This is the shorter, snack-sized version. For the longer, Geek-Out version of this article, which includes the most in-depth information and research, click here. Updated 8/29/21 — We found some mroe 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.
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.
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, a fascinating article appeared in the early stages of the 1938 HMB announcements. It declared that, after only a year since the first Collegiate Shag division, the HMB dance committee had felt that Collegiate Shag had become almost two different dances. They reasoned that was because a lot of the Shag dancers were being influenced by the Big Apple craze, thus creating a new style that most likely involved a lot of breaking away, acrobatics, and adding other dance steps to the mix. So, the committee urged the “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.
There are a lot of layers to what might have been going on behind this article, and we explore a few in the Geek Out version for those who want to go deeper into it.
Harlem was in the middle of its own identity crisis, also brought on by White elites, one that 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 define 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.
August 12th was the night of the Savoy prelims. According to the Daily News, they went on for an hour before the judges could make their decision. Music was provided by Erskine Hawkins & His ‘Bama State Collegians.
In 1938, the Savoy Prelims were captured for the first time. Enjoy:
How do we know this footage was from the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball Savoy Prelims? We explain that thoroughly in the Geek Out version. One clue you’ve got to see, though, is a photograph in the Daily News from the Savoy prelims:
Albert “Al” Davis Minns was born on New Year’s day, 1920, in Newport News, Virginia. According 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 1919, 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:
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. Bunny 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, and previous champions weren’t allowed to compete again. 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 one of the songs in this prelim.
How did we come to the IDs we did in the prelims film? Geek Out!
A few days before the Savoy prelims, one of the White American couples got their picture in the paper by winning the Club Fordham prelims in the Bronx. We’ll come back to them.
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. Here are the listings from 1938, taken from the original 1938 program.
We are lucky that quite a few newsreels exist from the 1938 Harvest Moon Ball. Here is an example of one of the originals.
Now, here is our breakdown version, collected and reassembled from several newsreels: (Btw, the sound cutting can be distracting. We recommend watching it at least once without sound.)
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 above, 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.
Buster & Tiny were from the Bronx, and we conjecture they might have made the Savoy ballroom their swing dancing home. Buster and Tiny are almost certainly nicknames or false names, and they know their Whitey’s steps.
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.
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.
Here is one of Al’s iconic dance steps, one of the moves that earned him nicknames in the group like “Rubberlegs.” 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:
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.
This footage of the Charleston kicking and turning: 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.
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.
The third heat of the evening appears to be completely composed of either present or future Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. Below is the entire footage we have found of Heat C, which was also the third heat in the contest (UPDATE: We have found more footage of Heat C, see below):
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.
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 for the sake of being overly-conservative, but in reality we are almost 100% it’s them. (Update: After seeing new footage that shows them up close, we are certain it is.) 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.
Mae Miller & Walter Johnson
Between the prelims and the finals, for some reason Mae Miller & Walter Johnson took the place of Genevieve Davis & Lee Lynes. This could be for something completely understandable, like injuries, or it could be due to a run in with Whitey, who reportedly expected to have the winning jewelry prizes of his winners.
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.
Connie Hill & Russell Williams
Wilda Crawford & Ernest Harriston
(Updated section) 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.
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:
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.
*** 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.
Once again, we don’t seem to have the Shag winners, Grayce Murray & Nick Hass, on film. Mae Gallagher & Anthony Basil, however, got 2nd. Grace Bonsall & Michael Motto got 3rd.
For the Lindy Hop: Mildred 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
For the first time in Harvest Moon Ball history, the organization took all three Lindy Hop winning 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 in her book and in interviews that it was in 1940 that she, along with the other top placements, were the first three couples taken to the Loews Theater shows. She had perhaps simply combined the 1938 and 1940 memories together over time.
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:
Al and Mildred got a gig for six months at the Cotton Club in a variety show headlined by Cab Calloway. (The Cotton Club had moved downtown by this point.) 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. An incredible beginning to two dancers who would make jazz dance their lives.
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 would take the tour of a lifetime to the Southern Hemisphere, 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.
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 here 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 “Norma’s Book,” we are speaking of the memoir: Swinging at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer by Norma Miller and Evette Jensen.
- Huge thanks to Jessica Miltenberger for her help in reviewing and editing the piece.