Walter's Random Musings

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).

The Rules for Croquet: 1865

ImageCroquet is a very popular pastime in the historical costuming community. We set up a picnic, we deploy our wickets and start smacking our balls.

However, we generally use the rules we know from our youth - and this is not necessarily as it was done in the mid 19th Century when it was at the height of its popularity.

Linked from this page is a facsimile scan of a pocket-sized book on how Croquet was played in the Victorian era around the time of the American Civil War.

How to Play Croquet: A New Pocket Manual of Complete Instructions for American Players
Illustrated with engravings and diagrams
Together with all the rules of the game, hints on parlor croquet and a glossary of Technical Terms.

Boston, Published by Adams and Company. 1865.
(Authorship unknown).

I would like to thank my talented friend Tim Steinmeier for this beautifully executed facsimile scan of a book that was provided by the International Printing Museum in Carson California, where Tim is a volunteer.


Download the book

Fox Trot: The King of All Dance

From the 1920s until the early '50s, every dance piece in 4/4 time, whether it was Charleston, Black Bottom, Swing or even Rock and Roll, was published as "Fox Trot".

The Muybridge Waltzes: Clothed and Unclothed - 1887

This is my animation of three of Eadweard Muybridge's "Animal Locomotion" studies from 1887. He pioneered a technique of capturing movement using multiple high speed cameras. It was originally developed to settle a bet between millionaires, but he then went on to use it to capture the motion of humans and animals doing any number of things. Given how concealing and constraining Victorian clothing was, he frequently made use of nude models. In the case of the naked dancing couple, a plausible explanation is that Victorian sensibilities would be too shocked by a naked man and woman dancing together, so he opted for two naked women as being less scandalous.

These represent the earliest moving images of social dancing. Films are easy to find for students of 20th Century dance, but for those studying the social dance of the 19th Century, this is really all there is. They were, of course, originally multiple still images, but when you put them together, they become a motion picture.

The original studies consisted of consecutive shots of a people dancing a Waltz. In my animation, first I show them frame by frame and then speed it up to get a sense of motion. It includes three studies: a clothed man and woman, two nude women waltzing together and one nude woman waltzing alone.

If you can get past the "Oh, naked ladies" reaction, there's actually much to be learned from these videos.

A Collection of Vintage Adult Book Cover Art

This particular posting will be something of a departure for me, though I suppose it does have some connection to "Social History".

In the process of dealing with the estate of a deceased relative, I came upon several stashes of "vintage" adult literature - perhaps 600 volumes in total. Much is cheaply produced and, well, just porn; but about half of it dates from the late '50s through the late '60s, when "adult" literature often had cover art that ranged from crude but enthusiastic to expertly executed - clearly produced by the same talented artists who were doing cover art for more "respectable" paperback books.

Alas, much of it was too water damaged to even scan, so this collection is the survivors.

So, here they are, posted to Flickr in no particular order. They are an interesting snapshot of a moment in our history, at the cusp of the "Sexual Revolution", when euphemisms abound and the word "Shame" figures prominently in the cover text of many of them; but many others aren't ashamed at all.

Note: there's one exception to the timeline. You will see a few that date from the '30s and '40s, but mostly it's the late '50s and '60s.

Since a big part of what I do for a living is digitizing stuff (I'm really fast) and the collection was about to be broken up forever in an estate sale, I decided to capture it while I could in all its infinite strangeness. There are over 460 items in the collection.

PS: I also included the scan of the back cover of one of the books, containing a note that apologizes for not being able to use the mail. I suspect that is related to the draconian laws then in effect relating to sending pornography through the mails.

You can view them one at a time by clicking on the book cover on the right (there's an ">" arrow on the image when you mouse over it)

Or you can go directly to the album on Flickr

Classic Smut

The Gigolo's Tango

The signature dance of the gigolo, as depicted in a selection of old movies. A nice review of what a polished Tango looked like in the '30s and '40s.

Dancing in a London Dive 1929

Dancing in a London dive from the Anna May Wong film "Piccadilly" from 1929.

It opens with a bunch of women doing a Charleston and then moves to general, lively social dancing to include a scandalous inter-racial dance. I cut the bit where the landlord throws the black man out as it detracted from my general purpose of showing the dances of the time.

Shocking Fashion Trends in 1920 or The Adventures of Minnie Fewclothes

ImageThe fashions we take for granted were, about a century ago, quite shocking to the more traditional sensibilities. Here's an article from the Los Angeles Times, January 4th 1920.

Fashion or Health?
Bareback or Decency?

by Jane Dixon

The question of clothes is really becoming a serious matter.

Or perhaps it is better to say the matter of NO clothes is really becoming serious.

Whichever way you put it—the issue remains the same—it is better to pay the merchant a couple of hundreds for a few extra yards of material and keep in health or to pay the physician a couple of hundreds for few extra treatments to stay in fashion?

“One must make one’s choices” as they would say in dear old Mayfair.

There are any number of women who are frank to confess “they would rather be dead than out of fashion”

Well, it looks now as if they are going to be dead anyhow.

The woman is not extant whose physique can withstand the rigors of the North American climate with nothing between her and a snow storm but a wisp of material and dab or two of trimming.

The lady from the Rue de la Paix was swathed in black satin.

There was not very much to the satin. In fact, there was nothing to it below the knee—nothing except a row of fringe that flopped dismally along the silk sheathed limbs like the water soaked grass wardrobe of a native Hawaiian hula dancer.

Also, the lady wore sans sleeves,. There was a tissue trifle that began at the armpits and stopped abruptly half way to the elbow, as if ashamed of even this small concession to the conventions.

Here endeth the chapter, so far as the frock is concerned.

A word more of silk-sheathed limbs. The sheathing was of an extraordinary web known in the parlance of the trade as “fishnet”. This term is self-explanatory. At a distance of ten feet it would take a trained observer to distinguish anything but the holes in the net.

With this “striking outfit” which might more truthfully be called a “comedy makeup”, went a pair of those funny little snub-nosed slippers we once introduced in Paris and of which the Parisienne has never been able to cure herself. You know the kind I mean—with the ends describing a half circle, the vamp hitting the tops of the toes and the six-inch heels giving the wearer the continued appearance of a toe-dancer who had outlived her art.

The Dancing in the Valley Project

ImageI (Walter Nelson) am undertaking a new project, which is a bit of a departure.

At this moment there is no "vintage dance" in the San Fernando Valley. There's barely any Swing dancing. I will try to do a little bit to remedy that.

The "Dancing in the Valley" project will involve recurring, inexpensive, informal vintage dance gatherings here in my neighborhood.

I understand that much of Southern California regards the Valley as a sort of Siberia - a distant, strange and inaccessible land, so I have, with the generous support of the Episcopal Church of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields and Vicar Gabriel Ferrer (son of Jose Ferrer BTW), set up a program that does not depend on huge numbers to cover the costs.

I have also chosen a time that works for the Church and also competes with very few other programs - Sunday evening 6-9 PM. For Valley residents, it is conveniently close and for those from other areas, you can brave the less-bad-than-most-times Sunday afternoon traffic, dine at one of our inexpensive local establishments, and then partake of free and convenient parking with a low-key, friendly evening of dance and socializing. It then ends in time for folks with jobs to get home and get to bed.

Each event, happening more or less once a month, will have a different theme. The first will focus on dancing in Weimar Berlin in the '20s and '30s. Future ones will mostly be Jazz Age, but I reserve the option to divert into other eras, from the Regency to Victorian to Ragtime, depending on my mood and the level of demand.

The first hour will be instruction, with the following two hours dancing to recorded music with yours truly as the DJ. If we start getting sufficient numbers, we can hire some live music.

Here's a link to the first event: http://www.walternelson.com/dr/berlin-tanzen

I hope to see you soon here, in the San Fernando Valley, my home (cue Bing Crosby).

Cutting In to the Dance in the Jazz Age

ImageEditor's note: I post this to address questions I have received from time to time about the topic. Unlike much of what I post, I do not advocate its return. I think this a bad custom, and am delighted that it has fallen into disuse. The annoyance of having an already brief dance cut short, its tendency to add further evidence of popularity to a few and lack of it to many more, and the fact that the lady has no option of refusing make it entirely obnoxious. However, for purposes of education here it is.

From "Modern Ballroom Dancing" by Lillian Ray, 1930.

Cutting In

Program dances have gone out almost entirely. Cutting in during dances has become a recognized practice. The man who wishes to cut in taps the girl's partner on the shoulder quietly. The dancer must relinquish his partner courteously and cheerfully. The girl has no choice in the matter.

The custom has its drawbacks as it is often annoying to leave a partner whom you particularly like, to dance with one for whom you may not care in the least. However, it is not good form to refuse to dance with a man who cuts in. Nor can the first partner of the girl cut in on the man who took her from him. He can cut in on her next partner though. A man must not continue to cut in on the same man when he dances with another partner. For example if John Bart cuts in on Harry Gray when the latter is dancing with Janet Stone, John cannot cut in on Harry when he dances with Helen Barclay. If he did so, Harry would think, and rightly, that John was deliberately trying to spoil his evening and take all his partners from him.

From "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1920

No matter how beautiful or brilliant a girl may be, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of fox-trotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious. When it comes to several dances and the intermissions between she can be quite sure that a young man, once relieved, will never tread on her wayward toes again.

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