Collegiate Steps - Modern Ballroom Dancing 1930

ImageExtracted verbatim from "Modern Ballroom Dancing" by Lillian Ray. Franklin Publishing Company, 1930.


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.

Argentine Tango - Then and Now

This post has been prompted by multiple comments on videos I have put on YouTube of social dancers from the 1930s - comments like a dance that was clearly identified as a Fox Trot at the time was not, in fact a Foxtrot; and the Tangos in a 1931 Argentine movie called "Tango", were not "real" Tango.

This sort of thing makes me a bit grumpy. There is a strong tendency for dancers to define the "correct" or "real" style of a dance as "The style I was taught". If I have learned nothing else in my years of delving into the primary sources for 19th & 20th Century social dances, it's that when a dance is widely popular and danced over a period of many years by people all over the globe; there will be infinite variety. Even if some self-appointed "experts" (I'm looking at you Arthur Murray) may call one thing "correct" and another "incorrect", what indeed is the "correct" way to dance a dance?

It is really 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 will use 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. There was a clear and conscious separation of "Exhibition Dancing" (think Fred and Ginger) and "Ballroom (i.e. Social) Dancing". If you look at a film of the Coconut Grove in 1938, no one is trying to dance like Fred Astaire.

Which is why I find this 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. Also, look at all the background dancers, doing their ordinary, work-a-day Tangos.

This is followed by current Argentine Tangos as danced to amuse the tourists 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" on recordings, film shorts and sheet music.

What I think Happened
The Black Bottom gained notoriety from stage performances. The name was both funny and a bit naughty, and was bound to appeal to the sensibilities of the Jazz Age. People read about it in the papers, and found recordings and sheet music in the shops, but probably did not see the visual evidence of the films or live performances - so they made something up and called it "Black Bottom". This happened spontaneously in any number of places in America and Europe, leading to a profusion of "Black Bottoms" that bear no resemblance to one another.

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 gave 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. Further, the social mores of the time held that it was tedious and unsociable for couples to dance exclusively with one another, so it was generally accepted that this intimate hold would be practiced rather promiscuously within one's social circle.

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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