Walter's Random Musings

Jazz Age Social Dancing ("The Modern Dances")

ImageIn 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.

Why Men Don't Dance Anymore and a Few Thoughts on Fixing That

In this brief posting, I will muse on what went wrong with dancing that made men desert the dance floor, and end with a few ideas I try to put into practice to make them a little more willing to get out of their chairs and dance. Much of what I say applies equally to women, but for this particular post, I'm singling out the guys.

There was once a time, not so long ago, when everyone, men and women, danced. Every public space had a dance floor and regular live music, most restaurants had dancing, every hotel hosted regular dances, and you couldn’t have a celebration or large social gathering without dancing. When men felt lonely and isolated, they would go to a taxi dance hall and pay women to dance with them. Dancing was central and essential to society and to the way men and women interacted.

Through the '40s and '50s, general public dancing was in a slow decline, but was still pretty widespread. Then, around the 1960s, something fundamentally changed and men, who had always had a tendency to be less enthusiastic about dancing than women, started to withdraw from the dance floor. When they were kids, they would reluctantly join the girls for some freestyle gyration, but as soon as possible, most of them found an excuse to sit down.

Today, social dancing is almost dead. Outside of certain very specific contexts like “the club scene”, formal ballroom dancing, swing dancers, weddings etc., most social occasions, even when they include music (often REALLY loud music), do not include any sort of dancing and when they do, it’s almost exclusively the women who dance. (an aside: I think that the deafening volume of most public music today is an attempt to try to fill the void left by dancing. I have no evidence to support this, I simply think it so)

So, what happened? Why are men so reluctant to dance anymore?

1930s Foxtrot - A Public Dance at a Resort

This video is from a collection of raw footage and out takes from Fox Movietone News. I cut it down to the dance related bits from the footage I found on the University of South Carolina website.

From 1930, at the Poinciana Breakers Casino in Palm Beach Florida, ordinary folks dancing the Fox Trot in the sort of general public dancing that used to be found everywhere.Image

The Wearing (or not Wearing) of Gloves in the Jazz Age

ImageI have been party to some discussion on social media about the wearing of gloves at "Art Deco" or "Roaring '20s" events. There is a general presumption, based I suppose on the state of things at the beginning of the 1960s, at that moment when any notion of propriety in dress suddenly vanished, that in the Jazz Age as in the early '60s, gloves, especially for ladies, were an essential accessory for both day and evening wear.

However, after reviewing the visual evidence from the '20s and '30s (films, art and photos) I have in my collection, I have found that gloves seem to have been worn by a noticeable minority of people - women included. (Some of the images in my collection)

I suspect the pendulum was swinging back toward gloves by the '40s, but I'll leave documenting that for another day.

I found a few illustrations of men from the '20s and '30s in proper white tie and tails, wearing the white gloves that are part of that formal uniform, dancing with ladies in fashionable gowns... and no gloves - though I have also seen plenty of evidence of men (mostly photos) in tails without gloves. However, men in the more modern and less formal Tuxedo/Dinner Jacket style seem to have almost never worn gloves. Some of gloveless men, when dancing, made up for this lack by holding a handkerchief in their right hand so their sweaty palms were not against a lady's gown or bare back.

The general sense I got from reviewing the visual sources available to me is that gloves were not extinct, they were still worn by a few ladies and some gentlemen who favored them, but they were not the prevailing fashion, and were not worn by the majority. Further, while one might assume that gloves were more widely worn in Europe than in the States, I find a similar situation in looking at images and film clips from places like Britain, France and Germany. Perhaps they were a bit more common there, but gloves don't seem to have been the general rule anywhere in decades between the World Wars.

So, I suppose my advice to people wondering about gloves for a current Jazz Age/Art Deco event is, wear them if you like but don't feel you have to. It's actually more typical of the time if you decide to go gloveless.

My observation about gloves in the visual sources from the era is supported by an etiquette advice column from the '20s.

Washington Post: "Conduct and Common Sense" column. Oct 11 1926, Anne Singleton.

"VERY often people ask me about gloves. Of course, some women are uncomfortable unless their hands are covered. I know a woman who wears gloves almost all day long, even in the house, just because she hates to touch things with her hands. But most of us are glad to be spared the expense of constantly buying gloves. We wear them to keep our hands warm in winter and unsunburned in summer, clean on railway Journeys and uninjured when doing such work as gardening, but not much for convention at the present moment. Remember, however, that no moments stay present long.

Be Awesome or Sit Down: Musings on Our Spectator Culture

ImageA friend posted an article on Facebook a while back that lamented the serious decline in singing in American churches. The gist of it was not that American churches had succumbed to the teachings of some harsh, pious, music-hating sect - there was still plenty of music, but it wasn't the congregation providing it. They hadn't been told not to sing, quite the contrary, but the ones leading the music were very proficient well-amplified musicians performing complex music, with frequent new pieces to keep it "fresh" and demonstrate their musical chops. The poor congregations, so it would appear, just can't keep up.

The days of old Father Tom, in his creaky baritone, accompanied by an equally creaky organ, leading the flock in the umpteenth rendition of the Doxology appear to be largely passed in many congregations.

Their "joyful noise" doesn't need a bunch of untutored parishioners to be awesome.

This is not limited to church. In fact, adults don't sing in company anymore, outside the occasional binge of booze-enhanced Karaoke - unless they are pretty darn good.

Swing Dance in the LA Area

ImageUpdated July 27 2015

Here is a listing of most of the highlights of the Swing scene in the Los Angeles area. Most of it is courtesy of Chris Gauntt. This covers frequent events, and not annual things like the Avalon Ball. I will add to it and edit based on comments and suggestions I receive.

Cicada Club
Downtown Los Angeles. A recurring but not consistently scheduled event in a beautiful Art Deco nightclub, featuring different live bands with themes ranging from Roaring '20s to Latin, to '40s Swing to 1960s big band. Check their calendar for the next show.

2. Mid 1920s - The Charleston Era

ImageEmerging around 1923, the Charleston was a ground-breaking dance in its time. It was enthusiastically embraced by the youth of the Jazz Age, who found in it an outlet for their desire for novelty, exuberance and a total break with the social constraints of the past. It was also revolutionary in its strong solo elements, where a dancer would perform without a partner, or physically separated from a partner, in a way that was quite a revelation for the dancers of the early 20th Century.

In the heady days of the Roaring '20s, it even made occasional forays into the dancing of adventurous minded adults in a way that later youth dances did not. In 1926, you might have seen a 35 year old succumbing to an occasional fit of Charleston. In 1936, it's very unlikely you would have seen a 35 year old dancing a Jitterbug.

There are a few widespread notions about the Charleston that I hope you can, if you happen to entertain these notions, set aside while reading this.

Charleston Misconceptions

  1. Charleston was the dominant dance of the Jazz Age
  2. The Charleston was nearly always danced solo or with a couple doing individual solos in the vicinity of one another
  3. The Charleston was defined by a small set of specific steps. If you didn't do those steps, you weren't doing a Charleston

2. Youth Dancing in the Jazz Age

ImageI present here a quick timeline, via some films I have come across in my travels that illustrate the sorts of dances that were popular with the young'ns in the '10s, '20s and '30s. Most adults gave these up when they reached 25 or so, leaving the kicks and twirling skirts in favor of something a bit more sophisticated; but while they were young, those kids of the Jazz Age really knew how to cut a rug.

The thing that most distinguished "Youth Dances" from "Adult Dances", other than their relative athleticism, was not some fine point of technique or special step, it was the spirit of showing off. Adult dances were very pointedly not about showmanship. They were partner focused, and adult dancers almost never separated to do underarm turns or other showy moves. Kids on the other hand, were all about the showy moves, all about "Hey, look at me!". An adult dance was focused on the partner. A youth dance on the audience of peers.

The connections between these dances are pretty clear, as they progressed in a parallel track with the more mainstream Foxtrot and other ballroom dances. In fact, I would assert that they are all really just different flavors the same dance. "Youth Dance" happened when kids started inventing energetic, showy moves and wiggling their bodies to jazzy music. The specific combinations of moves and style of wiggling evolved over time, but there really are no clean breaks, just a gradual evolution with new moves being added to the mix and old moves falling out of fashion. We have some convenient reference points we might call "Charleston" or "Collegiate" or "Shag" which are helpful today but, at the chaotic time of their invention, lacked the clear definitions, precise terminology and sense of orthodoxy we moderns so often want to impose on the dances of the past.

I will hit on just a few clear reference points that give a sense of the flow. This collection is nothing like comprehensive - and never could be since only a tiny fraction of what the kids of the Jazz Age were inventing ever found its way to film. Further, the vagaries of copyright limit what I can post here. I present these films with a minimum of commentary, and will mostly let them speak for themselves.

Social Dancing and the Art of Conversation

ImageA very brief observation:

There's a key element of social dance, as it is actually practiced, that really gets short shrift. Dance manuals ignore it and you're not likely to hear about it in a dance class.

I recently had one of those "aha" moments in looking at photos from a Jazz Age dance event. Several of them were of me and my partner, on dance "automatic pilot", having a pleasant conversation. That "aha" was that conversation, in real social dance, is not a digression. It isn't something you do that detracts from the business at hand: the serious business of dancing. It is intrinsic to the "social" part of social dancing. It is every bit as legitimate a use of your dance floor time as a step routine or dance figure.

So, whether your partner is a lover, a friend, an acquaintance or someone you just met, if you have something to say, say it. If you don't, then just dance. The time is your own to do with as you will. There really is nowhere else that is quite as public, and yet as intimate and private as a dance floor. What ever you have to say, be it trivial or profound, there's probably no better time for it. You won't be overheard.

I don't really need to exhort people to do this. I'm sure you all do it anyway. Banter (witty or otherwise), declarations of love, profound or shallow observations, jokes, dinner plans, relationship talk, gossip, the weather, it's all fair game for that most private of public conversations; and it always has been.

How To Not Give A Tedious, Terrible PowerPoint Presentation

ImageI realize that the title of this piece promises more than it may, in fact, deliver. Reading this will not warranty you against giving a bad presentation. It might help though.

Here are a few things I have learned over the years, done by me and by other presenters - some good, some not so good, and some disastrous. However, each person is different, and different things work better for some folks than others. Your mileage may vary.

This is about the substance and style of your presentation. For issues of technology, go here.

Relax. It's not that bad
There are a lot of "rules" here, but many good presentations and good presenters break one or more of them. If you know your topic, and you care about that topic, and you can convey that enthusiasm to your audience, you'll probably do fine, even if you break a rule or two.

Make a Point
You can have one or multiple points to make, but try to present some insights about your topic that your audience may not have considered. Do not just say "Here is a thing", but try to say "And here is why that thing is interesting, and here's what that thing says about a broader issue and relates to other things"

Be Passionate
Care about your topic as much as it is possible to care about your topic. Your enthusiasm for what you are saying is the key to engaging your audience. This works best if you are presenting on a topic that is near and dear to you, when the passion should flow naturally. If you are presenting the next fiscal year spending projections, do your best to convey some enthusiasm, or at least your sense of why it's important, to your audience - but don't be phony or forced about it, as that will always backfire.

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