My Jazz Age Journey: A Few Thougths on Historical Dance

ImageThe process of recreating the ballroom dances of the Jazz Age has been an eye-opening journey, and has led me to a new (for me) way of dancing that I have come to love. It has also made me question my long-standing assumptions about what it means to dance.

A couple of years ago I came to the realization that the internet is now brimming with film footage from the Jazz Age showing people dancing. Just a few years ago, original dance footage was a big deal to get, requiring much time, effort and expense to obtain a few brief snippets of footage. Now, almost overnight, we are awash in it. The Swing community sussed to this fact some time ago, but the vintage ballroom folks (myself included) were pretty much oblivious.

When I do a thing, I tend to overdo it, and this has been no exception. I tracked down hundreds of clips from old movies, and used them to construct a picture of the of the dances of the 1920s - 40s; a period I am very interested in as I frequently attend, and occasionally organize "vintage dance" events set in that era. However, I had only the sketchiest of ideas of what was actually done at the time, and as I started to look at the footage, I realized that many of those ideas were not only sketchy but entirely wrong. Much of what I had been taught or assumed about the dance of the time had been filtered through the prism of the modern forms of those dances. The Foxtrot, the Tango, the Waltz are all danced a certain way today, and the natural reflex is to say "Oh, I know the Foxtrot and the Foxtrot I know must be what was danced".

This is, of course, wrong because dances evolve over time; but it put me in a rather unique position. To learn these dances, I could not just take a class. While much of what I might learn in a regular ballroom dance class could be applicable; most of the modern orthodoxy and technique was clearly, from looking at the films, not applicable. I was going to have to rely on films and, to a lesser extent, books to be my teachers; along with the essential help of my wife and the many other women who have been my partners and collaborators in making sense of all this.

9. Dancing in Weimar Berlin

ImageGermany during the era of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) was a place of political conflict and economic chaos; as well as a nexus of cultural ferment, a flowering of invention and creativity, and a rejection of pre-Great War social norms and cultural conventions. It was also notorious for the vitality of its decadent night life, awash in sex and booze and jazz music: jazz music provided by hot German bands with their own distinctive national sound.

The dance of fashionable Weimar Germany was indistinguishable from the dancing you would see in London or New York. In the countryside or in "folk" events, you might well see good old fashioned rotary Waltzes, as well as dances like the Polka, Ländler, Zweifacher etc.; but in the night clubs of sophisticated cities like Hamburg or Berlin, only modern dances like the Foxtrot and Tango and the "modern" Waltz were welcome.

Foxtrotting and Why it's Cool to be a Grown-up

ImageIt's not a stunning revelation to say that dancing has changed a lot in the last half century. We all know that, but I don't know that most of us have really thought about the ways it has changed and how it reflects the ways our world has changed.

"Back in the day" which for my purposes, I will encapsulate in the 50 years between 1910 and 1960, dancing played a central role in the social lives of mature adults which it has entirely lost today. Today, among adults, with a few notable exceptions, almost nobody dances. Back then, almost everyone danced.

Night clubs, hotels, ocean liners and any place where people gathered to socialize had live music and a dance floor. Municipalities, corporations, fraternal lodges and community organizations sponsored dinner dances, where people got dressed up and men and women danced together - and their "signature" dance - by far the most popular and pervasive, was the Foxtrot. The dance floor was often too small, and it was crowded, but it was crowded precisely because almost everyone danced.

Starting in the early 20th Century, there was a clear distinction between Youth Dances and Adult Dances. The kids did the Charleston which became Collegiate, which became Swing, which became Rock & Roll (a species of Swing). Adults danced the Foxtrot, Tango and Waltz (but mostly Foxtrot) and occasionally Latin dances like Rumba, Samba, Cha Cha etc.(all fall in a category now referred to as "Ballroom Dances"). There was a distinctly adult way to dance and a distinctly kid way to dance, and when kids grew up, they gave up the wild kicks, spins, leaps and flying skirts and settled into a style more appropriate to their adult lives. We often refer to "Youth Culture" and tend fix on that when defining past decades in our minds, but we tend to overlook the fact that there was once an "Adult Culture" as well, which was much more ubiquitous and influential than the fads of wild youth.

A Few Words About Living in the Past

ImageI received yet another email from a TV producer looking for people who live entirely in some sort of historical way. She gave me the sense that she really didn't understand us, and I fear that she was looking for subjects for a, not to put too fine a point on it, freak show like those I saw a few years back from the BBC. Here's how I responded:

I understand there are some people who try to live entirely in some sort of "retro" way, but I don't know any. Everyone I know cherry picks from the past: we draw from the past the things we find lacking in the present, but we are perfectly willing to take advantage of modern technology and live in the real world. Most of us prefer not to live in a world with the disease, violence, bigotry and gender inequality that was all too common in the past, and there's few of us would turn down a shot of antibiotic if we had a serious infection.

Different people cherry pick different things. A lot of folks love the fashions of the past and enjoy the sense of occasion that really dressing up lends to any activity - something that is sadly lacking in our hyper-casual society. Many (and these groups contain lots of the same people) love the music and perhaps dance of the past - a time when songs were finely crafted and dances gave you a real connection to your partner.

Jazz Age Dance - Apologia

ImageThe initial motivation behind this project, to understand the most popular dances of the "Jazz Age", was frustration and confusion. THE big dance of the time was the Fox Trot, but the Fox Trot as I understood it just didn't seem right.

  • The Fox Trot classes I had taken felt complicated and contradictory with seemingly random assortments of "quicks" and "slows" and memorized routines, some of which required me to count (I've never been good at math). It felt like I was getting pieces of a puzzle, without understanding how they fit together.
  • The Fox Trot as I understood it and as I saw it performed by trained dancers, looked a bit like Fred and Ginger, but didn't look much like what I saw "regular folks" doing in old movies - and I have always been a bit more interested in regular folks rather than stars
  • My Fox Trot wasn't much fun. How could such a dance have been so dominant and universally popular? How was it that this not very appealing dance (as I with my limited understanding understood it) was THE dance of the Jazz Age?

5. 1930s Rumba

ImageThe 1930s saw the introduction of the Rumba (also spelled "Rhumba") to the North American and European ballroom. It was the result of applying a European ballroom dance vocabulary to a Latin beat. It began around 1930, and gradually grew in popularity through the '30s. By around 1935, it was a full fledged dance craze - though it never reached the heights of popularity enjoyed by the Foxtrot.

When it first arrived on the scene, dancers applied familiar moves to a new beat. In the videos in this collection, there is a sophisticated group of dancers from 1930 using Tango/Foxtrot styling to a Rumba beat.

While the classic Rumba box-step was being demonstrated by dance teachers as early as 1930, it took a few years for a distinctive style of Rumba to emerge among the general dance population that was significantly different from the Tangos and Foxtrots that came before, and part of its appeal was probably that it was a departure from the settled norms of the 1930s ballroom. First of all, unlike the "just walking" dances that had predominated since the Turn of the Century, it had that specific step.

The second was the tendency of the partners to separate, and even when they were together they had an open frame and were seldom in the close embrace of the Foxtrot. Underarm turns were common and "throw outs" were a frequent feature, and the dancers even separated to do their own little personal Rumba before linking back up to their partners.

The Rumba also had an element of showmanship, of showing off, that had definitely not been part of mainstream social dancing. Certainly Swing dancers were all about putting on a show, but Swing, with its popularity among African Americans and the white kids who emulated them, was not seen in the clubs and ballrooms of adult white "polite society".

Jean Gabin Dances the Java

The amazing Jean Gabin dances a smooth, elegant Java with a nice old lady from the film Belle Equipe.

Thos Wilson's Quadrille Instructor - Ca 1816

The Quadrille Instructor,
Containing Directions, for Dancing a Variety of New Quadrilles, as Introduced at the Assemblies of the Nobility and also at the Author's Balls & Assemblies.

The Figures, described in French and English, clearly illustrated by Diagrams Shewing the various Situations & Evolutions of each Person in the Dance, with the appropriate Steps and the Time they occupy in the Performance.

Adapted to original Music, and arranged for the Piano Forte, Harp, or Violin,
by Thomas Wilson

This compact book of instructions discusses the quadrille at the time it was being invented. In geometry, these early quadrilles were very much like later Victorian quadrilles (and American Square Dances for all that). However, the Victorians had largely given up on the steps that are such an integral part of the Regency Quadrille.

The publication date is an estimate. The book is not dated, but the text refers to a long forgotten French opera about the Duke of Wellington, and it seems unlikely that the French would be writing operas about the Iron Duke before the Battle of Waterloo - and also mentions "Treasures of Terpsichore", which is dated 1816.

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