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Jean Veloz, celebrated 1940s Lindy Hop dancer, dies at 98


Jean Veloz, an acrobatic and widely imitated Lindy Hop dancer who appeared in 1940s Hollywood films, performed at ballroom exhibitions with her husband, star dancer Frank Veloz, and inspired a new generation of swing dancers while twisting, spinning and twirling into her 90s, died Jan. 15 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 98.

Her death was confirmed by her manager and agent, Rusty Frank, a dancer and dance preservationist. She did not know the exact cause but said Ms. Veloz had been in declining health.

As a teenager in Los Angeles, Ms. Veloz was already enthralling audiences with “the Lindy,” the exuberant swing dance style that had emerged out of Harlem dance halls in the 1920s before making its way west to California, where it was popularized in Hollywood movies by dancers including Dean Collins, Jewel McGowan and the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dance troupe.

Ms. Veloz helped develop a smooth new Lindy Hop variant, now known as “Hollywood style,” while also honing a technique all her own, with trademarks that included a quick-stop drop and signature “Jean flip” through the air.

“If you only saw her silhouette, you would absolutely known in an instant that it was her,” Frank said. “She had this silky smoothness, and these electrifying freezes that were followed by sultry, flirtatious melts into the next move.”

Ms. Veloz, then known as Jean Phelps, was 19 when she made her film debut in “Swing Fever” (1943). As Marilyn Maxwell sings “One Girl and Two Boys” backed by bandleader Kay Kyser, Ms. Veloz dances in high heels and a knee-length skirt, performing a backflip with help from her partners, Don Gallagher and Lennie Smith.

She went on to dance in two more movies that year, “Where Are Your Children?” and “Jive Junction,” before teaming up with Collins for “The Horn Blows at Midnight” (1945), a comedy starring Jack Benny.

But to many dancers, she remained best known for her debut dance number — one of the rare swing sequences of its time to keep the camera on the dancers from beginning to end — and for “Groovie Movie” (1944), a nine-minute short in which she Lindy Hopped with Arthur Walsh, a dancer and character actor who later taught the jitterbug to Lucille Ball. Both films entered into the swing-dance canon and were passed from dancer to dancer on grainy video tapes before finding a new audience on YouTube.

“I remember sitting on the floor with my dance partner until 2 in the morning, watching ‘Swing Fever’ and ‘Groovie Movie’ over and over again to learn the moves and to pick up the style,” said Frank, who teaches Lindy Hop in Los Angeles.

Presented as a tongue-in-cheek instructional video, “Groovie Movie” was narrated by Pete Smith, who explains that to do the dance “you swing the wing and whip the hip.” By the end of the film, Ms. Veloz was doing a handstand on Walsh’s shoulders.

As the popularity of Lindy Hop faded after World War II, Ms. Veloz traded her skirts for ball gowns, performing the tango, waltz and other dance styles at ballroom exhibitions and on television shows with Frank Veloz, her dance partner and eventual husband.

When the Lindy Hop came back in vogue in the 1990s, she picked up where she left off, showing off her moves at swing workshops and festivals in Thailand, Britain, Italy, Canada, Sweden and across the United States. The California Swing Dance Hall of Fame, which inducted Ms. Veloz in 1996, described her as “a living bridge from the Los Angeles dance scene of the 1940s to the present-day Lindy Hop revival.”

The second of three children, Jane Grinnell Phelps was born in Los Angeles on March 1, 1924. Her parents separated when she was young, and she was raised in nearby Santa Maria by her mother, who worked the night shift as a switchboard operator and encouraged her daughter’s early interest in dance.

Ms. Veloz, who was known since childhood as Jean, swing-danced in the living room with her two brothers and invited friends to join them after school. Her breakthrough came in 1943, when she won a dance contest at Hollywood Legion Stadium. Her prize: a Screen Actor’s Guild membership card and the opportunity to dance in her first film.

She later danced in the chorus line at the El Rancho Vegas resort, where she worked with Hollywood choreographer Nick Castle. In the late 1940s, she partnered with Frank Veloz, best known as one half of the husband-and-wife ballroom dance team Veloz and Yolanda. The duo had danced on Broadway and in movies before Frank Veloz’s wife, Yolanda Casazza, decided to retire.

Ms. Veloz, who had studied at one of the duo’s dance schools, stepped in to replace her. She and Frank later taught dance steps to actors including Susan Hayward, Ricardo Montalbán and Lana Turner. They married in 1963, after Frank’s marriage to Casazza ended in divorce. Ms. Veloz’s previous marriage, to Harold Davi, had also ended in divorce.

Frank Veloz died in 1981. Ms. Veloz leaves no immediate survivors.

Ms. Veloz worked on an episode of “The Bachelorette” in 2016, teaching the Lindy Hop to JoJo Fletcher and one of her suitors, and was still Lindy Hopping at age 95, dancing to “Love Me or Leave Me” at the Spanish Ballroom in Maryland’s Glen Echo Park. A few months later, in February 2020, she performed in public one last time at the Rock That Swing festival in Munich.

By then, she had lost her speed and some of her balance, although she was still capable of stopping on a dime in the middle of her routines, freezing her body in place to the astonishment of her friends.

“We’d always kid,” Rusty Frank said, “that the only thing that moved after she stopped was her hair.”

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