HISTORICAL CONTEXT

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Few activities define human interactions more than dancing.  One might well guess that once a caveman decided to beat on a log another decided to move to that beat.  It would not be long for societies, clans, or tribes to agree with what was the appropriate dance, movement or beat, and for the next younger generation to look for ways to change those rhythms and moves just to anger the adults.

Two things occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century that would have a profound impact on dancing and then dancing’s contribution to the melting pot of the USA.  Prior to the 20th Century, dance as a social outlet certainly existed, but with each nation’s immigrants bringing their own traditions, instruments, and even protocols of how dances would be held.  These celebrations and their communities, by and large, were confined to family and neighbors, most of whom were like kind in religion, countries of origin and even language.  As they settled in various territories and developed communities, their native melodies, instruments, and customs continued as they had in the home country as traditions brought from the old country including song and dance.

European dances could be broadly categorized as either “Court” dances or “Country” dances.  Court dances were most often drawn up for special events where all the steps and transitions were defined and understood even if the couples were standing across the room from each other.  The royal Dance Master created the series of steps specific to the event and the featured music of the day.  These dances were then notated, published, and sold, or offered prior to major events of the seasons.  This allowed local Dance Masters to master and then teach the choreography so Court attendees could learn the steps prior to attending these major social celebrations.  Knowledge of the dance would help assure respectability.  Such Dance Masters included Joseph Lowe an early teacher of dance for the family of Queen Victoria.  These Dance Masters would also teach the country dances of the day including the Quadrilles, Reels and even Waltz.  Country dances were generally dances that could be done to a variety of tunes but with the intent that all could and would dance with each other and that the rhythms and timings familiar to all would carry on to various tunes.  It was primarily the Country dances that immigrated with their people to the New World.  There remained a lingering desire among the early American aristocracy to keep the court traditions alive with their own Dance Masters and selected choreography.  They however would continue celebrating the Monarchy and its celebrations and would not be part of the New World traditions.

The Bolero from Spain, the Square Dance from England as well as the Scottish Reel, Irish Jig, Waltz and Polka all came to America with their immigrants.  For generations these same communities would largely maintain their instruments, music, and dance traditions as well as their holidays for dancing and costumes for celebrations within their local communities.  It would take the 20th Century and the meeting or collision of the various diasporas in our major industrial cities to start things off.  That, along with the advent of commercial recreation for the lower and middle classes in the form of the Dance Halls, Vaudeville, and later Jazz, Big Bands and other musicians helped to start the integration of our American society.  Up to that era these communities had been largely segregated within many disparate ethnic communities living in the agricultural heartland.

Dancing as a “performing” art has long been commercial entertainment if not recreation for the various classes.  This included dancing at Court for the Royals.  It also included Ballet, Flamenco, Belly dancing, Sufi whirling dances and other dances from most other cultures.  One might also add the Can-Can, Tap Dancing, and even stripping, though these did also appeal to and were in one form or another supported by patrons of all the classes.  There was also up to the late 1800’s both a certain belief that prostitution, sex and dancing went hand and hand as ladies could use “dancing” to entice men to their private lairs of entertainment.  These various business ventures have nothing to do with social dancing as we know it now or even then but did much to allow some to vilify anyone related to dancing in the public.  These businesses included Theaters introducing Jim Crow dancing and even blackface minstrels mainly as stage performances.  In the mid 1800’s as noted in a Society of the Magdalan Order organ, The Advocate of Moral Reform, readers were advised to avoid theater for the scantily clad actresses, the young were alerted to the dangers of reading novels as filling minds with useless fantasies and dancing was certainly bad for morals, especially Waltzing.

This practice followed a long established industry to moralize and protect society from the evils of dance.  As early as 1684, Increase Mather published An Arrow Against Profane and Promiscuous Dancing, an early publication on the evils of dancing.  As late as 1997, Rudy Giuliani attempted to revive and use the old Cabaret Laws in New York City, prohibiting dancing in certain locations that served alcohol as part of his policing strategy.  Enacted in 1926, NYC’s Cabaret law was selectively used to target Jazz and other “undesirable” entertainers and it was not repealed until 2017.

The popularity of the earlier theaters and music inspired many earlier Dance-Halls solely for the entertainment of single men.  These big city venues might have started with larger bands but ran the gamut of larger to smaller venues, basement halls, and eventually the Gardens and even Concert Saloons.  It was this Concert Saloon concept that would later become popular in the wild West as the 1800’s progressed and so often portrayed in films as the wild west saloon of that genre.

It would not be until the 20th Century when neighborhood men and women of different ethnic backgrounds would casually and independently go out to meet each other or go out together, often without the full understanding or consent of their families, and dance to the latest music of the day.  But that is another chapter and story which includes the beginning of commercial entertainment for the masses and the assemblage of those various diasporas that industrialization and immigration brought together.  Close proximity with each other, new music and new venues would all come together to provide new ways for people to meet and mingle.  It would also provide new employment opportunities for a new generation of dance teachers, professionals and Dance Schools, some of which still exist today.

Michael Reichenbach

Published in Dance Week

October 8, 2021

Vol. XXXXV No 01

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *