In 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.
Editor's note: I post this to address questions I have received from time to time about the topic. Unlike much of what I post, I do not advocate its return. I think this a bad custom, and am delighted that it has fallen into disuse. The annoyance of having an already brief dance cut short, its tendency to add further evidence of popularity to a few and lack of it to many more, and the fact that the lady has no option of refusing make it entirely obnoxious. However, for purposes of education here it is.
From "Modern Ballroom Dancing" by Lillian Ray, 1930.
Program dances have gone out almost entirely. Cutting in during dances has become a recognized practice. The man who wishes to cut in taps the girl's partner on the shoulder quietly. The dancer must relinquish his partner courteously and cheerfully. The girl has no choice in the matter.
The custom has its drawbacks as it is often annoying to leave a partner whom you particularly like, to dance with one for whom you may not care in the least. However, it is not good form to refuse to dance with a man who cuts in. Nor can the first partner of the girl cut in on the man who took her from him. He can cut in on her next partner though. A man must not continue to cut in on the same man when he dances with another partner. For example if John Bart cuts in on Harry Gray when the latter is dancing with Janet Stone, John cannot cut in on Harry when he dances with Helen Barclay. If he did so, Harry would think, and rightly, that John was deliberately trying to spoil his evening and take all his partners from him.
From "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920
No matter how beautiful or brilliant a girl may be, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of fox-trotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious. When it comes to several dances and the intermissions between she can be quite sure that a young man, once relieved, will never tread on her wayward toes again.
No MODERN book on ballroom dancing would be complete without including a few Collegiate Steps for the younger generation. These hopping and jumping steps are lively if not dignified. They reflect the brisk tempo of young America. They will be seen more often at fraternity dances and Village night clubs than in the ballrooms of the more pretentious and formal hotels and country clubs. But these Collegiate Steps are too much a part of present day dancing to be shunned as stepchildren.
All the steps detailed in the following pages should be danced with plenty of pep and abandon. They are, after all, to be used in a spirit of fun. Even the starting position for the Collegiate Steps is less formal than that for the older and more dignified dances. The collegiates affect a crooked elbow and a closer hold than their elders. Figure shows the position for the Collegiate Walk, which is similar to the Fox Trot but sharper and snappier.
One 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.
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.
Something 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.
The 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.