The Harvest Moon Ball (HMB) was a New York City-wide amateur ballroom dance contest. Though it held divisions in several popular ballroom and folk dance forms, it was most famous for showcasing the epic artistry of several generations of Harlem Lindy Hop and Jazz Dancers.
From 1935 to 1974, the New York Daily News’ HMB was held each year in Madison Square Garden. The event allowed for the crowd, newspapers, newsreels, — and later, television audiences on Ed Sullivan’s shows — to see this Black American art form done by its finest. After the Daily News’ grand amateur-contest dissolved, Lindy Hop torch-bearer Mama Lou Parks continued the Lindy Hop tradition of the contest by hosting the Harvest Moon Ball Lindy Contest in Harlem yearly. (And a third organization picked up the HMB name for contests continuing into the mid-1980s.)
Though the contest itself was a notable historical event, its main importance to us is it that it provided a yearly vehicle for Black American visionaries Herbert “Whitey” White, Louise “Mama Lou” Parks, and those they inspired, to bring Harlem and Black excellence to the world. They also serve as living proof of Lindy Hop’s vibrant life from the Swing era to its 1980s resurgence in White American and international communities.
Having occurred yearly for around five decades, the event also serves as a sort of “year book” for the history around it, allowing us to explore what Black Americans were facing in their daily lives while social dancing, training, and performing on stage for thousands of mostly non-Black spectators.
This Harvest Moon Ball Project is exploring the legacy of Black American Jazz Dance at the Harvest Moon Ball through writing educational articles, creating videos breaking down and identifying dancers in the HMB newsreels, and building a collection of research for future jazz dance scholars. Its main goal, however, is to identify and highlight forgotten artists of Lindy Hop over all of its generations.
The project will cover the HMB’s entire history. As each new article isreleased, it can be found below.
Herbert Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers rise from the first HMB a well-gelled, sought-after performance company, and their continued dominance in the contest’s first decade allows both the HMB’s and the group’s publicity to skyrocket. During this time, the group will go from regional performances to world tours and now-renown movie dance scenes. At the HMB, they establish the Lindy Hop as the crowd — and newsreel — favorite.
The 1938 Harvest Moon Ball (& “Geek Out” version) —Savoy prelims filmed, Shag has an identity crisis, Harlem nightspots move downtown, Al Minns & Mildred Pollard come to the HMB, skirts above the knees and sneakers come to HMB Lindy. Norma’s back.
The 1940 Harvest Moon Ball(& “Geek Out” version)— Tops & Wilda shine, Conga comes to HMB, Jimmy Valentine kept from finals possibly do to racial reasons, White couple Tiny Anne & Tony Small do a notable Harlem-style comedy team partnership, big signature moves reign, final year for most of the veterans, including Frankie & Norma. (Frankie’s 3rd year, Norma’s 5th year.)
(The 1941 essay is currently in production, requiring further research.)If you have a copy of the 1941 Program, we would love to see a picture of the listings!!
Wars & Dancing (1942-1945)
While World War II comes to America and takes its young men away, Whitey tries to keep his Lindy Hoppers strong despite the drafting of many of his dancers and the hemorrhaging of others due to his business behaviors. According to accounts, the official group will dissolve during this time. But throughout it and until his death, Whitey will never stop sending all the Lindy Hoppers he can to fight for the HMB title.
The 1942 Harvest Moon Ball. (No Geek Out article.) America’s first WWII HMB, serviceman’s division introduced, Harlem hosts a mini-HMB for kids, Harlemites picket outside the Savoy prelims, vets Snookie Beasely & Louise Pal Andrews are back, the very tall Ray Harris of Sugar Hill Masquerade dances, Alfred “Pepsi” Bethel’s first HMB.
The 1943 Harvest Moon Ball(& “Geek Out” version) The Savoy Ballroom gets closed down, and the 1943 Harlem Riot erupts. At the HMB, mysteriously only five of the planned eight Harlem finalist couples go to the finals. Most of which are unknown and lost to time. Articles at the time discuss “Smoothness” & “Originality” in the Jitterbug Jive contest. For the first time, a White and non-Harlem couple wins the Jitterbug division.
The 1944 Harvest Moon Ball. (No Geek Out article.) A study, An American Delimma, is published, showing the data proving America is rigged against Black Americans. Harlem dancers take back the Jitterbug prizes. Pal Andrews, a dancer very close to Whitey, takes the championship. Currently there is no footage of this year’s Harvest Moon Ball.
The 1945 Harvest Moon Ball. (No Geek Out article.) Black American Tuskegee airmen help bring Allied victory in Europe while the government’s Tuskegee Study does unethical experiments on Black Americans. At the Harvest Moon Ball, the servicemen show broader America’s take on jitterbugging. Currently the only footage we’ve seen of this year shows only the servicemen’s division.
(The 1946 essay is currently in production, requiring further research.)If you have a copy of the 1946 Program, we would love to see a picture of the listings!!
The 3rd Generation (1945-1958)
While running a club catering to Black American soldiers and locals in Oswego, central New York, Whitey continues to influence and coach Savoy Lindy Hop for the Harvest Moon Ball. A new generation — young dancers when the Whitey’s dominated the stage — matures into their own and creates new aesthetics and refinements to Harvest Moon Ball Lindy and to the social dance floor of the Savoy. A dance choreographer attempts to preserve the jazz dancing of Harlem for future generations.
The 1947 Harvest Moon Ball.(No Geek Out article.) Major League Baseball becomes integrated with four Black American Baseball players. A large number of “Third Generation” Lindy Hoppers take the HMB stage for the first time, including Lee Moates, Ronnie Hayes, and James Strickland. The Lindy Hop contest design seems to handicap Harlem dancers in order to allow non-Harlem dancers to also place in the contest.
The 1948 Harvest Moon Ball. (No Geek Out article.) The American Armed Forces become integrated. Sugar Sullivan makes her first appearance at the Harvest Moon Ball, and newsreels show quite a lot of footage of the Harlem dancers. Ronnie Hayes does the contest blindfolded.
The 1949 Harvest Moon Ball. (No Geek Out article.) New York proves the most legally progressive state in Civil Rights thanks in large part to Black American leadership in Harlem. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers Esther Washington & Snookie Beasley return to the HMB. The first Polka division is won by Black Americans.
The 1950 Harvest Moon Ball. (No Geek Out article.) Herbert “Whitey” White dies in middle age. Sugar Sullivan comes back to the ball for the first time since joining the Savoy Lindy Hoppers. Delma “Big Nick” Nicholson makes his debut on the HMB stage.
The 1951 Harvest Moon Ball. (No Geek Out article.) Russian immigrant and dancer Mura Dehn undertakes a project to preserve jazz dance on film. Sugar Sullivan suffers an accident and must change partners.