Dancing Legend Sugar Sullivan Turns 85 in Fort Lauderdale

Sugar Sullivan swing dances with professional instructor Dax Hock.EXPAND
Sugar Sullivan swing dances with professional instructor Dax Hock.
Julian Ehrlich

At 85-years-old, swing dance champion Sugar Sullivan says she doesn't have a single regret. “I’ve had a beautiful life,” she said on her birthday this past Wednesday. “I had a wonderful childhood, I have a beautiful family. We have fun together, and I have no regrets about anything. I’ve really had a great life.”

Born on April 22, 1930, Sullivan has lived her life by one simple idea: “Do what you want, when you want to do it, instead of sitting around moping." All Sugar has ever wanted to do since she was three is dance, and, man, did she do it.

One of the original Savoy Ballroom dancers (alongside Frankie Manning), Sugar won the coveted and respected Harvest Moon Ball Dance Competition in Madison Square Garden in 1955. She danced to legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, and has been in movies and TV shows including The Ed Sullivan Show and An Evening with Fred Astaire.

As sweet as her name, Sugar Sullivan is a joy to not only dance with but simply sit down and talk to. She remembers fondly the good ol' days when there was a place to dance seven days a week. She's like a living, breathing (and dancing) time capsule.

"Back then we danced every night like we were getting paid for a show, because we loved it so much," Sugar remembers.EXPAND
"Back then we danced every night like we were getting paid for a show, because we loved it so much," Sugar remembers.
Tracey-Ann Jarrett Photography

Sullivan first got interested in swing dancing from watching movies with Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, a professional group of Savoy Ballroom dancers. At age 16, she tried to sneak into the Savoy to dance like the stars she saw in movies. But you had to be 18 and over to enter, so she got turned away. Two years later, she returned. She didn't take any chances this time, and brought her birth certificate to the front door.

"Everyone came to the Savoy," Sullivan remembers. "No one was barred from it. You'd see dignitaries, celebrities, royalty, boxers, everyday working people like chefs, maids, chauffeurs, and movie stars. Some people came to just watch, some came to dance. Back then we danced every night like we were getting paid for a show, because we loved it so much." 

Back then it cost 85 cents to dance in the Savoy, the famous public ballroom in Harlem, New York. But if you won the Harvest Moon Ball Contest, you could get into any dance club in the city for free. It was Sullivan's main goal to win the Harvest Moon Ball. If you won, you not only became a professional Lindy Hop dancer, but also landed a contract to perform in clubs all over the city.

While practicing at the Savoy for the competition, Sullivan fell during an aerial and got stitches on the side of her head and a fracture in her hand. At first, she thought about giving up and never dancing again, but her husband George Sullivan wouldn’t let her. Even though he didn’t like Lindy Hop, he chose to compete with Sugar anyway. The couple won first place in the Lindy category in 1955 with two amazing high-flying aerials. George spun Sugar around his waist 4 times consecutively, and also flipped her down his back by one leg. Sugar is convinced it's what got them the medal.

Shortly after her win, Sugar joined Sonny Allen & The Rockets — a song and dance review — and traveled across the U.S. and Canada performing for 15 years. When the assassination of Martin Luther King ended the gig, she returned to New York and got a job at an advertising agency, still dancing at different venues in her spare time. 

She has spent her later years teaching young dancers how to perfect their craft in both the U.S. and Europe. "Just keep dancing," she tells her young dancers. "It takes a lot of practice to become really good at Lindy Hop."

Since she planted some roots in South Florida in the mid '90s, Sugar has connected with the local swing dance scene and shared her history with the community. Izzy Shniadoski, friend of Sugar and a volunteer with the local Swing Out South Florida troupe, decided to organize a special birthday party for Sugar this year to honor her life and commitment to swing dancing. This Saturday, on April 25, at 7:30 p.m. in Ft. Lauderdale, Swing Out South Florida will celebrate Sugar’s 85th year with live music by The Shiny Shoes Band, dancing, food, and entertainment. A portion of the entry fee ($15) will go towards purchasing a special birthday gift for Sugar.

"There is a tradition of celebrating the birthdays of Lindy Hop icons,” Izzy said. “Swing dancers celebrate Frankie Manning's birthday every year. We are putting on the party to honor Sugar and her dedication to dancing throughout the years. This will also be a great opportunity for our younger dancers to learn about the history of Lindy Hop.”

If you don’t already know how to swing, Lindy Hop champion Yuvol Hod and his partner Julija Slavikas will be giving a beginner lesson before the music starts. They will also be doing a special performance.

Sugar Sullivan and her husband George.EXPAND
Sugar Sullivan and her husband George.
Tracey-Ann Jarrett Photography

Even though Sugar says she is very content with her life and what she has accomplished, she does have one wish: that there were more places to dance.

“There aren't a lot of places to dance these days,” she said. “There are a lot of clubs for Salsa down here, but not Lindy hop.” But, at least for one special night, Sugar will get to reflect on her time at the Savoy, slip on a shiny dress, and dance her heart out with South Florida friends and family—both new and old.

“I thank God he has allowed me to live long enough to see my beautiful daughter Sheryl reach 65 years of age, and my handsome son Jay become 62,” Sugar said. “I thank my Lord for giving me a loving family and blessing me with such a beautiful life.”

Sugar's 85th Birthday Celebration will be at the Harold Solomon Tennis Club, 600 Tennis Club Dr., Fort Lauderdale. 7:30 p.m. to 12 p.m. Entry is $15, and includes a lesson. A portion of the night's proceeds will be donated to Sugar. Visit the event Facebook page for more info.

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