Jazz Age Dance

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"Jazz dancing is degrading. It lowers all the moral standards. Unlike liquor, a great deal of the harm is direct and immediate. But it also leads to undesirable things. The jazz is too often followed by the joy-ride. The lower nature is stirred up as a prelude to unchaperoned adventure."
- J.R. MacMahon, "Unspeakable Jazz Must Go!," The Ladies' Home Journal, December 1921


[DANCING 1928]

After World War I America was a changed place. Ford's "Tin Lizzie" made Americans more mobile than ever. Women got the vote and hemlines rose to new heights. Prohibition was passed, but it largely had the opposite effect it was intended to have. People seemed more reckless in search of fun, young men and women were more defiant of authority and no one wanted to seem "conventional."
Ragtime music had evolved into new forms; jazz and blues, and new kinds of dancing evolved along with the new music. The new jazz and jazz dancing were not popular with everyone. Some called the new style "decadent" and "dangerous" and frankly racist reviewers made ugly remarks referring to "jungle music." Arch conservative Henry Ford loathed jazz and steadfastedly continued to promote old fashioned waltzing and square dances. 
The jazz music of the early 1920's was fast and energetic, like the times themselves. Immediately after WW I many of the ragtime dances like the One Step which were suited to the frenetic new jazz tempos lingered on. Old favorites like the Waltz and Foxtrot retained their popularity in the early twenties as Arthur Murray began teaching and publishing a long series of "How to Dance" books. He would eventually homogenize almost every ballroom dance to fit his classic "box step."
The early twenties also saw a renewed interest in the Tango which was reborn as the "new French Tango" as film star Rudolf Valentino took the dance and made it his signature. His famous tango in the silent film "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" turned the image of the darkly handsome gaucho locked in a Tango embrace with his sultry se­orita into a dance icon. 

 Valentino and Rambova


"Toddle" sheet music, 1921

New magazines like "The American Dancer" and "Dance Magazine" catered to the new interest in social, theater and film dancing. All good middle class parents began sending their offspring off to tap and ballet classes.
The focus in the Jazz Age was definitely on youth. It was the era of "pep" personified by the slim girlish "flapper" with her bobbed hair and short skirts and her male companion, the "sheik" with his ukelele, raccoon coat and bell-bottomed "Oxford bags." Dancing began to actively involve the upper body for the first time as women began shaking their torsos in the Shimmy. Young people took to throwing their arms and legs in the air with reckless abandon and hopping or "toddling" every step in the Foxtrot, and soon every collegiate was doing a new dance; the Toddle. 
No dance epitomizes the spirit and exhuberance of the 20's for us more than the Charleston. The Charleston was introduced to the public in the Ziegfield Follies of 1923 by the all black cast of a show called "Runnin' Wild." From its theatrical origins the Charleston became immensely popular all across America. Tin Pan Alley churned out dozens of new Charleston tunes. Dance halls and hotels regularly held Charleston contests, so we have a legacy of hundreds of variations of the basic swivelling Charleston step-and-touch. Hospitals reported increasing numbers of patients who complained of "Charleston knee." In Hollywood starlet Joan Crawford made her first big splash as a flapper who won numerous Charleston contests. Stodgier ballrooms tried to discourage the frenetic Charleston all together, or at the least posted signs that read simply, "PCQ" - "Please Charleston Quietly." 


 "Monkey knees" in the Charleston, 1927


 "Collegiate Step No.2"
from Modern Ballroom Dancing, 1930

The overwhelming popularity of the Charleston inspired choreographers and dance teachers to fabricate and promote several new fad dances to a public hungry for novelty. On the heels of the Charleston followed the Black Bottom, which like many jazz era dances was adapted from black theater dance and the Varsity Drag which was introduced in the Broadway musical "Good News." A new style of Blues Dancing also developed to fit the disreputable atmosphere of the speakeasy. In 1928 it seemed as if the party would never end. 
In 1929 it did end. The prosperity and optimism of the 20's came to a halt with the Stock Market crash on Black Monday in September of that year. America's mood would change dramatically during the Great Depression that followed. 



"All Harlem dances. Here, in the heart of New York, between the Bronx and Central Park, wriggling black America disports itself nightly to the Lindy Hop, the Shim Sham Shimmy, or to Truckin', its latest dance creation. In a score of timy nighclubs, in low-ceilinged cabarets, shot with amber and dull red lights, couples twist, wriggle and tap to Harlem's high priestess; the dance. Gone are the days of the Charleston, the Heebie Jeebies, made famous by Louis Armstrong, and a score of lesser Stomps. For those possessed of indefatigable constitutions it's the Lindy Hop; for the tap-conscious the Shim Sham Shimmy, shortened by Harlemites to the Sham, and for everyone inclined to shuffle it's Truckin'."
- E.S. Campbell, Esquire Magazine, February, 1936


Fred and Ginger
"Flying Down to Rio," 1933

As the Great Depression began to tighten its grip on the nation, Americans found escape from economic reality in music and dance and the fantasy world that Hollywood offered. The incomparable Fred Astaire and Gingers Rogers would glide glamorously across the screen through the thirties, never worrying about bank closings or overdue rent.



The charming foxtrot variations that they did in films, the Continental, the Piccolino and the Carioca were simplified by dance teachers and taught to couples across America who were eager to share in the glamour of Fred and Ginger for a few dollars and a few hours a week. The Association of American Ballroom Teachers credited Fred and Ginger and their films with bringing new life to American ballroom dance. 
Latin rhythms continued to invade north American ballrooms in the 30s. Americans who travelled to nearby Cuba during Prohibition (one 1930's song noted "It Will Never Be Dry Down In Havana,") got a taste not only of local cocktails, but of new tropical dances as well. The Cuban Rumba hit north American with the success of a latin style song called "The Peanut Vendor." Several films of the 30s poke fun at American husbands trying to please their wives by learning the all-too-foreign hip motion of the Rumba. Dance teams like Veloz and Yolanda specialized in these new south of the border dances. In keeping with the Good Neighbor Policy, Americans took to the Conga in 1938, and in 1939 to the Brazilian Samba, which had been introduced at the N.Y. World's Fair.
This wave of Latin American dances would continue with the Cha-Cha-Cha and the Mambo, in the 50's, the Bossa Nova in the 70's and on into Salsa today.
Veloz and Yolanda, 1936


 The Lambeth Walk, 1938 - "Oy!"

Dancing and music provided relief for Americans crushed by the Depression. When couples couldn't afford to go to nightclubs, they danced to records, and when they couldn't afford records they rolled up the rug and turned on the radio and danced to the sounds of the Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Louis Armstrong and Glenn Miller.
It seemed that every year during the late 30's a new fad dance would sweep the country. First an English import, the Lambeth Walk had everyone strutting, slapping their thighs, hoisting a thumb in the air and shouting "Oi!" Next followed a series of fad dances, one sillier than the other; the Boomps a Daisy and then the Pickle. Late in 1938 the Conga entered the scene with its interesting one-two-three-AND-four rhythm. Initially a repectable couple dance, this quirky Latin import managed to linger on well into the 1950's as the infamous Conga line. 
Of all the short lived fad dances of the '30s none was more popular than the Big Apple. The Big Apple combined several popular steps and dance forms, like the Shag, the Suzi-Q and Truckin' into a simple and enjoyable group dance. The Big Apple was done in a circle, with a leader who either called out instructions like "Truck to the right, truck on down, everybody truck, go to town!" to the group, or chose a couple to improvize a solo or "shine." Arthur Murray sent teachers to South Carolina to learn the Big Apple, then he astutely formed a wholesome looking collegiate ensemble of dancers to tour the country promoting the dance. Like most dance crazes, the Big Apple lasted about two seasons. 


 "How to Dance the Big Apple," 1938

If the Charleston is the dance that typifies the 20's to us, no dance calls to mind the 30's for us more than Swing. Swing dancing was born Harlem int he late 20's and early 30s as black dancers improvised new moves to quick tempo jazz. It grew naturally from the Charleston, one of the first "partner" dances of the 20th century that encouraged partners to separate and improvise. Early Swing was called Lindy Hop after Charles Lindbergh's solo "hop" across the Atlantic. The first Lindy performing group out of Harlem was "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers," who appeared at the 1939 N.Y. World's Fair, toured the U.S. and were featured in several Hollywood films.


 Whitey's Lindy Hoppers

Lindy used a combination of six and eight count step sequences peppered with acrobatic lifts, spins and dips. As the Lindy swept the country, dance studios scrambled to regularize teachable step patterns. During W.W. II American G.I.'s spread the Lindy to Europe. Back in the states Jazz was developing into Bebop, and the long marriage of Ragtime and later Jazz music and social dance was over. After the war, this style of dancing regained popularity in a standardized six count form as Swing, done to the new pop music of the 50's, Rock 'n Roll. Swing was also called Jitterbug since "jitterbugs" was the term black dancers used to refer to whites who were less than adept at this dance form. 
Whether it's called Lindy, Swing or Jitterbug, swing dancing is enjoying a huge revival today. High school students scour the internet for two toned shoes or zoot suits to wear to dances. Dance studios and nightclubs are filled with couples practicing their "sidecars," "death drops" and "pretzels." Over the past sixty years we've seen East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Cajun Swing and Country Western Swing. Rooted in America's black culture, wedded to American jazz musical forms, Swing has won many votes for the title of "America's National Dance."
Today dancers have not only rediscovered Swing, but also Country Western dance, Argentine Tango, Cajun Dancing and Vintage dances in general. Perhaps one reason we have seen a craze for nostalgia in social dancing in the 90's is that not since Disco dancing in the 70's have we had a style of dancing that all classes and ages of Americans have found to their taste. We reach into the grab bag of history to find what we lack today. It remains to be seen what new dance will grab the attention and fire the imagination of Americans in the 21st Century. 


Early 20c Dance


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