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The 1949 Harvest Moon Ball

May 3, 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.

Maps & Dancing

In 1949, this is what the country looked like in terms of Civil Rights. This map was made up to help Black Americans understand what they could expect in each state they visited or considered living in. (It would also serve Black American promotors and performers well, like the Jazz musicians and jitterbugs that toured the country.) The numbers in each state correspond to legislations specifically dealing with those categories shown on the lower left side of the map. So, in the blank slates, those numbers are for legislation prohibiting discrimination in those categories. In the states with slashes, those numbers are for legislation enforcing discrimination in those categories. The polka dot states have no legislation whatsoever.

(And realize, just because a state is blank doesn’t mean it’s a bastion of equality. Northwestern states, for instance, are blank but only have a few categories of anti-discrimination legislation covered — allowing for discriminatory interpretation of everything else. One example is that, whatever legislations California had, it didn’t stop their notorious red-lining of Black Americans for housing.)

When you look at this map, first off, take a moment to notice how much America was still struggling from the same cultural divide that lead to the Civil War. The right side of this map might as well designate the Confederacy and the Union. (Alas, it even adds West Virginia to the South.) Secondly, take a moment to notice how New York is the only state on this map that has Civil Rights legislation for all the categories, numbers 1-11.

This is because, as African-American studies professor Martha Biondi argues, 1940s Harlem was not only the mecca for Black American art and entertainment, it was also the focal point of a powerful Civil Rights movement involving Black American politicians, labor unions, religious congregations, and good old-fashioned picket protesting. In doing so, the North of the 1940s & 50s — and New York specifically— set an example and created a springboard for the National Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s.

Did this mean New York was a land free from racism? Certainly not — Black Americans still had to fight centuries of racist political infrastructure and racist fellow New Yorkers. But it was a start.

Prelims

A fascinating change appeared in the rules of the 1949 Harvest Moon Ball this year:

From the Daily News, July 31, 1949

For the first time we’ve seen in the contest’s history, the event has allowed professional jitterbuggers and even past winners a chance to compete. We’re not sure why the sudden rule change, especially since its very likely the contest had turned a blind eye to professional performers in the past. One possibility is that, because the Jitterbug-Jive was the crowd favorite, the organization might have made the change in a hope to insure the crowd a great show.

Savoy prelims were held Aug 26th. The bands were Tab Smith and Luis Russell orchestras (known more for his earlier jazz recordings).

Daily News, Aug. 28th, 1949

Judges were hard-pressed to determine the prelim winners, according to the papers, as some contestants got almost equal applause, which leads us to believe applause had some factor in their decision.

Savoy finalists were: Esther Washington & Dotson “Snookie” Beasley, Jessyca Samuels & James “Blue” Outlaw, Elsie Thomas & James “Ronnie” Hayes, Jannie Hansford & Willie Posey, Coreen Roberson & Lee Moates, Ella Louise Hudley & Bernard Williams.

Also, Geraldine Miller & Eugene “Ray” Daniels were a Black Harlem couple who got into the finals at Roseland.

Savoy prelims, August 27th, 1949.
Max King, who first danced in the HMB as a Shag dancer in the late 30s, was still entering a decade later.

Finals

Listings from 1949, courtesy of Crystal Johnson

Finals were held Sept 14, and the swing band was Henry Busse.

As we will see, these number listings won’t play much of a role in who ended up in what heat this year. We would conjecture that’s because, as we’ve consistently heard, White dancers and Black dancers in general preferred to dance in their own heats — and that’s the way it is in the 1949 newsreels. Not because of any racist reasons, as far as we’ve heard, but because the Black dancers asked for a lot faster music than the White dancers. So, interestingly, the HMB might have tried to integrate the heats purposefully this year, or at least didn’t care if they weren’t segregated, and then the contestants sorted themselves out differently. (Not to say that there wasn’t some almost-definitely shady stuff involved in the finals, which we will discuss.)

So, here’s our breakdown of 1949 Harvest Moon Ball newsreels (You will likely want to mute it for optimum viewing):

HEAT A

Vicky LoGuidice deserves a little sympathy, as almost all of the newsreels focus on the fact that her dress came apart at the seem. Seriously, we cut a good chunk more of her struggling with her dress out of our version, the only cut we’ve made to our collection of the Harvest Moon Ball footage. For the sake of was probably a crappy memory that also most likely lead to a disqualifying score, we’ll not even show the clip of it here.

By the way, according to the Daily News, this was the couple’s 14th year entering the Harvest Moon Ball.

HEAT B

Heat B is one of the two Harlem heats. Some fun, solid dancing here, and once again the presence of Lee Moates, who is almost always mentioned by Savoy dancers of this era as a great Lindy Hopper and mentor.

This little snippet above especially shows how much breaking apart from your partner was a main dynamic used on the Harvest Moon Ball floor. In the center, Coreen and Lee are doing their version of the 1st Stops routine.

The leader on the Right, Eugene “Ray” Daniels, was Sugar Sullivan’s first partner — she won a contest with him in Central Park. Eugene would marry his partner shown here, Geraldine “Gerry” Miller, who went on to become the first Black American assemblywoman for Harlem. She served on the State Assembly from 1981-1992. They did not enter the prelims at the Savoy, but like Sugar Sullivan the year before, entered the contest prelims at the Roseland Ballroom.

HEAT C

Lucky Cargo was one of the White dancers who came often to the Savoy and entered the “Circles” there (Jam Circles) and danced in the “Corner”. When Savoy dancers from this era mention White dancers that they respected and who could dance well, Lucky Cargo is almost always mentioned. Here they do an impressive Front Handspring into a Pop Over (a move we first saw in Mae Miller & Walter Johnson do in the 1938 HMB).

Savoy Lindy Hopper and 1958 HMB Champion Sonny Allen said that Lucky Cargo chose gymnasts as his partners and always had incredible Air Steps, he just never mastered dancing fast enough to compete with the Savoy dancers. Even though this sequence didn’t go according to plan (hey, it happens), we will see many instances of successful sequences in the future.

Heat D

The final heat not only brings back formidable dancers Jessyca Samuels, James “Blue” Outlaw, Jannie Hansford, Ronnie Hayes, and Willie Posey from last year’s ball, it also brings back two veteran Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers: Esther Washington & Snookie Beasley. Even though it’s been pretty much a decade since their heyday, they still throw down in this contest and show poise, control, and power.

FINALS ROUND

In 1947, we suspected that the Daily News took one couple from every heat for the final four dance-off — which seems to us as a way to make sure that Harlem was not able to take all top three prizes, since Harlem dancers were only in two of the heats. The final dance-off in 1948 also had two White and two Black finalists in the final four, which again, seemed on purpose, but we could not confirm if they were all from different heats. This year, again, two White and two Black couples in the final dance-off. This year, however, the two Harlem couples in the final four are Esther & Snookie, and Jessyca & Blue, who were in the same heat.

The fact that there were two White and two Black finalists three years in a row still seems like there was certainly purpose to the decision. Perhaps the first year was taking a couple from each heat, and perhaps this year they simply cut to the chase and said “Two Black, and two White couples for the dance off.” Or none of that might have happened. But, no matter what, it smells fishy.

Sadly, we see almost nothing of Jessyca Samuels & James “Blue” Outlaw in the entire footage. But we have the feeling they did rather well, considering…

Winners

First place was Jessyca & James “Blue” Outlaw, second went to Emily Santore & Bob Grazia, and third place was Esther Washington & Pettis “Snookie” Beasley.

Finally, James “Blue” Outlaw had won. Sine 1941 he had tried, and had even changed his name on several occasions, likely so that people would not realize he was a professional. Now, with the rules changed, James had won it, fair and square with his own name, something no one could take away from him.

POLKA

In 1949, The HMB introduced an old dance as a new division, the Polka. In the mid-1800s, the jaunty, first Bohemian and then Czech folk partnership dance spread across Europe and America and came to be adopted as a favorite among many middle-European cultures. In America, it had a huge resurgence after World War II with the influx of Polish refugees, and there was a particularly large Polish community in New York City. As it had done with popular dance-fads in the past, the HMB added it, and perhaps expected it to last a few years, as its Shag and Conga divisions had. But the Polka’s popularity was not fleeting, especially among New York’s Middle-European community. It would be a division in every single Harvest Moon Ball until the last official Daily News’s HMB in 1974.

A common thread throughout Harvest Moon Ball history is Black American journalists saying, “It’s wonderful that Black folks dominate the HMB Jitterbug. But when are they going to start taking other dance awards at the HMB, too?” Well, the winners of the very first Polka contest at the Harvest Moon Ball were none other than Black Americans Alean Seed & Alfred rose:

Alean and Alfred adopted the showbusiness names “Stefan and Celise,” and took part in the 1952 Broadway resurgence of “Running Wild,” the all-Black Broadway that famously brought the Charleston to world popularity in the 1920s. Afterward, they toured and worked many popular club spots as an elegant dancing couple. Sadly, we have not seen footage of their polka in the 1949 newsreels.

In 1951, the Polka will receive its own judging panel for the Harvest Moon Ball, the only division to have its very own panel of judges. As you would imagine, this raised lots of questions among the Harlem jitterbugs, who very much would have preferred the Lindy Hop judging panel to have actual Lindy Hop experts on it. There were only dozens of them living just up the street in Harlem, after all. Alas, it would not happen until Mama Lu Parks took over the Harvest Moon Ball Jitterbug contest after the Daily News ended the official all-around contest.

It’s very important when we look at the Harvest Moon Ball that we realize it’s a contest where all winners were judged by a panel of Non-Black American ballroom dance specialists. They did appear to try to honor what they thought Lindy Hop was, and Harlem dancers won every year but two. But they were still not Lindy Hop experts from the community that created the dance.

Aftermath

Now, there is something that may be nothing. Or, it may be possibly very sad. These above are the only pictures of Jessyca and Blue we could find in the Daily News from their jitterbug win. The picture of them side-by-side was the picture shown in the full-picture dance layouts that show almost everyone else in mid-dance, like so:

Why are the jitterbug champions, of all dancers, shown just standing side-by-side? Why didn’t they get a fantastic Jitterbug action pic, like they usually do? Well, there does appear to be a fantastic winners pic from the night. You can see it in the Getty archives where a lot of the HMB Daily News photos are currently held. And, it’s one of the best Lindy Hop pictures ever:

The caption is noted as ” Harvest Moon Ball winners James Outlaw and Jessie Samuels have a kiss of victory after winning the “Jitterbug Contest” at the Savoy Ballroom. (Photo by Art Whittaker/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images) However, their costume is different here than at the Savoy prelims picture above. These are their HMB finals winning outfits. So, they may be at the Savoy ballroom following the Madison Square Gardens finals — it was common for the Savoy dancers to take a victory lap up at the Savoy after they won at Madison Square Garden.

A romantic couple celebrating a great triumph with a kiss in the middle of an air step, showing the skill and personality that is unsurprising in a champion jitterbug couple. How wonderful is that?

Now, as we mentioned, this picture not appearing in the paper might not mean anything . (We also could have missed it in our archives search, which, for the record are pretty extensive.) But as this is a Daily News photo of the winning couple in their costumes from the finals, it could also mean that they had it and chose to show instead a lackluster picture of the winners smiling side-by-side. Is it possible this national newspaper didn’t use an amazing photo simply because it showed Black people sharing a romantic moment? We certainly hope not, but as history has showed us, it wouldn’t surprise us if it were the case.

For example, another picture that could be just a coincidence, or a telling example of casual racism — in a contest with two winning Black American couples, here is an awkward, staged picture of winners that are only White women.

Beginning with Ed Suillivan’s Toast of the Town television show in 1948, the Harvest Moon Ball champions would perform on Ed’s show. Currently we here at Swungover have only seen four of these overall performances available online. One of those, however, is Jessyca & Blue’s performance: Watch and enjoy as a flying Jessyca Samuels almost takes out an unsuspecting Ed Sullivan:

James “Blue” Outlaw was, in some ways, the last of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. After this year, the Harvest Moon Ball will be dominated by the third generation, the post Whitey’s generation. Outlaw will stick around the Savoy, training the next generation, and continuing to head up his own performance group, the Jivadeers.

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Venmo: @bobbyswungover

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 Crystal Johnson, 1972 HMB winner and Mama Lu Parks dancer for the program listings.
  • 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 1949 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.
  • 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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