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Some Thoughts on the Home Movie Footage of Social Dancing at the 1939 World's Fair

ImageThere is a remarkable bit of film, taken some time in 1939 or 1940, from the New York World's Fair. It is silent, in color and features numerous couples, black and white but mostly all female, swing dancing and fox trotting to the music of Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.

It comes from a wonderful series of amateur films taken by a fellow named Medicus that documents nearly all aspects of the Fair.

This clip is all over YouTube with any number of soundtracks. I found my footage on the Prelinger Archive portion of the Internet Archive.

This footage is valuable to the dance historian for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that, unlike so much of our film documentation of people dancing in the 1930s, it is neither a staged Hollywood scene with professional dancers nor a newsreel about a dance contest. These are ordinary Americans, most of whom probably had no idea they were going to be dancing when they got up that morning. This is spontaneous and very revealing of the way people danced at the time, and generational differences in peoples' dance choices.

Of course, the first thing anyone will notice about this film is the shortage of men. It is nearly all (but not entirely) women dancing together. The conclusion that I have often seen in comments online is that the boys were all off at war, but that wouldn't seem to apply here. The US didn't go to war until a year after the Fair closed in November 1940, and the draft wasn't established in the US until October of 1940. The boys were still at home, they just weren't up there dancing. Furthermore, this was a time when most boys did know how to dance, more or less. It was an essential social skill, so purely mathematically, it would seem like they should be up there in greater numbers.

I've pondered this a bit, and my conclusion is that it must be a matter of social dynamics. Those people were there with their families or with their gaggle of friends, and I suspect only a few of those girls came with their boyfriends. So, there they were, in a crowd of strangers, a world-famous dance band is playing and a place for dancing has been laid out (and it's FREE!). What's a girl to do? In most cases, I think the answer was for her to grab her sister or female friend, or perhaps even ask a random girl to dance. The answer would not have been to ask a strange boy to dance. That would have been too forward and socially dangerous.

So, since girls were generally perfectly happy to dance with other girls, but boys didn't dance with other boys (and asking a strange girl to dance in that situation would have been a bit too bold for most boys), the girls danced while all but a few of the boys watched.

The Dances
The next thing that struck me was the variety of dances. In my cut of this footage, I have looked carefully at what people were doing on the screen and inserted pieces (all by the Casa Loma Orchestra) that seemed to match. I have seen versions of this with Swing music overlaying the whole thing, which doesn't stand up to scrutiny; but there is a tendency among many in the Swing community to see the world through Swing-colored glasses and to be dismissive of anything that isn't Swing. While this footage has some great Swing details, showing how ordinary kids might have danced at the Prom, there's much more going on.

The other style in play here is the ubiquitous Fox Trot. It was, at the time, the most widely danced dance in the world. The fact that all the great Swing numbers, like "In the Mood" or "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" were published as "Fox Trot" attests to this.

The first number in the film is unambiguously Swing, and fast Swing at that. The floor is just starting to fill, and all the kids are doing their personal version of Swing dancing. However, if you watch closely, at the end of the first number, there are at least two adult couples (one of women, the other mixed) who aren't Swing dancing. They are dancing the Fox Trot.

Then at 1:16, the music clearly changes and I have inserted a slow Fox Trot there. Note that everyone, even the kids, are doing a Fox Trot. For students of the historical Fox Trot, this is a wonderful snapshot, since every couple is doing a slightly different dance. In the spirit of the Jazz Age, they all have put their own individual stamp on the dance.

At 1:55, the music changes again, and the kids are once again in Swing mode. The adults however, continue to Fox Trot, adjusting their interpretations to the more uptempo music.

2:28 is a very interesting transition. Swing doesn't seem to be the first choice of the vast majority of the dancers, even the kids, but from the bounce in their step, it doesn't seem to be a slow, romantic piece. I chose a bouncy version of "Avalon Town". However, despite it clearly being a lively dance, the kids heard it and thought "Fox Trot", though with a few Swing-like turn outs. The adults, of course, heard "Fox Trot" pretty much everywhere.

Finally, at 3:21, the title card announces that they are letting their hair down, and Swing Dancing kids dominate a very crowded floor. I caught a brief glimpse of a couple of adults gamely Fox Trotting away, but I think most of the grown-ups decided to beat a retreat and leave the floor to the bobby soxers.

Some Conclusions
This remarkable snapshot of American culture at the end of the '30s, just before the War, provides a very revealing glimpse into the state of dance at that time and place. Here are a few things I take away from it.

  • Your choices were, in a popular venue like that, pretty much all in 4-4 Time. Be they slow and mellow, bouncy but moderate in tempo, or uptempo and swinging, they're pretty much all what music publishers would call "Fox Trot". I suspect that Tangos, Rumbas, Sambas and Waltzes would be found mostly in more sophisticated venues like hotel ballrooms or upscale dine and dance clubs.
  • Adults Fox Trotted to everything and did not Swing dance. Kids would Swing when they heard Swing, but Fox Trot when they heard Fox Trot. Black or white, the dynamic was the same.
  • No matter how many men dance, the supply of dancing men will seldom be equal the demand of women who want to dance.