Jean Phelps Veloz, the icon of the Hollywood-Style Lindy to new generations of swing dancers, provides a living bridge from the Los Angeles dance scene of the 1940’s to the present-day Lindy Hop revival that has swept the United States and the rest of the world since the late 1990’s.
In 1940, a daily newspaper cost three cents, a pair of men’s shoes cost between $8 and $10, Jack Benny had the #1 radio show, and the United States was gearing up for participation in World War II. It was in this environment that big band swing music and the dances that went along with it, Jitterbug and Lindy Hop, became the driving passion of teenagers all over the country. Jean Phelps and her brothers, Bob and Ray, were no different. Every day they came home from school, invited friends over, and danced in the living room. Jean and Ray got so good together that they decided to enter an area-wide Jitterbug contest in Santa Maria, winning out over a total of 500 dancers.
The Phelps family moved to Los Angeles in 1942, which allowed Jean and her brothers the opportunity to dance at the LA hotspots. In 1943 Jean entered a contest at American Legion Stadium in Hollywood, where the prize was a Screen Actor’s Guild membership card and a dance cameo in the movie Swing Fever starring Kay Kyser and Marilyn Maxwell. Jean won the contest, her SAG card, and the opportunity to dance with Lennie Smith and Don Gallager in the feature-length movie.
This opened the door to many other opportunities. In 1944 Jean made the well-known MGM film short Groovie Movie with Arthur Walsh. Also in the short were Lenny Smith, Kay Vaughn, Irene Thomas and Chuck Saggau. Groovie Movie has become a favorite of swing dancers all over the world as they study this piece of history for the delicious look of this style of Lindy.
For the next few years Jean was very busy. She danced with Chuck Saggau in 20th Century Fox’s Swingin’ On a Tea Garden Gate starring Peter Lawford; danced with Dean Collins in the MGM move The Horn Blows at Midnight starring Jack Benny as the angel Gabriel; and in MGM’s Jive Junction, dancing with Bob Ashley. Jean and brother Ray entered many dance contests in the Hollywood and Los Angeles areas. Dean Collins was the undisputed leader of the dance scene at the time, and Jean and Ray followed him everywhere. In 1946, Jean danced in the chorus line at El Rancho Vegas Hotel, working with choreographer Nick Castle for six months.
In the world of ballroom dance, Yolanda and Frank Veloz were one of the most famous couples around. They appeared in many movies, notably Pride of the Yankees with Gary Cooper (the story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig), Under the Pampas Moon, and Many Happy Returns. When Yolanda retired in 1948, Jean became Frank Veloz’ new dance partner, performing exhibition ballroom dancing and appearing in a two-week engagement at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.
In 1949 Frank and Jean worked with actor Anthony Dexter, instructing him in tango to prepare for the lead role in the biopix Valentino. The Frank Veloz television show aired on in Los Angeles in 1950 and continued for five years. Jean and Frank did exhibitions of tango, waltz, rhumba, samba, swing and foxtrot, along with teaching these dances on live TV. They interviewed many well-known stars including Liberace, incorporating these appearances into the show. In the Veloz studio, they worked with actress Susan Hayward on movement and dance. They also choreographed Latin Lovers starring Lana Turner, Ricardo Montalban, and Rita Moreno, and coached them for performances in the movie. They worked with choreographer and dancer Marge Champion on Queen of the Stardust Ballroom starring Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning. Jean and Frank also made concert appearances at the Wilshire E Bell Theatre in Los Angeles.
Jean and Frank eventually married in 1963. When Frank died in 1981 from cancer, Jean was stunned by the outpouring of support and sympathy from the world dance community. She stopped dancing until 1992, when she was approached by Rudy Linan to come out of retirement. Rudy was a swing dancer from Las Vegas who was working on a swing documentary, and encouraged Jean to start dancing again.
And when Jean came out of retirement and started dancing again, the world took notice! In 1996, Marcus Koch and his partner Barbl Kaufer invited Jean to perform and teach at an annual swing dance event in Munich, Germany, exposing her to a whole new generation of swing dancers who quickly fell in love with her. Jean became involved in the world of Lindy again: she was inducted into the California Swing Dance Hall of Fame; brought to the East Coast by Craig Hutchinson to attend the Potomac Swing Dance Club’s Virginia State Open; and by Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg of Gottaswing to be an honored presence at their first-annual event Groovie Movie, using her appearances in the famous film short and the movie Swing Fever to make sure everyone knew of Jean. Jean has attended every Groovie Movie event held by Tom and Debra since that first year.
Jean Veloz was inducted into the prestigious California Swing Dance Hall of Fame in 1996.
In 1997 Jean appeared on St. Louis swing dancer John Hudson’s Los Angeles cable TV show, showing clips of her movie appearances and doing an interview. Jean was back on the show in 1998 dancing with Gil Brady, one of the showcase dancers in the movies Don’t Knock the Rock and Rock Around the Clock; Jean and Gil performed on the show.
In 1998 Jean and “Little Brother” Ray were special guests at Camp Hollywood in LA—hosted by Hilary Alexander and the quintessential Hollywood-Style Lindy couple, Erik and Sylvia—which showcased many other dance legends of the ‘40s. That same year, Tom and Debra brought Jean and Ray back to Washington, DC for another Groovie Movie weekend. In 1999 the World Lindy Hop Championship brought Jean to New York City for the first time this international event was held in the United States.
In 2000, Tom and Debra brought all surviving members of Groovie Movie together as Jean, Irene Thomas and Chuck Saggau appeared together again for the first time since the 1940s, with Ray Phelps was along for good measure. In 2004, Tom and Debra again brought the group together to participate in activities surrounding the dedication of the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Jean, Ray, Irene and Chuck performed along with Tom and Debra at the Smithsonian Institution in front of hundreds of people.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Jean has been invited back by Marcus and Barbl to appear as a special guest at the 2007 Munich dance event. The world-wide Lindy community continues to seek Jean’s participation.