Remembering Dawn Hampton

2016 bore witness to the loss of many well-loved public figures, and the global swing community was no exception. We lost two guiding lights of the swing scene, dancers Dawn Hampton and Dean Raftery.

This week, we'll remember Dawn Hampton.

Even if her name is unfamiliar, you likely know her 1975 song “Life Is What You Make It,” an upbeat tune that exemplifies Dawn’s verve for life and the inspirational effect she had on others.

So, who exactly was Dawn Hampton? One of twelve children, she grew up in a family of traveling musicians. “At three, Pop would put you out onstage and say, ‘Do something!’” she recalled. The Hampton family toured large swaths of the country as a vaudeville act, eventually performing at Carnegie Hall and the Savoy ballroom.

Like musicians before and after her, upon reaching adulthood Dawn went to find work in New York City. She began performing in cabarets in Greenwich Village, eventually becoming the house singer for the Lion’s Den. As she tells it, “In the Village, I had an unbelievable gay following. Unbelievable. But gay men have always made women singers from way back when. They made Barbra Streisand. They made Bette Midler. They understood when I sang, “My man is gone now…”

With her expressive voice and vivacious personality, Dawn became well known and loved in the Village scene, soon gaining the affectionate title “The Lady.” Reviewers also dubbed her “The Queen of Cabaret.” In 1982, the New York Times had this to say:

In superficial terms, she is a singer.
But her voice, a strong but seemingly uncertain instrument full of quavers, growls, husky descents and high, shimmering airiness, is simply one element in a projection that is built even more on emotional intensity, high good humor, dramatics taken to almost corny extremes, zest and exuberance, all kept in such sensitive balance that one aspect adds flavor to another as she builds her songs into brilliant vignettes.
Miss Hampton has a deep well of emotional energy and spends it recklessly and joyously.

After several decades of performing and composing, Dawn then turned her irrepressible energy to swing dance. She taught at events near and far, danced with the greats, and mentored and befriended many younger dancers.

As a dance teacher, she focused above all on musicality: “Less steps, more feeling. Whatever the tempo, first feel the beat.” Here she is in a video from Herring Dance Camp giving that same advice:

Dawn continued teaching, performing and dancing well into her eighties.  Beyond her artistic legacy, however, those who knew her well write that her greatest contribution was her energy and her friendship. As one dancer, Ryan Smith, wrote,

“She had the sharpest wit, the wisest soul, the warmest heart, and was also the biggest ham, of anyone I have ever known.
She was a singer, a dancer, and a diva, but was also so much more and the world is a better place for having had her in it.”

One of Dawn’s favorite sayings was “The Light Is On.” In her memory, let’s continue to keep the flame alight.

Sources and Further Reading:

Lincoln Center Interview
The Track podcast
Toronto Lindy Hop: 15 Awesome Facts About Dawn Hampton