New York City is the birth place of The Hustle. If you talk to 10 different people from New York, you’ll get 10 different responses as to how it started, how it developed and who was responsible for it.
By Derrick Allen
- 9 min read.
Do The Hustle Album Cover featuring Jeff and Donna Shelly
Photo by Derrick Allan
The Uniqueness of Hustle and Why New York Loves It
There has been a lot of talk lately of New York style Hustle, the lack of a younger generation taking up the dance, and its "social utility", i.e. people who look at it and want to do it.
With all of the back and forth, I’ve been asked to comment about the uniqueness of The Hustle and why it has even lasted as long as it has and what the future holds for the dance.
However, like many things in life, in order to know where you’re going you have to appreciate where you have been. Before I begin, let me state upfront that this is not a historical piece per se.
There just isn’t enough time or space to do that and acknowledge every single person and event that occurred. I’m just trying to give some context and perspective based on my first hand relationships and direct experiences.
So here’s my take on where we’ve been, and how The Hustle has been dominated for so long by so many New Yorkers.
First you have to understand that New York City is the birth place of The Hustle. If you talk to 10 different people from New York, you’ll get 10 different responses as to how it started, how it developed and who was responsible for it; but, the one thing that every one of those 10 New Yorkers will agree upon is that The Hustle started here, in the Big Apple.
To be sure, it rode the wave of change of popular music that occurred during the early seventies and went through several evolutions, however; around 1974-1975 something stuck, and it developed into something more than just a fad; it actually became a dance.
And what made it unique was that it was the only dance at the time that could be done to a wide range of popular music. So it became something that could be done in the clubs, and it brought back "touch" dancing which hadn’t been around in the pop scene for more than a decade since the Lindy.
Once Saturday Night Fever exploded on the scene in 1977, the dance craze received a fresh shot of adrenaline and The Hustle was here to stay. However, the portrayal of Hustle in the film was nothing like what we were doing in the clubs of New York.
To many of us purist Hustle dancers, the film was sacrilege and we couldn’t stand it for that reason. A lot of us actually hated it because it was a caricature of what we did and were doing in the clubs and with the dance.
But the rest of America bought it and the movie became a social phenomena. Still, although we hated how the dance was portrayed, we did like the way it recreated the dynamic of going out and dancing all night to the wee hours of the morning. (Remember breaking night?)
Clubs were everywhere (discos are what people called dance clubs outside of NY – we called them clubs) and along with the clubs came the contest; big ones too!
It was nothing to compete in a preliminary and make $500.00 cash just for winning the preliminary not to mention the thousands that would be awaiting the lucky winner of the finals.
Looking back now I chuckle as the "Tony Manero" story from Saturday Night Fever, that living-for-the-weekend-to-go-out-for-the-love-of-the-dance, played itself out in real life among a small group of street dancers.
Kids really, sneaking into clubs with fake ID’s and doing our best to look like we were 21.
Some of those "kids" with names like George Velázquez, Billy Fajardo, Lisa Nunziella, Eddie Vega, Lourdes Jones, Sandra Rivera, Maria Torres, Artie Philips, Hector Barrios, Debbie Ferro, Tony Marolda, Susan Marolda, Ralphie Ramirez, Maria Gomez, David Padilla, Miguel Marrero, Floyd Chisholm, Nellie Cotto, Kenny Gonzalez, Ricky Quintana, Lee Rafrano, Scott Nurse, Suzanne Lambro, Keith Merriwether, and well - myself, yours truly Derrick Allen.
We ranged from 13 to about 18 years of age, with little to no formal dance training. (I believe as far as the guys go, Billy Fajardo had the most formal dance training having been trained in classical ballet with the American Ballet Company).
Still, for the few that did have formal training, Hustle was their first exposure to any type of touch dancing. Having nothing else other than the belief in ourselves and the desire to be the best, we all sought to excel every time we hit the floor.
There were no dance events, socials or Pro-Am Competitions to build your name or showcase your ability. The clubs of New York are where we honed our skills and the club competitions are where we demonstrated and spotlighted our talent and abilities.
Although we knew we had something that was new and hot, we all lacked the experience on where and how to capitalize on the new dance craze.
But then again we were kids, mostly from the streets of New York with New York common sense and street smarts. So remember that point as it will put into focus the actual accomplishments of some of these kids that I will touch upon later in this series.
Now don’t get me wrong, there were other individuals, older people who had business savvy and saw what was happening in the dance market place and figured out ways to capitalize on it.
The two groups I believe that deserve the most credit for tapping into the Hustle dance phenomena, for setting the ground work for making it commercially viable and eventually becoming a conduit for teaching others in the business were Jack, Jeff and Donna Shelly and the late Ralph Lew and his wife Lucille.
As former Fred Astaire dance instructors, Jeff and his brother Jack used their knowledge of the dance business to open a series of dance schools featuring the Hustle. Now the Shellys weren’t the first to put the dance into a teachable format, nor were they the first ones to teach the dance in a dance school setting.
They were significant, in that they were the first to open a chain of dance studios built around Hustle as the featured dance form, which was appropriately called "New York Hustle Dance Studios".
Actually, I believe the Shelly’s were the first to coin the phrase "New York Hustle" and they helped provide a structure for teaching the dance. They were key players in moving the dance toward being a legitimate commercially viable dance form.
The Shelly’s were the first to have a series of three instructional dance records (no video back then) called "Do The Hustle" which sold over an unheard of quarter of a million copies. (By the way, the count back then...&1,2,3 &4,5,6).
They touched many young dancers along the way. Hustle giant Billy Fajardo credits Jeff and Jack for "teaching me the business". My personal introduction to a "structured" dance environment also came during my 2 year association with the Shelly’s out of their Brooklyn studio.
They were also well known for their weekly appearances on the nationally televised dance show "Soap Factory Disco". (I guess you could call it our "American Bandstand"). The Shelley’s and their dancers, along with Billy Fajardo and his Disco Dance Dimensions, were one of the earliest performers of the Hustle to "Do The Hustle" Album Cover featuring Jeff and Donna Shelly appear for a nationally televised audience on a consistent basis.
Ralph and Lucille Lew were known for their "Ralph Lew Dance Review" and introduced thousands to the Hustle and helped showcase the dance.
Ralph used his musical editing background to upscale the music and costumes and presented our street dance as a true main stream commercially viable "Las Vegas" style act.
Ralph utilized his Latin music connections such as, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmeri, Celia Cruz, and Vince Montana, to open venues to showcase the Hustle.
Through Ralph, some of us appeared in such prestigious places as Madison Square Garden, Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, Westbury Music Fair, the casinos of Atlantic City and the resort hotels of the Catskills and the Poconos.
Anybody who was somebody in the hustle dance scene back in the mid 70’s and throughout the 80’s, at some point in time, worked with Ralph. If you didn’t, then you either didn’t rate or you simply weren’t around back then; period.
For those of us kids that were there and helped shape and define this dance, we knew we were more than something that was just a part of pop culture. We had the rare opportunity of being able to create a piece of pop and dance culture history.
We didn’t belong to it. It belonged to us. We owned it. Because don’t make any mistake about it, just like Michael Jackson’s "Thriller" album revived the whole music industry, our dance, The Hustle, helped revive the dance studio industry.
It was our dance that brought people back into the dance studios. It was our dance that revived touch or partner dancing. It was our dance that the movie "Saturday Night Fever" was centered around. It was our dance that people paid for and wanted to see and do.
To be sure, there were many other people and places in the country that tried to capitalize on the "Disco Dance" phenomena. They had their Discos. They got hooked on the "Saturday Night Fever" craze. They called our dance "Disco". They had their contests. They even wore white suits and did the 3 year old "Bus Stop" line dance.
But none had the impact, longevity or success like the kids of New York City. The kids who helped bring this dance form to the world. It is why we love this dance so much.
And it all started here, in the greatest city in the world, the Big A - New York City.
About the Author
Derrick Allen's dancing career goes back more than 25 years where he won dozens of dance contests. Some of these were the biggest, most competitive and well-known contests during the height of the hustle dance craze of the late 70's.
Derrick was the first to integrate and popularize ballroom styling within the Hustle. He is known for his uniquely smooth Fred Astaire like dance style and sophisticated floor work.
Derrick returned to the dance scene after a 25-year absence in 2005 as an adjudicator and as a competitor before retiring again.
His more recent titles include 1st place at the 2005 World Hustle Dance Championships in the Professional Just Hustle and 1st Place in the 2006 Hustle Congress Pro Open Theater Arts.
Derrick is the recipient of many awards including:
2005 and 2006 - Favorite Male Hustle Dancer by the readers of DanceTalk 2007 - All-Time Favorite Dancer by the readers of DanceTalk 2007 – Christopher M. Nardone Award at the World Hustle Championships. 2007 - Recipient of the Augie and Margo Rodriguez Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented at the International Hustle and Salsa Competition (IHSC) held in Miami. This is awarded to exemplary and inspirational performers within the dance community and in recognition for his contributions to the world of Hustle and social dancing.