What was it like to grow up behind barbed wire? JANM’s exhibition, Don’t Fence Me In: Coming of Age in America’s Concentration Camps, explores the experiences of Japanese American youth confronting the injustice of being imprisoned in World War II concentration camps while embarking on the universal journey of adolescence. Preteens, teenagers, and young adults danced with one another, listened to jazz and big band music, and formed musical groups of their own that performed regularly in camp.
Swing dance, which developed alongside jazz music, was started by African American dancers at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York. Musicians such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chick Webb all performed at the ballroom. The ballroom’s anti-discrimination policy created a unique environment for diversity and creativity. The Savoy Ballroom and swing dancing was also featured at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. From there, swing dance and music spread across the country throughout the 1930s, including in Los Angeles.
Swing dancing was so popular among youth that a group of young dancers interrupted Los Angeles City Hall council members to invite them to a swing dance contest at the Gilmore Stadium on September 11, 1938. The following year, the Palomar Ballroom hosted the Jitterbug Championships and the finalists (from twenty states and six countries) danced for cash prizes to live music from the Artie Shaw and Ken Baker Orchestras in front of thousands of people at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as part of the International Jitterbug Championships on June 18, 1939.
During World War II, young Nisei like George Yoshida who enjoyed big band music continued to do so when they were forcibly removed from their homes. According to his book, Reminiscing in Swingtime, incarcerees created big bands such as the Densoneers or D-Elevens, Down Beats, Jive Bombers, Jivesters, Music Makers, Pomonans, Poston Camp #2 Band, Rhythm Kings, Rhythmaires, Savoy Four, Stardusters, and Starlight Serenaders in the temporary detention centers and concentration camps.
Nisei like sisters Yuri Long and Sumiko Hughes were a part of social clubs that would also participate in swing dancing. Long and Hughes, who are both featured in the Don’t Fence Me In audio tour on Bloomberg Connects, talked about how much they enjoyed swing dancing as part of their social club, Just Us Girls (the JUGs), in the Manzanar concentration camp. The JUGs were made up of the youngest girls, followed by the Forget-Me-Nots and the Moderneers.
“They call us wild because at the dances, the JUGs were always very popular, and the guys would come and ask them to dance. And they jitterbug. They were on the dance floor all the time. And some of the other club girls were sort of off on the side. They didn’t get asked as much. And they didn’t jitterbug. And they used to jitterbug wild. They would throw them under their legs,” recalled Hughes.
Bob Wada, who was also featured in the Don’t Fence Me In audio tour, recalled knowing where all of the dances were at the Poston incarceration camp because the blocks within camp kept a running log.
“A lot of the blocks had their own dances. So we had our own. They weren’t, like, out of control dances, they were good. People didn’t crash dances. Our block had a dance and they invited a few friends that would come. That’s about the only thing we did socially,” he said.
Some incarcerees even had their own musical equipment made in camp. Two Nisei, one of which may have been Sadaichi Tanioka, made a turntable for Henry Nomura so that he could play music for his own enjoyment and for others in the firebreaks and at block dances at the Manzanar concentration camp.
Handmade dance bids—paper booklets featuring an illustration of the event on the cover—were popular, complete with blank lines for dance partners to sign their name. Many of the dance bids in Don’t Fence Me In were donated by Karen Nagao. Her mother-in-law, Ruth (née Higa) Nagao, was incarcerated in the Pomona temporary detention center and the Heart Mountain concentration camp. While working as a crop picker and nurse’s aide at Heart Mountain, Nagao participated in many events including plays and dances. Her collection of dance bids commemorated block dances and special events like, a New Year’s Eve Dance, a Valentine’s Dance, and a Coronation Ball.
To celebrate big band music, JANM created a Don’t Fence Me In playlist of popular songs from the 1940s and hosted a two-part public program, From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie, on June 17, 2023.
From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie kicked off with a conversation between dance preservationist Rusty Frank and Rohwer concentration camp survivors, artists, and performers, June Aochi Berk and Takayo Tsubouchi Fischer. Berk and Fischer met at the Rohwer when they were ten years old and have been friends ever since. While incarcerated at Rohwer, they were too young to attend the dances but they were attuned to the fashion of the times and taught themselves how to dance.
“I used to love looking at the Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs,” said Fischer.
“I made my mother buy me white majorette boots, a skirt, and a top. And my brother had to have pachuco pants so he could be in style in camp,” recalled Berk. “We would stand around and watch the big kids dance and we’d go home and copy them. That’s how we learned to dance. My brother always wore his pachuco hat all the time and I would look to see who was dancing with him.”
From Barbed Wire to Boogie Woogie then transitioned to the All Camps Swing Dance with live music from the Fabulous Esquires Big Band and custom dance bids for guests. After Frank led a beginner swing dance lesson for all ages, the Fabulous Esquires played popular tunes from the 1940s like “Don’t Fence Me In,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (which Berk sang in Japanese). Together, the conversation and dance offered all generations the opportunity to connect through music, movement, and immersive history.