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The 1940 Harvest Moon Ball

May 25, 2021

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This is the shorter, snack-sized version of this article. For the longer Geek-Out version, please click here. Also, this is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page.

 

Daily_News_Sun__Jul_14__1940_ (1)

 

Exit Shag, Enter Conga

The 1940 Harvest Moon Ball began with an article announcing the Shag division would be replaced by a Conga division. (Want to see the article? Geek Out edition.) The event felt the Shag and the Lindy Hop were, for “all intents and purposes,” “identical.” We can’t help but feel they looked at both and simply saw expressive dance being done to swing music and called it a day mentally. (We discussed this in some depth in our 1938 Geek Out article, as similar claims were made at the time.)

Conga was not just the name of a new dance craze, but also a type of Afro-Cuban drum, and a rhythm commonly played on that drum. (Yes, the rhythm you can imagine a Conga Line to — boom-boom, boom-boom, boom–BOOM — but, it also included other variations as well as the layers of possible polyrhythms one can add on top of that). Conga was a sign of the growing influence of Afro-Cuban rhythm on American popular entertainment, and in a short amount of time Afro-Cuban-inspired Jazz would become big for decades in America.  

So then, what did this Conga dance look like? It was a partnership dance that didn’t seem to be very cemented yet; even the Daily News said they’d allow “any interpretation of the dance provided the team does not separate more than three feet.” It will be in the Harvest Moon Ball for two years, and our guess is this is Conga here at the beginning of the 1941 HMB clip

But, Conga was sweeping the party dance world, and would indeed stick for awhile — there’s a reason Whitey and Frankie would start calling their teams the “Congaroos.” (Even if they didn’t really do any Conga that we know of. The “Harlem Congaroo,” they performed for audiences was really just Whitey rebranding the Lindy Hop and Jazz Dance they had always done. Just watch the Congaroos in Killer Diller in 1947. A few Conga-looking solo steps are the only sign of Conga.)

 

Prelims

At the Savoy prelims on August 9th, Coleman Hawkins was the band. 

1940 savoy finalists

Those who’ve followed our essays will recognize a lot of the “teams” that would go onto the finals: Mae Miller & Walter Johnson, Wilda Crawford & Thomas Lee, Esther Washington & Billy Ricker. And, Lindy history lovers will of course recognize  Ann Johnson & Frankie Manning. There’s also the HMB veterans Norma Miller & George Greenidge (once again going under the name “Gren,” see our 1936 essay on why that is.)

This year marks Norma’s fifth Harvest Moon Ball. She only missed one year, 1937, when she was recovering from exhaustion. And for three years she has partnered with “Long” George Greenidge.

There’s also some new dancers we get to meet this year, Louise Andrews & William Dotson

People who remember stories from Norma and Frankie, or have read their books closely, might find something striking about this finalists list. We’ll explain more as the story unravels.

Before we move on, let’s take a closer look at three of these finalists.

Wilda Crawford was born in 1921 to a mother who was a born New Yorker (Long Island nonetheless), which is rare in Black Harlem at this time — most of the neighborhood’s adults came either from the American South or the Carribean. She lived in a house with her mother, three sisters and an aunt. According to an interview with her by Bob Crease, she began dancing at the Savoy and getting work as a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper at a young age; this would be her third Harvest Moon Ball and she was only 19. (By the way, Wilda’s nickname in the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers was “Quack-Quack.” She didn’t remember why.)

She was also strong, light, and throwable. Whitey put her with a childhood friend, Thomas Lee. In 1940, Thomas Lee was also young — he was born in 1920, yet another part of the Great Migration. His family came from Virginia, and complimenting Wilda’s large family of sisters, he had a large family of brothers. To give you an idea of the kind of person “Tops” was, give a listen to his daughter, Mama Lou Parks dancer and 1972 Harvest Moon Ball champion Crystal Johnson, talk about her pops:

From Integrated Rhythm Podcast, a conversation with Crystal Johnson:

Together, they had made it to the finals of the 1939 Harvest Moon Ball, and then spent 1939 on many of the grueling jobs Whitey’s had that year. Despite the exhausting schedule, or perhaps partly because of it, they clearly honed their dancing to new heights and were ready to throw down in 1940’s ball. 

You’ve maybe heard of the name Jimmy Valentine before, and known a little bit about his unique dancing style — Vivian Larkin & Jimmy were the first couple of finalists mentioned in the article above. The article notes: 

1940 Savoy finalist note JIMMY VALENTINE Daily_News_Sat__Aug_10__1940_

Jimmy Valentine was a famous Lindy Hopper with only one leg. Born Paul Perrone in 1915, he had lost the other playing on a Brooklyn trolley car when he was five. By the late 1930s, he was a regular at the Savoy Ballroom, his favorite place to dance. Jimmy never shied away from jam circles, and for the climax of his shines he would often throw his crutch away and keep dancing even harder, and he could even free spin on the cane’s leg. Whitey put the boy in his dancing troupe. 

Here is a picture of him from the prelims. 

Daily_News_Sat__Aug_10__1940_

 

We hate to break it to you, but he is not in the finals. Why not? Well, we’ll start our answer by saying that when historian Peter Loggins saw this picture above, he said “That’s not Vivian.” Peter knew Jimmy, and sent us a photo.

“Here is Vivian.” 

jimmy and Vivian

Jimmy Valentine & Vivian Larkin, according to Peter Loggins, who knew Jimmy and had interviewed him.

If this is Vivian, why did the newspaper show a picture announcing Jimmy’s win with him and a different woman — a White woman? And why were Vivian and he not in the finals?

Peter has a good, but depressing, bet: The Harvest Moon Ball wasn’t ready to put a mixed couple on stage at Madison Square Garden, and on its newsreels.

And, furthermore, the Daily News was probably not even ready to show a picture of a mixed couple in their paper, at least in terms of the competition. Indeed, out of all the Harvest Moon Ball Footage we have seen from its first few decades, we have never seen an obviously mixed-race couple. 

This does not shock us. In an interview with Bob Crease, Elnora Dyson told the story of how, in New Jersey, Jimmy had danced with a White partner named Edith, and the two had a Whitey’s gig with a fellow Black Whitey’s couple. When the manager saw they were planning on dancing on the same stage at the same time, he refused and told them to dance one after the other  — when Whitey  found out, he told the dancers to pack their bags, and the manager relented. Jimmy also told Peter that when he performed with a Black partner with the Whitey’s in Southern tours, he had to “blacken up,” — slang for putting on Black-face makeup.     

However, we should still honor Jimmy Valentine and Vivian’s triumph — a partnership involving a dancer with only one leg had made it through the Savoy Harvest Moon Ball prelims.   

Oh, by the way. Here’s Jimmy in his older age, dancing with Sylvia Sykes. (Note the coincidence that they are dancing to “Woodchippers Ball,” the very song heard in the finals of the 1940 Harvest Moon Ball newsreels, the finals Jimmy was not allowed in.) 

 

 

Finals

Finals were held August 28, once again in Madison Square Garden, and once again to a sold out crowd of 20,000 plus. Woody Herman would play the swing music in the finals. 

Here is one of the few newsreels we have of 1940’s HMB:

Though we don’t have a program for this year’s, we are pretty certain we know the numbering (Geek Out edition!). 

And here is our breakdown of the all the newsreels we have:

Breakdown will be published on YouTube one week after publication.

 

Lindy Hop

HEAT A

(We talk a little about Heat A in our Geek Out edition.) 

 

HEAT B

We wanted to show this couple mainly because this is what some of the White dancers have come to: clown suits. These two are expressing something they think about Lindy Hop by wearing outfits with clown buttons plastered all over them. What do you take away from this? To us, it clearly is trying to say Lindy Hop is a cartoon dance, a child’s dance, a goofy dance. Though they care about Lindy enough to practice it for the hundreds of hours probably required to make it to the Harvest Moon Ball finals, they clearly didn’t look at what its Black Savoy dancers wore, and what their costume choices said about the dance. We have *never* seen Black Americans in the Harvest Moon Ball wear anything that cheapens Lindy Hop. Yes, they express humor, yes they express joy, yes they express amazing feats of acrobatics in eye-catching satin costumes that say “Look at this.” But none of their Harvest Moon Ball attire has ever said, “we are clowns.”  

For contrast, let’s look at another White couple in this heat.

 

Tiny Anne & Tony Small

Back again for this year’s finals are Tiny Anne & Tony Small, a couple that obviously embraced Harlem’s “comedy team” tradition. From first generation Lindy Hoppers “Shorty George” & “Big Bea,” to 1937 Champs “Shorty” Davis & Gladys Crowder, and even to some extent Mildred Pollard and Al Minns, the pairing of a smaller, energetic man with a strong, taller woman had a rich history in Lindy showmanship.  

This White couple doesn’t wear clown suits. Instead, they tell humorous stories with their dancing while still keeping a high level of power and energy in their movement. When they watched their Harlem idols, they obviously looked closely. 

 

Louise Andrews & William Dotson

 

This couple, whom we have wagered to be the most likely candidate for Louise and William, are the winners of this year’s “Who the hell are these awesome dancers?” award. Well, we know a little about Louis, also known as “Pal”, but we personally have never heard of Bill mentioned in our research before. Together, they have a very aggressive dancing style that really pops. And look at Louise keep her feet going solid a million miles a minute throughout the deluge of moves. They clearly came to throw down.

Once again, we are very lucky to have an interview with Louise available thanks to herself, Bob Crease, and the Frankie Manning Foundation. She was one of the young Lindy Hoppers recruited in these previous years, her first gig being the grueling show at the Savoy Theater at the World’s Fair. She greatly admired Norma Miller, an understandable role model for a young, independent girl. Over the next decade she would become very close to Whitey — she was engaged to his son (until she realized the relationship would interfere with her dancing too much), she moved to upstate New York to help Whitey run his bar after the war, and many suspected she and Whitey were also romantically involved, though she never said so herself. When Whitey passed away, she would be one of the ones by his deathbed. After his death, she returned to Harlem, where she worked at the Savoy.  

“Pal” will be in at least two more Harvest Moon Balls, once with fellow Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Snookie Beasely in 1942, and once again in 1944 with a partner named Johnny McAfey, the year she will win.

(We feel it’s important to say the mystery couple, #53, in the next heat, could be William & Louise instead of this couple, though it would be strange based on the order of the prelims. We are trying to figure it out as “Bill Dotson” is dancing in 1941 and there are several mysteries, and possibly even fathers and sons involved. Hopefully we will be able to solve this mystery. If anyone reading this has a 1940 or 1941 HMB program, we would love a picture of the Lindy/Jitterbug listings.) 

 

 

Esther Washington & Billy Ricker

 

Esther Washington is here dancing with Billy Ricker, whom most readers would be familiar with as Norma Miller’s partner in Hellzapoppin — in that routine, Billy is the one in the iconic chef’s outfit. 

His dancing in many ways is pretty different from fellow Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers like Frankie Manning and Al Minns. For one thing, he generally dances with his feet wide, one under each hip, which gives him a rooted style with a powerful, bull-like quality to his movement, and he doesn’t tend to mule kick, or kick a lot in general, in non-Charleston patterns. 

Esther’s dancing “lightness” and casualness are a beautiful contrast and compliment to Billy’s style. She isn’t sweating any of the powerful dancing her leader is giving her. 

As we saw with Esther and Billy in the 1939 HMB, their specialty is their powerful air and Esther’s ability to appear like merely a rag-doll while flinging herself with great strength into their tricks. You HAVE to be strong to hold on during that Shake Around and then come up like it was nothing. You can see Esther’s fantastic styling and obvious place as one of the Whitey’s Lindy Hopper Leaders’ favorite partners in The Spirit Moves, where she performs throughout.  She’s the woman with the thick gray/white streak in her hair, which may or may not imply she’s also a wizard. 

 

HEAT C  

Ann Johnson & Frankie Manning

The only disappointment to come from realizing this was the 1940 Harvest Moon Ball footage was the follow-up realization that the only time you see Ann Johnson & Frankie Manning in it — one of the greatest performance Lindy Hop partnerships of all time —it’s just for a few seconds and they’re either behind someone else or half off the screen.

So, here you go: the entirety of Ann & Frankie’s dancing in this year’s Harvest Moon Ball. You will definitely have to watch it a few times to even find them: 

 

Here, we see them doing some Skates behind Norma & George, and we see them do some Swing Outs and a Leader’s spin on the right side of the camera. 

We don’t know much about Ann Johnson, Frankie’s famous flying partner. Frankie said of her, “She was like a cat. No matter what way I threw her, she landed on her feet.” Ann would be Frankie’s partner until 1952. This is Ann’s second Harvest Moon Ball, she made her debut in 1937’s ball. 

What can we say about this tiny bit of dancing? Well, unlike previous years where he wore dark suits, Frankie this time is wearing one of the Whitey’s professional satin performance outfits. They probably glowed under those lights. The one swing out we see them do is notably not 360 degrees.     

This is Frankie’s 3rd and final Harvest Moon Ball. In his autobiography, he mentioned he felt he didn’t want to do the contest and had become a professional by this point. As we mentioned in our first essay, the Harvest Moon Ball wasn’t Frankie’s kind of contest. Though it’s a shame we don’t see more of his dancing in it, perhaps it’s only right that his dancing in Hellzapoppin’ and other Whitey’s projects stand as his legacy of performance. That might very well be the way he would have wanted it.        

 

Norma Miller & George Greenidge

 

Norma & George, at it for the third year in a row, throwing. down. George’s leg spin into a split? Come on. That thing’s gorgeous. Norma’s power, as always, is fierce and beautiful — watch how she goes through her Baby Drop then chucks George over her shoulder. That’s the first time in the footage we have a woman throwing a man in this step. They may have pioneered it. Finally, check out that fantastic Charleston sequence and exit. We get to see it from two angles:

 

Wilda Crawford & Thomas Lee

In 1939, Wilda & “Tops” were the first couple we had ever seen in the footage to do an Over-the-Head (what we tend to call a “Pop Over” today) from standing. (The year before, Mae Miller & Walter Johnson had done one from the position they get to in a front handspring.) Wilda & Tops’ 1939 version was a little rickety, and understandably so, because they were at the dawn of the step’s creation, possibly even its inventors. Well, look how its going now (bottom left):

The power, the ease, and the head clearance are, needless to say, impressive, especially at this time, when no one else on this dance floor that we know of is doing this step — a step that will always drop the jaws of an audience. 

By the way: We mentioned Tops & Wilda may be the inventors of the Over-The-Head. How do we figure such a thing? Well, it’s certainly speculation on our part — for instance, “Top’s” daughter, Crystal Johnson, doesn’t remember her father mentioning anything about it. But what we have noticed in these first six years of the Harvest Moon Ball footage especially is that often times there is only one couple shown doing a specific air step or trick step for the first few years before we see other people doing it, if other people do it at all. We’ve noticed it a lot in the footage, and the Over-the-Head has now been done by Wilda & Tops in two HMBs and no one else is seen doing it — but by 1941, all four couples in Hellzapoppin’ will be, as well as couples in the 1941 HMB. And it will become more or less a standard of Lindy Hop, seen in almost all film performances involving Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers after this. It’s our speculation that the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers respected a couple’s or dancer’s innovations and allowed them to own it for awhile before others started picking it up. 

Next up, they perform a move they almost definitely made up, or at the very least, was a signature step no one else performed. It was a move so sensational that three different cameras catch it from three different angles and put it in the newsreels:

Frankie Manning called it the Wrap Around. Thomas’s daughter calls it, the Around-the-World.

Just for a moment try to imagine you’ve never seen this now-iconic air step. Most of the Air Steps you’ve been seeing are partners being held up with their legs kicking in the air, strange mind-bending tricks like ‘Round-the-Backs, and flips like Neck Snatches and Handspring Front Flips. Impressive, certainly. But at this point most of the dancers on stage are doing those steps. Then, out of nowhere, one dancer is constantly swinging their partner around and around their body, legs and arms flying — it wasn’t just a new air step, it was a different type of movement all together.

 

Mae Miller & Walter Johnson

This couple at the right above, marked “(Most likely)”, matches what we know of Mae & Walter in body type, movement, and move choices, and if the numbers were indeed reversed as they seem to have been, that further confirms this is Mae & Walter. Here’s them doing one of the moves that was their specialty: Walter jumps over his partner and almost falls into the audience.

It looks perhaps accidental, but it’s planned; You can see them do this move in the 1938 Savoy prelims, body surfing Walter into the crowd:

 

This is yet another move that one couple does multiple years that no one else we’ve seen has copied, despite it being an obvious eye-catcher.

For three years now they’ve been in the Harvest Moon Ball finals. They were already good, and each year they have obviously gotten better and better.       

 

1940’s Lindy Hop   

The last few years have seen a shift towards more powerful air steps and long, strung-together air step sequences. This year, rather than seeing a lot of sequences, we couldn’t help but notice the presence of lone, powerful signature steps caught on the newsreel. Esther & Billy’s Shake Around, Mae & Walter’s audience dive, Wilda & Tops’ Around the World. 

One thing we have noticed less of over the last few years of the Harvest Moon Balls among the Whitey’s are obvious “comedy teams.” This is also striking considering comedy teams have arguably made up half the champion teams in the balls so far — Edith & Leon (’35), Gladys & Edie (’37) and Mildred & Al (’38) all had strong elements of the comedy team tradition.

This decline in obvious comedy teams will continue. Perhaps this is because air steps become the trend and so people concentrate on “comedy teams” less, or perhaps it’s because the grouping of mismatched bodies can make a lot of air steps more difficult. 

Overall, we have seen the Lindy Hop of 1935 evolve quite a long way to this point. This five year span is without a doubt the most evolution the dance will go through in its next five decades at the Harvest Moon Ball. The trend was significantly towards the more athletic dancing, with faster music, more agile clothing, and gripping sneakers taking part in the change. To see for yourself, watch the 1935 video again:

 

Awards

1940 winners

The winners were, in first place, Wilda Crawford & Thomas “Tops” Lee. In second place, Esther Washington & Billy Ricker. And, in third, Mae Miller & Walter Johnson. And with that, Tops joined the White Suit Club — Leon James, Al Minns, and Eddie “Shorty” Davis all won the Harvest Moon Ball in white suits. (Technically, Eddie was in just a White jacket.) That means that by this time, 2/3 of the HMB leaders of the contest had worn white. 

Norma and Frankie had both said in their books that Norma had competed with Billy Ricker in this year, and that Ann & Frankie had made third place, and Norma & Billy had made second. It was most likely 1939’s ball that they were remembering, which had those placements (though Norma was dancing with George that year as well, and Frankie was with Lucille Middleton). Again, we want to stress misremembering placements is not a big deal in the least. Frankie and Norma were trying to recover relatively insignificant memories (placements in a contest when they had done countless contests) over decades and decades and decades — it is natural for there to be a few mistakes. (For a complete run down of this and another mistaken memory regarding this year’s Loews performance, see the Geek Out edition.)

 

The Day After

The only picture we’ve found in the Daily News from the finals was this lovely high-flying one of Wilda & Tops.

1940 tops wilda Daily_News_Thu__Aug_29__1940_

Bob Crease’s article for the New York Swing Dance Society Footnotes had this picture of Tops & Wilda in the finals. Note Frankie Manning behind them, and that Wilda’s shirt seems to be torn from the intense dancing (It’s not the first, nor the last, garment that will be destroyed in the Harvest Moon Ball):Thomas & Wilda

The Aftermath

The next day, at the Loew’s theater, they took the following picture of the winners:

  Daily_News_Fri__Aug_30__1940_

Perhaps you noticed something missing. It’s striking that the Lindy Hop winners, Black Americans Wilda Crawford & Thomas Lee, Jr, are not in the picture. Based on earlier conjectures about mixed race couples, it’s possible that the photographer did not want Black people around the White people in the same shot — this is just conjecture, but its worth pointing out that we have not seen any post Harvest Moon Ball pictures of Black contestants in the same pictures with White contestants in a social way. (There was one photo of all couples rehearsing together in 1935.)  

So, Herbert Whitey had yet another championship couple. But, like many Lindy Hoppers before them, Tops & Wilda could only last so long in Whitey’s, and in 1941, they left the group. Unlike many of those others, though, they continued working in Lindy Hop, and for the next decade did it professionally. In the past there are several stories of Whitey having intimidated and even assaulted Lindy Hoppers who broke ranks and went off on their own. If that happened to Wilda and Tops, they never mentioned it in what few little interviews they left behind. Perhaps Whitey had loosened his Lindy grip by this time, or perhaps Wilda & Tops left with his blessing.   

We have mentioned that Wilda & Tops would become one of the greatest performance Lindy Hop couples of their time. We know this because, in 1946, they performed in a highly praised Black-American film “Love in Syncopation.” After doing a swanky Tranky Doo (a “Swanky Doo”?), they end with a blazing onslaught of high flying Lindy Hop, complete with glorious swing outs and turns and a stream of air steps, each one flowing beautifully with explosion and height.    

 

This year’s Harvest Moon Ball would mark the passing on of a torch. Veterans like Norma Miller, Frankie Manning, and Billy Ricker would retire from entering the Harvest Moon Ball. One possible reason for that might have been hinted at in this story in the Daily News that came out in September of this year’s ball:

1940 Broadway column discovery lindy hop winners were PROS The_Miami_News_Fri__Sep_13__1940_

Perhaps Whitey and his veterans felt the jig was up. Though we suspect the HMB organizers must have known for years, the press, at least, had finally discovered Whitey’s penchant for entering professionals into the amateur contest. Perhaps the contest organizers cared, perhaps they didn’t — the Lindy Hop, was, after all, their greatest attraction. Besides, Black American art didn’t have many footholds in the world. Whitey and his dancers had made sure the great Black American artform was broadcast to the world. How do you feel about it, dear reader? Do you blame them for entering professionals in the amateur contest under their cultural circumstances?    

Before we move on from this year’s ball, let’s give a well-earned amount of respect to Norma & George. In the three balls they were in, whenever we see them, they are dancing their asses off. We suspect that George especially was dancing to prove something after what had happened in 1936. We may be reading into it, but his dancing has a fierceness to it that looks a lot like righteousness. They show up to win every year, and it didn’t happen. Shortly after this George Greenidge will stop dancing for Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. But his Harvest Moon Ball story isn’t done yet. 

Though many of Whitey’s veterans had either won or would otherwise stop dancing in the ball, Whitey would still oversee his other well-trained Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy, and get them ready for their debuts. And the absence of the veterans would allow a whole new, upcoming generation of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers to take the stage in 1941. 

 

This marks the end of the long-form Harvest Moon Ball essays. Beginning with the 1941 HMB essay, we will have shorter pieces that will still showcase pictures and video and introduce great Lindy Hoppers of the past — dozens of them. However we will also be entering a post-Swing era time when we unfortunately don’t have a lot of information or stories on the dancers involved. We will do our best to uncover what we can.    

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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

Sources & Thanks

  • Huge thanks to Crystal Johnson for her help with information in this piece. 
  • Huge thanks as well to Cynthia Millman and Judy Pritchett for their help in reviewing aspects of this piece.  
  • Huge thanks to Lewis Orchard for his constant help in researching and bouncing ideas off of.
  • Huge thanks to historian Peter Loggins whos article on his blog The Jassdancer, and personal conversations helped us get to know Jimmy Valentine and helped us understand the Jimmy Valentine Harvest Moon Ball situation.
  • Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1940 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
  • 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 these articles specifically and the history of the dance in particular.
  • 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.
  • All spelling and grammar problems are mine alone; one man army!

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