Same-Sex Social Dancing in the Jazz Age

ImageA few years back, someone posted a video on Facebook of folks dancing at the Queen Mary Art Deco Festival, and among the dancers were two women dancing together. One of the commenters, with the best of intentions, posted something about the women "embracing their sexuality". The commenter was answered by someone who had attended my lecture where I had pointed out that women dancing with women was very common in the Jazz Age, and that one shouldn't infer too much from that. The second commenter was particularly correct in that the two women in question were mother and daughter, and there was no sexuality-embracing going on there at all.

This does however, highlight how our views and assumptions have changed. We live today in a world that jumps to a sexually based inference as something of a default. While the people of the Jazz Age were far from innocent, there was a certain innocence in their tendency to not assume a sexual element when people danced with each other.

This applies equally to opposite and same gender dancing. The dance holds of the Jazz Age were very close. They were body-to-body, and the open frame stance of today was completely out of fashion. In this hold, which we today generally see only in "Blues" dancing, Argentine Tango and High School slow dances, men and women routinely danced with multiple partners: spouses, lovers, friends and strangers - and seemed to take in stride a level of physical intimacy that many people today find a bit uncomfortable.

This isn't to say that all Jazz Age dancing was innocent and chaste. There was an unambiguous sexual element in some of the dancing of the time, but the people of the time were clearly attuned to nuance and context, and did not automatically see things like same-sex dancing in a simple black-and-white way.

I should mention that there were plenty of Lesbian and "Pansy" bars and clubs in Europe and the Americas in the Jazz Age, with varying degrees of openness or secretiveness depending on the level of tolerance in their area, and it was even a fashion for some young, adventurous and officially heterosexual people to visit them to show their wildness and flouting of convention - and in such places same-sex dancing was, of course, the norm. This post however is not about "Gay Culture" in the Jazz Age, it's about what the non-gays were up to.

This was an era of near universal dancing. The percentage of the population who danced was huge as compared to today, and most men regarded dancing as an essential social skill. Never the less, it appears that the supply of men willing to dance was frequently not up to the demand of women wanting to dance, and the women of the time thought nothing of filling that gap by dancing with each other.

This was extremely common. When looking at the images and film from the era, you generally don't have to look far to see two women dancing together.

Men dancing with men was not nearly as common.

For the most part, it appears that men did not dance with other men when there were women to be danced with. However, in a context where women were not to be had, such as on shipboard, men dancing together was no big deal, though the photos I have seen of it often have a joking quality that suggests a certain level of self-consciousness and discomfort. In fact, it appears that up through World War One, the Navy's old requirement that the sailors dance for an hour each day for exercise was still in force, though the sailors of 1918 had never learned the Hornpipe that was assumed in the regulation, and so danced the Foxtrot and the Tango with their shipmates.

I have posted an album of a few dozen images, photos and artworks, showing same sex dancing. (go to the album)

These fall into a few basic categories:

1. Women dancing together in a routine social context (a dance, a bar etc.), usually on the same floor as mixed-gender couples.
2. Men dancing with men in a women-free environment.
3. Women dancing together in a salacious or suggestive context - women dancing the Tango together seemed to be a particular favorite for titillating a male audience. This also includes gender-bending couples with women in drag.
4. Argentinian men dancing Tango together. This appears to have been a "thing".

Which brings me back to my point about context. Clearly there was a sexualized context for images of women dancing with women; but there was also a routine, non-sexualized, no-big-deal context within the social dancing scene. And, when women danced together, they unself-consciously danced in the same way they would have done with a man.

To finish, here's a film taken at the 1939 New York World's Fair. There's much to be learned from this video about dancing in general, but one of the most striking things is how freely and easily women danced with each other.

And here's a dance on shipboard, from World War One, where the men outnumber the women.