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The 1948 Harvest Moon Ball

March 16, 2022
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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.

Executive Orders & Dancing

In late July of 1948, little more than a month before the 1948 Harvest Moon Ball, President Truman signed executive order 9981 — it ordered the integration of the American Armed Services.

Before this, Black American soldiers could have a pretty different life than their counterparts. An obvious example, as described in our 1943 essay, was that they were often given the worst of the equipment, or, (as depicted in the historical film Glory), were often sent to be cannon-fodder. They were not expected to be good at complex jobs like flying airplanes (something the Tuskegee Airmen had to prove amazingly wrong), and the army had capped the number of Black Women nurses it could accept to 56 until near the end of WWII.

Black American Nurses in 1944, courtesy of NAACP.

The army could treat them less than equal, but it could not force the rest of the world to do so. Black soldiers stationed in England during World War II, for instance, experienced a White world without Southern Jim Crow or Northern Red-Line racism for the first time. They were welcomed by the public, and, as famous author George Orville noted, were thought of as the exception to the rule that American GIs were “oversexed, overpaid, and over here.” Black soldiers were welcomed at seats at the bar, were flirted with openly by White Englishwomen without alarming anyone, and, were eagerly admired when they showed off their Black American jitterbugging. It wasn’t just White GIs that filled the dancehalls, as American WWII movies give the impression — it was Black American jitterbuggers as well.

The US Army, designed to appease Southern White America in its structure and laws, fought back by trying to impose Jim Crow on the English citizens. One story goes that the army demanded a local pub segregate their dining room. The pub responded by putting a sign on the door: “Black Troops Only.” And, in 1943, White American military police attempting to arrest Black American troops for dubious reasons started a fight that eventually lead to the death of one Black soldier and the injury of several of his comrades. In that instance, it was likely that news of the recent 1943 Detroit Race Riots had added extra tension among Black and White troops.

But some very good things came from the experience of Black GIs abroad. War made the lives of many White Americans abroad depend on Black Americans, and the vast majority of White soldiers working with Black soldiers came to think very highly of them and lost large pieces of their prejudice. And, as we mentioned, Black soldiers realized what Black life could look like in a White world. When they came home, they were going to change things. Some argue that the modern Civil Rights movement was carried home in the minds of Black soldiers returning from the war.

With Truman’s executive order, the army would officially integrate, and in all future wars and service, Black Americans would be side by side with White, Latinx, Asian, and all other Americans.

It was the end of all discrimination in the American armed forces.

Hahaha. Just kidding. But it was a start.

Prelims

This article was from 1949 coverage. These dancers could be the stripe-shirted dancers in the finals.

Savoy prelims were held Friday, August 20. Lucky Millinder was the band. Here were the finalists:

1947 readers will notice a lot of returning faces, many of whom will dominate this stage for years to come. Those Finalists are Doris Jones Jackson & Candy Carter, Jaqueline “Jac” Davis & James “Jimmy” Ronald “Ronnie” Hayes, Barbara Skinner & Morris Rhodes, Janie Hansford & Will “Bill” “Willie” Posey, Ruth Bridges & Leo “Lee” H. Moates, Jessyca “Jessica” Samuels & James Waltuo, Frances Zeigler & Billie Fitzgerald, and Rebecca Jenkins & James Strickland.

That strange last name, Waltuo? Well, solving this riddle was one of our proudest moments in this entire research process; we were watching this footage with Sugar Sullivan, when she said “He’s dancing like James “Blue” Outlaw.” We went cross-eyed, and suddenly realized “Waltuo” was the word “Outlaw” backwards. So there you have it, James, known for being mischievous, had flipped his last name for the HMB. He had done the same in 1942, and we also suspect he is one of the dancers in the 1943 footage perhaps dancing under a different name. If we had to guess a reason why, we would suspect that he was a so obviously a professional Lindy Hopper that he dared not use his real name.

However, these will not be the only Harlem dancers in the contest this year. A teenage girl named Ruth Guillroy was asked to dance by a partner who was originally from Africa, Norton Marteeni. Ruth had grown up tap dancing and had done a little ballet, but she had fallen in love with Lindy Hop by watching movies like “A Day at the Races” — and just like Norma Miller before her, she would stay in a movie theater all day watching the movie waiting for the dance scenes.

By the time they decided to do the contest, the Savoy prelims had passed, so they went to the Roseland Ballroom and entered there. Though the ballroom was segregated, it still allowed People of Color on certain nights, the prelims presumably being one of them. They made it to the finals, taking second place at the Roseland.

By the way, Ruth was so sweet, she was nicknamed Sugar.

Finals

Finals were held Wednesday night, Sept. 8. None other than Duke Ellington provided the swing music. He also dedicated a song, “Dancers in Love” to the ball.

Here is our breakdown of all the 1948 newsreels we have seen:

(One of our other proudest moments in the Harvest Moon Ball research was how we were able, without a numbers listing, to confidently identify every dancer in this footage through elimination, photographs, and comparing with other years’ footage. When we were finally able to check the footage with Sugar Sullivan, we found that we had only gotten two of the eight couples mixed up, everyone else checked out.)

HEAT A

Ruth Guillroy (Sugar Sullivan) & Norton Marteeni

Here is Sugar Sullivan’s first known appearance dancing on film. Sadly this is all we have seen of her and her partner’s performance in the newsreels. Norton’s nickname was “Stoney.” Sugar said that she later found out he was one of Norma Miller’s dancers in her performance troops.

According to this article, Sugar had not seen the Savoy Lindy Hoppers dance before this night.

HEAT B

The dancers are charging so hard in this clip that we wouldn’t be surprised if this was the beginning of their heat. (By the way, we clocked this entrance close to 300BPM. Later footage in this heat we clocked at approx. 260. Either the film was sped up/slowed down, or the band was.)

Barbara Skinner & Morris Rhodes (bottom left/center) and Dorris Jones & Candy Carter especially are blazing with lots of air. Dorris & Candy in particular show great energy, poise, and balance, which we know the judges of the HMB traditionally favor.

Jessyca Samuels & James “Blue” Outlaw”

Sadly, the camera didn’t catch much of the showier dancing we know Jessyca and Blue were capable of. You can still see their fantastic movement. Most of the Leaders of this generation don’t get down into a dramatic “running” stance like the late 30s Whitey’s did, but Blue especially has a generally upright stance when he dances (upright, you know, for a very athletic dance form.)

Elsie Thomas & James “Ronnie” Hayes

For this year’s HMB, Ronnie Hayes decided he was so good, he could do it blindfolded. So he did. According to Sugar Sullivan, he danced perfectly without a mistake, and was disqualified by the judges for the stunt.

Throughout the history of the Harvest Moon Ball, we have seen that Lindy Hoppers could seemingly break every rule the ballroom organization had, except for ones involving costumes. Norma Miller, Eunice Callen, and now Ronnie Hayes, all reportedly lost points or were disqualified because of costume mishaps or choices.

Watch the rest of Elsie and Ronnie’s dancing in this year’s HMB clip; it’s an impressive display, especially for one partner being blindfolded.

HEAT C

Ruth Bridges & Lee Moates

Here Ruth & Lee do a beautiful version of this Around-the-Back-like Air Step that we haven’t seen much before an which we have no idea what they called it. Following it is an Ace-in-the-Hole-Down-the-Back.

Lee Moates will be a recurring character in the next decade of the Harvest Moon Ball, and is consistently one of the dancers later generations of Harlem Lindy Hoppers will credit with teaching them how to Lindy Hop. He was known as a kind man and a well-loved coach.

Frances Zeigler & Billy Fitzgerald

Frances & Billy return this year after placing the previous year. According to Sugar, Billy was also an exotic dancer.

Jannie Hansford & Willie Posey / Rebecca Jenkins & James Strickland

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Based on what we’ve seen in the footage, we wouldn’t be surprised if this heat was a hard one to judge. All these couples are showcasing fine looking Lindy and powerful tricks. Like Lee Moates, we will see Willie Posey‘s name again and again in the future. He seems to have been a well-loved partner for many of the Followers, and before the end of his HMB run he will have danced with three living legends — Sugar Sullivan, Gloria Thompson, and Barbara Billups.

Finalists Heat

As we discussed in the 1947 essay, the HMB during this time was up to some sketchy competition organization — it appears that one finalist was taken from each heat of the contest for a final four-couple dance-off, rather than the entire field being judged relative to each other. Since Harlem dancers danced in only two heats, this meant that there could only be two Harlem couples in the finals. It’s hard not to see it as an intentional handicap against the dominating Black-American Harlem dancers. That’s why from the years 1947-1949, all finals we have seen have two Harlem couples and two non-Harlem couples. That’s also why the couple #32 shown in the footage looks like they pale in comparison to all other Harlem dancers we’ve seen in this clip.

Finally, please take note at the speed of the dancing here in these finals — as we’ve noted many times before, the Harlem dancers asked for very fast music, which they trained for and could dance at. Here for these finals, the tempo was a lot slower (Approx. 230 BPM) than the Harlem heats.

Winners

Winners for the Jitterbug Jive: In 1st, Doris Jackson & Candy Carter; 2nd, Bea Santangelo & Sal Esposito (once again; they did the same in 1947), and 3rd, Ruth Bridges & Lee Moates. (As we mentioned earlier, the placements were possibly skewed by the unfair finals system. Though It should also be mentioned that Sal Esposito was highly regarded among the Savoy dancers and a constant visitor to the ballroom and its “Corner” jams.)

Aftermath

For the first time that we know of in the Harvest Moon Ball history, the front page of the Daily News is nothing but Jitterbugs:

This photo is of this year’s contest. It appeared in the Daily News in August of 1949, hence the mention of last year’s festival. Lucky Kargo, like Sal Esposito, was highly regarded among the Harlem dancers. We will see more of him in the future.
An awkwardly-staged picture not only literally, but also behind the scenes, as Dorris Jackson, the Black American winner of the Jitterbug Jive contest, is not in the picture or even mentioned as a fellow winner.

For years now, thousands of New Yorkers had seen Ed Sullivan host the Harvest Moon Ball. Finally some television producers took note, and decided that Ed would be the perfect host of a television variety show. They called it Toast of the Town but eventually Ed would become such a household name they would simply call it the Ed Sullivan show. Until 1971 he would bring incredible performers and entertainers into the homes of America every Sunday night. It began to be thought that an artist had officially “made it” when they appeared on Ed Sullivan’s show.

It’s commonly known that Sullivan was famous for introducing Elvis and the Beatles to the general American public, but most probably aren’t aware that Ed was a huge champion of Black American talent, and throughout his reign as the king of television, he spotlighted many Black American artists. (He was still, of course, a man of his time, and had some problematic moments.)

Certainly an important part of his understanding of Black American talent was the Harlem Lindy Hoppers he yearly saw throw down at the Harvest Moon Ball, and got to present on stage at the HMB winner’s shows that ran afterwards. Ed would continue to showcase their talent, having the Harvest Moon Ball winners showcase on his show every year. This meant millions and millions of people, across every state and in every nook and cranny that had a television set, could see Harlem Lindy Hop on his show once a year, and it would happen every year until the early 1970s.

To most people in the modern swing scene, the dancing of the Third Generation is not well known. Whereas to general Americans, the Third Generation was almost certainly the most seen Lindy Hoppers in history.

Speaking of a Sullivan, after the 1948 HMB finals, the young dancer Sugar approached the Savoy dancers she saw light up the stage. They welcomed her, heard her surprising story of competing at the Roseland finals, and told her where to find the Savoy. They most likely didn’t realize they were passing a flame Sugar would carry all the way to the current generation of Lindy Hoppers.

But first, she’d have to learn how to Lindy the way they did it at the Savoy.

The 1949 Harvest Moon Ball will bring back two of the 1930s Whitey’s Lindy Hopper greats. There, they will compete against the next generation that was quickly refining its dancing and becoming veterans in their own right. You won’t want to miss the 1949 Harvest Moon Ball.

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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

From the 1970 HMB program looking back on 1948.

Sources & Thanks

  • HUGE THANKS to Sugar Sullivan and Gloria Thompson, 1950s Savoy dancers who later worked extensively with Mama Lu Parks. We have been interviewing (and paying them) for their knowledge and feedback on this footage and the dancers involved in them. Also huge thanks to Sonny Allen, Savoy Lindy Hopper and Harvest Moon Ball winner we have also been interviewing. Most of the donations for this project go *directly* to them and other original dancers I’m interviewing.
  • Huge thanks to Forrest Outman who provided some of the Harvest Moon Ball footage from this time period.
  • 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 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.
  • All spelling and grammar problems are mine alone; one man army!
One Comment leave one →
  1. Riki permalink
    April 30, 2022 11:44 pm

    As always, incredible research, storytelling and media. You are doing an incredible service to us all, Bobby.

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