Whether in an elegant ballroom or a low down dancehall, In the Jazz Age almost everyone danced, so they danced in a way almost anyone could do.
Learn about the most popular dances of the Jazz Age: what was being danced, by whom and where. Walter Nelson will show you how it was done and give you the basic tools to take the floor at the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival or any Jazz Age (1920s & 30s) dance event.
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.
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.
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.
Emerging 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 was the dominant dance of the Jazz Age
- The Charleston was nearly always danced solo or with a couple doing individual solos in the vicinity of one another
- The Charleston was defined by a small set of specific steps. If you didn't do those steps, you weren't doing a Charleston
I 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.
A 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.
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"
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.