The Savoy Ballroom—Langston Hughes called it “the Heartbeat of Harlem”—was located on Lenox Avenue, between 140th and 141st streets in Harlem, NYC. If the Savoy was the Heartbeat of Harlem, and Harlem was looked at as “Black Mecca,” that places it squarely in the center of the artistic and intellectual soul of Black America from the Great Migration to the Civil Rights Era.
Many bands made names for themselves at the Savoy Ballroom and numerous dances were either born on its floors or rose to national prominence because of the spotlight that was constantly shining on the Savoy. One of those dances was the Walk. The Walk is a particularly interesting dance because it acts as the base movement and techniques of two expressions, one to swing music and one to blues music. Its base movement is related to the Peabody/Foxtrot. The primary difference between the two types of Walk (I will refer to that done to swing music as the Swing Walk and that done to blues music as the Savoy Walk) is that the Swing Walk is a dance which travels in the line of dance (rotating around the floor counter-clockwise) while the Savoy Walk travels within a particular area, not following any prescribed direction or pattern.
Examples of the Swing Walk can be seen here:
More examples of it are in the background in this clip. Pay attention to the traveling dancers:
The Savoy Walk is a “two-step” dance, that is to say, it uses two types of base rhythms:, slow steps (one weight change over two counts) and quick steps (one weight change over a single count). It was inspired by the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a favorite in Harlem theaters, as well blending aspects of pas de deux with a distinct lindy hopper sensibility for music and love of tricks. The basic rhythmic patterns are Slow, Slow, Quick-Quick, and Quick-Quick, Slow. While these rhythms match the base rhythms in the music they are intended to be embellished, altered, or abandoned as the music progresses, always placing emphasis on the dancer’s creative choices.
A particular aspect regarding musicality, as Sugar Sullivan explained to me, was that while the stepping patterns and improvisations were danced to the rhythm section of the music the tricks, the various lifts, drops, turns, and other flash moves were danced off the rhythm section, instead following along with the melodic section of the music. This gives the dance a very interesting contrasting style as it embraces the lyrical type of movements seen in some forms of iInternational ballroom dance and a frequent characteristic of pas de deux, but generally unexplored in other forms of black partnered social dance at the time.
There are examples of this type of musicality from this clip of The Spirit Moves (note: the music that is being played in the clip is not the song the dancers are dancing to, but it is representative of the overall style of music they were dancing to):
The aesthetic elements of the Savoy Walk involve a rise and fall of the traveling dancer which acts as the primary expression of pulse primarily caused by a flexing at the ankle and knee. The torso and hip movements roll and twist as personal styling helping the dancers accent and embellish musical elements. The follower lags within the space created by the leader’s movement allowing them the ability to create a stronger energy transfer as the follower moves later within the space of the lead, or can more firmly engage their core and frame muscles reducing the lag in the partnership, but in both cases the follower is driving their own movement take the cues from how the leader transfers momentum. The articulation of spine, independence of arm movements creating an asymmetric look between the top and bottom half of the body and between the partnership both give a strong sense of youthfulness and vigor. Savoy Walk is an excellent example of assimilating European movement concepts and expressing them through a Black American cultural lens.