Friday, February 23, 2018

Let's Dance: A brief history of tripping the light fantastic

If you are of the generation where you consider the Waltz to be uncool then you may be informed to learn the waltz (German, walzen: to revolve) was the dirty dancing of its day. Older people downright denounced it when it was introduced and young people danced it non-stop. As the dance craze swept out from its homeland in Germany the pastime became popular with the lower classes. This may in part account for the moral outrage which followed. Indignation came because couples held themselves temptingly close, they moved into turns at high speeds which were intoxicating to the brain, and the music tempo was too fast. Parents forbade their children to dance the waltz and the instrumental music was outlawed and lambasted by orthodoxy. Needless to say the waltz established itself despite the moribund protestations.

In 1816 the waltz was danced at Royal Balls of Europe and Johann Strauss II's (the Waltz King) music dominated the world for the remainder of the nineteenth century. The fad dance was the first occasion where younger non-moneyed people started a dance craze which eventually spread upwards through all levels of society. The overall popularity of waltzing the opportunity it gave young people to touch intimately in public. It took nearly 40 years to establish itself in North America but by 1855 it was the fad dance.

In the pioneering years of the early 19th century North American women were not allowed to dance as dancing was a male preserve. Country music had European origins and was popular but only when Indian squaws joined in then the country and western two step (Boot Scooting) became an interactive dance with twirls and reels.

Socially dancing shoes took on a new importance and because of the fancy footwork required heel-less pumps were preferred for both men and women. These were often delicate made in kid leather and it was common to take two pairs of shoes to dancing sessions in case one pair wore out. The waltz craze passed quickly with the onslaught of the Great War and many believe this was a global dislike of all things, German. By the turn of the century, the US had come of age politically which meant the sons of America were now building a colonial empire and their women folk wanted to be as fashionable as their European equivalents. The concentration on all things military came to a crescendo at the turn of the century. The invention of a dance style which incorporated marching and skipping was not by chance. John Philip Sousa (the March King) introduced the world to the two step or Polka, a dance which displayed power. The Polka was Czechoslovakian and provided a more acceptable interaction which did not offend Christian morals. There was far less intimate contact between partners, the dance was more novel and celebrated the new fashion for militaria. Boots became popular. In Europe the Royals quickly embraced the Polka and the top down order was re-established. In 1910 Sousa toured the world on the popularity of the Polka. His orchestra was probably the first US band to do so. The French Can Can was thought by many dance historians to have been influenced by the Polka and reference to the Quadrille, a dance popular in the Middle Ages.

In Florida at the end of the nineteenth century for the amusements of their masters Afro-Americans would lampoon the elegance of ballroom dancing styles. By incorporating traditional African dance steps into upbeat tempo the steps encouraged individuality which eliminated coupling. Competitions were held to judge the most original dancing steps and the winner received a cake as a prize to share with their fellow competitors. This type of dancing was called The Cakewalk. More significantly the cakewalk contributed to the birth of later dances based on jazz rhythms and its music influenced the growth of ragtime in the second decade of the 20th century. The physical exertion associated with dancing the cakewalk soon had the masses baying for "ragged" music which led to the craze for 'ragtime music" and composers like Scott Joplin. Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century footwork was especially important and eye-catching so, shoes took on a new elegance with multicolour uppers including spats particularly popular. New dance crazes followed one after the other at frantic pace the kids were accused of animal behaviour and so each new dance craze embraced the idea. The Turkey Trot was thought to have originated in night clubs from San Francisco's Barbary Coast. The dance became a craze after the 1910 musical revue, Over the River and was danced to ragtime beat. Partners moved together, touched, pawed and intimately supported each other with perilously off-balance gyrations. Dance halls were regularly raided and youths arrested for dancing the Trot and other animal dances. To save local jails from being overfilled with ravers, dance halls were encouraged to employ floor walkers to route out deviant dancers. However this only encouraged the behaviour and eventually trotting was accepted to be contained to public dance halls. Al Johnson was known to have danced the Turkey Trot. The 'Grizzly Bear" owed its success to Irving Berlin's "Everybody's Doin' It Now". Establishment’s reaction was predictable but the gravity surpassed anything before it. Pope Pius X in the Vatican was so concerned at the popularity of animal mimicry he asked the faithful to forswear the new dance crazes and return to dancing the medieval, furlana. Bazaar really since historians believe the Italian step in six-eights time was not only long out of vogue, but also was a wild courtship dance for couples, which even Casanova considered violently passionate.

Each era kicked off not only a new dance craze but also a new place in which to dance. Just prior to the First World War couples were enjoying the fox trot and the tango in the tearooms of London and Paris. Harry Fox had been a music hall performer who trotted out a jerky two step to ragtime. The dance was refined to become the most popular form of dancing associated with the war years. The smooth, suave, sensualness of the Latin tango became popular during mid decade. No dance swept the country faster than the tango and brought millions of dollars to dance instructors. The Argentinean Tango was thought to have originated in the West Indies where it was danced only by the lowest classes. The dance style was also thought to resemble a sadistic Apache dance in which a woman attempts to love a sadistic man. Tango may be a Spanish word meaning first person singular, tengo, or “I possess“ or alternatively its origins may come from the African Tanganya. From Argentina the dance found its way to Paris via the luxury cruisers of the time. By 1913 the craze hit England and became very much a tea dance phenomenon. Needless to say the Tango was banned in many cities with the threat of fines and imprisonment. The popularity of the dance brought emphasis onto the leg and the longer the leg was the more sensual it became. The Louis Heel rediscovered and featured in the heeled pump, or dancing shoe. Popular dances brought with them popular characters and the tango was no exception. Rudolph Valentino tangoed his way to fame and the silver screen of Hollywood. At his finest he was said to cause women in the audience to swoon and faint from his body movements.

The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the time were a couple called Irene and Vernon Castle. Wherever they appeared their performances and demeanor was studied by adoring fans. When Irene Castle danced the Castle Walk in white satin shoes, shoe stores could not keep the items in stock. Until now real men wore pocket watches and the idea of a time-piece bracelet (watch) was more than macho men could bare but when Vernon Castle wore a wrist watch he literally, single handily change the fashion stereo type. The Castle Walk was first demonstrated at the Cafe de Paris in 1913. After the war the general mood of the young was to let their hair down and enjoy life.

Flappers did the Charleston. The dance is thought to have originated in part from the slippery floors of the Speakeasies. The Charleston (with spin offs such as the shimmy, black bottom, and varsity rag) required swiveling on the balls of the feet, balancing pigeon toed, swaying the body side to side, and knocking the knees with their hands in a maddening frenzy. Flicking their knees open and closed was called “peekaboos indifference" and a clear reference to the erogenous zones. The dance craze was enormous and spread throughout the western world. Emphasis again was on the legs which meant hemlines rose above the knee and whilst the androgogenous, flat front bodice was popular with flappers, dresses flared from the waist to accommodate leg movement. This was often disguised as pleats to complete the straight look of the 20s. In North America non prohibitionists danced in the speakeasy to jazz music. These dances were again fervently condemned by the clergy and other moral guardians of society. Towards the end of the decade the Rumba (from Cuba) overwhelmed dancehalls and a more sensual interaction similar to the Tango became vogue.

In the 1920s jazz moved across the social barriers that had divided black and white communities. Suddenly it became chic to dance to Jazz music and the effects on fashion were considerable the two tone shoe was introduced at this time but reached its fashion zenith in the thirties. The spectator (name given the two tone in the US) were considered elegant for both sexes and both races. It also attracted the sporting types and was made acceptable when the Prince of Wales was seen wearing spectators on the golf links. Prior to the Great Depression it was common practice to have everyday shoes with special footwear for dancing. The heeled pump was still preferred and matching shoes to the rest of the outfit a must. From the turn of the century the English style prevailed for men and they wore Oxford shoes sometimes glamorised with patent leather.

After the Depression, money was tight and many people could no longer afford two pairs of shoes. Everyday footwear became glamorised to serve both for work and play. Shoe accessories were all the fashion and the thirties became the most glamorous time for shoes as the influence of colour cinematography and dancing became even more popular. Introduction of coloured nail varnish encouraged toe less pumps and the “peekaboos toe” became popular. Heels were still in vogue. At first the big bands spirited swing music and jazz which took people's minds off the grimness of the Depression. Dance was a means of cutting loose from the hardships of reality and for working class people the main form of pure escapism. The decades beat was lively but smooth, and lovingly called swing. Swing dances became more athletic than previous fads as dancers were gradually getting younger and had more physical agility. The dance styles were inspiration from many sources including contemporary events. The Lindy or Lindy Hop was a dance rendition of Charles Lindberg's 1927 solo struggle across the Atlantic. Partners faced each other and the male tossed the woman in a blizzard of solo turns and supported leaps. With hemlines becoming even shorter than ever before, underwear became a serious dress consideration. The Big Apple took its origins from country folk dances. While dancers paraded in a circle with their hands joined together, a caller would decide which pair was to move to the centre of the circle. The dance incorporated elements of four other popular styles i.e. the Shag, the Suzi Q, Truckin' and the Hokey Pokey. In England the Lambeth Walk was a short lived fad with intense popularity.

With the declaration of war and enlisted men posted away from home the Swing Era was rudely interrupted. This also occurred at a time when in America the invention of the record player and ubiquity of radio meant women could dance alone in their living rooms. Dance halls attracted younger males keen to replace their absent older siblings. When the two things combined a new dance style emerged called the jitterbug. The name is thought to be reference to the jitters caused from consuming too much alcohol. As more men were called up for duty the dance craze spread where ever GIs were posted. The jitterbug was danced to the music of Benny Goodman. Hollywood movies featuring the dance style kept the allied countries informed of the latest dance craze and the presence of GIs in Allied countries ensured the local girls could jitterbug. Just prior to the Second World War a new dance was introduced to the US at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The Samba was another South American dance which originated in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Carmen Miranda not only made fruit filled hats famous but she danced the Samba to stardom.

After the war years the world’s population felt hardship was at an end and better days were ahead and so for the next two decades revelers turned their back on realism in search of magic. The Samba led the way for many other Latin American dances post war including the Paso Doble, the Mambo, the Cha Cha, and the Merengue. The Cha Cha was danced with elbows bent at right angles, chest puffed, feet shuffling snugly from side by side. The 'cha' embodied the dance's extra step rhythm, or triple mambo. The dance originated in Cuba in the early fifties and was a variation of the double step mamba. The name is thought to be an echoic, deriving from the doing of the dance. Couples only made fleeting contact and for most of the dance each concentrated on their own footwork. Popular with both older and younger dancers it allowed the physically fit to demonstrate individualism. The merengue originated in the Dominican Republic and incorporated what was known as the 'limp' step. Legend has it the origin of this strange dance was a lame General when dancing the samba, his guests did not want to insult him and copied his movements. The affectation was stylised to become a distinctive feature of an otherwise vigorous dance. Following on from the hits of Harry Belafonte the Caribbean Calypso caught on in the 50s as a dance craze. Calypso was a Trinidadian dance but the origins of the name are unknown. The young Americans soon combined the steps of the Cha Cha with the Calypso to dance the "Cha lypso" on the new program for youth called "American Bandstand".

The influence of this TV show was immeasurable and new dance crazes came thick and fast throughout the 50s and 60s. The Bunny Hop was a conga type dance where participants held the hip of the person in front of them and moved left from right with their feet, as they hopped to the beat. The Bop followed and consisted of couples faced each other, jumped up and down and on landing furiously ground their heels into the floor. The dance was thought to have originated from Southern California and was discovered on bandstand. A laid back version was known as the Sloppy. Bopping while skipping on the stop was called the pony, whereas doing the Bop to other animal mimicry became the Chicken, the Monkey, the Dog and the Alligator. The last two were banned from the program because they were considered too risqué. A line dance reminiscent of the old fashioned Virginia reel was called the Stroll. Post war youth wanted to celebrate living and began to jive to the new wax recordings. The rise of the crooners meant more ethic music styles were available to a wider public.

As black music again began to influence, R & B provide the necessary rhyme for what was to become the frankest portrayal of sex yet performed on the dance floor, the jive, then, rock‘n‘roll. No longer constrained by dress kids wore more comfortable clothing which included athletic shoes. By the mid 1950's sneakers had become the preferred footwear of teenagers and the symbol of rebellion. Because they were cheap, the shoes were worn by students around the world. In North America, cheerleaders wore sweaters, short skirts, ankle socks with canvas topped shoes (or Keds). The sole pattern of Keds was circles and squares (cool , or what ?). Dancing was very much part of the emerging youth culture and the spasmodic body contact interspersed with vigorous gyrations more reminiscent of the Kama Sutra than the Ballroom Gazette necessitated freedom of movement. Sneakers were the footwear of choice (Keds for girls and chucks for boys). Kids flocked to the new 'Teen movies" including Elvis Presley in “Jailhouse Rock”. There they saw him wearing sneakers and saddle shoes (loafers). The fashion for sneakers was officially sanctioned when James Dean was photographed wearing his Levis jeans and white sneakers. Twenty years on Lennon wore white sandshoes with his tailored white suits. Forty years later, contemporary Rappers continue to extol the virtues of youths favourite shoes. By the close of the fifties American teens were wearing motor cycle jackets, boots and sneakers, or cardigans and penny loafers. Girls (bobby soxers) had poodle skirts made from felt and bore an appliqué of a fully coiffed French poodle with rhinestones for eyes and additional rhinestones defining a collar. On their feet they had either two tone saddle shoes or Keds. Older girls were wearing the new Stilettos. Beatniks emerged from the post war existential beat generation and either abandoned shoes all together, or wore sandals.

Reviewed 24/08/2016

1 comment:

Keyle Rece said...

really wonderful most amazing arts that is present on our beautiful planet i.e.*DANCE" thanks for share that post.

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