Arthur Murray and Ska?

world fair photo murray

Did you know that Arthur Murray, the famous dance instructor who founded his franchise of national dance studios, once learned how to “Do the Ska” from Ronnie Nasralla and Sheila Khouri Lee, wife of Byron Lee at the 1964 World’s Fair in NYC? Pictured here is a rare photo of Ronnie Nasralla teaching Arthur Murray’s wife, Mrs. Kathryn Murray, how to really get down! The caption from the photo, which appeared in the May 3, 1964 edition of the New Amsterdam News, reads, “Mrs. Katheryn Murray apparently enjoys being on the receiving end of a dance lesson as she learns the new “Jamaica Ska.” She was among the celebrities invited to Shepheard’s Night Club for the American premiere of the “Ska” by a troupe of Jamaican dancers, who were flown up from the Caribbean island to demonstrate the dance. The combination of a slow twist, shadow-boxing, and setting-up exercises, has swept the jet set in New York in the short time since its debut.” The photo was shot on April 26, 1964.

You may have thought that Ronnie and Jannette, Ronnie Nasralla and Jannette Phillips, taught the crowds to “do the ska” at the World’s Fair in 1964, but actually, it was Ronnie Nasralla and his partner Sheila Khouri Lee, who was just Sheila Khouri at that time as she was not yet married, nor even dating, Byron Lee. Jannette, who appears with Ronnie on all of the brochures and albums that Ronnie designed for Eddie Seaga, then minister of culture, was serving a residency at the Peppermint Lounge in Miami during the time of the World’s Fair, so Sheila became Ronnie’s dance partner. There were other couples who performed the ska during the fair, but Sheila, who was childhood and life-long friends with Ronnie, as well as Eddie Seaga, filled the role and met her future husband, Byron Lee!

Now, you may notice, if you look carefully, a smiling man in the background of this photo. Who is that, but none other than Prince Buster looking quite dapper in his best threads! I wonder if this was before or after he met and took members of the group with him up to Harlem to visit Muhammad Ali where he was influenced by Ali’s recent conversion to Islam, Prince Buster himself soon converting to the faith as well. There were many others that likely danced or performed that day and all the days surrounding the Jamaican presence at the World’s Fair such as Millie Small, Jimmy Cliff, of course Prince Buster and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires, Eric “Monty” Morris, and Ken Khouri, founder of Federal Records, plus others. Over the years much talk has been had about who was not present at the World’s Fair, such as the Skatalites and Don Drummond, but it is just as important to go back and look at who was there and the impact this event had on the world of ska. Love Seaga or hate him, the fact is, without his push ska may never have been able to have the recognition it finally did, and although it didn’t take off the way he wanted it to at the time, it did put in the minds of Americans and the world that there was something brewing in Jamaica.

Little did the world know!