Walter's Random Musings
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.
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.
I have extracted the two Argentine Tango scenes from this Carlos Gardel film
The Jazz Age ballroom style, a style I like to refer to as "Cocktail Dancing", is unique in its simplicity, intimacy and freedom. It is the dance of an age when everyone danced, when people were participants rather than just spectators in their own entertainment.
What follows are some helpful hints for dancing in this style.
In this style of dancing, very little of the lead comes from your hands and arms, and most of it from your body - your "core". Since you are in body to body contact, the two of you should move effortlessly as a unit.
The desired effect is smoothness and musicality. The Lead should adapt to the music, dancing smooth and romantic when the music is smooth and romantic, and exuberantly when the dance is exuberant. He should sway and move his body to the music and convey that movement to his partner. The movement starts with the shoulders and works its way down as the body follows the shoulders.
However, being in such close contact imposes some constraints. Your movements can't be too violent or broad, your feet can't do anything that would cause stepped on feet or colliding knees and since you are so close together (perhaps even cheek-to-cheek) unless your partner is so short that her head is below your sight line, you can't really see that well, so Polka-style hurtling across a crowded dance floor could be a very bad idea.
As anyone who has seen my social media posts for the last couple of years will know, I have been focused on recreating the social dances of the 1920s, 30s and â40s â not the youth dances like Charleston and Swing (they donât need my help) but the, at the time, far more widely danced Foxtrots, Waltzes and Tangos.
These dances, in their original forms, were far less structured, far more intimate and far easier than their current âDancing With the Starsâ forms. It is a style of dance that I think has a lot to offer our modern world, and I would love to see it revived and spread beyond a narrow, historical dress-up sort of audience.
At the time, these dances were called âThe Modern Dancesâ, but âModern Danceâ is a term that has become inextricably associated in our own time with styles of artistic performance dance â successors to ballet, so âModern Danceâ is pretty much taken, and another name is required to describe this unique style. Besides, âmodernâ is an adjective that has something of a set âsell byâ date, and becomes just a bit ironic when applied to a dance style thatâs about a century old.
I have been referring to them as âJazz Age Social Dancesâ, which sets them in their proper historical context, but also locks them into the past. It defines them as a museum artifact. Itâs as if you called Swing Dancing âGreat Depression Dancingâ or âWorld War Two Dancingâ.
I suspect a hard-wired link to the past could be impediment to a broader acceptance of this sort of dancing.
So, what can we call this style, with its focus on social connection, simple enjoyment and sophistication, that conveys its unique spirit and essence?
This scene, in which dancing figures prominently in the background, gives a sense of the sorts of dancing a movie audience would expect to see in a sleazy dive in New York in 1928. It's from "The Docks of New York"
The dance scenes from the 1921 French film Fievre, showing low-down Jazz Age dancing in a low down venue full of drunk, unhappy people. I pasted "The Montmartre Rag" and "Around the Bois de Boulogne" onto the silent footage.
I happened on this fragment of an obscure British film set in a dance hall that contains a lot of nice detail. I also love it when they put up a sign saying "Fox Trot" or "Waltz" to remove any doubt. I am a bit disappointed they flashed a One Step sign, but didn't show it. I am curious what a British One Step would look like given how One-Steppy their Fox Trots are. You would seldom see a dance called a One Step in the States by this time.
This video, made up of Fox Movietone News rough footage from 1930, shows in great detail, ordinary folks dancing the Fox Trot in 1930.
In my zeal to document the social dances of the Jazz Age, I have built a rather large and intimidating collection of web pages and videos, which while they may be of interest to the aficionado, might be a bit much for a busy person in a hurry. So, I have briefly summarized my key points.
These observations relate primarily to Fox Trot, which was the fundamental foundation of almost all the dancing of the time and a promiscuously applied catch-all name for any dance in 4-4 time. Most of this also applies to the two other common Ballroom dances of the time: the Waltz and the Tango. For discussion of how the youth dances (Charleston, Swing etc.) Latin dances and the like fit into all of this, click on the links on both sides of this page.
It's Different: The Foxtrot of today IS NOT the Fox Trot of the Jazz Age. Dances evolve over time, and what you see today called the Foxtrot is not what you see in the old movies.