The past two months for me have been quite an amazing whirlwind, and only now do I have the time to write down all of what has happened.
I’ve always been a collector; when I was young it was baseball cards and comic books, starting in college I gravitated to Jazz music, and in the past decade I’ve added Jazz Dance-related films and artwork to the mix. This story starts about six years ago when, in my thirst for finding new-to-me dance clips, I stumbled upon an out-of-print VHS tape called Chicago And All That Jazz. It was originally one of two television specials sponsored by DuPont in the early 1960s that featured Al Minns and Leon James, the great Savoy Ballroom dancers and members of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.
Not long after getting the VHS I decided to digitize it and upload the video to Youtube. It’s been nearly six years since then as of this writing, and out of everything I’ve ever uploaded it has gotten the most views and the most comments by far. It’s a great clip and I’ll let it speak for itself.
Over the years there would occasionally be interesting comments on the video, and sometimes I would respond. Out of the blue, however, came the comment this past August that briefly stated, “God, how my father loved to dance!” The username: Kevin Minns. Upon seeing this I immediately started writing an email (sort of gushing, I admit) about how big of a fan I was of his father and how I’d love to talk to him.
Before sending the message, my fanatical collector’s brain served me well: I remembered a magazine I had discovered a couple of years ago, which featured Al and Leon, with Al’s kids and Leon’s kids dancing alongside them. I pulled the magazine out and to my delight, there was Kevin, only four years old, right on the cover.
I mentioned this in the message, thinking he must know and have a copy of the magazine himself. Kevin’s first message to me began, “This is the best news i’ve ever heard.” He then proceeded to tell me how had never seen photos of himself when he was young– he never even knew what he looked like as a child until that day. I soon came to understand that the discovery of the magazine photos were instrumental in easing some pains that he has held during his life. How valuable it must be to see yourself so happy after an entire life of not knowing or remembering those years!
After a number of emails back and forth, I set up an online video chat with Kevin. What I thought might be twenty minutes turned into an hour and a half of talking, laughing, and reminiscing. I was especially excited to share some of his stories with everyone, since I arranged, with his permission, to record the conversation. The technology gremlins struck that evening however as I discovered the recording didn’t work.
Before I go on I should say during all of this, my teammates at Groove Juice Swing and I were in the thick of organizing the 15th Annual Steven and Virginie in Rochester workshop weekend, held this year in early October. Steven Mitchell and Virginie Jensen have been an instrumental part of our dance lives, and I had talked with Steven a year ago about having the theme of the 15th year be “Tribute”, to the music we love, to the history of the dance, and to the people that have formed Lindy Hop into what it is today. We had some ideas but not a lot had gelled until I met Kevin.
I had the idea in my mind that if the conversation went well, I would ask him to come up for the event to be part of a tribute to his father. If he didn’t have much to say, or didn’t seem to be a the type that would be into that sort of thing, then I’d just thank him and that would be that. Kevin made my decision very easy: he was animated, he was funny, and he had lots of great stories both about family life and his dad’s professional life. When I proposed the idea, I still expected him to think it over. Instead he immediately replied, “Yes! I’d love to!”
From the moment Kevin arrived he was a wonderful presence at the event. He had never been to a Lindy Hop event before, and he was wowed by the joy that this dance brings to people. He was especially excited to learn how to Lindy Hop, to quite literally follow in the footsteps of his father. Kevin danced early in life but admitted to me he hadn’t danced since youth. A special moment I will never forget is witnessing him in class, swinging out for the first time. He also stayed up with all of us at both late night parties, talking for hours to everyone interested in his story and sharing recollections of Al and Leon.
Having Kevin in for this particular event was especially appropriate since Al was the first old timer that Steven Mitchell contacted and learned from, even before he and Erin Stevens found Frankie Manning. We brought Manu Smith in to facilitate the tribute, which consisted of a historical photo and film presentation I prepared, followed by Manu, Steven, and Kevin talking about Al’s life and dance history. The talk turned out to be even better than I had hoped. In my opinion, the stories Kevin told helped humanize Al Minns. He was no longer just a legend we had all seen in Hellzapoppin’ and other films; he was now, to us, the man and the legend.
I think a truly amazing thing about the event was that, for the amount it touched all of us to hear these stories from him, it was at least as touching to see how much this meant to him. Here was a person that, for most of his life, had just known of his father as “Pops”– not as some famous legend. Dancing was his dad’s profession, and it was taken as such. Now, 27 years after Al’s passing, Kevin is finally seeing how much of an effect his father has had on people, and how much joy this dance brings to those who dance it.
We videotaped most of the talk (and will release the best parts of it before too long, don’t worry!) but there were so many great moments over the weekend that aren’t captured anywhere. He even gave a heartfelt farewell during the Sunday musicality class. His goal is to come back next year and be good enough to really get out there and share in the dance that his dad loved so much. He told us that this weekend and this whole experience has changed his life, and that he truly feels part of “The Lindy Hop Nation”. He bonded very tightly with all of us and we all can’t wait to see him again.
This experience has inspired me to do more research and filming with the intent of one day making a documentary on the lives of Al and Leon. It’s a daunting task and I am sure it will take many years to complete, but I feel there is a great story here to tell.
I’m going to end here by posting a little fun anecdote about Kevin’s childhood, from a session that will hopefully be the seed from which the documentary will grow:Posted in Dance