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The man who was known as ‘Snakehips’

There are many mysteries about the dancer Earl Tucker, but the meaning of his stage name isn’t one of them. To understand why he was called Snakehips, you have only to watch him move.

Take his solo routine in the 1930 short film Crazy House. About 30 seconds in, Tucker rolls his hips to one side. He rolls them so far that his torso tilts in counterbalance, his ankles sickle over, and his whole body bends into an S-curve of improbable depth. He reverses the shape — first churning slowly, then at twice and four times the speed, the smaller, quicker undulations making him slither sideways on one foot.

By the time he appeared in the film, Snakehips Tucker was already a name attraction in Harlem nightclubs like the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn, and he had appeared to acclaim on Broadway and in Paris. He died on May 14, 1937, when he was just 31.

The cause, as described in his obituary in The Baltimore Afro-American, was a “mysterious illness”. Neither that obituary nor those in other African-American newspapers — the mainstream press did not report the death — included many biographical facts about Tucker. Back then, obscurity wasn’t unusual for black entertainers, but the articles praised him as one of the most imitated artists of the day.

Tucker’s influence didn’t end with his death. Elvis Presley, who was born two years before Tucker died, probably never saw him dance, yet he scandalised 1950s America with a more timid version of Tucker’s below-the-waist action, making girls in the audience scream. Elvis the Pelvis also took on the moniker “Ol’ Snakehips”.

Later, Tucker’s loose kicks and unwinding spins found an echo in the signature moves of Michael Jackson. Some hip-hop dancers who came across video footage of Tucker were said to have experienced a shock of recognition: This guy was doing some of their steps decades before they were.

Even if these dancers didn’t imitate Tucker directly, they drew on a style that he had heightened and popularised. He could also tap dance and do the Charleston.

Duke Ellington, who hired Tucker to dance with his band at the Cotton Club and elsewhere, once speculated that Tucker had come from “tidewater Maryland, one of those primitive lost colonies where they practice pagan rituals”. Tucker was, in fact, discovered in Maryland, dancing in the streets of Baltimore, and Ellington’s claim is probably accurate in other ways: What Ellington called “pagan rituals”, scholars would identify as African spiritual practices that informed African-American culture.

The best information about Tucker comes from the interviews with black entertainers that Marshall and Jean Stearns conducted in the 1960s for their seminal book Jazz Dance (1968). Today, Tucker’s dancing would be considered less disturbing than other aspects of his behaviour. The entertainers interviewed by the Stearnses remembered Snakehips as a heavy gambler and “a mean guy” with a violent temper who was nevertheless popular with women. Newspaper reports about the “bad boy of Harlem” covered his arrests as often as his performances.

Today what remains, beyond these fragmented memories, are a few seconds of him at the end of the 1935 musical short Symphony in Black and his two-minute routine in Crazy House, a comedy set in the Lame Brain Sanitarium. He doesn’t look so menacing there. His snaps and claps draw attention to a musicality that runs through all his hip rolling, through his every sinking to the ground and miraculously rubbery recovery. He wasn’t a contortionist. He was a dancer, one of a kind.

© 2019 The New York Times

Source: Business Standard