"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
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
Anti-Dance Hall Book
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.
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
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
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
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
"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.
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.