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The 1947 Harvest Moon Ball

December 8, 2021
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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

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

NOTES:

As we go into the great Lindy Hoppers of the 1940s and 50s, a frustrating aspect to research has been the lack of information on the women dancers of this time. And the original dancers of this era we are interviewing — Sugar Sullivan, Gloria Thompson, Sonny Allen — seem to share in this frustration. They truly wish they could tell us more. There is simply much more information on the Harlem men of this era than the women. (This will change for the 60s and 70s, where there is quite a lot of information on the women of the time, many of whom are still with us.) We will keep working hard to uncover as much information as we can. Until more is learned about them, enjoy the artistry they brought to the dance floor in the clips, and seeing their names next to their dancing.

What happened to our 1946 essay? Like our 1941 essay, we are missing some key information to finish identifications in the footage. However, if we had the listing of the competitors from the Harvest Moon Ball program, it would make our lives a lot easier. So, if you happen to be in possession of a 1946 or 1941 program, we would love to have a picture of the Jitterbug listings!

THE 1947 HARVEST MOON BALL

Baseball & Dancing

In 1936, Black olympians dominated the Berlin Olympic games, despite, or in defiance of, a fascist audience. One of the Black American sprinters who won silver at that Olympics was Mack Robinson. Seeing how athletics had been such a positive force in his own life, Mack encouraged his younger brother to take up athletics.

Young Jackie Robinson did so, becoming the first athlete at UCLA to letter in four sports — Baseball, Basketball, Football, and Track. While serving in World War II, he was court marshalled for refusing to move to the back of a Texas bus, and later was honorably discharged without seeing combat. He returned home and soon after earned a spot in the Negro Baseball Leagues playing for the Kansas City Monarchs.

It just so happened to be the year that the Brooklyn Dodgers Executive, Branch Ricky, had been looking for Black players to take to the Major Leagues, and thus integrate a sport that had been segregated for decades. He was not only looking for talent on the field, but a very specific personality off it. He wanted a player who could “turn the other cheek” when it came to the inevitable and great deal of racist abuse the player would receive from White Americans. Jackie was a Civil Rights advocate who usually desired to fight back against racism, but under the circumstances, he agreed with Ricky. And, through an amazing feat of strength and perseverance we can only begin to imagine, he was able to do so for his entire career despite years of being the victim of vitriol, violence, and frequent death threats for him and his family.

Instead, he fought back with his playing. He won Rookie of the Year for his first year, the MVP in 1949, and was an All-Star every year from 1949 to 1954. In 1956, he lead Brooklyn to a World Series Championship over the Yankees.

Here’s what Ed Sullivan, the emcee of the Harvest Moon Ball and long-time witness of Black American talent, had to say in September of this year, 1947, following the announcement that the Dodgers were playing the world series:

From the Daily News, September 17, 1947

After the glorious World Series win, Jackie retired, having had one incredible career shoved into only a decade. And we can only assume the toll of confronting American Racism may have played a roll in his decision to end relatively early compared to the average major leaguer. And though Jackie Robinson was the first Black American since 1884 to play in the majors, he obviously was not the last, and none who came after were spared discrimination in some form or fashion.

Stories almost never tell who came soon after the first. Well, it just so happens that the second, third, and fourth Black Americans in the Major Leagues joined the same year as Jackie, 1947. Three months after Jackie’s first game, Larry Doby became the first Black American to play for the American league as a Cleveland Indian. He was an All Star player every year from 1949 to 1955. In 1978 he would become the second Black American manager in Baseball when he began leading the White Sox. Also in 1947, two of Robinson’s Kansas City Monarchs teammates — Hank Thompson and Willard Brown —  were signed to the St. Louis Browns, a city that some had declared would never settle for Black players, as St. Louis was “too much of a Southern City.” And, four months after Robinson’s debut, Brooklyn brought up another Black player, Dan Bankhead, the first Black American pitcher brought into the newly-integrated Majors. Sadly, Bankhead suffered under the strains, and Baseball scholars have argued that he, like many of the first Black American players, had the talent, but were not given the crucial support, to make it in the White and spiteful Major Leagues.

By the 1970s — just three decades later — Black Americans would make up 20% of the Major League players. And, in 1997, Jackie’s number, “42” was officially retired across the entire Major Leagues to honor the player.

While you watch the incredible artistry of the Harlem dancers in the 1947 HMB footage, the 13th year you’ve seen such incredible artistry, take it in that this is the first year Black athletes were allowed to play alongside Whites in professional Baseball in the 20th century.

Generations & Dancing

A common way we think of Lindy Hop history is by generations. These aren’t literal generations (though there will be several notable parents-and-children that share Lindy Hop history.) Instead, Lindy Hop generations seem to be defined by the passing of the torch of innovation and, specifically, shining and performance from one peer group to the next to come along. The first generation was the dance’s originators in the late 20s and early 30s, dancers like Mattie Parnell & “Shorty” George, and “Twistmouth” George. We don’t think it’s a coincidence that they were all known for their individual styling and trick steps, and that they all were in the first performance teams of Lindy Hop — which were more or less demonstrations of each couple going out and jamming one after the other.

The second generation were teenagers and 20-somethings in the Savoy who admired the first generation, but then, under the additional keen coaching eye of Herbert Whitey, shook things up dramatically with many dance styling changes, the most obvious being the introduction and flourishing of Air Steps. the 2nd Generation were familiar names like Norma, Frankie, Al, Anne, Leon, Willa Mae — again, we don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve never heard someone referred to as a 2nd generation dancer that was not a Whitey’s Lindy Hopper, that was not a performer of the dance.

In familial generations, you don’t get to pick your parents, and you don’t get to pick your children. Something similar happened in Lindy Hop when Shorty George realized that Whitey’s young teenagers were starting to take more and more of the Lindy Hop gigs around town that usually went to his group. The first generation had little say in who would come to define the Second generation.

Also in familial generations, there are often significant gaps of time between generations. Something similar happened for Lindy Hop at this time. Arguably cut short by World War II and Whitey’s business practices, the Second Generation was mostly wrapping up its time on the Lindy Hop stage in the early 40s. And though a few we recognize as part of the Third Generation had competed at the HMB in that time, the heart of the Third Generation of Lindy Hop, seemingly, wasn’t ready to hit the stage of the Harvest Moon Ball until now, 1947. This year, some dancers will begin competing that will profoundly shape Harlem Lindy Hop not just over the next decade, but over the next four decades. On top of that, many of them would leave their mark in the history of Lindy Hop when captured on film for a Russian-born dancer who wanted to preserve Harlem jazz dance for future generations. Which is why this generation has also been called the “Spirit Moves” Generation.

One last thing about familial generations — the parents always have opinions about how the children do things. This is a story that will come in time.

The point is that the idea of thinking of Lindy Hop in generations captures something very important about the dance: Harlem Lindy Hop was, and still is, a family — and it’s time for its third generation to take the stage.

If 1947 is a good starting point to think of the third generation, then its fitting they had someone like Norma Miller on hand to pass the baton. Check out this picture taken for the Daily News a few weeks before the prelims:

Norma coaching Savoy dancers, in what is almost certainly a staged photo. (Though we don’t doubt the coaching did in fact happen.) Man in the middle appears to be Billy Fitzgerald, and his partner Frances Ziegler to his left. And the man on the right may very well be James “Ronnie” Hayes with Betty Gaston on his left.

This photo came from a hype article about the upcoming Harvest Moon Ball registration:

From the Daily News, Aug 7, 1947

Those of you who knew Norma, or got to take a class from her, will appreciate the sentence stating that Norma was “putting [the HMB competitors] through paces calculated to discourage all but the most determined.”

Prelims

Savoy prelims were held August 15th. The band was not mentioned in any of the articles we have seen. Here were the winners:

The Savoy took eight couples this year, which would be a new standard that would last quite awhile. Mary Tracy & Lee Moates, Betty Gaston & James R. “Ronnie” Hayes, Frances Ziegler & Billy Fitzgerald, Rebecca Jenkins & James Strickland, Juanita Jones & Charles Jones, Barbara Skinner & Morris Rhodes, Nancy Price & Rudy Edwards, Doris Jackson & Candy Carter.

And here were some of the prelim photos from other ballrooms:

Daily News, July 23, 1947

Finals

Finals were held Wednesday, Sept. 3. Ray McKinley provided the swing music. Here is the program listing for this years Jitterbug finals:

As far as harvest Moon Ball footage goes, we are lucky to have a good chunk available from 1947. If you’d like to see one of the 1947 newsreels available, click here. And below is our breakdown film of all the 1947 newsreels we have found. We are very fortunate to have reviewed this footage with Sugar Sullivan and Gloria Thompson, who both knew many of these dancers personally. (We pay them for their time, so please donate to help cover theses costs!)

Heat 1

We only have a few seconds of Heat 1, but an interesting thing about the highlighted couple is the Follower’s individual movement: less emphasis on grounded swiveling, more emphasis on strong rhythmic foot percussion and skipping right under the body, which may look familiar to those who have seen European Boogie Woogie. Are we seeing first hand the evolution of 40s Lindy into the Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rockabilly style of 1950s Lindy Hop that will inspire Boogie Woogie? One sample size isn’t enough to tell, but it’s an interesting possibility.

Heat 2

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Heat 2 includes at least four — count them, four — dancers that have been identified in the Spirit Moves. Ronald “Ronnie” Hayes, Billy Fitzgerald, Lee Moates, and James Strickland.

In time we will discuss them each more. You’ll notice in the top right hand corner, Rebecca & James are showing that “Stops” is still very much alive in the Harlem Lindy Hop repertoire. While reviewing this footage with Sugar Sullivan, she mentioned off-hand that it was often tricky for her to tell Lee, Ronnie, and James apart on a dance floor at first glance, as they all had roughly the same body type and size. For those with a similar body type, this heat is a fantastic display of possibilities.

One of the possibly new ideas we see on the HMB dance floor is brought by Frances & Billy:

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As you shall see throughout their HMB dancing over this year and especially next, they are a creative and charismatic couple.

Heat 3

In Heat 3, we are introduced to a dancer named Sal Esposito. Though we don’t know Sal’s origins for sure, the surname pops up in the census in families that migrated to New York from Italy. Sal is noteworthy in that he, along with other dancer named Lucky Kargo, are the most-often mentioned when Black Harlem dancers of the era talk about White dancers they respected. Sal visited the Savoy often, and danced in the Corner with the Harlem dancers. (We will meet Lucky in a future year.) Here is Sal with Bea Pitzona. Once again, they follow the trend of dancers with Italian family backgrounds that visit the Savoy and dominate the Non-Black heats of the HMB.

One possible reason for this strong Italian-American showing, a demographic expert might think, is because of “Italian Harlem,” a section of Harlem that had a large Italian population, especially before World War II. However, most of our HMB dancers with Italian last names tend to come from the Bronx and Brooklyn, regardless of the era of the HMB. And Sal is from lower Manhattan. The question as to why Italian youth, whose cultural demographic only made up about 8% of the city (as far as we can tell from limited research), were so strongly present in the Harvest Moon Ball Jitterbug contest, is a fascinating one. (Just look at our competitor’s listing above, for instance). We will research it further, but if you have some ideas, we’d love to hear them.

Heat 4

Heat four shows the dancing of this year’s winners, Nancy Price & Rudy Edwards. Rudy has a unique individual styling — he does some kicks in open position that appear to be sideways from his body and pointing up, as opposed to the usual generic Swing Charleston style kick right under the body or a backwards Mule Kick. You can see an example of one above, right before they do the very cool Front Handspring-style Air Step where the follower goes up, but then stops and reverses the motion.

Finalists Round

In the first years of the HMB, it held a demo by the top three winning couples of each division. (You can see an example in the 1938 footage.) During World War II, they held a final battle between the winners of the servicemen’s and civilian’s Jitterbug division. After 1946 there was no longer a servicemen’s division, and instead the HMB apparently held a final four-couple dance-off for the judges to decide final placements.

This was probably because they wanted to keep the climax feeling of the war years’ dance off. It also made sense to have a big hurrah for the jitterbuggers, because they were no longer included in the event’s grand finale, the all-ballroom-style dance contest where the placements from each division danced to a song in each main Ballroom style. (The Harlem Lindy Hoppers, always keen entertainers, had become notorious for goofing around and taking all the attention while they imitated Waltz, Rhumba, and Tango while being surrounded by the serious ballroom dancers trying to respectfully showcase their elegant dances and fight for the top honors. It was probably for the best they took the Lindy Hoppers out of it.) So, from a promoter’s perspective, a four-couple dance-off probably seemed like a logical, exciting addition.

When we looked at the footage, though, we noticed something interesting: there were two White couples and two Black couples. This is only noteworthy because it seemed strange there would be only two Harlem couples in the final four. Then we realized — each couple happens to be from a different heat. This could be just a coincidence. But judging by the dancing ability of the White dancers verses those of the Harlem couples in the contest, it seems not likely. It looks like the judges were told to choose a top couple of each heat, and then those four would face off in the dance-off.

This, by the way, is an amazingly unfair way to design a contest with awarded top placements. Being the best couple in a heat with multiple heats has literally no true bearing on whether you are one of the top four couples in an overall contest. And the Harvest Moon Ball Jitterbug division is a great example of why that is — during these years, the Harlem couples get eight slots at the HMB, and they are put into their own heats, so those eight dancers all share the same two heats. So no matter how good those eight couples are — only two of those couples would go to the final round.

But wait, maybe it was just a coincidence this year? Well, the HMB does these top four dance-offs for at least the next two years after this one, so we checked those. Guess what: Two White couples, two Black couples, every year. (This will definitely change in 1951 when the four-way dance-offs disappear from the footage and dance-offs in general seem to only occur when there are ties between placements).

So, yeah, it seems to have been on purpose. But why would they have chosen to do it this way?

They could have done so without much thought, like they figured they were simply following the logic of their overall ballroom dance contest, where the top placements of each individual division went on to the final big all-ballroom dances final. Though the one concept is fundamentally different from the other, it’s not like that’s ever stopped bad contest design in the past.

But, what if they did so to obtain a specific outcome? For instance, what if they did it to specifically give a handicap to Harlem dancers in the placements. Because, if you didn’t notice, this format and the fact that Harlem couples were in only two heats means at least one of the final three placements would have to be a non-Harlem couple.

Now, why would they want to do that?

For those who haven’t been following along with the history so far, here are three very important things to know about Harlem Jazz Dancing at the Harvest Moon Ball: (1) The Harlem dancers are THE number one thing the audience is waiting for. It’s reinforced so much in all the research that it’s the closest thing an opinion can come to a hard fact. (2) By this year in 1947, the Harlem dancers have almost completely dominated the top placements of the Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Hop/ Jitterbug divisions for its entire run. They have taken first in all but two years, and only a handful of White couples have breached the top three placements, period. (And even then, most of those that have show clear signs of having done their homework at the Savoy). (3) One thing that certainly helped their domination was the fact that many of the Harlem Lindy Hoppers had a lot of experience dancing for audiences. This is fundamentally because Black American arts in general value performing and sharing dance art with its community, and so the average Harlem Lindy Hopper got plenty of opportunities to hone their performing skills in nightly jam circles and weekly Savoy contests. However, in the specific case of the HMB, many of these dancers were trained and paid to dance professionally by Herbert Whitey, which the HMB contest rules were avidly against — the whole point of the HMB was that it was an amateur contest for the passionate hobbyist. As we have discussed in numerous essays, we believe that at least someone in the HMB organization must have known the Harlem dancers were mostly Whitey’s professionals, and simply tended to turn a blind eye. Almost certainly because of point (1).

Now then, the segregation of the heats into Black dancers and non-Black dancers might at first glance appear blatantly racist, but there are some important complexities here that argue it’s not near as much as you’d think. First off, in previous years, the HMB has previously only allotted the Savoy five, six, or seven finalist spots. And those Savoy finalists were simply plopped, in order, into the final listing, (as would all the Roseland finalists, etc.) And so one heat would be a mixture of Savoy and other dancers, and then the next heat might be all Savoy dancers, based on how the numbers went. So at first it doesn’t seem like it was necessarily segregated by design, though times being what they were, we would not be surprised if the organizers discussed the implications of having White coupes share the stage with Black couples. Then, beginning in 1946, there were eight Harlem couples taken to the finals, more than any other ballroom, so Harlem dancers were actually getting more representation in the finals than previously.

Furthermore, by the late 30s it appears the HMB had realized that there was no better finale to the jitterbug contest than an all-Harlem heat, cause they started just plopping all the Savoy numbers at the end of the contest list. Further-furthermore, technically a Harlem finalist wasn’t guaranteed to be Black American. As we showed in the 1940 essay, Jimmy Valentine was a White Harlem finalist (who was not able to compete in the finals. See the essay for a possible reason why.)

And, further-further-futhermore, all evidence points to the fact that in general, the Harlem couples were happy to be together in their own heats, and the non-Harlem couples didn’t necessarily want to be in those heats. Why? Because of speed. There are numerous stories throughout the entire four decades of the Harvest Moon Ball oral history about how Harlem dancers wanted, and apparently got, faster music than the non-Harlem dancers. (And as we’ve shown in previous essays, there is plenty of clear evidence in the footage that supports that. For a great example, check out the 1938 essay. There you can see Harlem prelim tempos vs the HMB final tempos, and in those finals, the Non-Harlem heat’s tempos vs the mixed heat’s vs the Harlem heat’s.) Harlem dancers trained and designed their performance dancing to throw down at high speeds, and most non-Harlem couples would fall apart at those tempos. Basically, it’s important to know that despite the technically-ballroom-based-but-still-arguably-racially-charged segregation of the Jitterbug heats, not many people on either side were apparently complaining about it, and on the flip side, evidence seems to imply the segregation helped most of those involved have more successful dancing in the contest. For all we know, the HMB might have allowed Harlem to have two full heats worth of dancers so that the amateurs in the contest didn’t have to be in the same heats as the pros.

All of that said, something small has changed here in 1947: For the first time, the Harlem finalists are split into two groups — Heat 2 and Heat 4 — putting a non-Harlem heat between them. So, the HMB is no longer just plopping down the Harlem finalists into one chunk on the competitor’s list — they are officially now keeping the Harlem-based segregation very much on purpose. And there are a few reasons why they might have divided them and put another heat between them. Now that there are eight Harlem couples in the contest, they might have felt like it was odd to literally have their entire first half of the contest be all White, and the second half all Black, and so dividing it up meant it would actually be less segregated, at least visually. And, from a spectator’s point of view, it provided a little bit more consistent entertainment to have the pro heats mixed with the non-pro heats. Notice though, a Harlem heat is still last. End with a bang.

So, in short: The HMB has enacted and allowed various strategies over the years with the goal of showcasing Harlem Lindy Hop, their event’s biggest draw. In just a couple years, 1949, they will even make it official that Jitterbuggers are allowed to be professionals, whereas all other divisions will still be amateur-only, so that any great gigging Harlem Lindy Hopper who wants can throw down in the contest without having to give a fake name or fear getting found-out and kicked-out from the contest. And yet, the HMB has instituted a judging system that literally handicaps Harlem dancers.

So, again, why would they do this?

Like we mentioned earlier, the decision could have been a dumber, less-calculated one. But let’s assume that if they weren’t aware of what they were doing the first year, they probably were the second and the third. Because someone — like, say, Lindy Hop trainer Herbert Whitey — would certainly have let them know damn well what they were doing. So we doubt that was the case. And there certainly could have been more malicious, more overtly-racist thinking that could have gone into these decisions. But, as we have discussed in previous essays, we don’t see a lot of evidence that makes us believe the HMB was malignantly trying to sabotage the Black dancers. Don’t get us wrong, we don’t think they were acting particularly benevolent or respectful either. We think the HMB was simply trying to “have their cake and eat it too.” Meaning, they wanted to have the incredible Harlem Lindy Hop Entertainment that brought them tons of ticket income and press, and also handicap them so that non-Harlem — and perhaps, specifically, White — amateurs would be guaranteed a placement.

But New Yorkers aren’t dumb. And we’d bet that’s why the final-four contest only lasted a few years.

Winners

Winners for the Jitterbug Jive: In 1st, Nancy Price & Rudy Edwards; 2nd, Bea Pitonza & Sal Esposito, and 3rd, Frances Zeigler & Billy Fitzgerald.

There was also this fun little story about the evening:

Aftermath

Something fun about this picture is that, in the past, they often had the male Lindy Hop partner rub the feet of the female partner. This year, Nancy rubs her own feet while Rudy kicks his up.

So, the stage has been set for the next generation, and next year, 1948, will see the first appearance on the Harvest Moon Ball stage of a living legend. Her name was Ruth Guillroy, but don’t beat yourself up if you’ve never heard of her. Because these days the Lindy world knows her by a much sweeter-sounding name.

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Notes

  • Another great example of why the best in each heat is almost no bearing in the best in a contest: Ever notice that in a lot of modern, small event contests, the most advanced dancers will often be together in the last heats — because they all waited till the last minute to sign up for the contest. (The newer, more eager competitors tend to sign up first.)
  • In our 1943 HMB Geek-Out essay, we discussed how Jazz Dance historian Harri Heinilä theorizes that the HMB was trying to handicap Harlem dancers in their contests through rules in the early1940s. Though we don’t agree with his interpretation of the research he uses to support his opinion, it’s hard to not look at the final four format in 1947-1950 and not see a purposeful handicap put on the Harlemites. So, that does give some evidence to support them having tried to do it earlier, as well.

Sources & Thanks

  • Except where otherwise stated, all newspaper articles, pictures, and information on the details of the 1947 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
  • Huge thanks to Sugar Sullivan and Gloria Thompson, 1950s Savoy dancers who later worked extensively with Mama Lou Parks. We have been interviewing (and paying them) for their knowledge and feedback on this footage and the dancers involved in them. Most of the donations for this project go *directly* to them and other original dancers I’m interviewing.
  • Thanks so much to Robert CreaseCynthia 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.
  • 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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