This is part of the Harvest Moon Ball essay series. To see all the Harvest Moon Ball essays, please visit Swungover’s HMB page. (Essay 18 of 23.)
Malcolm X & Dancing
In January, 1952, Malcom X walked out of prison. He had walked in, in 1946, as Malcolm Little.
Malcolm was a very intelligent youth, who suffered a great deal of personal trauma, on top of the general trauma developed by being a Black American man in America in his time. (Black Americans in general still experience trauma by growing up in America.) His father’s suspicious death, followed by his mother’s nervous breakdown and commitment to a mental hospital, left him in foster homes during most of his youth. His desire for good grades and his goals of being a lawyer were trampled by a high school teacher who told him, using much worse language, that law was no place for Black people. Not seeing a place for himself in American school, he dropped out.
He moved to Boston with his half-sister, and spent many of these swing-era nights Lindy Hopping. Malcolm loved the dance, and spent several pages in his powerful The Autobiography of Malcolm X reminiscing about his days as a dancer. (There’s a Lindy-famous scene dedicated to it in Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X.)
In 1943, he moved to Harlem, where he was known as “Detroit Red,” because he was from Michigan and had a red-hue to his hair. A disturbed man, he turned to crime. He was caught for burglary in 1946.
While in prison, Malcolm met men who encouraged him to read, and began feeding his intellectual appetite everything he could give it. Many of these men were part of the Nation of Islam. Malcolm’s own experience with White America had convinced him that White people could not be trusted, and he found many like minds in the Nation. Malcolm joined the Nation, let go of the name Little, given to his ancestors by their enslavers, and became Malcom X. When he came out of prison this year, in 1952, he was no longer a criminal, but a minister for the Nation. In not time, he would be growing congregations with his passionate and provocative speaking. His 6’3″ height, handsomeness, and spotless appearance added to his charisma for many who went to hear him.
The dancers in this year’s Harvest Moon Ball very likely hadn’t heard the name Malcolm X yet. They didn’t know that, over the next decade, he would become one of the most notable Black American voices in an era rife with racial discord. They didn’t know that his teachings, and power, would strike fear into both White Supremacists and Civil Rights leaders. They didn’t know yet that a Boulevard in their very home town of Harlem would be named after his legacy.
The full story of Malcom X is too complex for us to give it justice here. We strongly recommend learning more about Malcolm X, an incredibly important American figure. If you have only watched Spike Lee’s Malcolm X‘s swing scene, the rest of the film is a good start.
Savoy prelims were held Aug. 28. The band was not mentioned.
The Harlem finalists were Mary Stafford & John Smith, Beatrice “Bea” Pierce & Thomas H. King, Coreen (Roberts) Brooks & Lee H. Moates, Roxy Young & William Warren, Josephine & Theodore Davis, and Elizabeth Stewart & Theophilus “Teddy” Brown.
Ray Bloch was the swing band leader for the evening. Here is our breakdown of the HMB newsreels from this year:
This year would be Lucky Kargo‘s last year competing in the HMB. There is only one family of Kargos in the census from this time, a family that came to New York from Russia in the late 1800s. They were also possibly one of the many Jewish families that fled Russia and immigrated to New York, ala Fiddler on the Roof. Lucky was possibly John Kargo, a man born in 1918 listed in the census. (According to a 1995 article, Lucky was 76 at the time.)
Lucky is by far the dancer most-often spoken of when 3rd generation Savoy dancers are asked about good White dancers. Sonny Allen mentioned that Lucky’s air steps were amazing because he always got acrobats as partners, which you can tell by the tricks they do. However, it was also Sonny’s opinion that because they didn’t master the art of dancing at blazing speeds like Savoy dancers did, their tricks were never enough to take them over the top to a first place win.
After this year Lucky Kargo would retire from competing at the HMB, though even up until 1957 the papers would mention him as a professional dancer waiting in line when HMB tickets go on sale. At some point after, his HMB dancing, he moved to Hollywood to be in motion pictures. Sugar Sullivan said he did Westerns, though the only roles we can find of his involve him playing stereotypically twisted criminals in adult films. (Hey, when you’re starting out, an acting job is an acting job.) He might very well have done both, and either changed his name or became one of the many uncredited support actors of the era. He was a stuntman as well, a common job for dancers trying to get into the acting business. He later mentioned his life was that of a bachelor, and there were several occasions where he had to jump out of a window.
Lucky would continue to pop up as a dancer in night club acts into the 60s, and by the 1990s, he was in Miami, a professional senior citizen dancing escort. He’d dance with women at clubs and charity events for money, or teach private lessons. “But no hanky-panky,” he insisted. He mentioned he had won a senior citizen fitness prize for bench pressing 300 pounds.
In full honesty we feel we have run out of things to say about the general dancing of the non-Harlem heats like this one. These dancers are usually inventive, individualistic, and expressive — they’ve clearly picked up on those values of Black American social dance. They are also almost always true amateurs — we do not mean that in a negative way, just that they are obviously not the product of a generations-old, intense, community-driven training process drawing on a rich history of movement, like the predominantly Black American Harlem dancers.
The White dancers usually look like they are having fun, which clearly was an important thing to them. I mention this because I think there is a difference between the fun spirit most of the HMB White dancers exude verses the joyful spirit most of the Black American dancers do. The Black American dancers of the Harlem tradition are not just “having fun,” they are showcasing personal expression and cultural expression. On top of that, and in accordance with that, they are showing incredible skill honed by thousands of hours of practice, in a competitive cultural environment, and in joyful defiance to the oppressive society they are within, and in which their culture has grown up around.
That resulting joy has an edge. It is a joy that includes fierceness, wryness, and power — emotions that the young White dancers of the same city seem to often interpreted as fun, goofy, showy.
Now, some White dancers throughout the HMB history dance like they have picked up on the difference, and have not only taken inspiration from Harlem’s moves, but also that spirit. (As we mentioned above, Lucky Kargo was well-respected by the Savoy dancers.) But they are the exceptions. Overall, I see a clear difference in the depth and expression of generally Black Lindy Hop dancing verses generally White Lindy Hop dancing throughout the history of the HMB.
It is not the Black dancers’ fault this concept is a race-based one. Several dominant cultures created the concept of race within the last five hundred years, and in doing so, made those who fit into the category of “Black” have significantly different — and much more unfair — lives in America than those who didn’t. It is only natural that the culture surviving that ordeal develops ways of expressing themselves, their excellence, and their joy, as a positive and necessary means of defiance. And it is only natural that those not living that ordeal, and not seeking to understand it, don’t get the complex difference between “fun” and “Black joy.”
Here we see Thomas King, a dancer seen in our Spirit Moves excerpt clip. His signature sliding movement can be seen some in the rest of his dancing in the breakdown clip at the top of the article. After this year, his partner, Beatrice “Bea” Pierce will team up with John Smith there in the background, to become a power couple known as “Smitty & Bea.” Thomas will begin dancing with his future wife, Montoya, and that couple will become known as “King & King.”
Notice the dancing for the Harlemites of this generation is more stream-lined, calmer in many ways, than a decade earlier. We wager they are saving their energy for air steps, which are coming fast and often in these generations.
The couple not on screen in this heat is Coreen Brooks & Lee Moates.
We were introduced to Theophilus “Tall Teddy” Brown in last year’s HMB, and he also makes a lot of appearances in the Spirit Moves. Elizabeth Stewart & his dancing throughout the heat will be tight and together. Already a taller-than-average person, he is unmistakable in his giant sleeves. Such costumes take maneuvering around in air steps.
Also worth watching in the full clip are the other couples, Josephine & Theodore and Roxy & William, both of which do some fun combos.
First place went to Elizabeth Stewart & Theophilus “Tall Teddy” Brown, in second were Coreen Brooks & Lee Moates, and in third was Josephine & Theodore Davis.
Picture of Theodore Davis’ 3rd place medal, courtesy of Morgan Day.
1951 and 1952 were the years of the two towers — “Big Nick” Nichols and “Tall Teddy” being the winning leaders in those comps. It ended up being a way to kid dancers like Lee Moates, who spent decades competing at the ball reaching for first place and never making it. “Judges couldn’t see him behind all us tall guys,” was the gist.
Where were George & Sugar Sullivan, you might be asking? Well, Sugar Sullivan missed only two years of the Harvest Moon Ball. The years she had her children. After each child, she was back at the Savoy, practicing, as soon as she could.
They will return for the 1953 HMB.
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.
- Thanks to Chisomo Selemani for her help reviewing parts of this article.
- 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 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!
One response to “The 1952 Harvest Moon Ball”
Wonderful work. Much needed for the future Swingers to have access to. Thank you