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My Jazz Age Journey: A Few Thougths on Historical Dance

ImageThe process of recreating the ballroom dances of the Jazz Age has been an eye-opening journey, and has led me to a new (for me) way of dancing that I have come to love. It has also made me question my long-standing assumptions about what it means to dance.

A couple of years ago I came to the realization that the internet is now brimming with film footage from the Jazz Age showing people dancing. Just a few years ago, original dance footage was a big deal to get, requiring much time, effort and expense to obtain a few brief snippets of footage. Now, almost overnight, we are awash in it. The Swing community sussed to this fact some time ago, but the vintage ballroom folks (myself included) were pretty much oblivious.

When I do a thing, I tend to overdo it, and this has been no exception. I tracked down hundreds of clips from old movies, and used them to construct a picture of the of the dances of the 1920s - 40s; a period I am very interested in as I frequently attend, and occasionally organize "vintage dance" events set in that era. However, I had only the sketchiest of ideas of what was actually done at the time, and as I started to look at the footage, I realized that many of those ideas were not only sketchy but entirely wrong. Much of what I had been taught or assumed about the dance of the time had been filtered through the prism of the modern forms of those dances. The Foxtrot, the Tango, the Waltz are all danced a certain way today, and the natural reflex is to say "Oh, I know the Foxtrot and the Foxtrot I know must be what was danced".

This is, of course, wrong because dances evolve over time; but it put me in a rather unique position. To learn these dances, I could not just take a class. While much of what I might learn in a regular ballroom dance class could be applicable; most of the modern orthodoxy and technique was clearly, from looking at the films, not applicable. I was going to have to rely on films and, to a lesser extent, books to be my teachers; along with the essential help of my wife and the many other women who have been my partners and collaborators in making sense of all this.

A brief disclaimer: I am not addressing youth dances like Charleston or Swing here. Those are clearly in a category separate from these adult ballroom dances, and an area that is already very well documented and researched. I really have nothing to add to that already rich and extensive pool of knowledge. However, I think I can make a real contribution to the largely neglected topic of the social dances practiced by the vast majority of the adults of the time.

Here are some of the key points:

ImageOne of the most striking things I noticed almost immediately when looking at these films was how simple, how unadorned their dancing was. The essential step was usually some sort of walking - though other steps were options, and even ballroom dance champions seemed content with just a few basic steps, and were judged on their grace and smoothness rather than any fancy moves. The underarm turns, spins and other open moves where the partners separate, which are a fundamental part of ballroom dance today, were just not there - at least not in the dancing of the "Ballroom" dancers. There are many surviving examples of "Exhibition Dancers" (Fred & Ginger fall into that category) who were doing those and many other showy and theatrical moves; but the social dancers were making a clear distinction and deliberately eschewing them in favor of a very basic style where the partners almost never separated.

The distinction between what is the purview of the exhibition dancer and the social dancer is far less clear today, with a general tendency to try to be something of an exhibition dancer in almost every situation.

Please do not infer from this that I have anything against exhibition dancers. I love a good dance performance, and respect the skill and effort required to create it. I have on occasion, enjoyed making a spectacle of myself on the dance floor.

However, this has caused me to wonder if the Jazz Age dancers knew something we moderns have forgotten.

It has, in fact, caused me to entertain the idea that those flashy theatrical moves could sometimes serve as crutches: that they could be used to avoid your partner and the music rather than engage them. It has also made me consider how much I am dancing for my partner and how much for some hypothetical audience.

Another thing that struck me was how close together people danced. It seemed to be accepted as a matter of course that you and your partner were in body-to-body contact, and it was across the board from slow to fast Foxtrot, Waltz, Tango and was frequently seen even in the more athletic youth dances. This persists in Argentine Tango, but generally the other ballroom dances as they are taught today, have partners separated in a way that is optimized for broad theatrical moves, relies on dynamic tension to convey the lead, and is also less jarring to a modern sense of "personal space".

I had to conclude, from its universal adoption, that this intimate embrace was not a minor stylistic detail. In fact, in the many and varied examples I found of dance holds, almost everything but close contact was optional and variable. Close physical contact was clearly a fundamental feature of this style of dancing.

In the Jazz Age, the two partners were moving as one to the music. When they swayed, they swayed together, and the lead was relaxed, natural and effortless. This creates a very strong connection between dancers that I just haven't felt in other styles. It is also strongly related to the "simplicity" factor, since if you emphasize the connection to your partner and to the music, you worry less about busting a new move every four bars.

This, I will have to confess, is the element I find most congenial to my particular personality. The simplicity and intimate, immediate lead means that I can, within reason, do pretty much anything I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. My partner is so closely linked to me that as long as I don't do something stupid, she will instantly and instinctively follow.

If I really wanted it, Arthur Murray and Santos Cassini would cheerfully furnish me with complex and historically accurate step patterns; but that would be my choice, and not a requirement or expectation.

I don't have to count. I HATE to count. Learning complex routines that required me to count steps seriously soured me on Swing and modern Ballroom. I love being able to just flow from one simple, easily led step to another. I like to just dance and not stress my aging memory with complicated patterns and counts.

ImageI also love that this simplicity allows me to dance a satisfying dance with almost any partner. There's no more teaching her the step, worrying whether she knows the routines...we just dance and she tells me, by the way she moves, what is working and what is not and, as in any successful relationship, we go together down the path that works best for both of us.

Another excellent point is that there is no canonical way to do any dance. Each leader leads his own dance in his own way, and shapes it to fit his partner. It's just fine if every couple on the floor is doing a different dance.

I also love that the "price of admission" to the dance floor with this style of dancing is very low. In the Jazz Age, almost everyone danced so they did dances almost anyone could do. It is extremely gratifying to me how many people I have helped to get up out of their chairs to join the dancing.

The same basic dance is infinitely adaptable: it can be formal and graceful, or low-down and jazzy, or even, with the right partner pretty darned sexy. What ever we hear the music asking us to do, we can do it, just by changing the mood, rather than the structure of the dance.

Mental Recalibration
This whole process has caused me to take a fresh look at social dancing. Up until now, I tended to think of the unstructured, moving to the music kind of dancing as a sort of cheap cheat, consigned to a High School Prom style slow dance.

Ballroom dancing for me was a structured sort of thing. It had clear rules, definitions of what was correct and incorrect, and was essentially a recurring step pattern interspersed with a series of practiced routines. Since, at any given moment, of the many routines I had been taught, I could only remember a few well enough to dance them, I generally felt like I was falling short - that my dancing always needed to be more complex and impressive to be good.

This Jazz Age exercise in an unstructured, natural sort of dancing has made me look at all my other styles of dance with a new eye. It has made me consider that perhaps not all rules are really rules. Perhaps some of them are merely suggestions (is that heresy?).

It has also caused me, and I think this is the most important bit; to look, in what ever the dance style, from Regency to Rock and Roll, for ways to enjoy the experience of connecting with my partner and feeling the music, rather than plodding from one routine to another.

I am still a novice at this. I feel confident enough in the basics to teach those, but I feel like there's so much more to learn, so much more to do and so much more to understand - especially since there are no established authority figures to tell me when I have arrived at a particular milestone. I think I will probably still be a beginner ten years from now.

I also understand that this particular back-to-basics style of dancing will not be everyone's cup of tea. The current array of dance styles exist because there are thousands of people who love them, and who am I to tell anyone they are doing it wrong and should stop loving what they love.

I really don't know if all this revelation is of any use to anyone but me. However, for me there has been real value in stripping away the distractions and focusing on the essence of partner dancing: the music, the movement and the connection to my partner.

I am a much happier dancer for having done this.

Walter Nelson