in the dungeon”. He says that Mr. Buchanan was the front man and that Moe Gale only came by once a week to check on matters. Charles Dorkins only worked there two years … and may have worked there longer…. but a love triangle developed within the walls of the Savoy that had his life adventure take a turn for safety. The Photographer and the Concession Stand Girl: Hot Stuff!

WOW: Did I forget to mention that Mr. Dorkins knew Mura Dehn and has much opinion concerning the classic 1950’s Savoy Ballroom documentation “Spirit Moves”? He is also linked to the Apollo Theater and Motown in unique ways! Currently working on Part 2 of his autobiography – and still travelling/globe trotting – it is at times hard to catch up with him….. but he has a big heart ready to share his incredible adventures and secrets for “being around too long”.

2015 and beyond for THSDS

The Harlem Swing Dance Society gets inquiries and more from folks here and abroad; they are happy there is finally an established and noted entity. From the National Hand Dance Association to local schools and community centers there are folks of color who do recognize their dance roots and want to re-connect the dots for their future generations. They are happy to know there has been at least one premiere organization currently working hard to propagate and preserve the culture; thus people are gravitating and spreading the word more and more. It still sparks surprises, exciting challenges and smiles for all.

In December THSDS was showcased on a public television program “What’s Eating Harlem” which featured legend Sonny Allen.


The new year looks to be a exciting with dance classes, events and more in store! Ironically and happily with Harlem changing for the better (and what some locally call “the worst”) people are bonding in ways to keep its rich culture. Currently there is a Fundraiser campaign (Swing Back: Giving Culturally) to have our Youth program pick up again in Spring 2015. The Harlem Swing Dance Society continues to be part of the growing Harlem team to encourage this, and of course showcase the village’s most famous dance to all in the process.

Will you be visiting NYC and want to take a Harlem dance class, see the Savoy Plaque and meet us?  Feel free to message THSDS on Facebook at

To sign the online petition to save the Renaissance Ballroom click on this link NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio: Halt the Destruction of Harlem’s Historic Renaissance Casino

For current class schedule for THSDS click this link  

To contribute to The Harlem Swing Dance Society 2015 Youth program click on this link  (thanks for supporting!)

To see What’s eating Harlem episode featuring The harlem Swing dance society click this link

To read about the Rens click on this link

To read about the Rens documentary click on this link

FMF logo 2

Contributed by Barbara A. Jones

1 view0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The Board Thanks Mandi Gould

The Board of Directors of the Frankie Manning Foundation wishes to thank Mandi Gould for her many years of dedicated service. Mandi volunteered with our Ambassador Program from 2010-2012. After joinin

Contemporary Swing Albums to Purchase During COVID-19

Daphna Harel is a friend and supporter of the Frankie Manning Foundation. She has put together a wonderful list of swing music albums to buy during this difficult time. If you’re looking to build your

bottom of page