I recently had the privilege of driving Jean Veloz to and fro the wonderful California Girl Jam evening class in Fullerton, on Saturday June 24, 2017. Along with Rusty Frank, Jean taught a class on switches and swivels, including her styling from the “One girl and two boys” routine in the film ” Swing Fever” (1944). Having watched the original clip many times, it was a great pleasure to see the 93 years young Jean flawlessly demonstrating and breaking down her classic moves. One emphasis of hers is that your body should respond to the music, to feel it, and express it with your whole being. You can see this in her movements, from her twists into the ground, the sway of her hips, roll of her shoulder, to the toss of her head and wink of her eye. Strong, saucy, sexy, classy- she could be all of these in a count of eight.
As Jean and I travelled we shared a fun conversation about what it was like to be a young dancer in southern California in the 40’s. She and her brothers Ray and Bobby would pile into the family car and drive out to whichever club had the best band that night- and not always on a weekend. As she put it, “I wish I had done better in school, but dancing was the only thing I thought about, or cared about, since I was a little girl”. On the weekdays they all had jobs- Bobby at an aircraft plant, Ray at the famous Western Costume Co. and Jean at a Five n’ Dime store. When Bobby, the eldest, joined the military Jean and Ray became regular partners and evidently Ray stepped up his game- a lot. Jean said she was always surprised at how quickly Ray became really good, since he had not been dancing as long as she and Bobby.
Naturally, the conversation turned to clothes and shoes. In the context of the recent Venice Beach clip dress, I wanted to understand as much as I could about the options and reasons for choosing what to wear while dancing. Here are my questions and Jean’s answers, which I hope answer some of the questions you may have as well.
Where did you get your clothes for for Swing dancing?
My costumes came from Western Costume Company, where my little brother Ray worked. Boy was I lucky! You walked in, and there were three levels, stacked full of every kind of costume you could imagine. I didn’t have a lot, but I was lucky enough to get a few nice pieces there.
Did you look at a catalog to choose a pattern you wanted?
No, I just walked up to whatever I wanted and they made it to order. They had everything made and you just showed them what you wanted.
Could you ask them to change things, like if you wanted a different hem or neckline?
Oh sure, whatever you wanted.
Where did you get the rest of your clothes? Did you or your mother sew, or knit?
Not really. The girls who could do that, they had it made! They had the best clothes. I could sew a little, but if I made something I could only wear it one or two times and it would fall apart after that! (laughs)
So, were there stores that you could just walk into and purchase something already made?
Hmmm… let me think- I can’t quite picture it, but I know there had to be something because I couldn’t make my clothes. I remember shopping and trying things on.
Did you ever order from catalogs like Sears?
Oh no, I always had to try it on to see how the fabric would move.
Even for your everyday clothes?
Yes, all my clothes, I had to see that they would look good for dancing.
What were some of the style elements that were most important to you?
You needed a fitted shape- fitted on top, and through the hips, so they can see the shape of your hips. A lot of movement in the skirt below that. You wanted to keep the top simple. You can’t have any ruffles or frills up there.
What did you think of puffed sleeves?
(gasps) Oh, puffed sleeves! Just hearing that takes me back. How we LOVED puffed sleeves!
Did you have to do anything to make them puff up, like put tissue paper in them? (Proving that no question is too silly for Swing Sleuths!)
What? (disbelief) No, it was in the way they were sewn. They were made to stay up. Maybe someone did that, I don’t know. I didn’t.
Was there a particular type of material you liked best, like silk or rayon?
I don’t know anything about what it was called- but it had to be light, airy, comfortable to dance in.
I’ve noticed, in the photos of dancers, that while the average fashion was for skirts below the knee, it looks like you all wore your skirts a little shorter- was that a style for dancers?
Oh yeah! (laughs) Skirts had to be short to show off your sticks. Well, not, you know, mini-skirts, but just above the knee.
Genevieve Grazis (far left) and friends, showing the puffed sleeves and short skirts of early swing dancer fashion.
I also noticed none of you wore panyhose or garters. Was that because they didn’t work for dancing or was it that girls your age just didn’t wear them?
No, we didn’t wear them. Pantyhose! (laughs) I didn’t even know how to put them on! When I finally tried, my older cousin had to show me how to get the seams straight.
But you wore socks sometimes with your shoes, right?
Yes, with the white wedgies. Once we discovered those wedgies we all wore them! You see, you had to have something that would fit really well and with my short, wide toes and high instep, the laces made it possible to get a good fit- like nothing else.
Did you only wear the wedges for dancing, or did you ever wear flat shoes?
You know, we never did the really high lifts, the stuff up in the air, so we didn’t need to wear flats like the dancers on the East Coast. But the wedgies weren’t really high either.
Where did you like to go dancing?
Well, the Palladium of course. We loved the Palladium. But, it was always really crowded so we often went to the Hollywood Cafe. It wasn’t a “cafe”, really, it was a tavern, a club. It had a bar, a nice little dance floor, and always a good band.
At the Hollywood Cafe: Jimmy Valentine (left) Hal Takier (right)
What was the biggest factor in deciding where you were going to go dancing?
The band! Always the band! It was all about the music.
What were some of the other places you went dancing?
We would also go out to Santa Monica, Venice. I don’t remember the names of the ballrooms. You see, I never drove, it was always my brothers driving. I just hopped in and happily went! I never paid attention to where we were going. I was just thinking about the dancing.
Did you dress up more for competitions than for regular dancing?
Well, no, because you didn’t know if there was going to be a competition! Most of the time, you just went dancing and they would announce it.
So you didn’t know ahead of time if there was going to be a competition or not?
No! Unless Dean (Collins) was there. If Dean was there he would make sure there was (one)! He’d be in the back, wheelin’ and dealin’, and somehow it would always happen. Then he’d come up to you and (pointing) say, “Jeanne and Ray, you’re on!”. And we didn’t dare say no! Well, we wouldn’t have anyway. He was always very good to me and little brother. And, we liked the competitions because we could win money, and us dancers, we were always broke!
Did you ever go out to eat after dancing?
We were always starving after dancing all night! Spaghetti- I remember lots and lots of spaghetti!
Menu from Patmar’s Drive In, El Segundo, CA 1940’s. Showing at least five varieties of spaghetti.