Willa Mae Ricker


Willamae Ricker was one of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, featured in the famous 1943 LIFE Magazine story on the Lindy Hop with Leon James, along with the white Broadway dancers, Stanley Catron and Kaye Pop whose picture appears on the cover.
The photographs of individual dance steps by Gjon Mili are sensational. Especially notable is a full page photograph on a black background of WillaMae and Leon both exuberantly jumping in mid-air. In my humble opinion, this picture should have been chosen for the cover of this issue as it is much more spontaneous and much less contrived than the one that does appear. In fact, this photo was used on the cover of the European edition.

Frankie Manning says of his longtime friend Willamae Ricker, “She was one of the greats of Lindy Hop… she was the soul and heart of the dance”. He specifically notes her skill in doing all of the aerials, and her physical strength “to hold men up so they could shine”. Although Willa Mae and her husband Lindy Hopper Billy Ricker were high school sweethearts and enjoyed a long and healthy marriage, they rarely danced together professionally. She partnered Leon James, Al Minns, Frankie Manning, Russell Williams and others. She won the first Harvest Moon Ball with Leon James in 1935.

During World War II, when so many of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were serving in the armed forces, Willa Mae managed the Harlem Congeroos, considered Whitey’s greatest group. When Frankie Manning returned from the Pacific in 1947, he took over the management and WillaMae continued as a dancer in the group, known simply as the Congaroo Dancers. During one of their annual summer-long gigs at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, she had to have an emergency hysterectomy. While Helen Daniels replaced her in the show, she followed her doctor’s advice to rebuild muscle and stamina by daily jogging on the beach. She made a remarkable recovery and soon rejoined the show. After the break-up of the Congaroos in the late fifties, WillaMae enjoyed a career as a fashion model. She had always been a fashionable dresser and with her business savvy, she was able to make a successful second career in fashion.

During World War II, when so many of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were serving in the armed forces, Willa Mae managed the Harlem Congeroos, considered Whitey’s greatest group. When Frankie Manning returned from the Pacific in 1947, he took over the management and WillaMae continued as a dancer in the group, known simply as the Congaroo Dancers.

Willa Mae’s Business Card

During one of their annual summer-long gigs at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City, she had to have an emergency hysterectomy. While Helen Daniels replaced her in the show, she followed her doctor’s advice to rebuild muscle and stamina by daily jogging on the beach. She made a remarkable recovery and soon rejoined the show. After the break-up of the Congaroos in the late fifties, WillaMae enjoyed a career as a fashion model. She had always been a fashionable dresser and with her business savvy, she was able to make a successful second career in fashion.

When Willa Mae died of cancer in the sixties, the romance had still not left her marriage to Billy, she never stopped dancing, and never lost the sweet disposition that made her the most beloved of the Lindy Hoppers.

Films

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)
Hot Chocolate (1941)
Killer Diller (1948)
The Spirit Moves (c.1950)

This content was originally written by Judy Pritchett with Frank Manning. Copyright, 1995, 1996, 1997 for the savoystyle.com. It may not be reproduced without written permission. Please use the contact form on this website to get in touch. This Biography is also part of the World Lindy Hop Federation Archives maintained by Keith Hughes.

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