This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page. (This is essay 17 of 23.)
Spirits & Dancing
We here at Swungover are what one might call a Well-Meaning White Historian. The title says it all — we genuinely love these art forms and strive to understand them, but as jazz and jazz dance are intrinsically tied to Black American culture and values, it is arguably impossible for us to not have at least some problematic aspects to our research, the interpretations of that research, and even sometimes our motives involved.
Lindy Hop history is full of figures that fall into this category. For instance, we would argue Marshall Stearns, undoubtedly the most well-known Jazz dance historian in academic history, is one. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he founded the Institute of Jazz Studies in Rutgers, NJ, wrote the seminal work Jazz Dance (with his wife Jean, published after his death), and toured with Al Minns and Leon James to present entertaining lectures around the country.
While Marshall Stearns strove to preserve the history of jazz dance through writing, another non-Black Well-Meaning Historian concentrated on preserving it visually: Mura Dehn. Readers of this series may remember that we already have mentioned Mura, in our 1936 essay. She was a dancer and choreographer from a Russian Jewish family who became famous in Europe. She had fallen in love with Jazz dance first by seeing Josephine Baker perform in Paris, and then when she moved to the US and came across the Savoy Ballroom in New York. In 1936, she told a room full of American Euro-centric dance instructors at the first National Dance Congress that Black American Jazz dance was groundbreaking and worthy of just as much attention as any other great dance. Over the next decades, she put a large amount of time and effort behind this sentiment.
And now in our Harvest Moon Ball story — almost 15 years after that congress — she began a project to preserve Black American Jazz dance on film. And she felt Harlem was where to do it. Over the winter of 1950 and 1951, Mura Dehn filmed many Harlem Lindy Hoppers and Jazz dancers. Some dancers, like George Sullivan, refused to take part in her project, suspicious that Mura’s interest was exploitive. Frankie Manning did a little filming, but decided that was enough. Why? Well, historian Judy Pritchett recalled that Norma Miller, unsurprisingly, put her and Frankie’s feelings bluntly: “That woman was crazy.” Still others, like Al Minns, Leon James, Pepsi Bethel, and Sugar Sullivan, took part in a good deal of the filming and would extensively work with Mura for years to come.
Mura recognized that dancing descended from African culture was often spiritual, sometimes literally — Dancers in African-rooted cultures often had the experience of being taken over by a spirit. Mura felt that this — whether it was being taken over by another spirit or one’s own spirit — was at the heart of the jazz dance she was seeing. It inspired her to name the film project The Spirit Moves.
For one part of filming, she captured staged demonstrations of traditional Lindy Hop and Jazz Dance knowledge, like the famous Tranky Doo clip. Since Mura wasn’t just a preservationist, but also an artist, some of her choices reflect a mid-century European flair for the avant-garde. Dancer James Berry was filmed from extreme angles to capture almost a shadow-like fever dream dance. Dancers wore lights on their shoes and hands and danced Charleston in the dark. Al Minns performed a Shake Blues wearing what appears to be a diaper. (Regardless of how one feels about the costume, the dancing is incredible.)
Though she filmed a lot of historical jazz dance pieces, she knew it shouldn’t just be a history lesson. She also wanted to capture living “social” dancing. (At least, as social as dancing can get with a giant camera crew on the floor and plenty of dancers who know how to shine.) And that is how we have footage of many of the third generation Savoy greats like Sugar, “Big Nick” Nicholson, Lee Moates, “Tall” Teddy Brown, and a host of great women social dancers who sadly remain unidentified. (The film also showed great Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers like Al Minns, Leon James, Willa Mae Ricker, Esther Washington, Frankie Manning, and Sandra Gibson.)
We must take seriously George Sullivan and other dancers’ concerns about exploitation. Though we here at Swungover don’t fully know the extent of their concerns, it is by no means uncommon for Harlem and Black American cultural arts as a whole to have Well-Meaning White People come through and use the community as a commodity and take the money and prestige and run.
Though we do not feel qualified to pass a judgement either way on Mura, we do feel safe giving her some credit that, for the most part, she let the dancing in her film speak for itself — with very little introduction or narration, her film was almost non-stop Black American Harlem dancing. (This was probably for the best. The little information her title cards give is rife with errors.)
And we are particularly thankful for her project for this essay series; the social dancing of the 1950-’51 Spirit Moves film is a fantastic companion piece to these years of the Harvest Moon Ball, as it highlights many of the dancers we’ve been talking about, and many of the dancers to come. Also, it gives further evidence of how connected the Harvest Moon Ball was to the Harlem Lindy Hop: The film has an entire section on dancers “rehearsing” for the Harvest Moon Ball.
Many of these dancers — like Al, Leon, Pepsi, along with Mama Lu Parks and her dancers — worked with Mura Dehn a good deal afterwards in the ’50s and ’60s. Like Marshall Stearns, Mura Dehn’s pedigree and privilege gave her access to many ears and pocketbooks not available to the Harlem dancers, allowing her to create projects requiring Lindy Hoppers.
And, as far as the Harvest Moon Ball project goes, this is not the last we’ll see of Mura Dehn.
Here is a little snippet of the Spirit Moves with IDs over the names of the dancers identified. We have reviewed this footage with Sugar Sullivan, Gloria Caldwell Thompson, and Sonny Allen, all of which were dancing in the Savoy in this decade. Sadly, among all of us, we have not been able to identify many of the women dancers in the overall film. We will continue to attempt to do so, but many of the names may be lost to time. Thankfully, their dancing isn’t.
This was going to be Sugar’s year. Her partner was Delma “Big Nick” Nicholson, a talented dancer. They threw air steps high and didn’t miss the blazing tempos. Delma was sure, and Sugar had a good feeling about it, too. (You can even see them throwing down together as the very last couple in The Spirit Moves, the filming having taken place over the winter of 1950-1951 when they were likely training.)
Then one day, rehearsing an Air Step went awry. Over-the-Head, probably. Her foot caught on his shoulder, George Sullivan remembered. Hurt herself bad — There was blood, there was a broken ring finger.
Big Nick, thinking Sugar wouldn’t recuperate in time, quickly found a new partner. Sugar was devastated, she knew she could still do it.
Sugar had recently married George Sullivan, who had grown up in Augusta, Georgia, yet another Southerner brought north by the Great Migration. George didn’t like Lindy Hop — he liked to dress sharp, and thought it was gross how all the Lindy Hoppers sweated through their suits each night. He preferred slow dancing. But when he saw his abandoned, injured wife beside herself to the point of tears, he told her he’d do it with her.
No, she said, incredulous. Yes, he said.
The other fast Lindy Hop leaders laughed when they heard, which gave the defiant George just the energy he needed to prove them wrong. He started getting advice from Lee Moates. Even Big Nick, perhaps somewhat guided by guilt, helped him prepare. George had three weeks before the Savoy prelims, and he told them all he was going to be one of the finalists dancing at Madison Square Garden, just wait and see.
Savoy prelims were held Aug 24th. The band was Erskine Hawkins. Here were the finalists:
The Savoy finalists were Elsie Walker & Willie J. Posey, Margaret Bethea & Delma “Big Nick” Nicholson, Mary White & “Tall” Theophilus “Teddy” Brown, Coreen Brooks & Lee Moates, and Dottie Dixon & Thomas Freeman.
Oh, and Ruth “Sugar” Sullivan & George “Sully” Sullivan.
Here is our breakdown of the 1951 Harvest Moon Ball from the two newsreels we’ve seen from it. As the news editors were really into speeding up the motion, we had to slow it back down again, hence some of the choppiness and horrible sound. (Probably best to watch on mute.)
One of Two Non-Harlem Heats
We don’t currently have a program listing so we can’t match up all the dancers in this heat. However, it’s hard to miss when you’re seeing Lucky Kargo and a partner. Kargo often partnered with acrobats in order to get amazing air steps. When Savoy dancers talk about White dancers that they had great respect for, they almost always mention Kargo.
One of Two Harlem Heats
Though we don’t see all the Harlem couples in the newsreels we’ve collected, at least the newscasters gave us a good long chunk of one of the Harem heats.
Something interesting: We have never seen a lot of Swing Outs in the Harvest Moon Ball footage. In Hellzapoppin, where each couple’s jam starts off with at least two beautiful Swing Outs, you would think they would be all over the place. But, if you haven’t done Swing outs at 250BPM+, you must understand they are a high-cardio move that requires a lot of turning and traveling movement across the floor for both dancers — no matter how efficient and relaxed you get them. (So, whenever you see modern Lindy Hoppers start their final competition all-skates with three charging, screaming, Swing Outs, be thankful that they usually only have to dance a chorus, cause they’re burning a good chunk of their battery in that first phrase. HMB dancers, however, had to dance two to three minutes (depending on the year) and always blazing. So it make sense they chose to do less Swing Outs.)
Something this clip shows well is how much, rather than the Swing Out, the Tuck-Turn was a more fundamental movement in HMB dancing. If you’ve danced Air Step-heavy Lindy at blazing speeds, this makes sense. Unlike Swing Outs, they get your partner from closed to open quickly, without much energy, and allow the partners a little bit more ease in setting up momentum and distance before the upcoming air step. They especially allow the leader a chance to set up their basing.
Dance Off for 2nd/3rd
This newsreel captured a little bit of footage from the dance-off for 2nd and 3rd place. Dance-offs happened often during the HMBs. Coreen Brooks & Lee Moates are visible dancing in the background.
As Delma “Big Nick” Nicholson envisioned, it was his year. Margaret Bethea and he took first place. Second went to Ann Catalfuno & Lucky Kargo. The dance-off left Coreen Brooks & Lee Moates in 3rd. The dance-off going to Catafulno and Kargo does not surprise us; as the full footage shows, it looked like they were going for the throat.
The 3rd Generation was well on their way to dominating the HMB just as much as the 2nd Generation had. The next few years would give many more of them a chance at the championship, and George Sullivan, the slow dance-lover who three months before didn’t like to sweat in his suit, now had a taste for speed.
The Spirit Moves footage filmed from this time filled up roughly three sections: The first, mostly composed of demonstrations loosely based on the history of Black American Jazz Dance. The second, was mostly composed of Lindy Hop social dancing, jams, and Harvest Moon Ball rehearsing from that same 1950, and the third, was mostly composed of Harlem dancing to Be-Bop, Latin, and Afro-Cuban music, which was a growing part of social dancing during this time.
Mura Dehn continued the project in 1971, and again in the 1980s, though that footage is exceptionally rare to find.
But, you know, stick around.
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.
- Huge thanks to ILHC for recording and releasing their ILHC legacy interviews. The one with George Sullivan was particularly helpful for this article. But they are all a priceless gift to the scene.
- Huge thanks to Judy Pritchett for her recollections from Frankie and Norma regarding this time.
- 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 1951 Harvest Moon Ball were taken from editions of the New York Daily News.
- Thanks so much to Robert Crease, Cynthia Millman, and The Frankie Manning Foundation for republishing the fantastic Robert Crease bios which are a great wealth to these articles specifically and the history of the dance in particular 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!