When I published the piece on “flim-flam” about two weeks ago, a friend commented on it and asked if “shim-sham” meant the same thing. I’d never heard of “shim-sham” so naturally I had to look it up. Turns out it doesn’t mean a scam or a hustle or a bamboozle.
It’s the name of a dance!
The shim sham shimmy, shim sham or just sham originally was a particular tap dance routine, regarded as tap dance’s national anthem. For today’s swing dancers, it is a line dance.
Originating from a style of dance termed the “Goofus” in the late 1920s, performed to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw,” the Shim Sham Shimmy was first performed on stage in Harlem in the early 1930s. In 1931, flash dance act The Three Little Words would close their show at Connie’s Inn with the Shim Sham, and invite everyone to join in, “and the whole club would join us, including the waiters. For a while people were doing the Shim Sham up and down Seventh Avenue all night long,” according to Joe Jones.
In the mid-1980s, the Shim Sham was introduced at New York’s Swing Dance Society dances by Frankie Manning, who went on to create a special version of the Shim Sham dance just for swing dancers. It is a tap dance routine involving a shuffled rhythm of the “Time Step.” Frankie Manning’s version of the shim sham caught on, and it’s now done at swing dances worldwide.
According to tap dancer Howard “Stretch” Johnson, the word “Shim” was a contraction of the term “she-him,” a reference to the fact that the female chorus line dancers at the 101 Ranch were played by men.
At the Savoy Ballroom, some lindy hoppers did the shim sham as a group line dance, without the taps. A bunch of dancers would just jump up and start doing the shim sham on the side of the ballroom, over in the corner. Although a few people might join in, most everybody else kept on dancing without paying any attention to it.
The Shim Sham goes best with swing songs whose melody lines start on beat eight, as does the choreography. An obvious choice is The Shim Sham Song (Bill Elliot Swing Orchestra), which was written specifically for this dance and has musical effects in all the right places. However, today the Shim Sham — particularly the Frankie Manning version — is danced more often to ‘Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That Cha Do It) by Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra, or Tuxedo Junction by Erskine Hawkins. There is also a recording Stompin’ at the Savoy with the George Gee band where Manning himself calls out the moves.
Long ago my partner and I could clear the floor with jive improvisation. Now I’m lucky to get through a slow waltz!