Jazz Age Social Dancing ("Cocktail Dancing")

ImageIn the Jazz Age, nearly everyone danced, so they did dances almost anyone could do.

Generally, when people think about the dances of the Jazz Age (the 1920s & 30s), they bring to mind exuberant youth dances like the Charleston or Jitterbug, or the theatrical dances of Fred and Ginger.

What Fred & Ginger did was theater and spectacle, and was never intended to be an accurate representation of how ordinary folks danced. Countless examples of normal, workaday social dancing can be seen in movies of the period but not being done by exhibition dancers like Fred and Ginger. If you want to see how it was really done, look at the folks in the background or characters who are dancing to move the story along rather than to show off their skills.

Argentine Tango - Then and Now

ImageOne of my pet peeves in trying to recreate the dances of the Jazz Age is our tendency to extrapolate how we dance today into the past: to say "I know the Foxtrot, so this must be how it was done in 1930" or to say "The Tango is eternal and never changing".

I want to be clear that I am not condemning current dance styles. They are a reflection of our current interests and sensibilities - just as the dances of the Jazz Age reflected that era's very different interests and sensibilities. Societies evolve and dances evolve with them, and all that I ask is that we try not to superimpose our current view of things on the past.

I am using the Argentine Tango as an illustration of my point, but the same evolution has occurred with the other current ballroom dances: the Foxtrot, Waltz and Quickstep.

One of the biggest differences between then and now is our current blending of theatrical "exhibition dancing" and social dancing - current social dancing tends to be an almost apologetically watered down version of the exhibition style, but containing as many fancy moves as one can muster.

Back in the day, social dancing was a simpler affair, with a focus on partner interaction and very little on outward display, and exhibition dancing was a distinctly different style with a completely different purpose.

Which is why I find the first clip so interesting. Carlos Gardel (the King of the Tango) is dancing and everyone stops dancing to watch - not because Carlos and his partner are so flashy and spectacular, but because their dance has a level of focus and precision that the audience understands and appreciates. Note the total lack of kicks.

This is followed by current Argentine Tango as danced on the streets of Buenos Aires - admittedly theatrical since they are putting on a show, but still very much what most people today expect to see when they see a Tango - and feel like they're not quite getting it right if they don't dance it this way.

This is then followed by "The Argentine Tango": a 1930s exhibition Tango such as you would see in a night club.

It's probably not necessary to watch each of the clips all the way through to get the gist of what I'm talking about.

The Argentine Waltz - 1935

One of the things that fascinates me about the dances of the Jazz Age is how universal and international the "Modern Dance" sensibility was. Pretty much anywhere you were, from New York to London to Berlin to Buenos Aires the dances were very similar.

Paris and Vienna had some unique takes on the Waltz, but in Argentina, the close-hold, box-step smooth style found in most of the world was also found there, in the home of the Tango. There is today a style of Waltz popular with the Tango crowd that is essentially a Tango in 3/4 time. That doesn't seem to be what's happening here, though to be fair, the Argentine Tango of 1935 was not quite what you generally see danced today either.

Just for contrast, I have also embedded a video of the modern take on the Argentine Waltz.

The Black Bottom

ImageSomething called "The Black Bottom" emerged in the dance scene some time around 1926 and and was briefly touted in the media as a competitor to the Charleston. Its origins seem to have been among stage and cabaret performers like Ann Pennington and Stella Doyle. It started as a solo stage dance, and then found it's way into the world of social dancing.

I have come to the conclusion that, in practice, the definition of "Black Bottom" was extremely fuzzy. It was supposed to focus more on a simpler, side-to-side two-step motion (said to resemble pulling your feet out of the mud) and lacked the distinctive time step and swizzle step of the Charleston, but it was still a wild, exuberant, mostly improvised dance with solo and partner variants; but in practice, I don't think dancers were worrying much about whether the thing they were doing was one or the other. They did the moves that seemed to work for them.

In practice, Charleston was really what ever the dancer decided, at that moment it was, and outside the occasional Charleston contest, no one was worrying about whether something was "correct". The same could be said for the Black Bottom. There were distinct "Black Bottom" songs just as there were distinct "Charleston" songs, and each had a distinctive musical riff. The Black Bottom was what ever a Black Bottom tune told you to do and a Charleston was what ever a Charleston tune told you to do.

And indeed I have yet to find THE definitive Black Bottom. There seem to have been a few competitors for that title as evidenced by the frequent use of adjectives like "original", "real" and "true".

So, if you feel like dancing the Black Bottom, I would suggest looking at the videos below, picking the steps and moves that appeal to you, and just going with it. These dances are not really about precise adherence to a defined form. The wilder and more improvisational you are, the closer you are to the essence of the dance.

Film Library - Jazz Age Dance

ImageThe core of my research into the social dances of the Jazz Age has been old films. In the process, I have assembled a fairly extensive library of film clips, edited down for use in online and in-person instruction. Much of it, due to the perils of copyright and YouTube's draconian policies, I have had to keep off the Internet, but much of it I can share.

Here is my online film library. Most of these are already embedded in web pages that address particular dance styles, but here they are for those who wish to focus on the films, unencumbered by my ramblings and random observations.

A Fox-Trot Evening in Paris in 1929

This was trimmed down from Fox Movietone News out takes of an evening at a Paris nightclub in 1929. The sound was pretty bad so I superimposed a French band number.

This was done in support of a "Fox Trot in the 1920s" workshop I will be giving in DC in May 2016.

Same-Sex Social Dancing in the Jazz Age

ImageA few years back, someone posted a video on Facebook of folks dancing at the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival, and among the dancers were two women dancing together. One of the commenters, with the best of intentions, posted something about the women "embracing their sexuality". The commenter was answered by someone who had attended my lecture where I had pointed out that women dancing with women was very common in the Jazz Age, and that one shouldn't infer too much from that. The second commenter was particularly correct in that the two women in question were mother and daughter, and there was no sexuality-embracing going on there at all.

This does however, highlight how our views and assumptions have changed. We live today in a world that jumps to a sexually based inference as something of a default. While the people of the Jazz Age were far from innocent, there was a certain innocence in their tendency to not assume a sexual element when people danced with each other.

This applies equally to opposite and same gender dancing. The dance holds of the Jazz Age were very close. They were body-to-body, and the open frame stance of today was completely out of fashion. In this hold, which we today generally see only in "Blues" dancing, Argentine Tango and High School slow dances, men and women routinely danced with multiple partners: spouses, lovers, friends and strangers - and seemed to take in stride a level of physical intimacy that many people today find a bit uncomfortable.

Dance Etiquette - 1926

ImageFrom Washington Post/Vogue Column: Conduct and Common Sense. 1926

Some practical advice on how to behave in the Jazz Age/Roaring Twenties.

Husbands and Wives

In society, husbands and wives consider a ball or dance, or, indeed, any form of entertainment, the occasion for seeing their old friends and acquaintances and making new ones, not for staying together. At dinners they are separated as far as possible, to give them both a chance to express themselves as individuals, not as halves of a never-to-be-divided whole. At dances, though a couple who happen to like dancing together may, and do often, take a turn, the etiquette of the evening is that they should both have too many partners to be able to see much of each other. If they are seen constantly together, the idea conveyed to onlookers is that they don't know many people and are not having a much gayer time than they would have together at home. This may be far from the case, but the impression is conveyed all the same. Married men and women go out to see people, not to be with each other.

Of course, this supposes that the places they go to are places where they are surrounded by friends and acquaintances. That is what society is--the meeting of amusing people in amusing places. But if a man and his wife found themselves at a dance where they knew few, if any, people, they would most naturally take advantage of a good floor and good music to dance together. This would be sensible and enjoyable, but etiquette would not be involved. A man should dance with his hostess at any ball, once or twice during the evening, but he need not (and often could not), make his first dance the one with her. He might dance first with his wife. If some one else did not ask her at once, but it would not be obligatory.

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