This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. This is the longer Geek Out version with a more in-depth look at the HMB and Harlem at this time. For the shorter, snack-sized version, click here. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page.
A Strange Year
1943 was a strange year for the HMB coverage. There were hardly any pictures of dancing from the ball, and none that we could find of the Savoy dancers, who usually had at least two or three every year. We also don’t have a program with the number listings for this year currently — but, it wouldn’t matter much if we did, because the couple 1943 newsreels we’ve found show only three couples of Harlem dancers and one hard-to-make-out number tag. It doesn’t help that, to our knowledge, none of the Harlem finalists except one are seen in any other footage or mentioned in dance history. So, needless to say, until we get more footage, or more information, this year’s IDs are going to remain quite a mystery. There’s still a few seconds of great Lindy to see, though. So there’s that.
Policing & Dancing
In April of 1943, the Daily News announced the Savoy Ballroom was going to be closed until further notice. According to the article, soldiers reported getting venereal diseases from sex workers they had met at the ballroom, and police detectives investigating these claims were introduced to sex workers via a Savoy bathroom attendant. The article implies the military gave the order to the police to close the place, and “judges” upheld the opinion.
The NAACP, understandably, thought this was overreacting. The Savoy Ballroom was “a place of clean fun,” they argued, and called the charges against the Savoy “lies.” They also mentioned that closing down the Savoy was detrimental to the community in a neighborhood where there were few recreational places Black Americans were allowed (remember, this was a community without strong governmental support in recreational infrastructure, and many of the nightclubs were White-only). The Savoy was one of the few places Harlemites could go for a cheap night of dancing. Harlem citizens in general protested the closing.
Before we go further, we want to stress that we are in no way able to unpack all of this here. There are too many layers of history and systemic discrimination. But we will do our best to give a respectful rough sketch of the situation.
We’d like to start by pointing out that, even if the soldiers’ had gotten venereal diseases from sex workers they acquired via someone at the Savoy, blaming a ballroom for the illegal hustles its patrons, or even lower-level staff, do would mean you should probably close down every single nightclub that has ever existed. Drugs, sex, and nightlife are a common pairing.
Needless to say, they didn’t close down every nightclub. (And certainly not every nightclub in America a soldier reported getting a VD from.) Closings of other nightlife spots are not mentioned in any of the articles we’ve read on why the the Savoy was closed at this time. And that most certainly would have come up, considering how many of the articles we’ve found are explanations and questionings of why the Savoy was closed.
So what other motives would they have for closing down the Savoy Ballroom? One New York Age editorial offered this opinion:
So. This citizen felt the reason the Savoy closed was because it allowed Whites to dance with Blacks. How much credence can we give this opinion? Well, Norma Miller remembered that Savoy floor manager and Lindy Hop group manager Herbert Whitey had strong concerns about Black dancers dating White dancers while representing the ballroom. Especially considering this was a time when the idea of Black men being able to romantically interact with White women (and vice-versa) was a big threat to White America values. From all we’ve heard about him, Whitey didn’t seem to be scared of much, and yet here he was, nervous about public interracial flirtation regarding the ballroom.
Though the Savoy didn’t seem to mind its floor manager Herbert Whitey occasionally using violence to intimidate people in the community, it sounds like the Savoy was very cautious when it came to Whites and vice. Some facts to back this up: The Savoy Ballroom during this era was famous for only serving beer and wine, and its hostesses had to be dressed to a certain level of conservative elegance, and were not permitted to fraternize with their clientelle, staff, or musicians. They were not allowed to accept drinks men tried to buy for them, and they were not allowed to leave the Savoy at the same time as clientelle. Sounds like an organization terrified of being shut down for anything that could be framed as a vice charge, doesn’t it? (The hostesses had a nightclub spot they would go to after work where they were free to flirt with whomever they wanted.)
If the Savoy were undergoing such rules and regulations, it’s unlikely they would have condoned their employees being involved in sex work, especially geared towards Whites. (And, indeed, a look at the NY Supreme Court Case from the closing reads like the sex workers were in no way working with the management. Or, if they were, they were covering their bases greatly to make it appear like they weren’t. For instance, part of the deal was that the clients pay the sex worker’s their entry back into the Savoy afterwards to continue their night.)
Now, the Savoy management was certainly aware that sex workers could look for clients by coming to the ballroom, like they could in all ballrooms and nightclubs — but the ballroom took in thousands of patrons on busy nights, there was probably literally nothing they could do about it, except perhaps lean into their staff rules and regulations, and live in fear. Norma mentioned in her book that the ballroom was always wary of trumped-up vice charges.
Notably, the NY Supreme Court case report ended with a note given by a judge, the prestigious Irwin Untermyer, who stated for the record that even though the Savoy closing would still stand, the law didn’t prove the Savoy knew about any of the prostitution charges.
If the Savoy was shut down for vice charges while other New York ballrooms weren’t, then it’s a good bet that someone, somewhere, had an alternative agenda to shutting down the Savoy. And the most obvious agenda anyone could have had with the Savoy was the fact that in the late 30s it was a destination for local and tourist Whites that allowed them to mingle with Blacks without the barrier of a stage lip. Basically, it’s an understandable conclusion for the Harlem community to make.
Speaking of which — who was that someone, somewhere, that closed down the ballroom? It’s interesting that in the month after the Savoy closed, all the parties involved seemed to push blame somewhere else. The police said it was the military’s orders. The War Department denied it. Mayor LaGuardia swore his hands were tied and there was nothing he could do about it.
The mayor’s hands might not have been as tied as he claimed. Because the Savoy’s closing might not have been about sex work or interracial flirtation, it might have simply been about the power play of a powerful man. In his dissertation, Heinilä has a quote from a police commissioner, who said that, in order for the Savoy to reopen, they didn’t ask the Savoy to curb prostitution — they wanted the Savoy to change owners. Why? Well, it isn’t said for sure, but here in the story is where Heinilä mentions that Mayor LeGuardia apparently had a lot of problems with the owner of the Savoy, the wealthy and influential Moe Gale. Moe Gale gave a lot of support to Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. , who ran the Black American People’s Voice newspaper and was the first Black councilman elected in NYC in 1941. Powell’s newspaper constantly criticized the running of the city, especially regarding its conduct to its Black citizens. Whether LaGuardia believed the Savoy was a din of vice or not, closing it might have ultimately just been personal.
Before we move on, one last thing about the editorial we showed above: though we don’t know how we feel personally about the statement that economic lynching is far worse than the human lynching that took part in the South at this time, this piece does convey how passionate the community was about the Savoy Ballroom, and how it represented fairness, health, happiness, and social equality for the Black American Harlem community.
Now then. It’s important to know the mood of Harlem had been changing over the war years. As readers may recall from our 1942 essay, Harlem at this time was in the middle of a sort of smear campaign by downtown publications in the city — according to Heinilä’s dissertation, this smear campaign had apparently become a general trend among downtown papers. Harlem: seed of vice.
Black American papers protested this smear, offering evidence and arguments — the kinds of evidence we still see today to prove that the image of Black American neighborhoods are warped by policing and crime reports. But, whether due to the war on Harlem or the World War, by the mid-40s most Whites had stopped going to the Savoy: Before the war, there was probably around 35-45% White attendees, whereas by this time and the next few years, there was around 15% or less. Backing up Heinilä’s research, it was around this time in the early 1940s that White NYC dancer Remegia “Megie” Simone (in her ILHC legacy talk) remembered she and her partner felt they should not come to the Savoy anymore based on something in the air of Harlem. (We’ll meet her again soon in our 1945 and 1946 essays.) During these years, taxi drivers and police officers were known to dissuade downtowners from going uptown. And there’s evidence White Savoy dancers might have gotten this from both sides. In Heinilä’s dissertation, he mentions how Savoy’s Black American manager, Charles Buchanan, told the NY Supreme Court in that case that they, the Savoy, tried to dissuade White dancers from coming up, as they were the ballroom’s “headache.”
Then, a few months after the Savoy closed, a spark erupted the kindling of tension in Harlem. On August 1st, while the Savoy was still closed and the HMB right around the corner, a policeman arrested a woman in the lobby of a Harlem hotel for disorderly conduct. While he was doing so, Pvt. Robert Bandy, a Black American military policeman, and his mother, tried to stop the police officer from doing so. According to Bandy, the police officer hit the woman, and then threw his nightstick at Bandy, which Bandy caught. When Bandy hesitated to give it back, the officer shot him. According to the officer, Bandy had taken the nightstick and tried to beat the police officer with it.
Though the bullet wound was superficial and Bandy was taken to a hospital to recover, the word of mouth quickly turned “a Black soldier has been shot” into “a Black soldier has been killed.” Just as in 1935, the conditions Black Americans faced had lead to a boiling tension ready to overflow at any moment, and this was Harlem’s next moment. Just as in 1935, windows of White businesses were broken, and the goods, especially those that had been heavily marked-up due to war-time scarcity — and thus almost impossible the impoverished in the community to afford — were looted. And, just as in 1935, only a tiny portion of the Harlem population were involved in the riots.
Here’s what the New Jersey Courier-Post and the New York Times had to say:
However, Black American novelist, essayist, and activist James Baldwin put it this way:
It would have been better to have left the plate glass as it had been and the goods lying in the stores. It would have been better, but it would have also have been intolerable, for Harlem needed something to smash.
The 1943 Harlem riot, only eight years after the 1935 riot and a just a few months after the famous 1943 Detroit riot, would last two days and six people would die. Around 700 were injured and 600 jailed. Though some things had changed in American since the 1935 riot, apparently not nearly enough had. Mayor LaGuardia issued a curfew.
The next time NYC would have one was in 2020 over protests for the killing of George Flloyd.
The NAACP had this to say about the 1943 riot:
A couple weeks after the riot, the Black American New York Age had this to say:
The Savoy closing and the 1943 riot were connected. Not directly, but fundamentally: Because both were manifestations of the fact that the Black American community of New York was suffering. Suffering because Harlem didn’t get the same educational, recreational, infrastructural, and healthcare services the rest of New York City did. Suffering because White-owned stores dominated Harlem and didn’t allow Black people to rise above the most menial positions. Suffering because the city and U.S. War Department used Harlem as a scapegoat for vice, unfairly punishing the town economically and socially. Suffering because, due to the rule of a White mainstream majority, Black Americans had almost no power in the government or economy, and so, whenever a community in New York City had to get the short stick, guess which one got it?
Finally, is it not strange that three major events in Harlem unrest in one year — 1942’s military banning of Harlem for soldiers,1943’s closing of the Savoy due to soldiers’ reporting getting a venereal disease, and the 1943 riot after a soldier getting shot, all in some way involved the military? We aren’t arguing for a conspiracy. We are suggesting the world’s war was producing strong currents that pushed against the tensions of America and its Black citizens.
It’s possible the unrest in Harlem was why the Daily News didn’t take pictures of the Harlem HMB prelims. The Savoy was finally able to reopen in October.
“Smoothness” & “Originality”
In 1942, the Harvest Moon Ball had changed the name of its “Lindy Hop” division to the swing dance catch-all, “Jitterbug Jive.” The afternoon before the 1943 Harlem prelims, HMB beat writer William Murtha wrote this passage:
Let’s dive a little deeper into this intriguing paragraph. First off, the first sentence, in our opinion, seems to be technically accurate. The White dancers have been getting better and better over the years. Not only is it seen fairly clearly in the footage, even Whitey himself said so in 1939. The reason they are getting objectively better, though, is partially because many of them started visiting the Savoy often and studying the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. (Just go back through the previous essays and see the film of the White dancers and our breakdowns of their movement for our evidence and reasoning. There are many signs of Harlem Lindy influence.)
However, if the article implies the White dancers in general had gotten anywhere close to the finely-honed, extremely well-practiced and coached Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, we do not agree. (For that evidence, just go and compare the Savoy Lindy Hopping with the non-Savoy dancers in any previous HMB, and judge for yourself.)
The next sentence in the article: The changing of the name from “Lindy Hop” to “Jitterbug Jive” apparently meant a shift in the rules — the new contest stresses “smoothness” and “originality,” which the writer believes has decreased the advantage of the Harlem dancers. (The paper said the rules would be given out at registration, not printed in the paper, so we don’t know what the specific rules were for Lindy Hop verses Jitterbug Jive. Though the HMB announcement articles usually mentioned they were all under the same rules and “olympic” points system, so the HMB rules are not particularly clear for us.)
This statement gives us a great opportunity to explore the Euro-Centrically-charged idea of “smoothness” in dance, and the bias that comes from valuing that narrow definition so highly. To see clearly what we’re about to talk about, it might help to use two extremes of dancing values — Europian ballet, verses West African traditional dance, perhaps something like a dundunba.
Ballet is the essence of the European ideal of smoothness in dancing — the body either floats over the floor, or softly rises and falls with all rhythm. The arms tend to move slowly and in precisely calculated shapes. The torso is still, usually with little movement in general. Though the feet strike the ground with strong rhythm and intention, the shoulders are often perfectly still. One gathers that smoothness in Ballet specifically implies slow, measured movement, and, we’d argue, specifically through intended artistic shaping of ones body. It seems to especially imply the shock-absorption of ones body to such an extent that the shoulders never bounce. When one looks at the Fox Trotters, Waltzers, Tango, and even Rumba dancers at the HMB, the dancers seem to be using these same definitions of dancing “smoothness.”
West African dance has very different characteristics — though the dancers are also shock-absorbing the pounding of their feet, “the rhythm carries differently through the body, and one can often see the reverberation of rhythm allowing various body parts to echo and respond to the steady beat,” as Zambian heritage dancer Chisomo Selemani puts it. Though there are some specific shapes the arms are taking, they rarely move with the same held muscle tension but instead are often thrown and swung with the momentum of the rhythm. Their torsos are likewise not held, but allowed to move dramatically in all directions, often quickly. And yet great West African dancing is smooth. It’s smooth in the flow of momentum through the body. It’s smooth in the ease with which they move their bodies so quickly. It’s smooth in the fluidity of the body’s pulse and how it relates to the smoothness of the rolling rhythm.
You get the point — the Fox Trot, Waltz, Tango, and even the Afro-Cuban Rumba as done by Non-Black dancers in the Harvest Moon Ball clearly valued the former idea of smoothness, while, understandably, the Black American Lindy Hop as danced to Black American Jazz by Black Americans, often embraced the concept of smoothness found in West African (and African diaspora) dancing. (It’s also important to note that it seems to us the European concept focuses a lot on how the dance looks to an audience, verses the West African concept, which seems to have a lot of consideration for how the dance is felt by the dancer.)
Given that European ballet is ubiquitous and is often considered the pinnacle of elegance in dance in the West, this Euro-centric view of smoothness has even shaped the modern Lindy Hop scene in subconscious ways. For instance, in the 2000s, I was listening to a live interview where Frankie Manning was asked about the differences between “Savoy style Lindy” and the term “Smooth style Lindy,” a term occasionally used by the scene for Southern California Lindy. I remember clearly he returned with a confused and slightly-off-put look — his answer: he worked very hard to make sure everything he did on the dance floor was smooth.
And, conversely, dancers of the modern era often assume Harlem Lindy Hop must have a heavy pulse, yet Savoy dancers like Sonny Allen and George Lloyd dance like they could have a full high tea serving on their head and not spill a drop. The point is, Black American artistic values have a more-encompassing concept of smoothness.
Finally, it’s important to note that the Black American community has traditionally valued smoothness so much that it has since long ago made calling something “smooth” a very high compliment.
As for “originality,” this one is a little more complex, and, even arguably a little valid.
This may shock you. After all, this is Lindy Hop we’re talking about — creativity and individuality are almost universally recognized as some of its strongest values by the Harlem dancers who did it. How could we, after all we’ve discussed in these HMB essays, give any credence to the claim that originality would be a hindrance to the Harlem dancers, even if just a little?
Well, it appears the years of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers training for the HMB had lead to something that often happens in competitive arts and athletics — the streamlining of techniques from a wide field of experimentation into a smaller, refined field of proven strategies. Basically, the first HMB generation of Whitey’s tried lots of ideas out on the Harvest Moon Ball floor, and by the end of the 1940s, a younger generation that didn’t go through all that experimentation seemed to be concentrating on only a handful of the most impressive Air Steps and moves that had come out of the process. It reminds us of a section in Norma’s book where she complained that Whitey had taught the new dancers he hired all of the routines the veterans like her had worked so hard to invent, just so he could send them out on cheaper gigs. Though we don’t know how her opinion might have compared to others’ involved at the time, we do notice it will be rare that Harlem dancers will showcase unseen moves and movements in these early 1940s HMBs. Seemingly absent as well from these dance floors are comedy teams like Gladys Crowder & Shorty Davis, and strongly-individualized movers such as Billy Ricker or Joyce James.
So, it seems that Whitey’s HMB strategy had become somewhat codified. (By the way, there’s no reason to believe this was therefore also the case for the social dance floor. We imagine the HMB was just a very specific goal that had come down to a few chosen strategies.)
Ironically, the White dancers of this time also probably had an inherent advantage over the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers when it came to originality — they weren’t a close-knit performance group with a decade-old collection of crowd-proven trick steps and fast dancing techniques. The White dancers you’ll see in this year’s ball will move more different relative to each other than the Harlem dancers will, and though they don’t show any dancing near as dynamic and technically difficult and well-showcased as the Harlem dancers, there is little denying they are moving in “original” ways. Furthermore, it is shown throughout the history of the HMB that the White dancers in general danced to slower music, arguably giving them yet another leg up in the originality department. (Over-simplified-reason-but-still-part-of-the-answer: If you have more time between counts, you have more time and space to originally style how you move between those counts.)
With all this in mind, we did say we felt the argument was only a *little* valid. That’s because, as every Lindy Hopper knows, originality is not necessarily what you do, but the way hatch you do it. Though invention is of course highly praised in Lindy Hop values, most creativity in the dance has always come from variating on what has come before. Riffing off of an idea. And as we shall see, even though the early 1940s Harlem dancers seem to be using a smaller tool box of moves in the HMB than the late 30s HMB pioneers, we’ll still see plenty of riffing off of those tools when we look closely.
In his article, even HMB beat writer William Murtha seemingly contradicted himself in the very next title and paragraph:
(Btw, from my newspaper experience: Murtha’s editor might have put in the headlines, not realizing that “Harlemites Original” highlighted the contradictions in the article. We can’t, however, figure how Murtha thinks “inventiveness” is different from “originality.”)
Harlem prelims were held August 30 at the Apollo theater, while the Savoy was still closed. Tiny Bradshaw was the band. The judges for the prelims were three Harlemites and Black Americans; dance teacher Mary Bruce, stage director Clarence Robinson, and actor and radio personality Ralph Cooper.
Leading up to the prelims, and even the morning after, the Daily News mentioned it would be taking eight Harlem couples to the finals. But then, when it finally announced those finalists in later editions, it said “five finalists” and indeed only listed five:
Those dancers were Willnet Spence & John Smith, Ethel Mitchell & Donald Robinson, Lila Watkins & James Brown, Anita Powell & William Freeman, and Audrey Evans & Joseph Hubbard. And, just like in 1942, most of these dancers were new names to us.
We can’t help but feel there was a story behind the announced eight couples that became only five. For instance, perhaps three of the couples could have been disqualified if they had been discovered to be professionals. It’s conjecture on our part, but it’s something that might account for the discrepancy.
You might wonder, if that were the case, why they wouldn’t mention it — they’re a newspaper after all, and that’s a story. If it were the case, we would guess that the Daily News probably wanted to keep it a little quiet, because, as we have stressed often in this essay series: The Lindy Hoppers were obviously the audience and newsreel favorites. The publicity, ticket sales, hype, and charity donations the Daily News received because of the presence of the Lindy Hoppers was certainly huge. We have suspected previously that the Daily News tended to plug their ears and look the other way when it came to the Lindy Hoppers and whether or not they were professionals. (For instance, Whitey’s professional Lindy Hoppers made up almost the entire bulk of Harlem Lindy Hop finalists couples in the first seven years of the HMB, and the only time we have seen the paper mention Lindy Hoppers being caught for being professionals was in 1940, in a Broadway gossip column that mentioned it buried in a paragraph, not a Harvest Moon Ball story with a headline.)
Though we have never heard of almost any of these Harlem dancers in this years HMB finals, one of them will definitely come to stick out in the history of the Harvest Moon Ball ahead. John Smith — known to his friends as “Smitty.” We will see him again. Aside from Smith and Joseph Hubbard, we don’t have evidence that any of these other dancers were ever in another HMB finals, and none had been in one before.
This is another reason why we offered the possibility that three of the Harlem couples might have been disqualified if it came to the Daily News’ attention that they were professionals. Because it’s odd that there weren’t any well-known Whitey’s couples in the same year that only five of an originally planned eight couples were listed in the finals.
By the way, here’s an article that the Daily News put out in 1947 about how it allegedly went behind-the-scenes when someone was accused of professionalism.
Regardless of our theory, it is a fact that the Harvest Moon Ball Harlem Lindy finalists will continue to have a strong turnover during the war years.
Finals were held September 8. Johnny Long provided the swing music.
Click here to see one of the newsreels from this year.
And here is our breakdown:
Heat A was one of the Harlem heats from the contest, and is the only Harlem heat we’ve seen in footage from this year. There’s some neat stuff here. The handspring down the back goes over the leader’s shoulder rather than over his head, making this a fantastic, controllable version for those wary of the more dangerous high-flying version. That same leader does his own front handspring (commonly called a “pancake” today) on his partner, making this a first Leader’s Front-Handspring as far as we know in the footage.
There’s also a Down-the-back (in the background of the full clip) and a “Boat” where the follower rides the leader sitting on the floor. (Which we first see done by James “Blue” Outlaw & Alyce Pearson in 1941’s HMB footage.)
By the way, speaking of James “Blue” Outlaw, the couple above on the right side (the one highlighted when the camera changes to a side view) — that Leader looks and dances suspiciously like James “Blue” Outlaw to us. We know he was known to use a different last name in competing (see our 1942 essay), and he could have done so for this year as well.
The couple on the upper right looks like it could be the 2nd place couple based on a picture (coming below). They do a very strongly rotated swingout that sends the partner into rotaated swivels, ala Jewel MacGowan and Dean Collins. That’s a cool find.
The couple on the upper left hand side is interesting. Based on their dancing, we first suspected they were Harlem dancers. Skates are not seen much by non-Harlem dancers, and the body crunch this couple uses to go into them is a very Harlem movement. But, the pictures of the winners below show that the outfits look like they might be the same — white shoes, big blousy white shirts, dark pants and skirts. These might be our winners.
By the way, the couple on the lower right are seen with different dancers in the background throughout their dancing, showing they were in more than one heat. That should mean one is a finalist heat, though, the math doesn’t quite add up. There might be a picture labeled with wrong names among the winner photographs (it’s happened before.) We’ll investigate further.
Winners for the Jitterbug Jive: In 1st, Rose Ramona & James Riccardi; 2nd, Julie Denora & Vic Marsalona, and 3rd, Lila Watkins & James Brown (the only Harlem couple to place).
Here, for the first time in nine years of the HMB, a non-Black American couple had won. On top of that, for the first time in many years, a non-Black American couple had come in second.
As usual, a Loew’s Theater engagement with all the winners followed the ball. Not as usual, the winning Rumba leader was met by police and escorted from the building. Gilbert Duke had deserted from the Navy and been missing for a year. Even his New York wife and four-year-old son had only recently been informed of it and had no idea where he was. At the Madison Square Garden finals, a friend of Duke’s heard his name called during the civilian Rumba contest (Duke for some reason neglected to give a fake name) and confirmed it when he saw the dancer. The next day the friend called Duke’s wife. “Guess who I saw last night?”
His wife claimed she “didn’t want to see him get into trouble,” then ironically, or perhaps wryly, called the cops. The police knew where he would be, and when he would be there — Backstage at Loew’s Theater, getting ready to perform with the other champions. Sure enough, they arrested him there.
The Harvest Moon Ball did a solid, however, and brought in the second place leader to dance with the first place follower — they didn’t oust her just because her partner was in jail.
Regarding this year and the 1942 name change to “Jitterbug-Jive”:
In an article, and further explained in his dissertation, Jazz dance historian Harri Heinilä claims the Harvest Moon Ball changed the name of the contest from “Lindy Hop” to “Jitterbug Jive” a year previously specifically “to lessen the Savoy Lindy Hopper’s overwhelming winning streak in the contest…” and that, “the name change was connected to the frustration the Daily News felt that the other ballrooms had only a little chance to win the Lindy Hop division…”
Heinilä’s article and dissertation did not appear to offer any hard evidence to support this, but seemed to be based on interpretations of articles, and we personally don’t interpret those articles the same way.
Now, it certainly could be true, based on the fact that the Harvest Moon Ball finals were a contest ran by a mainstream news organization and operated and judged by only White people who were, on top of that, White people of the time. And this year would be just the kind of year that would seem to support Heinilä’s claim — White couples taking the top two places, no pictures of Harlem dancers, and that “smoothness” and “originality” article we highlighted earlier.
But over all these years, we personally have not seen any evidence of a strong dedication to such a specific agenda. To the contrary, if this was their plan, they seemed to have done a pretty bad job at it, considering that the first year of the name change, and after this year, in 1944, all placements went to Harlem dancers. And, for almost its entire run from 1942 to 1974, during which the division will be called the “Jitterbug Jive” contest (with the exception for four years where it will be called the “Rock & Roll” contest), Harlem dancers will take the championship and the strong majority of top placements. Basically, if the Daily News organization did have such a plan when they changed the name, the wide number of judges it hired throughout its history did not appear to be in on it.
If we had to guess, we’d say the name change was probably something a little more innocent, such as there being some Shag dancers around who didn’t have a division anymore (after all, the HMB thought the two dances were practically the same, and said so on several occasions,) as this article snippet would suggest:
Or, as the word “jitterbug” had become the popular term for Jazz Dancing of any kind at this point, the HMB could simply have felt like they were updating their categories to keep with the times. The name “Lindy Hop” was going out of style.
Perhaps this decision of making it an overall Swing/Jazz dance category — and encouraging some of the Shag division’s “smoothness” expectations (see the 1938 HMB essay as well as our discussion above) — might have made the organization feel the White dancers might have more a chance to do well in the contest. But that’s not the same as making the change simply out of frustration at Harlem’s domination of the contest.
(And whether or not the judges had been judging Lindy Hop on some dramatically different criteria than the other dances is a fascinating discussion we will tackle in a future essay).
Finally, in all of the HMB articles we’ve read, we have not yet personally seen any bitterness mentioned by the Daily News reporters about the Harlem domination of the contest. What we have seen is this: Almost yearly, they would write articles about how, this year, Harlemites would have to be careful of the White dancers they’re seeing in the prelims. In his dissertation, Heinilä seems to take this as White reporters expressing a tiredness at seeing the Black dancers winning. We, however, argue these articles are simply their constant attempts to keep interest in the contest by yearly over-exaggerating the competition the White dancers would be bringing to the contest. How are we so sure? A hunch from our own eyes, our experience in news rooms, and the fact that there appears to have been only two non-Black American Harlem couples to ever win the Daily News’ HMB Jazz dance divisions during its entire 40 year run — so we don’t assume the reporters had a strongly different point of view than the dozens of all-White judges over those entire 40 years.
In the past when the HMB has made changes — like adding the Collegiate Shag and Conga divisions and then taking them away a few years later — the changes seemed to be trend-based. Go with what’s popular. And what was always popular were the Black Harlem dancers throwing down. Many of the decisions the event made over the years seem to align with that knowledge — for instance, whereas the Shag and Congo division lasted only a few years, a dance division open to Harlem Jazz dancers would last its entire run, long past the heyday of swing music and “jitterbug’s” mainstream popularity. They would even start making an exception for the “no professionals” rule for the jitterbugs in 1949. And any decisions that didn’t align with showcasing the Harlem dancers appeared to have quickly changed soon after (as we’ll see with one bizarre rule change in 1956). Basically, the Black Lindy Hoppers were a huge part of the Daily News success, and we can’t see the organization going out of their way to make changes that might mess with that.
But, Heinilä’s theory does deserve to be considered, because it easily could have been the case, even if we personally aren’t yet convinced it was. “Uptown” Harlem might have got to rule their prelims, but White “downtown” always ruled the finals. It’s very important to know this when considering the finals of any Daily News Harvest Moon Ball.
(In 1974, when the Daily News stopped holding the official HMB, Mama Lou Parks had already been running the Savoy Manor HMB prelims that supplied all the Jitterbug Jive contestants to the HMB for years. It was natural enough for her to make her own event the HMB Jitterbug finals, which would run up until the end of the 1980s. So, in that sense, Black Americans would finally decide the fate of the HMB Lindy finalists.)
Sources & Thanks
- Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1943 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
- Thanks to Associate Professor, instructor, and swing and Zambian heritage dancer Chisomo Selemani for her help in reviewing aspects of this piece.
- 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 that have helped shape these essays.
- Even though we argued against some of his interpretations, Jazz dance historian Harri Heinilä’s article Sugar Sullivan – The Savoy Lindy Hopper and Jazz Dancer, gives great information on the wonderful Sugar Sullivan and her generation of dancers, and his dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality: The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943, is a wealth of research on all things Harlem Lindy Hop in its first two generations. We should mention our writing process regarding this dissertation, as a lot of it overlaps with the research in our Harvest Moon Ball articles — we research and compose our essays *without reference* to his dissertation. Then, as a point of checking our own research and comparing conclusions, we look at the relative parts of his dissertation. If he has discovered something or comes to conclusions we have not, we make sure to add that discussion to the essay and give him credit. (For instance, his dissertation has sections on both the 1943 Harlem Riot and closing of the Savoy which gave us new information and considerations.) He has done a wealth of this research into publications already, and far more than us, and as his dissertation was created in 2015, he should get a great deal of credit for first breaking ground on a lot of this research. Some credit should also be given to the late Terry Monaghan, who had done a ton of his own research before passing, and which I believe we and Heinilä are both indebted to.
- 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!
2 responses to “The 1943 Harvest Moon Ball (GEEK OUT)”
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