This is the shorter, SNACK SIZE version. (I know, it’s a big snack.) For the longer, GEEK-OUT version, click here. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page.
This essay is not just the story of a contest. It’s the story of a year in the life of Lindy Hop. It’s a story of context. A story of hidden memories. A story of two dozen heroes.
On July 12, 1936, The Daily News announced the follow up to its highly successful first Harvest Moon Ball. Once again, Whitey would expect his dancers to flood the Savoy prelims.
Before we go further, we should mention something that is supposed to have happened since the last Harvest Moon Ball: The Savoy ballroom contest where, the legend goes, Frankie Manning and Freida Washington introduced the first air step into swing-era Lindy Hop. Since we covered that contest in the 1935 essay, we won’t go over it here. (And you should really hear Frankie tell you, anyway).
But, something to bear in mind regarding that story: Frankie said Lindy Hop already had lifts, where a partner holds up another partner, but it had not yet had moves where a partner is without the support of partner or floor, hence, “air step”. And, indeed, there does not appear to have been any air steps before this time in the footage. So, Frankie and Freida’s specific contribution in this area is that of introducing non-supported partner acrobatics into Lindy Hop — which was still a huge contribution, of course.
Back to the ball. In the rules, they mentioned that previous divisional winners were not allowed to enter again, you couldn’t be a professional dancer, and you had to be eighteen years of age.
But this didn’t stop Whitey from bending the rules. For instance, he encouraged Norma Miller to do the contest again. Following the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball, Norma Miller had pretty much gone professional — touring the world performing Lindy Hop — and had done so at only 15 years of age. So obviously the whole “under 18” thing was also not a large concern. They didn’t even have “date of birth” on the entry form.
Please know: we’re not complaining — we’re very glad he got his best dancers on that stage so that they, and their art form, could get recognition, and with the added bonus that it was all filmed so that we and future generations have it. Remember, we would not have Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, and perhaps would not be doing the dance the same way today if it weren’t for Whitey and the methods he used to make sure great Lindy Hop was seen. We’re just saying, Whitey obviously worked around rules. And this year, it looks like he REALLY went around one, as we’ll see.
Playing the swing music for the evening would be Clyde McCoy. “I’m sorry, who?” Clyde McCoy was very popular at this time for his growling-trumpet style, and especially in his hit rendition of “Sugar Blues.”
Running and Dances
Between the announcement of the Harvest Moon Ball and the prelims at the Savoy, a very important thing happened for both Black America, and the world: the 1936 Olympics took place. In Nazi-run Germany.
The reason it was important for Black America was because eighteen Black American athletes would partake in the games, including two Black American women.
Among those athletes was a young track and field athlete you probably know the name of: Jesse Owens. But do you recognize the name Ralph Metcalfe? How about Cornelius Johnson? Or Louise Stokes? If you haven’t, their stories, and the domination of the team as a whole, may make you wonder why.
In America, there were many voices calling for Jewish, Black, and American athletes in general, to boycott taking part in Nazi Germany’s Olympics. The NAACP was among them. There was also, understandably, a great deal of fear for their safety.
A group of the Black athletes wrote a letter for newspapers saying they wanted to compete; they wanted to show the German athletes and the world — and their home, America — what they were capable of. Many Black newspapers agreed. The American Olympic committee was even wined and dined by Hitler, who feared a US boycott. But it was still touch and go — when the American committee cast its votes on whether to boycott the Berlin Olympics, the votes were 56 for, 58 against.
The eighteen Black athletes that made it on the team were called “The Black Eagles,” by the supportive papers. Others referred to them as “the Black gang.”
In Germany, the Nazis wanted to use the Olympics as propaganda. They wiped Anti-Semitic messages from the city, and as a jab to the United States, included the Black American athletes equally in the star treatment given to the athletes at large. The strange result was that the Black Americans, in what we now recognize as one of the most notoriously racist cultures in history, experienced a life free from segregation. They were given equality across the board and allowed to sit wherever they wanted, eat wherever they wanted, and go into whatever business they wanted. The Black women athletes even had German servants assigned to them to attend to their every need.
In the first day’s events, the high jump, Black American Cornelius Johnson broke the Olympic record and took gold. Black American David Albritton got silver. Hitler left before congratulating them. Afterwards, officials told him he would either have to greet all athletes, or none of them. He chose none.
In the hundred meter sprint, Jesse Owens beat his Black teammate Ralph Metcalfe — who had already set or equally matched 16 world records in his own career — by only 1/10 of a second. They took the gold and silver. Metcalfe would stay out till four in the morning after the event, and then decide to move on from running. Archie Williams dominated the 400 meter run so strongly that one English sports announcer excitedly yelled “That negro’s dangerous!” as Williams began to overtake all his opponents.
In 1932, Louise Stokes and Tidye Pickett had been the first Black American women to be accepted on the Olympics team. However, once there, they experienced discriminatory hazing and were both disappointingly substituted for White runners in their race, and thus did not compete at the games they had qualified for. 1936 was their chance.
Tidye, who ran in the semifinals of the 80m hurdles, was the first Black American woman to compete in the Olympics. Unfortunately, the German hurdles were not what she was used to, and she tripped over her second hurdle, breaking her foot, and couldn’t finish the race.
Watching, Louise Stokes vowed she’d win a gold medal for Tidye. But right before her race, the coach pulled Louise and put a White racer in her place, again. Understandably, she soon after quite running. She took up bowling, and dominated that sport as well.
All told, seven of the U.S.’s 11 track and field gold medals were won by Black Americans, as the Black American New York Age newspaper proudly reported:
Furthermore, the Black Eagles won fourteen medals at that year’s games. Eight of them gold. And more than half of the USA’s Olympic points were earned by Black Americans.
Jesse Owens returned home before the rest of the team. Upon his return to the states, the much-loved president Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t extend an invitation to meet with the American who had won four gold medals for the country against their philosophical enemy. The American who was now the world’s most famous athlete. (He was most likely thinking of his reelection and his racist “Dixie-crat” voters.) A month later Owens would say that he didn’t feel snubbed by Hitler — he felt snubbed by his own president. But most Americans have probably not heard that side of the story.
After his New York ticker-tape parade, Owens had to take a freight elevator up the Waldorf Astoria to get to the reception honoring him, because People of Color were not allowed to enter through the front door. To add more fuel to the fire, Jesse had come home to take advantage of some of the endorsement offers, because he had spent his entire career working part time jobs just to make ends meet because athletes of Color didn’t have near the amount of scholarships as White athletes did. In doing so, he had turned down an invitation to compete with the USA Olympic team in Sweden. Angered United States athletic officials revoked his amateur status, thus ending the only career a track and field athlete could have at the time. In order to make a living doing the thing he had become a hero for, he would resort to racing horses in exhibitions.
You might think, as many have proclaimed since, that the entire experience helped prove the White supremacy myths of the time wrong. Unfortunately, racism doesn’t work that way in the minds of racists. If Black American athletes had not won, White Supremacists would certainly have used it as evidence supporting their cause. But when the Black Americans did win, White Supremacy simply shaped it to their agenda — after the event, the Nazis claimed that African-descended people came from cultures that had spent their time running around all day in jungles and not becoming civilized — they were basically animals. And it wasn’t just the Nazi’s who believed this, but U.S. Olympic head coaches. This opinion still influences people all over the Western world. Races could be won, but there was no way to win racism.
Even though proving these racist beliefs wrong would be these very same 1936 Olympians. They became doctors of Chemistry and Mathematics (Lu Valle) and members of state and national congress (Albritton and Metcalfe). They instructed the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots (Archie Williams), co-wrote the resolution to create Black History Month (Metcalfe), co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus (Metcalfe), had schools named after them for their service to education (Tidye A Phillips school, Chicago), were buried at Arlington (Frederick Pollard), founded the Colored Women’s Bowling League (Stokes), and achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel (John Woodruff). One even became a pioneering Black American square dance caller (John Brooks).
In America, White mainstream newspapers quickly dropped the mention of the other athletes — it became the story of “Owens versus Hitler.” America, it seems, was (and arguably still is) much more comfortable with highlighting one personification of Black excellence than they were highlighting a large group. And thus, modern Americans don’t think of the 1936 Olympics as “the year of the Black Eagles.” They just think of it as the time Jesse Owens, seemingly alone, beat Hitler.
So, what does the 1936 Olympics have to do with the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball, besides of the fact they happened near the same time?
First off, as we learned how this amazing moment in American history was shaped by mainstream America, something struck close to home for us. Much in the same way that Jesse Owens was an exceptional athlete who dominates the world’s memory of the 1936 Olympics, Frankie Manning was an exceptional swing dance artist who has dominated the swing scene’s memory of Lindy Hop history. Other Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers may not have had as large of an impact on the dance and the resurgence of Lindy Hop in the modern scene, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve plenty of their own recognition.
That’s why the most important goal of this very essay series is not to simply organize the Harvest Moon Ball footage — it’s so that, in doing so, we can put the spotlight on other pioneers of the dance.
Secondly, if the 1935 Harlem riot explained New York’s relationship with its Black American community, the story of the 1936 Olympics helps explain America’s — and the Western world’s — relationship with displays of Black American excellence. All the glory Black Americans had won for their country and for their people still didn’t change the fact that they were, by law and by action, segregated and discriminated against by their own country, and still often thought of as uncivilized and even sub-human to most White people. Even by most of those White people who liked them and appreciated their skill.
It’s this public that will watch the Harlem dancers dance their Black American dance while cramped in their seats at Madison Square Garden, or in the theaters the Harvest Moon Ball newsreels played in — it’s this lens that most people of the time will see them through.
Shortly after the 1936 Olympics, prelims for the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball would take place at venues across the New York City area. The Savoy’s prelims would take place on Friday night, Aug 14, 1936. The Tuesday before, however, the midtown White-only Roseland Ballroom had their prelims. Want to see what they were like? It just so happens they filmed some of it for a newsreel:
(We breakdown identifying this footage in the Geek Out essay. )
This clip is pretty neat. First off, look at how much swing-style Charleston they’re doing. If you had never seen Lindy Hop anywhere else except this clip, you’d probably think the Charleston was the basic. There is one swing out, near the very end, and it’s a pretty snappy one, it doesn’t mess around. Notice there are hardly any basic turns, but there is a “tango” style move. A lot of these dancers most likely learned a lot by going to the Savoy, which dancers like White Roseland finalist Harry Rosenberg certainly did. (We discussed the obvious problems with appropriation and the Roseland Ballroom in our 1935 essay, and go into even more depth in the Geek Out version.)
Then, on August 14, the Savoy had their finals. Sadly, no news company went to film the Savoy’s prelims. (At least this year.) But they did, as usual, give a little story and publish the finalists from the Savoy comp, complete with the common, racist “Black people are naturally good at rhythm” implications often in these stories:
Among the finalists are names you know, and a few you love: Norma Miller, here partnering with Billy Ricker, who would be her partner for Hellzapoppin in five years. There’s also Snookie Beasely dancing with Willa Mae Ricker, and Ella Gibson dancing with George Greenidge. (We didn’t technically know how to spell George’s last name, as it is spelled differently in most sources. But thanks to the incredible research skills of Balboa (and fashion) historian Lewis Orchard, we now know it’s officially “Greenidge.” Thanks Lewis!)
If those last two partnerships are familiar to you, there’s a specific reason why, and if you haven’t guessed it by the time we get to the end, there we reveal all.
There’s also Charles Tynes and Lillian Travers, two Savoy Lindy Hoppers we didn’t know of until we broke down the 1935 footage.
And, finally, there’s some new names, like Eileen Mimms and George Austin, Maggie Gilan and Paul Niver, Red Elan and Helen Bundy, (spelled “Bunby” by the often inaccurate journalists), and Mary and Ed Reid. We’ll get to match dancing to two of these couples for sure.
Reading over the list of finalists, those who know Frankie’s book well might notice something unexpected: No Frankie. In his book, he devotes a full page to competing in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball. This appears to be a mistaken memory.
(See the Geek Out edition, in the section titled “The Mysterious Case of Ella and George,” for a lot more on Frankie’s memory, including a fascinating peep into the Cynthia Millman’s incredible experience in working with Frankie on the book. Even if you don’t read the entire Geek Out, it’s a really cool part.)
On Aug 26, a tightly-packed 22,000 people watched the finals inside Madison Square Garden while, in a repeat of 1935, another 20,000 clogged the streets outside unable to get in. Though there were several celebrities announced to huge applause, like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and mayor LaGuardia, the audience reportedly gave a five minute whoop and holler for Ginger Rogers.
The emcee of the evening was known more for being a Broadway theater columnist than an emcee but he’d do well enough. His name was Ed Sullivan.
Let’s see the original 1936 Harvest Moon Ball Newsreel (We discuss how we know it’s the 1936 newsreel in the Geek Out edition):
Who are these dancers? To help us out, the Daily News was kind enough to once again print the names of the competitors and their numbers. They also provided a very helpful photograph the day after the event:
Now, we have to acknowledge that this is a very helpful discovery for our project — it identifies three couples in the footage. That said, they mess up their own order — Willa Mae and Snookie are in the middle, not left. And, it also seems they messed something else up, but that wasn’t their fault. Something suspicious was going on in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball finals.
The Mysterious Case of
Ella & George
Notice the picture above mentions George Greenidge and Ella Gibson won this year’s Lindy comp. If you’ve never seen Ella and George up close before, take a look at this other picture of the winners with Bill “Bonjangles” Robinson (middle) that was put out after the contest.
There are hardly any photos of George that show his face very clearly. So, when we first saw this picture years ago saying their names, we said, “Wow, so that’s what George Greenidge looks like up close.” You might be thinking the same thing.
Oh yeah, before we go further, just so you have it: there was one other picture of the winners we found, from the Daily News, the day after the contest:
Now then: As we have been researching this project, something has continually bugged us about the winner’s pictures showing George and Ella close up. It doesn’t look particularly like George Greenidge should look like that. And now, because of clear film footage being uploaded to the internet thanks to clip collectors like Bill Green, we have a lot clearer view of George Greenidge’s face than we have ever had in the modern swing scene. Let’s compare: These are pictures of George from his Whitey’s dancing and a 1936 Life magazine story, surrounding pictures of George in the winners photo (outlined in burgundy).
And let’s look at Ella. Sadly, Day at the Races is the only dancing we have of her on film, and the only pictures we know of her are the Whitey’s Easter pictures from 1937. Let’s compare Ella from those sources with HMB Champion Ella (outlined in burgundy).
So, maybe you can see what began to dawn on us through this research: “George Greenidge” and “Ella Gibson,” winners of the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball, don’t appear to actually be the real George and Ella. (In our Geek Out version we go a lot more in depth into facial recognition tools, and also compare their dancing and body types.) What’s the story there?
Many might recall Norma Miller and Frankie Manning saying in interviews and books that sometimes at the Harvest Moon Ball the Whitey’s group switched dancers at the last minute. We now believe the 1936 ball is probably one of the specific times they had in mind when they said that. But why would they have to switch out dancers? There are a few obvious reasons — George or Ella could have gotten sick, or more likely, injured. But we found a possible different reason.
In a fantastic dissertation from academic jazz dance scholar Harri Heinilä on Harlem Lindy Hop, Harri retells a story passed on by the late and great Lindy Hop scholar Terry Monaghan. The story goes like this: Before the finals of a Harvest Moon Ball, Whitey refused to let George Greenidge and a partner, in that story, Eleanor “Stumpy” Watson), do the finals (in that story, the 1944 ball) because Eleanor refused to agree to give Whitey the prize money if they won.
Those of you who read the 1935 HMB Geek Out essay might not be that surprised by this, for we showed how Whitey was almost certainly taking their winnings. When we first heard this story, it sounded to us like the year Terry’s story took place was actually 1936, and that partner was Ella Gibson — after all, we had no evidence of George, Eleanor, or Ella dancing professionally past 1940, Ella and Eleanor have similar names, and George is accounted for in the finals of all the other years until the 1940s. So we posited that theory in the first publication of this article.
But then, on July 31, 2020 — the day after the first publication of this essay — ILHC released an amazing interview it had conducted with Eleanor Watson herself in 2006. At around 6 minutes, she confirmed that she stopped dancing professionally in the late 30s due to pneumonia — but she also came back to do the Harvest Moon Ball a few years later. That’s where she confirms the story of making it through the prelims, but then not going to the finals because they didn’t “kickback” money. We discovered evidence of that story in the 1944 preliminary rosters. So this means this particular instance was after all not that same story, however is still possibly a reason why it went down.
So — for some reason, possibly innocent, like an injury, or possibly dubious, like Whitey showing them who’s boss for some reason, George and Ella don’t move onto the finals. But, Whitey can’t just put a whole new couple into the finals that didn’t go through prelims, so he tells Mildred and Billie “Tonight, you’re George and Ella. Don’t let on otherwise.” Now, imagine the shock to all involved when the substitute couple won first place. Especially to the real George Greenidge and Ella Gibson.
The definitely real George Greenidge and Ella Gibson, we know, went on to do the champions’ tour with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers that ended with their performance in A Day at the Races. And the real George, whom, by the way, Terry’s story implies was probably okay with giving Whitey the winnings, would go on to compete in three more Harvest Moon Balls while as a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper. And, he would go by different last names each time. He had to, because remember — you weren’t allowed to compete again if you had won. Or, if they thought you had won.
Ella, sadly, was not mentioned much after A Day at the Races as far as the Lindy Hop history books were concerned. According to Frankie, she had left Whitey’s by the end of 1937.
So. If this isn’t the real George and Ella, who are THIS “George” and “Ella?” If they were good enough to win, isn’t there a good chance we’d know of them? Well, remember how Frankie had a memory in his book about competing in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball? Even though it appears he didn’t actually compete in this year, he does remember that Billie Williams and Mildred Cruse won the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball. (Some might remember that couple from our recent essay on them being a part of Frankie’s performance team dancing at the Savoy. ) Let’s compare them to our winners:
That looks a lot closer, but is that the only thing we have to go on? No. Because it just so happens Mildred Cruse herself said she won the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball.
In a short 1983 dancer biography written by professor and dance historian Robert Crease for the New York Swing Dance Society Newsletter, Mildred explained how she was secretly dancing Lindy Hop at the Savoy without her religious father’s approval, when she met a dancer named Billie Williams. Whitey “recruited them for his Lindy Hoppers and enrolled them in the Harvest Moon Ball. To their surprise, they came in first.”
With all of that in mind (and several other things, including comparisons of their dancing, discussed in the Geek Out edition), we feel we can trust the evidence that almost all seems to point to this couple being Billie Williams and Mildred Cruse.
Before we move on, we want to just quickly mention what a striking coincidence it was that both the 1936 Olympics and the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball seemed to have involved dubious and very impactful replacements at the last minute.
Alright, with that strange twist of events in mind, let’s see the breakdown of who’s who in the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball. If you’d like to get the general idea of how we generally solve the puzzle of identifying couples, check out our 1935 Geek Out article, which goes into depth on that process.
Mildred & Billie
Here, Mildred and Billy perform, as far as is known, the first two high, acrobatic lifts ever on film in Lindy Hop. (They’re not technically air steps. Having watched the footage, you might have realized there were no steps that could be described under the specific “air steps” move category. We’ll come back to that.) The first one they do is what Frankie called the “Ace in the Hole,” but today is more commonly called the “Candlestick.” To this audience, having not seen this before, these type of steps probably brought the house down.
We do want to point out one pretty slick moment below — in the top left corner, Mildred and Billie break from Back Charleston (what we call “Tandem” today), then Billie looks like he does a kick-kick-kick-cross (like the famous Big Apple line step), and then they both scoot-slide back into closed position:
Try it at home, it’s very satisfying.
Willa Mae & Snookie
Next let’s take a look at Willa Mae Ricker and “Snookie” Beasley.
In the GIF above they do a Charleston combo that ends in a mini-dip — the same much-loved step they will do in A Day at the Races. Those looking for graceful but still swinging Lindy arms really just need to watch Willa Mae Ricker. During the back-to-back turn, Snookie effortlessly hops backwards on one foot before a strong stomp-off — casual, cool.
Helen & Red
Now let’s talk about two Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers the modern scene hasn’t had much of a chance to get to know yet, Helen Bundy and Red Elan. They are hardly mentioned in either Frankie or Norma’s book, but they are obviously very good Lindy Hoppers of their time. From their dancing in this (admittedly very limited) 1936 footage, they seem to be the most synced-up partnership in their heat.
Helen & Red’s drags show how connected they are. They also choose to make their drags smooth and slidey, in stark contrast to all of the more energetic movement around them. Now let’s look at them do an interesting first in the Harvest Moon Ball footage:
Here, when Red is in his Squat Charlestons, we see the dramatic “running” bend suspended for a period of time. Helen is bent too — it’s probably to some extent a product of doing Squat Charlestons dramatically. This is the first time that heavily “running” look is seen for a long period of time in swing dance footage that we know of.
We mentioned at the end of the 1935 essay how Whitey’s Lindy Hop was truly defined after the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball. Here, one year later, with ensemble dancing, and acrobatic high lifts, “stops,” and slow motion — which according to Frankie were all new additions to the dance — we can see how much it truly has grown from the previous year.
Also in the first year, Edith Mathews and Leon James had proven that the other dance’s “rules” didn’t apply to Lindy Hop at the Harvest Moon Ball. It’s understandable, then, that this year all bets were off. And the fact that three couples of a heat decide to do a ensemble routine, knowing they were possibly throwing a wrench in the judging, is evidence they were truly sharing their dance with that audience, and not just caring about the judging.
Harriet & Harold (Shag)
We should take a moment to recognize Harriet and Harold, the Shag couple. This is the first Shag we have seen on the Harvest Moon Ball stage. They had tied with another Lindy Hop couple to make it into the finals, and they are the leak before the dam breaks: The popularity of this dance was about to explode in New York, and in 1937, the Harvest Moon Ball will announce its first “Collegiate Shag” division. To discuss Shag more, we’re going to need the help of some Shag experts, which we will do for our 1937 Harvest Moon Ball essay.
Norma & Billy
Norma Miller & Billy Ricker are the camera favorites and were probably the obvious stars of their heat.
Norma’s “twists” are on in full force. In them, she also throws her hand around high and then brings it low to accentuate her movement. Billy does a tight little backward-crossing Charleston style step during the twists. Speaking of Charleston, their Tandem Charleston is obviously springing with a lot of force into that floor.
Norma and Billy had their own exciting story to tell from this year. According to Billy Ricker, they felt their dancing was going fantastically, and they were confident in doing well in the contest. But then, Norma’s blouse got caught and ripped open. Robert Crease, who reported this story in another short bio published for the New York Swing Dance Society, said that points were deducted and they were disqualified.
Rewatch the Back Charleston section above — it can be hard to tell, but her blouse does appear ripped open up from the waist to the bust line. And those of you who had the chance to know Norma will not be surprised by this: if you go back and watch this section closely, you can actually see Norma look down, notice it, and then clearly not give a shit and keep on dancing.
Before we move onto the next couple, we just wanted to thank historian Karen Campos McCormack for helping us confirm this was Norma.
Maggie & Paul
In the background behind Norma & Billy’s antics, you’ll most likely see Maggie Gilan and Paul Niver, who were scheduled to be in Norma & Billy’s heat:
They are not shown much. They went to the finals in both Rhumba and Lindy Hop, here is a picture of them from the Savoy prelims:
You’ll notice in Heat C we have a “possible” Savoy finalist couple. That couple in the front left is moving in ways characteristic of many Savoy dancers — throwing their arms and occasionally heads into their movements with commitment, syncopated footwork play, legomania and continued swivels, etc. If we had to guess, we’d go with this couple being Lillian Travers & Charles Tynes. You can see a couple that is most likely them in our 1935 Harvest Moon Ball footage.
However, there are some possible problems — first off, what little we can see of these dancers’ skin seems lighter than Charles and Lillian, and they might even be white. (Or the glare of the spotlights could be creating a lightening effect.)
The couple in the back is possibly Harry Rosenberg & Rose Steinberg, also discussed in our 1935 essay. Their body types and movement looks similar (in really fuzzy detail from far away) and Rose wore a very similar outfit the previous year. But that’s all that’s going into our guess. As Charles and Lillian were supposed to be in the final heat, and Harry and Rose were supposed to be in the first, both of these guesses are not very likely correct.
While we only have a few seconds of Heat D footage, you can see there are some interesting possibilities going on: the couple on the left front is most likely a Savoy couple — not only do they appear to both be Black American, they also dance with a specific swing and styling to their legs in their Charleston that point to them being veteran Harlem Lindy Hoppers.
If we had to guess, we would put money on Eileen Mimms and George Austin, who happen to have the same height difference and body types as this couple, as shown in this picture from the 1938 Savoy prelims.
The couple on the bottom right corner of this heat is another mystery. They are both showing characteristic traits of Savoy dancing — she allows her head and upper body to “fall” and emphasizes breaks while he is playful with his footwork and timing while doing some commonly-Savoy kicking, crossing, and slip-slopping.
Since we have three Savoy couples from the list that are not accounted for, and three really Savoy-looking couples on the dance floor in heats C & D, it’s possible it all matches up rather neatly, which would make this third mystery couple the married duo Mary and Ed Reid. But only if it all happened to line up neatly. Not having one of the heats on film, we don’t know for sure.
1936’s Lindy Hop
We recommend taking a moment to look at the clip and try to forget what you know about Lindy Hop, only taking in what you see. Then, and only then, compare it to what Lindy Hop means to you today.
When we do this, we notice there aren’t any swing outs in this entire clip (just the one in the prelims). In fact, in 1935, Norma and “Stomping” Billy Hill do the only complete swing outs shown in the entire first two years of the Harvest Moon Ball footage. There were probably more done and the film editors just didn’t happen to include any, but it still suggests swing outs were not as popular at this point as they are today.
We also notice that there are hardly any side-passes or tuck-turns. The popular turns seem to be the Leader’s solo spin after a circle, and the partnered, back-to-back more-or-less-in-place barrel turns. And a lot of different Charleston patterns are widely used by all types of Lindy Hop dancers, but seem particularly heavily used by the White Lindy Hoppers.
Overall, it looks like the leader’s “running” look and air steps — by Frankie’s very specific definition — still hadn’t become common yet to these top dancers. (In this arguably small and short sample set, though one would think if it were on film, the editors would have prioritized getting in something exciting like that.) All of this makes us think it’s possible that Frankie’s air step contest might not have happened yet. If it did, they were relatively slow to spread and grow for this first year. At the very least, here in 1936 we don’t have any evidence yet that air steps are being done by these top level Lindy Hoppers. (But, before a year goes by, the real George Greenidge will do an entire jam in A Day at the Races in a “running” stance, and do an air step he invented — the “side flip” — in that jam.)
The judges were a very similar panel as 1935, allegedly judging by the same Olympic standards as 1935, though we don’t know what their “ideal” of Lindy Hop was. Or how many of those rules were thrown out when it came to Lindy. (According to Frankie, quite a lot.) But, here were their winners:
There you have it: “Ella” & “George” (Mildred & Billie) in first, Willamae & Snookie in 2nd, and Rose & Harry in 3rd.
The Day After
Once again, the Daily News gave different photo spreads on the contest the day after. We’ve shown the prime photographs already, but here are a few other pictures of interest.
Just as they had the previous year, the Daily News revisited the winners the next day.
Just as they had done the previous year, the winners of each style and overall winners were given week-long performing contracts at Loew’s theaters. The show was a popular one. Now, recall how one heat of the Whitey’s did ensemble dancing. Interestingly, Loew’s theater soon ended up hiring the 2nd place Lindy Hop couples as well for the performances, perhaps inspired by that ensemble dancing.
Now let’s check in with Mildred Cruse, the winner of this year’s ball. Remember how she was secretly dancing without her very-religious father’s approval when Whitey asked them to dance in the 1936 contest. As readers of our 1935 essay might remember, Mildred Cruse had previously been in the 1935 Harvest Moon Ball, with Snookie Beasely. So it’s likely the 1935 ball that was the one she was in when she was trying to keep her dancing secret from her family. This possibly-confused memory isn’t a big deal, but it does help support a great story she tells in that interview:
You see, a funny thing happened to her the week after that first Harvest Moon Ball. A neighbor of hers they called “the Bronx Home Tatler” told her parents she had seen Mildred. In a newsreel. Her parents immediately took them all out to the theater, and Mildred sank into her chair as they played a newsreel from the Harvest Moon Ball, one which apparently focused on her enough that her parents recognized her. Mildred was mortified and expected the worst. But her parents were actually very understanding. Like parents straight out of progressive sitcoms from the 90s, they told her they always wanted her to be able to talk to them, and even if they didn’t agree with her wishes, they’d try to understand them.
Again, we’re pretty sure it was the 1935 newsreel this story was referring to, which definitely showed her face close enough that on the gloriously large screen of a movie theater, any tattle-tail neighbors could clearly see it.
We’re sure Mildred tested her parents’ promise, as she soon after became a professional Lindy Hopper, dated her partner, often stayed in co-ed hotel rooms with the group (the Whitey’s stayed in the fewest hotel rooms possible to save money), and within two years married a tap dancer. Mildred and that tap dancer, William Martin, were happily married and had four children, and they were still performing a couple’s dance act at the time of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1988.
So, back to 1936, after the ball. Whitey once again has had two of his couples in the top three placements in the Harvest Moon Ball. And once again, performance demands for his Lindy Hoppers came in. By September he had a group of his Harvest Moon Ball performing with Ethel Waters under the name the Six Lindy Hop Champions. Then, in October, an article started strangely popping up in newspapers all over the states — Indiana, Ohio, Delaware, Pittsburgh, even Canada:
Seemingly a puff piece on a hip new dance step, this article’s circulation is surprising, but, soon enough, the newspapers are sprinkled with articles on this or that show or performance that will showcase the new sensation, the “Susie Q.” (And, of course, all the alternate spellings of such.)
Whitey seemed to be getting the hang of promotion and keeping things fresh in the dance performance world. Not to mention, he possibly invented the step the Suzy-Q. (It’s hard to take his word without disclaimers — he had also claimed to have invented the Lindy Hop in an article.)
Mildred Cruse and Billie Williams joined with Frankie Manning’s performance group, which did bookings at the most prestigious Harlem clubs like The Cotton Club and the Apollo. And in March of 1937, the definitely real Ella & George, Willa Mae & Snookie, and Norma & 1935’s HMB champion, Leon James, would all go on tour with Ethel Waters. We know they were the definitely real George and Ella now because Ethel’s tour would take them to the Black nightclub area on Central Avenue in Los Angeles — the city’s “Little Harlem” — where they would wow some film executives in the crowd, and be asked to be a part of a new Marx Brothers comedy they were about to film called A Day at the Races.
So if you were wondering where you had heard of the partnerships George Greenidge & Ella Gibson, and Willa Mae Ricker & Snookie Beasely before, that’s where.
The 1935 and 1936 Harvest Moon Ball newsreels had helped bring the electric young style of Harlem’s Lindy Hop around the world. Soon, it would be Hollywood’s turn, with the release of A Day at the Races. But while those early greats began their world tours, Cotton Club and Apollo performances, and film shoots, Whitey had a whole new group of up-and-comers getting ready for the next year’s 1937 Harvest Moon Ball.
r his death, his European child
For an in-depth essay on A Day at the Races, check out:
A Gaze into a Day At the Races.
Sources & Thanks
- Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1936 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
- When not otherwise stated, all other information, especially regarding the opinions and experiences of the original dancers, is from Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman and Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen.
- Huge thanks to Cynthia Millman and Judy Pritchett for sharing their time, resources, and thoughts with me in working on this piece.
- If you were at all interested in the 1936 Olympic games story, you must watch the documentary Olympic Pride, American Prejudice, here.
- We must give a huge thanks to Harri Markus Juhani Heinilä for his dissertation An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality – The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 (published in 2016) which, as readers saw, helped us find what we felt was the solution to the mystery of “George” and “Ella.” Though we have not yet read all of it, we can already recommend it as a fantastic resource for research on Harlem Lindy Hop.
- The short biography of Mildred Cruse by Robert Crease can be read in full here. And the short biography of Billy Ricker can be read in full here. Thanks so much to Crease, Cynthia Millman, and The Frankie Manning Foundation for republishing those fantastic bios which are a great wealth to the history of the dance.
- Huge thanks to Jessica Miltenberger for her help in reviewing and editing the piece.
15 responses to “The 1936 Harvest Moon Ball”
[…] is the longer GEEK OUT version, where we go into detail in everything. For the snack sized version, click here. For our 1935 HMB essay, click […]
UPDATE — 7/31/20: ILHC released an amazing interview with Eleanor Watson herself the day after this was published. At around 6 minutes, she confirmed that she stopped dancing professionally in the late 30s due to pneumonia, but she also did tell a story, that we confirmed with newspaper evidence, about coming back to compete in the Harvest moon Ball, and them made it through finals, and then them not being able to go through to finals because they didn’t “kick back” money. So this means this particular 1936 instance was not that what story was referring to. However, it is still possibly a reason why it went down. We have updated the language in both articles accordingly.
Amazing post as usual Bobby! Love the research, storytelling and hardcore geeking that goes into these.
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