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 Lindy Hop, 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.

The most common misconception however is our tendency to assume that everyone, regardless of age, social status, ethnicity or geography was dancing the latest fad youth dance of the moment: be it the Charleston, the Black Bottom, Collegiate Shag or Lindy Hop. Given the complexity and physical demands of these dances, this defies simple logic; and any review of the films of the time will show that these youth dances had a definite place, but they were danced by a minority of the total dancing population - and even those who danced them did not limit themselves to those dances (unlike many current dancers).

Set Dancing and Eye Contact

ImageI recently attended a Regency-themed English Country Dance in a place far from home. It was a beautiful historic venue, the music was good, everyone was well dressed and the dancers were capable, but there was something lacking, something that left me unsatisfied. It became especially clear what it was when it was remarked upon by one of the local ladies: almost nobody made eye contact.

We went through our figures, took hands on cue and even did some fancy steps from time to time, but almost every time, as I took hands with another person, my eyes were looking at the side of her head while her attention was elsewhere.

This really brought home to me how essential this was: that eye contact in a set dance, whether it was English Country Dance, Contra Dance, Quadrilles, Square Dancing, Scottish Country Dance etc., is not a minor stylistic detail. It is key. In my personal reckoning, the most important thing is correctly following the figure and the music (nothing works if you aren't where you need to be) and the second, and still essential piece, is eye contact.

This is what makes it a "social dance". The whole point of dancing in a group is connecting with the other members of that group. If you hit all your marks and perform all your mechanical functions when you are supposed to do them, while keeping your eyes fixed ahead; you are not undermining the working of the dance, but you are off in your own world. You are dancing with yourself. The group is dancing together, while you are not fully present. You are just an anonymous cog in the machine, while those who make eye contact are fully present and are connecting with one another. Further, since those who make eye contact are, as I said, fully present, they are better able to coordinate their movements with the other dancers - which makes even the mechanical parts of the dance work more smoothly.

Making a Spectacle of Themselves: The Dancing Flappers

In the Roaring 20s, something new happened. "Nice girls" who were not professional performers, alone or with other girls, danced in front of the whole room.

Remembering the Centennial of the End of the Great War

ImageOn November 11th, 2018, we will reach the centennial of one of the most portentous dates in human history. On that day, in 1918, the guns fell silent and the killing stopped and World War One, known as “The Great War” before another world war came along, came to an end.

It’s a problematic anniversary. It was one of the defining moments in world history, and it seems like it should be commemorated, but how to do it?

In 1914, there were four emperors who went to war, in Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. After 1918, Russia was in a bloody civil war from which would emerge the Soviet Union, Germany was setting up a fragile democracy, Austria-Hungary was smashed into its constituent parts, and Turkey’s Ottoman Empire was divided up by Britain and France in a way that set the stage for today’s troubled Middle East.

Further, the vindictive and arbitrary terms of the Treaty of Versailles led directly to the rise of the Nazis, and the even more murderous Second World War.

In the “victorious” powers, victory was really just relief and exhaustion. A whole generation was decimated in France and Britain, and there was a general sense not of victory, but of failure – a sense that the old-fashioned values of service, sacrifice, loyalty and patriotism that had motivated those young men to march off to war had all been a lie. The “lost generation” could not really see how it had all been worth it.

Even in America, which had been involved in active fighting for only a few months, the war had its impact. Those few months had been a literal hell for the Americans who actually saw combat, and the Doughboys returned not only with a broader, less provincial view of the world; but with an angry cynicism much like their French and British brothers.

This also coincided with the Spanish Influenza, which killed in the space of a year, even more people than the war.

So, now this centennial is upon us. What do we do about it?

A Rant: Dancing at Roaring Twenties Events: We're Doing it Wrong (and Peabody isn't a thing).

ImageI generally try to keep my tone light, and avoid major rants online, but I think perhaps it’s time to go full curmudgeon regarding dancing at “Roaring Twenties” events.

While we moderns do a moderately good job of recreating the dances of the Victorian era in a Victorian-themed event, or the Swing dances of the Swing era in a Swing-themed event, we are consistently terrible at presenting even a semblance of the actual dances of the Roaring Twenties at a Twenties-themed event.

There is a pervasive attitude of:
I don’t know.
I don’t know I don’t know.
I don’t really care anyway.

Roaring Twenties events that I have seen fall into a few general categories.

The Baz Luhrmann Twenties

In this sort of event, the women will often wear fringed flapper dresses, and might do a few Charleston steps (always solo), but the musical options are generally more of the electronic/hip-hop/electro-swing variety; and the general ambiance is more like that of a rave. Music is generally DJ driven. This is the default setting for organizations that don’t generally do historical themes (or care a fig about history), but want to capitalize on the “Great Gatsby” movie’s popularity.

The Lindy Hop Twenties

The Swing community has embraced the Twenties, but since many Swing dancers see the world through Lindy colored glasses, they put on their Jazz Age glad rags – and then just dance a standard Lindy, Shag or Balboa. They may toss in a Charleston, since it is congenial to a Swing approach to dancing, but they are generally fuzzy about the fact that anything but the Charleston was actually danced in the Twenties. The Twenties is essentially just a theme to superimpose on what they already do anyway.

Mrs Murphy's Waltz - A Rediscovered Family Treasure

Found in the Murphy family papers: a Waltz from 1880 by a great grandmother of a member of the Social Daunce Irregulars committe: the Once Again Waltz by Mrs. R. G. Murphy (nee Ellie Jameson). We asked Dean Mora to work it up and, for the first time in over a century, here it is.

The Ballroom Scene from "I Don't Want to be a Man" - 1918

Ernst Lubitsch frequently inserted comical dance scenes into his films, and this is no exception.

The premise is that a young lady, unhappy with her lot, impersonates a man. She then finds out it's not all it's cracked up to be.

This film provides a wonderful snapshot of Ragtime era Fox Trot/One Step.

Some Thoughts on the Home Movie Footage of Social Dancing at the 1939 World's Fair

ImageThere is a remarkable bit of film, taken some time in 1939 or 1940, from the New York World's Fair. It is silent, in color and features numerous couples, black and white but mostly all female, swing dancing and fox trotting to the music of Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.

It comes from a wonderful series of amateur films taken by a fellow named Medicus that documents nearly all aspects of the Fair.

This clip is all over YouTube with any number of soundtracks. I found my footage on the Prelinger Archive portion of the Internet Archive.

This footage is valuable to the dance historian for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that, unlike so much of our film documentation of people dancing in the 1930s, it is neither a staged Hollywood scene with professional dancers nor a newsreel about a dance contest. These are ordinary Americans, most of whom probably had no idea they were going to be dancing when they got up that morning. This is spontaneous and very revealing of the way people danced at the time, and generational differences in peoples' dance choices.

Of course, the first thing anyone will notice about this film is the shortage of men. It is nearly all (but not entirely) women dancing together. The conclusion that I have often seen in comments online is that the boys were all off at war, but that wouldn't seem to apply here. The US didn't go to war until a year after the Fair closed in November 1940, and the draft wasn't established in the US until October of 1940. The boys were still at home, they just weren't up there dancing. Furthermore, this was a time when most boys did know how to dance, more or less. It was an essential social skill, so purely mathematically, it would seem like they should be up there in greater numbers.

I've pondered this a bit, and my conclusion is that it must be a matter of social dynamics. Those people were there with their families or with their gaggle of friends, and I suspect only a few of those girls came with their boyfriends. So, there they were, in a crowd of strangers, a world-famous dance band is playing and a place for dancing has been laid out (and it's FREE!). What's a girl to do? In most cases, I think the answer was for her to grab her sister or female friend, or perhaps even ask a random girl to dance. The answer would not have been to ask a strange boy to dance. That would have been too forward and socially dangerous.

So, since girls were generally perfectly happy to dance with other girls, but boys didn't dance with other boys (and asking a strange girl to dance in that situation would have been a bit too bold for most boys), the girls danced while all but a few of the boys watched.

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