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The 1938 Harvest Moon Ball (GEEK OUT)

March 23, 2021
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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

This is the longer, Geek-Out version of this article, which includes the most in-depth information and research. For the shorter, Snack-Sized version, click here. (Update: 8/29/21— We have found more footage)

This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page.

Banner Daily_News_Sun__Jul_17__1938_ (1)

The fourth Harvest Moon Ball began with an identity crisis. The “new” dance Collegiate Shag, apparently, wasn’t being what it was supposed to be.

The Collegiate Split

In our 1937 essay we discussed the rise of Collegiate Shag’s popularity in New York, and the introduction of its own division to the Harvest Moon Ball. Then, in a separate essay, we discussed the Big Apple dance craze that swept America in the fall of that year. Well, take a look at this fascinating article that appeared in the early stages of the 1938 HMB announcements: (If you don’t want to read it, we paraphrase it right after.)

1938 BIG APPLE shag vs other shag Daily_News_Sat__Jul_23__1938_

From the Daily News, July 23, 1938.

To paraphrase: After only a year since the first Collegiate Shag division, the Harvest Moon Ball dance committee had felt that Collegiate Shag had become almost two different dances. This, they theorized, was because a lot of the ways youth were dancing it were being influenced by the Big Apple craze, thus creating a new style of Shag that most likely involved a lot of breaking away, acrobatics, and adding other dance steps to the mix.

One can infer from the article that the committee labelled Ballroom dances as partnered dances with no breaking away, which they felt the original, non-Big Apple-Collegiate Shag style fell under. One can also infer from the article that they believed the new Big Apple-Collegiate Shag dance was becoming too “acrobatic,” “vulgar,” and “lewd” for a smooth ballroom dance. (They also seemed to forget that the name “college” is right there in the name.) So, the committee urged those “Big Apple type” Collegiate Shag dancers to enter the Lindy Hop division, and reserve the Collegiate Shag division for “Collegiate Shag proper” — the “smooth,” “graceful,” “vital” ballroom dance. 

Let’s briefly dive into some of the layers of what might have been going on behind this article.

One possibility is that these Ballroom Dance community leaders were attempting to keep a grip on the “Collegiate Shag,” and its name, in order to keep it a Ballroom dance by their definitions, ideals, and tastes — rather than allowing for the organic evolution of the youthful street dance to define and redefine itself. The tastes of the Ballroom Dance Committee almost certainly could be categorized as Middle-class/Upper-class Euro-centric American adult tastes, it’s important to note for our further discussion. 

The fact that the committee looked at the dancers doing the “Big Apple type” Collegiate Shag, and saw something they felt belonged more to the Lindy Hop division, meant they were probably picking up on some things about the nature of folk swing dances, but not on others. If we were to guess, they probably looked upon a floor of young Shag dancers mixing lots of different steps, experimenting, breaking away from each other, shining and showing off, and feeling comfortable moving a lot of different body parts — and correctly saw signs of things this new Shag style shared in common with values seen in Lindy Hop. (Values that are a core part of Black American artistic values, by the way.)

What they probably missed is that Lindy Hop is conceptually a pretty different dance than Shag. For instance, one of the most fundamental differences is that Collegiate Shag’s basic over-all movement is based on hopping, while Lindy Hop’s (ironically) isn’t — it’s more of a walking/running dance. And this one fundamental difference changes greatly the way momentum is used, how dancers travel, and what expression comes out of the dance. And all evidence we’ve seen shows that, though Shag and Lindy can have very similar spirits, and be danced to the same type of music, those mechanical differences were pretty well adhered to by those dancers at the time. Collegiate Shaggers of this time did not look like they were doing Lindy Hop, and vice versa.

Then there’s a deliciously striking line in the article. As if to subtly contradict the committee is has been reporting, the article’s author Roger Dakin wonders how the Big-Apple-Shag dancers will do going up against “the Lindy Hop fundamentalists from the Savoy Ballroom.” Dakin, perhaps, saw the soul of the Savoy Ballroom for what it truly was. Yes, Lindy Hop was a “liberal” dance — but it was still a very specific dance, a dance with specific values and specific unspoken rules; a dance that someone, even an entire neighborhood, could be fundamentalist about.

In our 1937 HMB essay, we mentioned we didn’t know why there was no “Collegiate Shag” prelim held at the Savoy, even though Shaggers were nightly filling up the ballroom to dance. Here we possibly have found our reason. When it came to Swing, the Savoy and its dancers were strictly Lindy Hop fundamentalists.

So, was all of this, in a sense, Ballroom dance attempting to stake a claim over the young Collegiate Shag, taking it in, making it wear nice clothes and learn good table manners? There were certainly good business reasons for doing so — the dance had gotten a lot of youth into the ballroom dancing studios. But then there’s the question of race, which seems to hide under the bed and in the closets of every room in America: Were the Ballroom dance leaders consciously, or subconsciously, trying to keep Black Artistic values — easily code-worded as “acrobatic,” “lewd,” and “suggestive,” — away from their ballrooms, their dances, and their students? We don’t have definitive answers to these questions, and don’t mean to imply we do. But we also can’t help but feel there’s a collision of different ideas about race, age, and class in this article that make it very hard to unravel. You know, typical America.

Meanwhile, in Harlem…Er, Midtown. 

Manhattan mapHarlem was in the middle of its own identity crisis, also brought on by White elites, though this one obviously had its foothold in America’s racial past. Throughout the jazz era, Harlem had been the nightspot for many White downtowners and a must-see on the list for many tourists. As the famous 1933 “Nightclub Map of Harlem” by the incredible Black American illustrator E. Simms Campbell shows, there was no end of entertainment. By 1938, though, a good portion of Harlem’s famed nightspots and entertainers had moved downtown to Broadway. In September of 1937, The Dunkirk Evening Observer had written a story called “Broadway Doesn’t Go to Harlem, So Harlem Goes to Broadway.” To tourists, the writer explains, “New Yorkers must patiently explain that to see Harlem, it is necessary to safari from Times Square to Broadway.” The author also has a description that cuts: “That local Mason-Dixon line at 125th street has become the great divide. Broadway doesn’t go above it any more.” (For our Non-American readers, the Mason-Dixon line is a border that has often been used as a short-cut to geographically divide the North and the South in the United States, especially when it comes to their cultures, and the racial implications of that — the south was the land of slavery, then Jim Crow, and overt racism in general. The author of the article was basically inferring New York City had the equivalent of that. It’s important to mention, though, the North has its own complex racial past as well.)   

It was like an inverse-gentrification. Instead of moving into Harlem and taking over, White downtown instead took all the businesses away from Black uptown. Now White people didn’t have to spend time in a Black neighborhood when they wanted their Black entertainment. Instead, it came to them, and didn’t even come through the front door. Once again its a reminder that there was still a boiling racial tension between Harlem and New York, America, and the world, even when thousands cheered on the Black Harlem dancers at the Harvest Moon Ball, and wherever the newsreels played.

Traditionally, the Western world has very happily taken Black entertainment, and ignored, or worse, terrorized, the Black people whose culture created it. Think of how this still goes on today. 

 

Prelims

1938 Helen Bundy picture Daily_News_Wed__Aug_3__1938_

The fourth Harvest Moon Ball began with a few prelims in Connecticut to appease the demands of dancers there for their own prelims. It also reminded people that proceeds of the ball went to charities, such as camps for underprivileged kids.

August 12th was the night of the Savoy prelims. According to the Daily News, the prelims at the Savoy went on for an hour before the judges could make their decision. Music was provided by Erskine Hawkins & His ‘Bama State Collegians.

Our readers may recall that, in 1936, newsreels captured the Roseland Ballroom Lindy Hop prelims. Now, in 1938, the Savoy Prelims were captured for the first time. Enjoy:

There’s quite a difference between the two years of dancing, and the way the two groups danced. 

How do we know this footage was from the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball Savoy Prelims? The first clue they were, in general, from an HMB prelim was the fact that a news crew was there to film it, and the contestants were wearing the large, square numbers that we saw in the 1936 Roseland prelims. Then we saw, in the background, the woman dancer pick up her dance partner, and we realized there was a good bet we knew who they were. A photograph in the Daily News from the Savoy 1938 prelims helped us confirm our hunch, and showed them wearing the exact same outfits and number as in the film:

1938 mildred al pic savoy prelims Daily_News_Sat__Aug_13__1938_

Albert “Al” Davis Minns was born on New Year’s day, 1920, in Newport News, Virginia. ccording to jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan, via Harri Heinila, he started dancing to the music of his professional musician father’s 12-string guitar playing around the age of five. Like many Black families in the South, they underwent their own Great Migration north, and moved to Harlem. There, Al would perform with his father at rent parties, and, like many kids — including Norma Miller — dance on the sidewalks for tips.

In Jazz scholar Marshall Stearns’ research notes, we get glimpses into Al’s early life in Lindy Hop. As a teenager, he learned Lindy Hop from high school girls that were being taught by Savoy dancers. When he hit the dance floor, Al liked to dress in dark suits and starched collars, “like a businessman,” and was such an “enthusiastic” dancer, people thought he was from Brooklyn. (Implying Brooklyn dancers were more energetic.) The notes suggest that his enthusiastic style was because Al had gone straight from doing Charleston to doing Lindy, whereas most other Savoy dancers had also done a lot of dances like Peabody that smoothed out their energy. By 1937, Al was dancing at the Savoy Ballroom. And now, only one year later, the 18-year-old was dancing in the Harvest Moon Ball prelims.

Mildred “Millie” Pollard was also part of the Great Migration. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929, her family brought her to New York when she was 5. As she told Robert Crease in an interview, her father was a minister, and as a young girl she had a rare, strikingly deep voice and sang for the church. It was in that church that she met three other kids — Joyce James, Joe Daniels, and Al Minns. They formed a singing group. You heard us right, four of the incredible pioneers of Lindy Hop were first a singing group. Not only did they sing, the group learned Lindy Hop. Perhaps Al was passing on dancing he was learning from other teenagers, or perhaps Mildred and Joyce were some of the girls learning Lindy Hop from Savoy dancers.

In 1937, the group first went to the Savoy. It was the night of the weekly Lindy Hop contest, the one Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were almost shoo-ins to win. But most of the Whitey’s were out on performing jobs this particular week, and Al and Mildred entered and took first place. The group of four came back and Al and “Millie” won again the next week, and the next. As Mildred explained to Robert Crease, it was then that the Savoy phoned up Whitey and told him about the upset. Whitey’s reply? If the four didn’t join Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, they weren’t allowed to enter the contest anymore.

According to Mildred, Whitey was very pleased when he saw what he had acquired. And we don’t doubt her. The proof is in the timeline — in that same year of 1937, the young Joe Daniels and Joyce James took second place in the Harvest Moon Ball, beating out several of Whitey’s veteran teams, and Mildred herself was soon after teamed up with 1937 Harvest Moon Ball champion Eddie “Shorty” Davis for the Whitey’s film scene in Radio City Revels.

Three things about Mildred tend to come up in the original dancers’ stories about her: she didn’t like being the flyer in air steps, she was strong, and she was so good at boogying (as in, moving her hips and backside), that “Boogie” became her Whitey’s nickname. Mildred was so good at it that they highlighted her by having her truck across the scene before the Lindy Hop jams in 1937’s Radio City Revels:

These three characteristics — disliking flying in air steps, strength, and boogying — greatly shaped her dancing. Because she was strong and didn’t like to fly, she became the thrower and lifter in the couple. The unexpected relationship made her and her partner something along the lines of a “comedy team.” Al Minns — thin, energetic, light, and strong — was the perfect flyer for Mildred’s throwing. Because she was so good at Boogying, Mildred would, years later, change her name to Sandra Gibson (using her husband’s last name) and become a Blues dance performer. You can see her powerful dancing in The Spirit Moves film here.  

And so, only a year after appearing in their first Savoy weekly competition, the talented young dancers Al, Mildred, Joyce, and Joe, were all finalists in the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball. Speaking of which, here were all of the Savoy preliminary Lindy Hop winners, as printed in the Daily News:

1938 Savoy finalist with names Daily_News_Sat__Aug_13__1938_

From the Daily News, Aug 13, 1938

Sarah Ward & William Downes, Mildred & Al, Joyce James & Joe Daniels, Wilda Crawford & Ernest Harriston, Connie Hill & Russell Williams, Genevieve Davis & Lee Lynes.

There’s two in this posting we haven’t mentioned yet. We have to explain their names — “Bunny Miller” and “George Ricker.” First off, yes, Bunny Miller is none other than Norma Miller. This was likely because Whitey feared the Harvest Moon Ball organizers might have gotten wind of the fact that Norma Miller was very much a professional dancer by this point, which the contest rules didn’t allow. The proof was right before the eyes of anyone who had seen the most recent Marx Brothers’ hit movie, A Day at the Races.

You might have noticed Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers often had nicknames given to them by the group. We were wondering if “Bunny” might have been Norma’s Whitey nickname, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Few people were closer to Norma Miller than dancer, instructor, and tradition bearer Mickey Davidson, who is one of “Norma’s daughters,” a small group of women who were as close as family with the legend. Though Mickey had heard Norma’s sister Dot and another family member call Norma “Bunny,” she had never heard dancers call her that. So it was likely a family nickname rather than her Whitey’s nickname.

And, as those who have read our 1936 essay might have guessed, “George Ricker” is actually George Greenidge. (We are pretty certain on this one; his dancing and face are very clear in the footage.) George couldn’t sign up under his real name, as fellow Lindy Hopper Billie Williams had danced under his name in the 1936 finals and won. So, it looks like fellow Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Billy Ricker was kind enough to lend George his last name for the comp.

So then, here are the prelims with our IDs:

This breakdown will appear on YouTube here a week after this post’s publication. 

One thing you might have notice: The tempos are blazing. We clocked approximately 280 BPM for this prelim. 

How did we come to the IDs we did in the prelims film? First off, the identifications would not have been possible without the list of preliminary winners posted in the Daily News paper. That gave us the partnerships to keep an eye on. Newspaper pictures, like the one of Al and Mildred, and the one below of Joyce and Joe, helped us solidify those two IDs. The rest are based on knowledge of couples’ dancing, facial/body type recognition, the dancing and outfits seen compared to those in the 1938 finals, and various factors of elimination. For instance, Eleanor “Stumpy” Watson is a guess, but she has a very specific body type and dances in a very specific way, and was in 1937’s Radio City Revels, so we know she was dancing at this time. It made us confident to at least put a “possibly” tag on it. We try to be conservative with our tags, so whatever amount of doubt we have, we try to express that.

Jo Joyce Pic Daily_News_Sun__Aug_14__1938_

From The Daily News, Aug 14, 1938. 

Six days later, following the Roseland and Bronx prelims, the Daily News published this article:

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From the Daily News, Aug 18th, 1938

Some jazz dance historians in the past and present have often taken these types of articles at their word — that the Daily News writer, or the judges, or an abstract, collective “everyone,” seemingly felt Harlem would have a run for their money in this or that year of the HMB Lindy Hop division. There are many of these articles over the years, this one is nothing special. But we personally don’t see how there is any doubt about who owns this contest, and you may agree with us when you see the footage. And we mean that as objectively as possible — the Harlem Lindy Hoppers appear to us unquestionably superior in their movement, smoothness, energy, acrobatics, costuming, and showmanship. Understandably so, as they were pretty much a group of professionals dancing against amateurs. (To be fair, we don’t see one full heat of White dancers in the newsreels, so we don’t have a perfect comparison. But that leads to the question: was none of that heat worth showing in the newsreels? Basically, we’re pretty confident that there was very little true competition for the Harlem Lindy Hoppers in this year.)

Having worked in newspapers ourselves, allow us to offer a journalistic take on the article. Every year, the Harvest Moon Ball reporter had to write literally dozens of stories about the ball. Registration announcement after registration announcement, prelim story after prelim story. Most entertainment reporters would try to pull any story they could from such a repetitive beat, for their own sanity if not the paper’s desire to make it more interesting. Since the HMB was the Daily News’ own event and fundraiser, they had even more reason to spice up and hype up the event by hyperbolizing a possible competition with the undefeated powerhouse Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. So if the Roseland Lindy Hop prelims go really well, and a couple from the Bronx is pretty impressive, it’s a chance to seed some interest in the ball by highlighting a competitive component.

Simply put, this is probably just 1930s clickbait. Or, another way of looking at it, this is reality-TV show editing, where they try to create conflict among their “reality” stars just to get people to stay tuned.

We want to recognize that it is tempting and interesting to consider other possibilities, and read into it more deeply: for instance, does the existence of articles like these betray a White reporter not truly understanding what makes great Lindy Hop great? Or is there a resentful attitude, held by the mainstream White people, of the Black dancers so often winning the contest? We wondered questions like these ourselves. But, personally, have not yet seen any strong proof of it. If anything, we have mostly seen evidence for a general “othering” that went, well, the other way — Lindy Hop was a Black dance, so of course Black people excelled at it. The HMB’s White male Ballroom judges themselves almost always gave all of the top placements to Black dancers, so there is little sign of racial resentment or ignorance of Lindy Hop on the expert level. Harry Rosenberg, one of a few White dancers in Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, remembered the first time he performed on stage as a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper. The audience went wild, and his own friends were amazed to see a White person being able to dance like a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper. And in an interview we did with an average, everyday white NYC jitterbug of the swing era, the dancer and a friend went to Harlem one time. They saw the Lindy Hoppers perform there, and he implied that he thought them so beyond and above his own dancing that they were just other-worldly.

Even some of the White dancers clearly had admiration and a desire to dance like the Black Harlem Lindy Hoppers. One of these couples, as we’ll discuss, got their picture in the paper by winning the Club Fordham prelims in the Bronx:

Buster Swing tiny harris prelims Daily_News_Fri__Aug_19__1938_ 

 

Finals

Finals were held August 31. As usual, Madison Square Garden was sold out at 20,000, with thousands more left waiting outside, unable to get tickets. In the audience were Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Fred Astaire. For the evening, Billie Holiday was announced to sing with Artie Shaw. Artie wrote a song especially for the event, “Harvest Moon Hop.” We have not been able to find any more information on the song, and it did not appear to ever be recorded under that name.

Once again, huge thanks to HMB program collector Sonny Watson for his Street Swing website, which lists the numbers of this year’s Shag and Lindy finalists. One thing that is different between the program listing here and the Savoy finalists above is that Mae Miller & Walter Johnson are listed in the finals in Watson’s source (the original 1938 HMB program), whereas Savoy finalists Lee Lynes & Genevieve Davis are not. We believe Mae and Walter are correct for these finals — we will see them dancing at several more Harvest Moon Balls, and their dancing looks familiar in this year’s. But we don’t know the story behind the switch.

SHAG numbers

LINDY numbers

From Sonny Watson’s 1938 Harvest Moon Ball page.

We are lucky that quite a few newsreels exist from the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball. Here is an example of one of the originals.

CLIK HERE FOR ONE OF THE ORIGINAL NEWSREELS (YouTube)

Now, here is our breakdown version, collected and reassembled from several newsreels: (Btw, the sound might be distracting, you may want to watch it muted. We leave it in mainly because sometimes there’s the actual live music you’re hearing.) 

Update 8/29/21: We have acquired a new newsreel of the competition which has a few more snippets of both Shag & Lindy. Aside from a glimpse at a Shag heat we previously didn’t have, it has some beautiful close ups of the Harlem Lindy Hoppers. This has been added into the footage.

This breakdown will appear on YouTube here a week after this post’s publication. 

 

Lindy Hop

HEAT 1

Tiny Harris & Buster Swing

Tiny & Buster are one of the only White couples we have seen thus far in the Harvest Moon Ball that seemingly strive to dance as much as possible in the expressive, dynamic, heavily acrobatic Whitey’s style. The air step sequence they do where the man jumped over the woman and the woman pulled him up by the pants is a trademark Whitey’s sequence that was done at the ending of Radio City Revels, filmed the year before — Lindy Hop fans will likely recognize it from Frankie Manning’s iconic jam in Hellzapoppin’.  There’s also the Whitey’s “sack of potatoes” air step (a modern name for it, not the original Whitey’s), and the “down the back” carry. Basically, Buster & Tiny knew their Whitey’s steps.

Buster & Tiny were from the Bronx, and we conjecture they might have made the Savoy ballroom their swing dancing home away from the Bronx, as opposed to traveling further downtown to the Roseland, where the majority of the HMB’s White finalists tended to come from. Buster and Tiny are almost certainly nicknames or false names, especially the full name “Buster Swing,” and those names never appear in the papers again. Couple #55, Tony & Jerry, appear to be trying to dance in a similar spirit — breakaways, acrobatics, humor — but they don’t have the look and moves of dancers who’ve spent a lot of time watching and trying to mimic the Whitey’s.

The other dancing in this heat is along the lines of what we’ve seen from the White dancing couples in the past three years of the ball — relatively less upper body expression and lots of Charleston-kick heavy footwork.

 HEAT 2

So, yeah. Al Minns, Mildred Pollard, Norma Miller, George Greenidge, William Downes, Sarah Ward. Imagine if you were the fourth couple to dance in this heat. That honor/terror went to #58,  May and Anthony, two perfectly fine jitterbugs who found themselves surrounded by some of the greatest Lindy Hop performers of the era.

Also, in case you didn’t notice, in the snippet above Mildred and Al are in the middle of doing an early Whitey’s version of “Stops.” And Norma & George, bottom right, are doing the first “handspring” air step seen in historical footage. This one merely goes up and stays up. But, one could see how this version could evolve into the famous Whitey’s step they would call “Handspring front flip,” what many in the scene commonly call a “pancake” today.

 

Mildred Pollard & Al Minns

Remember what we’ve mentioned about Mildred & Al — Al’s energy, Mildred’s boogying — and see here how well they are synced up with one another. You can also see how strong Mildred is in her balance, weight, movement, and groundedness. You can see how light and loose, but powerful, Al’s entire body moves, giving it an electrifying explosiveness. Their style compliments each other beautifully. The air step they do is commonly called “hat trick” today (not likely the original Whitey’s name for it), and it’s notable for being an acrobatic step that can still keeps the follower’s head above her shoulders and doesn’t have to get her feet too far off the ground — a great air step for a dancer like Mildred who had fears of flying. This is the first instance we have of this air step on film. In fact, we can’t think of any other footage of this air step from the swing era.

Here is one of Al’s iconic dance steps, one of the moves that earned him nicknames in the group like “Rubberlegs” and “Jellylegs” (the apparent nickname on Al’s Whitey’s varsity jacket in the left side of this picture .) Mildred’s boogie and twist is the perfect counterpoint. Their dancing is the embodiment of the Lindy Hop yin and yang of strength and relaxation, control and freedom.

Mildred told Robert Crease this story about the climax of their heat, sadly not captured by the newsreels: at the end, Al jumped into Mildred’s arms. “Nobody in his right mind would have agreed to do it but Albert,” Mildred told Crease. She then went on to say how Whitey was watching from the sidelines, and covered his eyes. When he opened them again, Mildred was holding Al, both of them smiling. If she is describing the move you can see in the prelims, Al was also most likely kicking his feet and throwing his arms in a frenzy like he was here (watch the couple in the back), which would have made Mildred’s strength even more impressive:

Mildred did this specific move previously with Eddie “Shorty” Davis at the end of Radio City Revels. And, as you’ll see in the pictures from the finals, there is one of Mildred and Al clearly doing this move shown above.

You might remember Al’s famous move in Hellzapoppin’ where his partner Willa Mae Ricker holds him upside down while he shakes his legs. In Frankie’s book, he mentioned that this Hellzapoppin’ move was invented by Al and Mildred. We would bet good money that that move evolved from this one.

Norma & George

Norma Miller returned this year for her third Harvest Moon Ball. Her partner this year was “Long” George Greenidge.

In the first two years of the Harvest Moon Ball newsreels, the only real swing outs we saw came from Norma Miller and her partner “Stomping” Billy Hill. Fitting then, that in this year, Norma and her partner also account for almost all the swing outs in the 1938 footage — four of them in a row. First off, we notice and love the explosiveness of the point Norma shoots out of the Swing out. You also get a good view of how much Norma swiveled with her entire body.

This footage of the Charleston kicking and turning we first saw in one of the trailers for Ken Burn’s Jazz. It’s the only place we’ve seen this footage, but it means there’s a good chance there’s more footage somewhere out there of this year of the Harvest Moon Ball. It’s great to see such a clear, up close example of both this great step, and Norma and George’s movement. It’s also great to see the close up of Norma’s face in the slow motion section. (Update: The new footage we have found and added into the breakdown clip is likely the newsreel Ken Burns likely used for the trailer.) 

For those who haven’t tried to dance Lindy Hop with acrobatics for three-to-four minutes at tempos 250 BPM and higher before, there are some important things to know about the limitations of the human body. For instance, even the best athletes in the world in peak condition could not sprint all-out for that length of time. Sprinting starts to diminish greatly after a few seconds. When you watch Hellzapoppin’, for instance, imagine that you’re watching mostly a sprint — each jam is only around 20 seconds long, so they are able to go all-out with everything they’ve got. But a Harvest Moon Ball heat was six to eight times that length, and part of doing an acrobatic-heavy dance is managing energy level. So, don’t think of Slow Motion as a “cheat,” but instead as a brilliant answer that allows the dancers precious time to catch their breath, lower their heart rates, and get ready for another sprint. From the perspective of the dancing, it overall makes it more dynamic via contrast, and allows them to express a lot of personality. You’ll notice Mildred and Al also do Slow Motion. (With all of that in mind, Mildred and Al’s high energy level throughout the footage is even more impressive.)

Finally, in the background here (above), you can see Norma and George do the first Around the Back we’ve seen in the classic footage.  

Sarah Ward & William Downes

For those who might have heard the name but don’t remember where, William Downes is the leader in the first jam in Hellzapoppin‘, known for his smooth, laid back dancing style — even at 300+ BPM. In her book, Norma Miller recalled that William Downes and his sister were two very talented dancers who started off their Lindy Hop careers by themselves, doing gigs around Harlem. The way Norma tells it, Whitey came to them and said they should be working for him. Feeling they were doing just fine on their own, they declined — Whitey paid them a visit again, this time with his goons. They signed up with Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers after all.

Sadly, we don’t get to see much of William and his partner Sara here. The best we get is them (in the background) doing a really fun come-together after a breakaway:

If we had to guess, this step might be coming from a Front Handspring, like the one Norma & George do earlier. William Downe’s dancing in Hellzapoppin‘ is so iconic that we wish we had a lot more of his dancing on film.

By the way, we were confident with our identifications in this heat because all the numbers worked out with their listings, and we recognized all their dancing, body types, and faces enough to convince us.

HEAT 3

The third heat of the evening appears to be completely composed of either present or future Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. It’s easy to imagine this making it even harder for the dancers in this heat, because each couple is competing for the judge’s attention against three other highly-trained performance couples, as opposed to just two. (In just a few years’ time, the HMB will even jump to five couples per Lindy heat.) Below is the entire footage we have found of Heat C, which was also the third heat in the contest:

Note: this part of the clip can be a little disorienting because it cuts from one side of the dance floor to the same angle on the other side, thus flipping the dancers without making it obvious.

Something we have heard before from Harvest Moon Ball competitors is that it was well known among the dancers that the White heats got slower tempos than the Black heats. Those competitors were mostly 1950s, ’60s and ’70s competitors speaking at a panel, but it appears to be the case even in these earlier years. For instance, the first heat you see with all White dancers is approx. 228 BPM. Heat 2, having all Black couples except for one, is approx. 237 BPM. This third heat, however, jumps rather dramatically, up to approx. 258 BPM. Anyone who has danced all-out at these tempos knows there are big differences between these speeds, especially Heat 2’s and Heat 3’s. Though this might have given Heat 2 an unfair advantage, it’s not necessarily so. Because speed plays a huge role in potential energy — if you can hang at 260 BPM, your moves will not only have the effect of faster movement, your acrobatics can also get more power from the speed than you can at slower tempos. (Just think of the height difference you can get between jumping fast verses jumping slow.)

Another possible problem is how you train. If you’ve honed your dancing for 260 BPM and then suddenly get a 240 BPM tempo in your heat, your dancing might suddenly become sluggish at the lower tempo, like a race car in lower gear. Or, the opposite, you might be so amped up on the adrenaline that 20,000 yelling fans give you that you might constantly run ahead of the tempo, or fight to keep yourself hanging back, which are both things the highly expert Ballroom judges would likely notice.   

So we can’t say how much tempo played a role in the final placements of this year. However, we will throw out there that, considering all of this, Mildred Pollard and Al Minns do a fantastic job of filling their dancing with energy in their movement, despite the relative slowness of the heat. Seeing how well they were dancing in the blazing fast prelims at the Savoy, they were probably in great shape to tackle any BPM the contest threw at them, and basically were likely to kill no matter what. Though it is realistic to recognize their medium (for an HMB) tempo song probably allowed them to keep their energy going so high throughout their heat.     

Joyce James & Joe Daniels

Here are Mildred and Al’s good friends, Joyce and Joe, whom we met for the first time in the 1937 finals. We conservatively gave them a “(Most Likely)”ID because we don’t see them for very long, nor close enough to see their faces, but they’re supposed to be in this heat and it looks like them, so we are almost 100% it’s them. (Update: we see their faces clearly in the newly found footage, we are certain it’s them.) You only see them close-ish for just a moment, but they do what might be the kick break most modern Lindy Hoppers know from the Keep Punching Big Apple line section.

We have often noticed how two of our favorite dancers, Joyce James and Al Minns, share similar traits. Both have a similar energetic movement, both swing their head a lot in their dancing, and both throw their full body into their movements. Learning of their friendship and how they learned to dance together, it makes perfect sense — they were likely a big influence on each other. 

Mae Miller & Walter Johnson

We are not going to talk much about Mae Miller and Walter Johnson in this essay. That’s because we are going to see them in four straight years of the Harvest Moon Ball finals. And by the end of it, you, like us, will probably be wondering how you have never heard of this couple before. We gave them a “(Most Likely)” ID because we recognize their dancing style and body types from these future Harvest Moon Balls. They do another Around the Back, and a Front Handspring, but this one turns into an Over the Head.

Connie Hill & Russell Williams

Wilda Crawford & Ernest Harriston

(Updated section, 8/29/21) We have gone back and forth over which of these remaining two couples is which. After further thought, we have switched them from where we had them last, based mostly on the follower’s body types. The couple we currently think is likely Wilda & Ernest do a wicked leg-over-the-follower swing out, though.

Regarding the couple we think is likely Connie & Russell, two things about their dancing: first off, the leader lets his arms fly wide away from his body in his tandem Charleston (what they tended to call Back Charleston), which is a nice individual touch and gives it a flying motion. Second of all, they do a slip-slop into a run-run — which is a step Lindy Hoppers might recognize from the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers’ “California Routine.” So many of the pieces that we recognize as Whitey’s Lindy Hop are already coming into creation.

WINNER’S EXHIBITION 

Every year, the top three placements would dance one last time for the audience. This is the first time the Harvest Moon Ball newsreel captured the winners’ victory exhibition, as far as our research has shown. (Which is also interesting as they didn’t even show any of the fourth Lindy Hop heat in this year’s reels.) You’ll notice that in this year’s footage, the winners, all being Whitey’s, took the opportunity to do one of their ensemble routines. In the snippet above, Mildred & Al are on the left, Joyce & Joe in the middle, and Norma & George are on the right.

1938’s Lindy Hop

Two very important changes in Lindy Hop fashion are seen here for the first time in the Harvest Moon Balls: flared above-the-kneeskirts and sneakers.

In previous Harvest Moon Balls, the fashion of the times had been close-fitted skirts hemmed just below the knees. And you can see the obvious hindrance the fashion gave to movement in Lindy footage from this era, as women had to constantly pull their skirts up for more athletic maneuvers, and couldn’t move their legs freely in many of their more athletic movements. Some of the dancers, like Joyce James and Eunice Callem, had gotten around that by wearing skirts with long slits up the leg, which were also possibly their Whitey’s Lindy Hop performance uniforms. This year, however, almost all the skirts look more flared than in the past, and many of them are now either at the knees or above them. These Lindy Hoppers seemed to have been ahead of the curve, because in the next spring, the newspaper’s start noticing the fashion:

Skirts above the knees The_Daily_Journal_Tue__Apr_11__1939_

From The Daily Journal, April 11, 1939. Even seemingly referring to a dance scenario.

In our newspaper archives before 1939, any mention of skirts above the knees almost always referred to either the flappers of the 20s, or “little girl” clothing. It appears the only place flared skirts above the knees could be found on an adult was in women’s sporting fashion — like tennis and ice skating. Perhaps the new street fashion was starting to emulate sportswear.

The other big change is that Mildred Pollard and Al Minns, Tiny Harris and Buster Swing, and almost all of the Savoy leaders are obviously wearing sneakers this year. Before 1938, the closest thing to sneakers we see in the HMBs were the “white bucks” some of the leaders look like they might have been wearing in 1937, which might have had a thick crepe sole. But anyone who’s worn both knows there’s a big difference between how a Ked Champion and a crepe Buck handle on the dance floor.

By this time, the Keds-style sneaker had been around for twenty years already. They were not the product of a shoe company, but instead a rubber company looking for what to use their excess rubber for. It turns out women didn’t have any athletic shoes available in 1916 when Keds came out, and so they became very popular as a casual shoe for women, and the preferred shoe of women tennis champions like Helen Wills (hence the company’s most iconic shoe model, the “Champion”). In the 1930s, Keds sponsored an advice column “for girls who want to be popular” which, you guessed it, emphasized the popularity of the active, casually-sneakered gal.

The common thread between these two changes in Lindy fashion is athleticism. Performance Lindy Hop was becoming more athletic, and so it makes sense that the clothing and the shoes reflect that change. And, once adopted, almost certainly encouraged it even more. The result, we believe, is seen in this Harvest Moon Ball already, but will even be more clearly shown in future Harvest Moon Balls — more intense air steps, more control at faster speeds, and, we’d argue, more linear dancing (because of the purchase rubber allows compared to more slippery leather-soled shoes).

We don’t see Lindy Hoppers wearing Keds-style sneakers in 1937’s Radio City Revels, or before. So, perhaps the trend came with the new dancers — the teenagers Al, Mildred, Joyce, and Joe. Just a possibility.

Otherwise, as we have mentioned, this year appears to be the debut of several great classic air steps: What we in the modern scene often call “Sack of Potatoes” (what the Whitey’s possibly called “Head in the Stomach”), the air step we in the modern scene call “Hat Trick,” the “Around the Back,” and the first “Front Handspring” air step which brought the partner up to the leaders chest, but did not yet quickly flip them. 

 

*** COLLEGIATE SHAG ***

As in the 1937 essay, as we are not Shag experts, we will not attempt to break down the Shag movement in detail. We look forward to seeing any Shag experts discuss this year’s dancing online. We will, however, say that we found it interesting to see that in 1938, a few shag dancers are doing tandem-style Shag moves.

 

Awards

1938 winners names and pictures William Downes and Sarah 01 Daily_News_Thu__Sep_1__1938_

Once again, we don’t seem to have the Shag winners, Grayce MurrayNick Hass, on film.  Mae Gallagher & Anthony Basil, however, got 2nd. Grace Bonsall & Michael Motto got 3rd.

Lindy Hop winners list

For the Lindy HopMildred Pollard & Al Minns, 1st place. Joyce James & Joe Daniels, 2nd. And Norma Miller & George Greenidge, 3rd. The two new, young couples had stolen the show. For the second year in a row, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers took all top three places.

The Day After

1938 pictures day of 02 AL MILDRED PIC Daily_News_Thu__Sep_1__1938_

1938 Pic George Ricker and Norma Miller Daily_News_Thu__Sep_1__1938_

Norma Miller & George Greenidge in the 1938 finals.

1938 Pic George Ricker and Norma Miller Daily_News_Thu__Sep_1__1938_

1938 winners names and pictures William Downes and Sarah 01 Daily_News_Thu__Sep_1__1938_

 

The Aftermath

For the first time in Harvest Moon Ball history, the organization took all three Lindy Hop finalist couples to the Loews theater shows afterwards (perhaps inspired by their ensemble dancing in the winner’s exhibition). Though it’s not that important, Norma has remembered that it was in 1940 that she and Billy Ricker, along with Frankie Manning, Ann Johnson, Thomas “Tops” Lee, and Wilda Crawford, were the first three couples taken to the Loews Theater shows. She had perhaps simply combined the 1938 and 1940 memories together over time.

1938 Broadway article, mentions 2 and 3rd places Daily_News_Fri__Sep_2__1938_

From the Daily News, September 2, 1938

At some point during the Loew’s run, though, it looks like Norma and George were subbed out for William and Sarah, or didn’t get a chance to do the Loew’s shows, perhaps having had other performances to attend to. In the newspaper, underneath some very troubling pictures that should remind us all of the times these dancers were living in, here is that group’s picture before one of the shows:

1938 ALL THE LINDY HOP WINNERS pictures Daily_News_Fri__Sep_2__1938_

From the Daily News, Sept 2, 1938

Early in August, a group of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers left for a tour in Australia and New Zealand that would take them away for almost a year. That’s where Frankie Manning, Snookie Beasley, Jerome Williams, Billy Ricker, Willa Mae Ricker, Esther Washington, Eunice Callen, and Lucille Middleton were, and why none of them were in this year’s Harvest Moon Ball. On that tour, they danced under the name “Whitey’s Big Apple Lindy Hoppers,” giving further evidence of the scale of the Big Apple craze of the time.

Al and Mildred got a gig for six months at the Cotton Club in a variety show headlined by Cab Calloway. Also appearing were Sister Rosetta Sharp , the Nicholas Brothers, and the Berry Brothers. After only a couple years at the Savoy, they had reached some of the greatest heights of Lindy Hop performance in their time.

There is no sign this year of Herbert Whitey or his dancers introducing a new dance step, like pecking or Suzy Q from the years before, and there appear to have been no films requiring Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers that we know of. But we shouldn’t take this as a sign that Whitey and his teams weren’t thriving. A large group of his veterans were taking the tour of a lifetime, and a whole new generation of his Lindy Hoppers had arrived and took top placements in the Harvest Moon Ball. It’s a good thing, too. Because whether they knew it or not, 1939 was going to be relentless.

Cab Calloway ad

From the Cab Calloway variety show at Loews Theater on Broadway in Dec 1938.

Coda

Someone else in the audience at the Harvest Moon Ball that night in 1938 was Martha Graham, one of the founders of contemporary dance. Here’s what she told The Journal Times on January 16, 1939, about the Lindy Hoppers and Shaggers, and how she related it to her own dancing:

1938 HMB martha gram cut The_Journal_Times_Mon__Jan_16__1939_ 

6 Donate 2021

Venmo: @bobbyswungover

Additional Notes:

Tempos: Savoy Prelims: Approx 279 BPM; Heat A: Approx 228 BPM;  Heat B: Approx 237 BPM; Heat C: Approx 258 BPM

Even though we try to express in our essays the reasons for our confidence, or lack thereof, in our video IDs, that might be a little much for people to wade through if they are looking for why we think someone is who we think they are. So here is a little chart to show our reasoning. Please note that, as there is evidence Whitey would switch out couples but keep their names, we can’t be completely sure about many of our choices, particularly the “(Likely)” IDs.

  • Tiny & Buster Swing: Number recognition, prelims picture, description in prelims articles explaining they are a team to watch out for.
  • Mildred Pollard & Al Minns: Number recognition, recognition of dancing/faces/body type, newspaper picture IDs, winners’ exhibition presence.
  • William Downes & Sarah Ward: Heat elimination, picture ID. Body type supports ID.
  • Norma Miller & George Greenidge: Number recognition, recognition of dancing/faces/body type, picture ID, winner’s exhibition presence.
  • Joyce James & Jo Daniels (Most Likely): Body type/dancing recognition, costume recognition (Joyce), Heat elimination, winners’ exhibition presence.
  • Mae Miller & Walter Johnson (Likely): Dancing recognition/body type recognition
  • Connie Hill & Russell Williams (Likely): Body type recognition/dancing recognition (minimal screen time, however)
  • Wilda Crawford & Ernest Harriston (Likely): Body type recognition (minimal screen time, however)
  • All Shag couples: Number recognition only. We do not know enough about these dancers to give them “(Most Likely),” “(Likely),” etc. ratings.

Sources & Thanks

  • Huge thanks to Harri Heinila at AuthenticJazzDance, for sharing some of the unpublished work of Terry Monaghan, specifically, AL MINNS: The Incorrigible Lindy Hopper, 1920-1985 by Terry Monaghan, which also used a great deal of research done by Bob Crease. This was a large resource to the history of Al Minns in this article.
  • The life of Mildred Pollard (a.k.a. Sandra Gibson) information came from Bob Crease’s newsletter for The New York Swing Dance Society, republished by the Frankie Manning Foundation and some of our own personal research.
  • Huge thanks to Forrest Outman for pointing us to Marshall Stearns’ research notes and for his previous insight on the Big Apple and Shag.
  • Thanks to Mickey Davidson for her help in discussing Norma’s nickname. 
  • Thanks so much to Robert Crease, Cynthia Millman, and The Frankie Manning Foundation for republishing the fantastic Robert Crease bios which are a great wealth to the history of the dance.
  • Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
  • Whenever we refer to either “Norma’s Book” or “Frankie’s Book,” we are speaking of their memoirs: Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen, and Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop by Frankie Manning and Cynthia Millman.
  • Huge thanks to Jessica Miltenberger for her help in reviewing and editing the piece.
  •  

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