Shim Sham Shimmy! The History of Lindy Hop's Favorite Line Dance

“The Shim Sham is a short routine that brings together tappers of all skill levels. No one’s too old, too young, too inexperienced or too accomplished to partake.”

Dance Spirit

The Shim Sham is a popular line dance usually performed to “Tain’t What You Do” by Jimmy Lunceford. If you’ve been to even one dance at Boulder Swing, or indeed at most other venues around the world, you’ve seen it: a line dance where the whole room starts clapping together, then shuffle-stepping. After a few rounds of tap and jazz steps, dancers break off into social dancing, directed only by a caller who shouts “Freeze!” “Slow motion!”—and, in our case, “BACON!”

While the Shim Sham is now a global phenomenon, every venue has its own variations. For illustration, check out this video created for Frankie Manning’s 95th birthday, featuring people dancing everywhere from beaches to snowbanks to the Great Wall of China:

So, where did the Shim Sham come from?

In the late 1920s, as Lindy hop was still being invented, a pair of tap dancers named Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant started a routine they called Goofus, danced to “Turkey in the Straw.” They were performing at the time with the Whitman Sisters, a popular and long-running musical troupe. The act needed a finale, so the two men quickly invented a short routine of tap steps pulled from various sources. This routine was similar to the first section of the Shim Sham danced today: some shuffles, cross-overs, tacky Annies, and a half-break.

Incidentally, have you ever wondered where the name “tacky Annie” came from? I have, and was glad to finally came across an explanation. I don’t know if it’s true, but according to writer Harri Heinila on Authentic Jazz Dance,

“They got the tack annie from a Tap dancer called Jack Wiggins who did a thing called ‘Pull it’. He used to say to the audience: ‘Do you want me pull it’. The answer was usually ‘Yes!’. Once he was performing to the audience, where was also his girlfriend Annie, Jack said those words again and added: ‘Annie, next step may be tacky, but I gonna do it for you!’”

Over time, the routine caught on, and by the early 1930s it was performed onstage at venues all over Harlem. Often it functioned as an all-hands finale, where dancers, singers and musicians alike would join in. At the Savoy Ballroom, Frankie Manning and his friends sometimes danced it together on the sidelines.

Some sixty years later, Frankie introduced the routine to a new generation of Lindy hoppers. He created a longer version by repeating the original Goofus chorus a second time with breaks, then adding a section of boogie forwards, boogie backs, and shorty Georges. Here's an instructional video featuring Frankie Manning and Erin Stevens from the late 1980s:

After learning the routine from Frankie, members of the New York Swing Dance Society started doing it every week at the local dance. From there, it spread to other venues, until a global tradition was born.

Come learn the Shim Sham with us! The routine will be taught Monday, July 30 during the specialty classes block.