- Historical Dance
- Jazz Age Ballroom Dancing
- 1. The Jazz Age Foxtrot
- 2. One-Step Jazzy Dancing
- 3. The Jazz Age Waltz
- 4. The Jazz Age Tango
- 5. Jazz Age Rumba
- 6. Jazz Age Samba
- 7. Jazz Age Conga
- 8. Bal Musette: Parisian Dance of the Jazz Age
- 9. Jazz Age Dance - Apologia
- Dancing Made Easy - 1922
- Historical Dance Films posted to Pinterest
- Sampler of Jazz Age Dance Holds
- Ragtime Dance - the One Step
- Regency Dance
- Victorian Dance
- Jazz Age Ballroom Dancing
Jazz Age Ballroom Dancing
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. Plenty of examples of normal, workaday ballroom dancing can be seen in movies of the period but not being done by show 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.
Fred and Ginger have, however, been extremely influential in shaping modern competition ballroom styles, and those have had a major impact on what is currently taught by dance instructors - a good number of whom teach their students to be potential competitors in a style, and with a mindset that was not the norm in the Jazz Age ballroom.
The most popular dance of the period was the Foxtrot. The One Step, the Waltz and the Tango were also widely danced, as were (in the '30s) Latin dances like the Rumba, Conga and Samba. The under-thirty crowd danced these mainstream ballroom styles, but also enjoyed exuberant athletic dances that would have caused most of their elders to bust a gut.
All of these dances are still part of the modern ballroom repertoire (the One-Step evolved into what is now called the Quickstep). However, the dances we now call by those names are not what they were in the 20s and 30s.
Fortunately, while they differ from what is taught today, they differ primarily in that the Jazz Age dances were FAR EASIER than their modern descendents. An experienced dancer will pick them up right away, and most beginners should be able to get out on the floor with a minimum of instruction - perhaps even after just looking at these few web pages.
"And the modern dances are the most easily achieved - some absurdly simple. It was not so in Mother's time-for the steps she watched were many and varied. With her usual quiet fortitude she prevailed over a most difficult and intricate order of things - and with an application that might, in these days, be considered a mental strain."(Dancing Made Easy 1922)
And this continued into the 1930s.
"Modern dances...are completely free and individual in their combinations of steps. There are dozens of waltz and fox trot variations. You may dance them in any sequence you desire. If you are courageous enough to appear publicly on the ballroom floor and you have learned only two or three steps thoroughly, you may dance quite successfully through the entire evening alternating these steps at your own discretion" (Modern Ballroom Dancing, Ray, 1930)
A quick note on my philosophy of research and teaching: I will present my sources (largely old films, with some books and images thrown in) and make a few observations. Mostly though, I let the sources speak for themselves. You are welcome to look at the same sources and draw differing conclusions. The heart of this enterprise is making useful sources easily available, and letting peoples' interpretations of them fall where they may.
Variations on a Theme
One of the most striking things about the ballroom dances of the era is how like each other they are. The steps are all walks and glides (more walking than anything else), and a variation from one may be easily dropped into another. Even the Waltz seems more like a Foxtrot than what you might have seen in the 19th Century.(For a brief discussion of how every dance became just walking, see The Ragtime One Step)
"After a true analysis you will find these dances are composed of but walking and gliding steps, and as you become familiar with them, and your self-reliance grows, you may take liberties with them; in other words, you may use your own variations whenever you like and as often as you like-there is no set rule; you may change them at times to please yourself; for after all you have been but walking and gliding. So while dancing around you may eventually give way to the exact number of walking steps, and perhaps, having a tete-a-tete with your partner, you may overstep that certain number; but in doing this do not worry-you are not breaking any laws either national, local, or social."
Dancing Made Easy, Coll, 1922
And always remember, my friends, that this is the Jazz Age, and Jazz isn't about rules, it's about improvisation.
The Dance Hold
One of the distinguishing features of Jazz Age dancing was the hold. The "ballroom position" of the Jazz Age was extremely close. It was a gentle embrace rather than a "frame". There was no daylight between partners. People of the era, if they were of similar heights, really could, and frequently did, dance cheek to cheek.
This results in a dance that is very different from eras where the partners have some distance between them. This embrace is not a minor stylistic detail, it is an essential part of the dance and everything flows from this foundation of two people with no space between them.
Because of this close embrace, the lead differs from the modern "frame" where partners are distinctly separated. The ballroom frame of today relies on dynamic tension to allow the lead to quickly impart cues to his partner with his arms, hands and body while the lady's arms offer constant resistance and tension so she knows instantly when something is happening. A modern frame allows the lead to easily steer his partner through any number of broad and kinetic moves and is perfect for a modern style that is focused on the outward visual impact of the dance. It was not so in the Jazz Age.
The Jazz Age position imparts a very different spirit to the dance. It is gentle, relaxed and without dynamic tension. The leader leads mostly with his upper body, his core, and tries to set up an easy flow without violent or sudden changes. The follower gets her cues from the fact that her upper body is in direct contact with his. The follow is relaxed and, given that the underlying step can change at any moment, she should try not to anticipate, but try to go with the flow. With this easy, relaxed hold, while the dance can sometimes be quite lively and fast-moving, it generally does not use broad moves, swooping or flinging. It is far more self-contained and inwardly focused than you would see on "Dancing With The Stars".
To assume the position, the lady nestles her left side against the gentleman's right. The gentleman places his right arm behind her, holding very lightly. His right hand could rest on the small of the lady's back or higher, between the shoulder blades. Since his right hand is not the primary element of the lead, he may lightly place the side of his hand against her back rather than the palm of his hand. Mostly though, it's about what feels comfortable given the relative heights of the dancers and their own preferences. In looking at dancers of the era, they are pretty consistently in a very close hold, but nearly every other detail is subject to individual interpretation.
The feet should be offset, so that the man's left foot, if he steps forward, will pass to the outside. Both the man and woman's right feet should be positioned to pass between the partner's legs.
They join their free hands in one of many possible holds. She rests her left hand on the man's forearm or shoulder or where ever it seems to fit - or if she is particularly fond of him, over his shoulders behind his neck. The lady would put her head where ever it seemed right to put it - a bit apart, or cheek to cheek or even resting on a taller man's chest. The hold of the time can feel very intimate and might make some modern folks a bit uneasy.
If the lady was wearing a long 1930s style evening gown, she could use her left hand to lift it out of the way.
If the man is significantly shorter than the woman it can be a bit awkward. This awkward geometry was frequently played for comic effect in the films of the era. If you should find yourself in this position, I can only suggest that you use common sense and discretion to minimize the comic possibilities - or if you and your partner are up for it, have as much fun with it as Shorty George & Big Bea, or the film makers of the Jazz Age.
Once joined in this embrace, dancers seldom left it. Watching film from the period, I don't see under arm turns, swing-like "throw-outs", "twinkles" or much else, other than an occasional spastic fit of Charlestoning, that caused the partners to separate. The style appears to be the polar opposite of something like Swing. In Swing, the dancers are open, flashy and showing off for who ever happens to be looking. In the Foxtrot and the Foxtrot-like dances, the performance aspect is far less present. The partners remain together, focused on one another rather than an audience and don't do anything that might be disruptive on a crowded floor; while they move steadily around, more or less in line of direction (counter clockwise)