A Rant: Dancing at Roaring Twenties Events: We're Doing it Wrong

ImageI generally try to keep my tone light, and avoid major rants online, but I think perhaps it’s time to go full curmudgeon regarding dancing at “Roaring Twenties” events.

While we moderns do a moderately good job of recreating the dances of the Victorian era in a Victorian-themed event, or Swing dances in a 1940s-themed event, we are consistently terrible at presenting even a semblance of the actual dances of the Roaring Twenties at a Twenties-themed event (or Twenties-themed movie, but that's a different rant)

There is a pervasive attitude of:
I don’t know.
I don’t know I don’t know.
I don’t really care anyway.

Roaring Twenties events that I have seen fall into a few general categories.

The Baz Luhrmann Twenties

In this sort of event, the women will often wear fringed flapper dresses, and might do a few Charleston steps (always solo), but the musical options are generally more of the electronic/hip-hop/electro-swing variety; and the general ambiance is more like that of a rave. Music is generally DJ driven. This is the default setting for organizations that don’t generally do historical themes (or care a fig about history), but want to capitalize on the “Great Gatsby” movie’s popularity or the dawn of a new '20s decade.

The Lindy Hop Twenties

The Swing community has embraced the Twenties, but since many Swing dancers see the world through Lindy-colored glasses, they put on their Jazz Age glad rags – and then just dance a standard Lindy, Shag or Balboa. They may toss in a Charleston, since it is congenial to a Swing approach to dancing, but they are generally fuzzy about the fact that anything but the Charleston was actually danced in the Twenties. The Twenties is essentially just a theme to superimpose on what they already do anyway - and what they do is Swing as it had evolved by the mid-'30s. Late '20s Proto-Swing is well documented in sources like the widely available 1929 "After Seben" clip with Shorty George; and while there's a clear connection to what was to come, it is clearly different. Further, I would like to suggest that just because Shorty George was doing it in Harlem, we should not assume, without further evidence, that it was common practice South of 111th Street, let alone the remaining 99.99999 percent of America.

The Melting Pot Twenties

This is what generally occurs when organizers care enough to try to provide historically correct music, and have worked to reach out beyond the Swing community; but are dealing with an audience that really isn't clear on what was actually danced at the time (which is most any audience).

If there are any “dance lessons” beforehand, they are devoted exclusively to the solo Charleston.

Then the (often excellent) band strikes up and…

  • The Lindy Hoppers do their '30s Lindy Hop and spread out, covering the floor with no-go zones for those who like to travel with their dancing.
  • The Ballroom Dancers do their modern competition style ballroom dances, trying to maneuver around them.
  • There are solo Charlestons all over the place.
  • Some folks fake it - thinking they're doing it wrong but probably doing it more right than they realize.
  • Pretty much nobody looks like those dancers in all those old movies.

At this point, you might say “So, dyspeptic-Walter-who-disapproves-of-everything, what SHOULD people be doing?”

First I will say, it's not hard to find. It's all there, all over the internet, and in so many of those old movies that are so easy to get these days. We are just too blinded by assumptions, like a sense that "the way I was taught a dance today is how it must have been danced then"; or a laser-like focus on Swing and Charleston to the exclusion of all else, to see what is so obvious.

Having said that, the answer is deceptively simple: the answer is the Foxtrot.

When I say that, your reaction may not be positive. If it isn’t “But I don’t know the Foxtrot”, then it might be “I don’t like the Foxtrot because it’s boring” or "I could never get those quicks and slows right". If you do know and like the Foxtrot, you are likely a ballroom dancer, and know a very formalized, structured dance – perhaps danced with partners posed just-so, with faces turned in opposite directions – or you are thinking of what Fred and Ginger were doing.

Dances evolve over time. The Foxtrot we do now is not the Fox Trot of the 1920s.

I will take a few lines now to talk about the Jazz Age Foxtrot. The first thing to know was that the hold did not use a frame with dynamic tension, but rather the dancers were very relaxed and body-to-body, and the lead was from the leader’s upper body, his core (see the illustration above). This meant that the dance could be very spontaneous, with the follower just going with the flow rather than looking for cues to launch into her next routine.

The second thing to know is that the basic step was just walking. If you stepped on every beat, it was “quick” time and if you stepped on every other beat is was “slow” time, you could do one or the other or a combination of quicks and slows – but the essence was walking to the music. The basic walk step had been called the “One-Step”, but was rebranded the Foxtrot in the late teens without actually changing anything. The Two-Step is also a Foxtrot option, as are any number of other combinations, to include the familiar "slow-quick" mixes.

This was the default setting for all dancing. It was the universally understood foundation that would allow a man from Paris to dance with a woman from New York; or a man from London to dance with a woman from Shanghai; and never worry about the fact they didn’t have the same teachers or know the same routines. He leads, she follows, they dance.

The third thing to know is that it was infinitely variable. Having settled on a basic framework, the dancers of the time changed their style to suit the music and their own preferences: dancing jazzy to jazzy music and smooth to slow romantic music. The more ambitious spiced things up with any number of complex steps (anything the Lead could lead and the Follow could follow was fair game) to include Charleston – either with your partner or interrupting your Foxtrot for some solo hijinks. Yes, when you interrupt your Foxtrot do do a Charleston, it becomes a Foxtrot variation. Balboa and Shag are also very clearly youthful riffs on the basic Foxtrot foundation, and Lindy, in those moments when the partners come into "ballroom" position, is showing its Foxtrot roots. Foxtrot was also the foundation of scores of variations like the Baltimore, Sugar Step, Crawl Charleston, Blue-Trot, Collegiate etc. etc.

It could also be, and usually was, very simple with a focus on a smooth flow, without fancy steps, throw-outs or other complications - ideal for the crowded dancefloors of the day.

Because of this infinite variability, Jazz Age Foxtrot is not like any other dance. It doesn’t fit into a clean definition. It is not equal in importance to other dances – it is dancing boiled down to its essence, and it is the starting point for anything you can think of in 4-4 time. While dance teachers then, as now, often insisted upon distinctions between One-Steps, Quick-Steps, Fox-Trot, Slow-Fox etc. etc.; most dancers, band leaders and music publishers at the time generally ignored such fine points, lumped everything under "Fox Trot" and did pretty much what they felt like doing.

The 2-4 Tango and 3-4 Waltz were still danced in the twenties, though not as commonly, especially among the young as the Foxtrot. They did however, in their Jazz Age forms, have much in common with Foxtrot of the time.

To Conclude My Rant

So, to make a long story just a bit longer, the historically correct dances of the 1920s aren’t hard to find. They are all over YouTube and in all those old movies you watch. You just have to open your eyes and there they are.

It’s surprisingly easy to do historically correct 1920s dance. In an era when almost everyone danced, they did a dance almost anyone could do. Just stand up, take your partner and move to the music. If you want to get fancy, get fancy, but don’t feel like you have to.

So, this concludes my rant. If you’ve made it this far and looked at the video and said, “Hey, that could be fun, I’ll give it a try” that would be awesome. If you look at it and say “Nah, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing”; from the historical purist's viewpoint that’s not as awesome, but at least you’re making an informed decision, and I'm not in the business of telling you to stop having fun.

I’ve written A LOT about this. If you want to know more, or before you start telling me how I've gotten it all wrong, please have a look at my website.

And here's a collection of videos I've uploaded that I have tagged "Foxtrot"