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Early 20th Century Dance

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"People can say what they want about rag-time. The Waltz is beautiful, the Tango is graceful, the Brazilian Maxixe is unique. One can sit quietly and listen with pleasure to them all; but when a good orchestra plays a 'rag' one has simply got to move."
- Vernon and Irene Castle, "Modern Dancing," New York, 1914

"Au Cours de Tango" Postcard ca.1913
At the beginning of the twentieth century, American society was changing rapidly. The industrial revolution created new wealth and expanded social boundaries. Shorter work weeks, a growing middle class and greater independence for women meant that people had more leisure time and the freedom and money to enjoy it. Americans were leaving their parlors and seeking more and more entertainments outside the home.
This was the era of the amusement park, the vaudeville stage and especially of the public dance hall. It was a highly social age, when newspapers were beginning to print "Society" pages listing the amazing array of social events sponsored by countless clubs and organizations. The growing popularity of cabarets and dancehalls brought people of all classes together in what were sometimes disreputable settings, and exposed more Americans to new styles of music and dance.

Anti-Dance Hall Book
Chicago, 1912
Unlike the genteel salon music that had typified the Victorian period, ragtime music had its roots planted firmly on the other side of the tracks. Previously, evenings in the ballroom meant a few waltzes and polkas and endless variations of the German. Women had to coax their husbands onto dance floors. The simplicity of the two-step and the jaunty syncopations of ragtime music now made dancing accessible and enjoyable to every class and to both sexes. Dancing was fun again, and everyone was doing it.
This breakdown in the strict Victorian code of behaviour worried many people. Dance halls and public dancing were condemned as "paths to hell," that would lead a young girl to ruin. Traditional minded moralists and clergy bewailed the unchaperoned mixing of the sexes, the ubiquitous presence of alcohol and the shocking vulgarity of the new dances that were appearing across the country. Not all their fears were groundless.
The dance floor was turning into a barnyard. Rowdy new dances like the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug, and Chicken Scratch were invading dance halls. Like ragtime music itself, early ragtime dance steps and movements were born in the black community. Elegant European salon dances had always emphasized a quiet, erect carriage and dignified bearing. These dances, with their shoulder shaking, slouching and tight embrace were stomping and wiggling their way from rowdy west coast honky-tonks, bordellos and lower class dance halls to every ballroom across the nation.
Of course dance teachers were horrified. They saw these dances as vulgar if not downright obscene. Worst of all, these "animal" dances didn't require hours of expensive lessons, their simple steps could be learned by watching other dancers, or even improvised on the spot.

La Danza Dell' Orso (The Bear Dance)
I Balli d'Oggi, Rome, 1914
The solution to this problem came in the form of new, more civilized dances made popular by a new creature - the exhibition ballroom dancer. Professional dancers like Joan Sawyer, Maurice Mouvet and especially Irene and Vernon Castle helped to tame the herd of wild animal dances.

Irene and Vernon Castle
ca. 1914
Vernon was slim, elegant and English, Irene was American and wholesome without being dowdy. They managed to bring both respectability and sophistication to ragtime dancing. They wrote in their 1914 book Modern Dancing,
"Do not wriggle the shoulders. Do not shake the hips. Do not pump the arms . . . Drop the Turkey-Trot, the Grizzly Bear the Bunny Hug etc. These dances are ugly, ungraceful and out of fashion."
They also wrote,
"The waltz is beautiful, the tango is graceful . . . . One can sit quietly and listen to pleasure with them; but when a good orchestra plays a rag one has simply got to move."
The Castles and the other stylish exhibition dancers rode in on a new wave of ragtime dances. Because of them spaces were made in every restaurant for dancing, afternoon "Tea Dances" were born and newspapers and magazines were filled with articles on the latest dances and dance apparel. Dance mania was sweeping America.
One of the earliest of these newer dances was the One Step, which became popular in ballrooms about 1910. The One-Step was quick and lively, like ragtime music itself. It replaced the Two-Step with one step per beat, giving the appearance of a jaunty walk. The Castles' version of this dance, done in a stiff legged trot was known as the Castle Walk. The Castles also popularised a charming dance in 5/4 time which they called the Half and Half. Even the old-fashioned victorian waltz was pushed aside for the more modern Hesitation Waltz.
About 1913 ballrooms were rocked by the Tango craze. The Tango had made its way from Argentina to Paris and then to America. Hordes of dance teachers with exotic Argentine or French names mysteriously appeared to lead husbands and wives through the maze of Tango steps. Stores sold Tango corsets, Tango shirts and Tango shoes. Many cities banned the Tango in public venues.

Tango, 1914
When a performer named Harry Fox improvised a few steps on the vaudeville stage, a dance was born that was to become the staple of 20th century ballrooms - the Foxtrot. The Foxtrot ingeniously combined quick and slow steps to produce a dance that was simple and flexible.
In 1914 novelty ruled the dancing public as even more new dances flooded the dance floors. The Maxixe was touted as a Brazilian version of the Tango, and seems to have been the forerunner of the Samba. Instruction books offered descriptions of dances with exotic names like the Ta-Tao, and the Lu-Lu-Fado. Just as dance mania reached its peak in the U.S. it was to be eclipsed by an even bigger headliner; World War I.

Explore the 1920's and 30's in our Timeline of Jazz Age Dance

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