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Savoy Ballroom Dance Floor: Deconstructing a Legend

The Savoy Ballroom was at 596 Lenox Ave and is legendary in the dance world particularly as the origins of the Lindy Hop and the home of Whitey's Lindy Hoppers.

It was between 140th and 141st Streets and between 5th Ave and Lenox (now Malcolm X Blvd, effectively 6th Ave).

The actual streets around the block itself no longer exist since 140th and 141st do not continue between 5th and Lenox anymore due to the Savoy Park apartments.

There is some question as to the actual size of the Savoy Ballroom. It was described as being a full city block. Christian Batchelor's book claims that the dance floor was 200'x50', giving us 10,000 sq ft. This is likely not actually the case, as I will show below. I've also heard that the Ballroom could hold 1200 dancers, but this is not the same as the dance floor.

Recently Mike Thibault found a digital scan of the floor plan for the Savoy (courtesy the NY Library). Here it is, cropped and with the dance floor highlighted:

Figure 1.0: The Legend

The floor plan raises some interesting questions (and also mentions the address as actually being 600 Lenox Ave, though either of these bring us to about the same place - it's certainly possible they used one address for people finding the ballroom and one address for mail).

Also, we know that the Savoy was renovated in 1936, so it's not clear whether this was before or after '36, but either way that was still in the "Swing" of things, so to speak.

But more importantly, how big is that dance floor? We can calculate this pretty reasonably well with some work.

Dimensions interior to the full city block according to Google Maps is about 960'x239'. Let's take the image from Google maps, continue 140th and 141st, and rotate it so everything is vertical:

Figure 1.1: Rebuilding streets

I'd often heard the legend where the Savoy was the full city block as opposed to just one dimension of the block (not to mention that there is a huge difference between E-W blocks and N-S blocks in NYC). The aspect ratio of the building (length/width) according to the floor plan is about 2.47, but the aspect ratio of that block is about 4.02. That doesn't add up. We know that the building would likely have had some space around it (at least a sidewalk), but there won't be that much grounds space in Manhattan. In other words, it certainly didn't look like this:

Figure 1.2: That's a big yard!

Perhaps Chisum Place once cut all the way through and shortened the block?

Figure 1.3: Monster Savoy

But something is still wrong. Those tables are huge! The booths on the bottom are about 15' wide, and that doesn't make sense. Something else doesn't make sense either if you look at bit longer:

the entrances and exits

The main entrance would probably be on Lenox Ave, since that was the address. But more importantly, the exits on the top sides of the floor plan are labelled 141 St and 140 St. So it looks like we've got the ballroom sideways. (Some images from Christian's book imply this as well):

Figure 1.4: It's still a full block long

That looks so small! But let's be fair, we just need to zoom in a bit:

Figure 1.5: The Savoy Placement

So now we've got dimensions of the ballroom at about 230'x93' (leaving room for the sidewalk). This makes a lot of sense for the floor plan, because now those booths are about 7' wide, and we are certainly closer to Christian's dimensions, but only if the dance floor was half of the ballroom, which it clearly was not.

With this placement the dance floor (including the bandstand) is about 148'x37'. The bandstand in the original floor plan was likely changed since we know that there were two bandstands, the larger and smaller ones, probably side by side. If we give a very rough estimate of 400-500 sq ft for the bandstands, then we have about 5000 square feet of danceable space.

At the Lindy Events that I run, we generally aim for about 10 square feet per dancer, which would give us room for 500 Lindy Hoppers comfortably, and more if you packed them (but not likely to be 1200 dancers, at least not doing Lindy. The travelling dances would pack people tighter, but they would still need to be able to follow a line of dance. My guess is that the 1200 dancers number is not from the dance floor, but from the size of the entire ballroom, which had plenty of socializing space.

So was the Savoy dance floor really a city block? No. but it turns out that you can change the history of the dance world with only 5000 square feet of space with the help of Chick Webb and some of the greatest dancers in the world.