T'is the season for all our favorite historic houses, great and small, to bedeck themselves with greenery and tinsel, dress their volunteers up in Victorian costume and put on a show, often by candlelight.
The December page of the Mass Historia calendar presents all the holiday events I know about in Southern California where our historic places are putting an "Old Time Christmas".
I encourage you to dust off your holiday finery and go out and support them at this festive time of year.
It's not a stunning revelation to say that dancing has changed a lot in the last half century. We all know that, but I don't know that most of us have really thought about the ways it has changed and how it reflects the ways our world has changed.
"Back in the day" which for my purposes, I will encapsulate in the 50 years between 1910 and 1960, dancing played a central role in the social lives of mature adults which it has entirely lost today. Today, among adults, with a few notable exceptions, almost nobody dances. Back then, almost everyone danced.
Night clubs, hotels, ocean liners and any place where people gathered to socialize had live music and a dance floor. Large companies, lodges and community organizations sponsored dinner dances, where people got dressed up and men and women danced together - and their "signature" dance - by far the most popular and pervasive, was the Foxtrot. The dance floor was often too small, and it was crowded, but it was crowded precisely because almost everyone danced.
Starting in the early 20th Century, there was a clear distinction between Youth Dances and Adult Dances. The kids did the Charleston which became Collegiate, which became Swing, which became Rock & Roll (a species of Swing). Adults danced the Foxtrot, Tango and Waltz (but mostly Foxtrot) and occasionally Latin dances like Rumba, Samba, Cha Cha etc.(all fall in a category now referred to as "Ballroom Dances"). There was a distinctly adult way to dance and a distinctly kid way to dance, and when kids grew up, they gave up the wild kicks, spins, leaps and flying skirts and settled into a style more appropriate to their adult lives. We often refer to "Youth Culture" and tend fix on that when defining past decades in our minds, but we tend to overlook the fact that there was once an "Adult Culture" as well, which was much more ubiquitous and influential than the fads of wild youth.
The library where I work recently purchased three iPads with an eye toward making a practical test of whether this new technology could be of use. The result has, so far, not been encouraging.
It recently fell to my lot to take a new look at this issue and figure out how iPads or other tablet computers could be useful in this business environment, so I conducted an informal survey at work and on Facebook to get an idea of what people were actually using the things for - and thereby perhaps get a sense of what we might use them for.
Before the list of uses, I would like to make an observation:
The most enthusiastic iPad users listed ways in which it excelled as an personal device. Its utility as a shared asset, such as we have in our library, seemed very limited.
I received yet another email from a TV producer looking for people who live entirely in some sort of historical way. She gave me the sense that she really didn't understand us, and I fear that she was looking for subjects for a, not to put too fine a point on it, freak show like those I saw a few years back from the BBC. Here's how I responded:
I understand there are some people who try to live entirely in some sort of "retro" way, but I don't know any. Everyone I know cherry picks from the past: we draw from the past the things we find lacking in the present, but we are perfectly willing to take advantage of modern technology and live in the real world. Most of us prefer not to live in a world with the disease, violence, bigotry and gender inequality that was all too common in the past, and there's few of us would turn down a shot of antibiotic if we had a serious infection.
Different people cherry pick different things. A lot of folks love the fashions of the past and enjoy the sense of occasion that really dressing up lends to any activity - something that is sadly lacking in our hyper-casual society. Many (and these groups contain lots of the same people) love the music and perhaps dance of the past - a time when songs were finely crafted and dances gave you a real connection to your partner.
The connections between these dances are pretty clear, as they progressed in a parallel track with the more mainstream Foxtrot and other ballroom dances.
I will hit on just a few clear reference points that give a sense of the flow. This collection is nothing like comprehensive. I present them with a minimum of commentary, and will let them speak for themselves.
The initial motivation behind this project, to understand the most popular dances of the "Jazz Age", was frustration and confusion. THE big dance of the time was the Fox Trot, but the Fox Trot as I understood it just didn't seem right.
- The Fox Trot classes I had taken felt complicated and contradictory with seemingly random assortments of "quicks" and "slows" and memorized routines, some of which required me to count (I've never been good at math). It felt like I was getting pieces of a puzzle, without understanding how they fit together.
- The Fox Trot as I understood it and as I saw it performed by trained dancers, looked a bit like Fred and Ginger, but didn't look much like what I saw "regular folks" doing in old movies - and I have always been a bit more interested in regular folks rather than stars
- My Fox Trot wasn't much fun. How could such a dance have been so dominant and universally popular? How was it that this not very appealing dance (as I with my limited understanding understood it) was THE dance of the Jazz Age?
One of the more popular dances of the late '30s was the Conga. Danced to a lively 4/4 beat with a strong accent on the fourth beat, the whole ballroom could join in. When not dancing a group Conga, a couple could do a Samba to the same beat.
The Conga Line is very familiar to most dancers of today. It usually involves a single leader, sometimes wielding a conga drum, doing a one-two-three-kick with a single file line, with everyone doing a slow forward shuffle and resting their hands on the person in front of them's shoulder or waist. This line wanders hither and yon, frequently off the dancefloor and all around the available space.
This particular figure was certainly common in the '30s, and is what your Conga will probably eventually devolve into, but there was a bit more variety to the original ballroom Conga. While it might be making an inevitable march towards a shuffling single file line, at least at the beginning of the dance, it could have a bit more in common with a Victorian Grand March.
It usually begins with a column of couples, ladies holding the gentlemen's arms, ladies on the right. The lead couple sets a figure and everyone follows. Possible figures include:
The 1930s saw the introduction of the Rumba (also spelled "Rhumba") to the North American and European ballroom. It was the result of applying a European ballroom dance vocabulary to a Latin beat, and very little of the original Afro-Cuban dance remained. It began around 1931, and gradually grew in popularity through the '30s. By around 1935, it was a full fledged dance craze.
Part of its appeal was that it was a departure from the settled norms of the 1930s ballroom. First of all, unlike the "just walking" dances that had predominated since the Turn of the Century, it had a step. While there were plenty of people who were just walking it as they walked everything, to do it properly you needed to do the step.
The second was the tendency of the partners to separate, and even when they were together they had an open frame and were seldom in the close embrace of the Foxtrot. Underarm turns were common and "throw outs" were a frequent feature, and the dancers even separated to do their own little personal Rumba before linking back up to their partners. Note that this solo bit was the closest thing to the original Cuban Rumba, which was not a partnered ballroom dance.
The Rumba also had an element of showmanship, of showing off, that had definitely not been part of mainstream social dancing. Certainly Swing dancers were all about putting on a show, but Swing, with its popularity among African Americans and the white kids who emulated them, was not seen in the clubs and ballrooms of adult white "polite society".