In the year 1900, ballroom dancing consisted mainly of the Waltz, the Polka, and a few other folk dances that had lasted since the late seventeenth century. For over a hundred years, the Waltz had been the favorite dance of ballroom dancers, typically consisting of the white upper class society. Religious organizations were very much apposed to the Waltz and all ballroom dances, claiming that ballroom dancing was the work of the devil.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, ballroom dancing began to change dramatically as Americans found themselves intrigued by other cultures, especially African culture in the Americas. Despite the historically white-dominated society in the Americas, ballroom dancing would not be what it is today had it not been for elements of African culture transcending ethnic lines and being incorporated into white culture. Ballroom dancing was an exercise of taking many elements of European peasant folk dancing, as well as African music and African folk dancing and blending them with the conservative mannerisms of the elite white class, thus creating what the latter would consider “civilized dancing.”
Below I discuss the Waltz, which originated in Europe, and Swing dancing, which developed in Harlem alongside Jazz music. The first form of Swing dancing was called the Lindy-hop, and it and Jazz music have roots that lie deep in the South in establishments called juke-joints. These two early ballroom dances were initially considered to be dances of questionable respectability but were accepted as popular forms of social entertainment under the auspices of white elites, despite the constant disapproval of mainstream American Christians and moral leaders.
Consider the immodest pose taken in the Waltz, and if you are not already blinded by lust, you will have to admit that it is a direct violation of the, Sixth Commandment and diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ and His immaculate Church.1 1. Satori 1910:17
Beginning in the late seventeenth century and continuing into the early twentieth century, the Waltz enjoyed almost exclusive popularity in the ballrooms of both Europe and America. The Waltz, which is from the German word “walzen” and means “to revolve,” describes a graceful and romantic couple's dance in ¾ time. It had originated from peasant dancing in rural areas of Europe and was brought into high society under the patronage of royal families and members of the aristocracy who wanted new forms of dance entertainment after centuries of the suppression of dance by the Church. The peasant forms of folk dancing, which were considered to be pagan-like, were too crude and unpolished for upper class Europeans, therefore requiring dance choreographers of the time to rework these folk dances into elegant and stately dances that would be more fitting to elite expectations and mannerisms. The dance positions and patterns had to accommodate the luxurious full gowns that women wore and the swords that the men carried when in formal dress. The men placed their right hands on the lady's waist and the couples revolved dangerously around the ballroom in a manner that was considered to be “morally decadent,”2 2. Driver 2000:15 displaying a brightly colored kaleidoscope of the “flimsy and oftentime scanty attire of women.”3 3. Satori 1910:14
Throughout the entirety of the second half of the nineteenth century, ballroom dancing included numerous variations of the Waltz. Most were danced at a quick tempo and performed to the many new Waltz compositions, especially those by Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899) who is known to musicians and dancers alike as the “King of Waltz.” Other dances such as Quadrilles, Minuets, the Carlton, Mazurkas and the Polka were also popular, but the Waltz outnumbered all of them as the favorite and most seductive. The dance positions for these ballroom dances were either 1) facing each other separately at arm's length or more, 2) side by side holding both hands in a criss-cross fashion, or 3) in a dance position similar to that of the closed position used today. The “closed position” is the one that was, for the most part, utilized in the Waltz to enable the partners to whirl in circles while holding each other. Although the Waltz, with its fast and dangerous whirling and its closed dance position, shocked polite society and developed a reputation as being the forbidden dance at ballroom dances, it nevertheless became the dance (and dance position) of popular choice that challenged the morals of the white upper class.
However, even at this early phase of ballroom dancing (and apparently disregarded by those against ballroom dance), ballroom dancers themselves strived for proper etiquette on the dance floor by incorporating the Victorian Era and then the Edwardian Era etiquette and mannerisms of the white aristocracy and upper classes. In 1863, The Ball-Room Manual of Contra Dances and Social Cotillions, With Remarks on Quadrilles and Spanish Dance was published. This manual, among many others, contained an elucidation of each dance that was popular at the time as well as a list of general guidelines that should be followed at ballroom dances. For example, “when a lady declines to dance with you, bear the declination with becoming grace, and if you afterwards see her dancing with another, seem not to notice it; otherwise, the lady is left with no choice of partners.”4 4. Washburn 1863:28 The ballroom etiquette rules in this book are essentially the same as those promoted decades later by Irene and Vernon Castle, Arthur Murray and Fred Astaire. In fact, this ballroom dance floor etiquette is much the same as the etiquette used today by modern ballroom dancers. Therefore, in my opinion, the intent of ballroom dancing has always been to provide dance entertainment for the upper classes of society that incorporated the formal mannerisms with which they were familiar. Ballroom dancing essentially became an activity which enabled the white, elite upper classes to enjoy dance without being associated with the poor classes and the perceived unruly dances from which the Waltz (and other ballroom dances) had originated.
However, no matter what the intent was of the early Waltz dancers and their attempts to create a highly sophisticated style of dance, the fact was that the closed dance position and the abundance of fun seemingly “caused” by dancing the Waltz continued to be a problem for the religious and moral leaders of early America. Couples dancing in an embrace had never been tolerated by Christianity. The Waltz caused so many problems within the religious sects of both Europe and America at the end of the nineteenth century that an abundance of texts discussing the moral sins of dancing the Waltz were published and widely distributed in an attempt to ban couples dancing. Many religious leaders also preached explicitly against ballroom dancing. For example, a sermon preached by Reverend J.R. Sikes5 5. 1879 claimed that Christian parents and ministers were frequently annoyed by balls, or dances. In his sermon, Sikes distinguishes dance that was free of sin according to the Bible from dance that was sinful because of its pagan roots. “Such are few of the many irreligious dances and their results. The ancient Pagans were very fond of dancing. Indeed, the modern style of dancing is derived from them”6 6. ibid. In one of his arguments in which he discusses the morality of ballroom dancing, especially in regard to women, Sikes states that the Bishop's opinion about dancing was that it “will do very well for monkeys, but does not become refined and accomplished young ladies”7 7. ibid. The Reverend Sikes continues:
I shall confine myself to one particular result—the demoralizing effects of the ball-room on females. Of all the inventions devised by the arch enemy of souls for robbing virtuous females of that which to them is more valuable than life itself (I mean their virtue) the ball-room is the best adapted to and most successful in the accomplishment of this fiendish design.
Reverend Sikes went even further, suggesting that dancing would be punishable in the afterlife and stated that those who dance on earth may be amused by it while still alive, but will pay in the afterlife when they go to perdition through its influence.
In 1892, T.A. Faulkner, a former dance teacher and title-holding competitive round dancer, claimed in his book From the Ball-room to Hell that he had converted “from a dancing master and servant of the Evil One to an earnest Christian and servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.”8 8. Faulkner 1892:7 His description of the experience of a young lady's first Waltz lesson can be read with much amusement today, but in the late 1800's and early 1900's it was common for mainstream Christian America to voice negative opinions of ballroom dancing, and the Waltz in particular, in this manner. Faulkner writes:
It is her first experience in the arms of a strange man, with his limbs pressed to hers, and in her natural modesty she shrinks from so unfamiliar a touch. It brings a bright flush of indignation to her cheek as she thinks what an unladylike and indecent position to assume with a man who, but a few hours before, was an utter stranger, but she says to herself: ‘This is the position every one must take who waltzes in the most approved styles—church members and all—so of course it is no harm for me. ’ She thus takes the first step in casting aside that delicate God-given instinct which should be the guide of every pure woman in such matters.9 9. ibid.:9
Despite the attempts by many to ban the Waltz, it nevertheless remained the most popular dance at the turn of the twentieth century in both European and American ballrooms, even after it had already enjoyed well over one hundred years of almost exclusive popularity. It is estimated that around 1910, about three-quarters of the dances at balls were Waltzes.10 10. Driver 2000:15 The Waltz became extremely popular because it gave white elite society its first opportunity to express itself emotionally and to enjoy pleasures that had always been unavailable to them, despite the fact that the Waltz is traditionally known to be the most rigid and technically challenging of all ballroom dances. Physical forms of expression in social settings had previously been forbidden and were considered uncivilized behavior, and Driver states that “personal pleasure and the individual search for expression were to become the overwhelmingly dominant themes in the evolution of dancing throughout the twentieth century”.11 11. ibid.:15
Jazz dancing is degrading. It lowers all the moral standards. Unlike liquor, a great deal of harm is direct and immediate. But it also leads to undesirable traits. The jazz too often followed by the joy-ride. The lower nature is stirred up as a prelude to un-chaperoned adventure.12 12. J.R. MacMahon 1921
By the time that America had emerged from World War I (1914-1918), “Ragtime music had evolved into new forms; jazz and blues, and new kinds of dancing evolved along with the new music.”13 13. Skiba 2000 Dance instructors Vernon and Irene Castle, who had been extremely popular in America and Europe during the 1910's, had set the tone for graceful ballroom dancing and had given the elite white class the tools needed to dance the Foxtrot and Tango with civilized dignity. The Castle's publication of Modern Dancing14 14. 1914 became the stereotype for all future ballroom dancing and associated topics. However, no matter how graceful and sophisticated the image was of ballroom dancing that the Castles had created, it was not enough to stop the most wildly energetic dance created up until that time—the Lindy-hop. This dance, which later branched into many forms that make up the family of Swing dancing, emerged from the incredibly creative flow of artistic energy of the Harlem Renaissance, and many were convinced that jazz music and the Lindy-hop that developed as a result of it were both the new downfalls of American society.
Black migrant workers that had come to New York in search of construction jobs brought with them the lively juke-joint dances and jazz music that they had created in the South. In the area known as Harlem, African-Americans populated neighborhoods and developed a new culture based on this jazz music and city life.
Here, in the heart of New York, between the Bronx and Central Park, wriggling black America disports itself nightly to the Lindy Hop, the Shim Sham, the Shimmy, or to Truckin', its latest dance creation. In a score of tiny nightclubs, in low-ceilinged cabarets, shot with amber and dull red lights, couples twist, wriggle and tap to Harlem's high-priestess; the dance.15 15. Campbell 1936
Arguably the most famous ballroom in American history, the Savoy Ballroom opened on March 12, 1926. Collins writes, “The Savoy ballroom was the most popular dance venue in Harlem. Many of the dance crazes of the 1920's and 1930's were perpetuated there.”16 16. Collins 2000 The dance floor was the biggest in New York City, the size of an entire city block, and was nick-named the “Home of the Happy Feet.” It was considered to be the finest ballroom at the time, and possibly of all time.
“In 1927, two really important things happened—Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and a man named Shorty Snowden invented a dance called the Lindy Hop.”17 17. Manning 1998 At the Savoy ballroom, Shorty perfected his own unique version of a popular fast-paced dance that had given him the status of being the best dancer at the Savoy. It was Shorty who coined the word “Lindy-hop” when asked by a reporter what he was dancing. Shorty had seen the newspaper headings that read “Lindy Hops the Atlantic,” which referred to Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic.18 18. Manning 2007:79
The Lindy-hop was highly energetic and extremely contagious, just like the music that inspired it, and the Savoy Ballroom, located in the black district of New York City, welcomed whites who would frequently show up to watch the Lindy-hoppers. Langston Hughes, a poet during the Harlem Renaissance, wrote that Harlem nights at the Savoy became show nights for the Nordics.19 19. Collins 2000
In 1935, Herbert “Whitey” White, the organizer of a group of Lindy-hop dancers at the Savoy, invited Frankie Manning, a new young dancer known for his own style of Lindy-hop dancing, as well as two other couples, to compete against Shorty at an un-official dance competition.20 20. Manning 2007:96 It was here that Frankie Manning “became a star in the informal jams in the Kat's Korner of the Savoy, frequently won Saturday night contests, and was invited to join the elite 400 Club, whose members could come to the Savoy Ballroom during daytime hours to practice alongside the bands that were booked at the Savoy.”21 21. Pritchett 2006 Frankie and his partner, Frieda, had been practicing a step he called the Airstep, the first Lindy-hop step in which the lady would be thrown into the air and in Frankie's own words:
And we were dancing, and then I say, ‘Hey Frieda. You ready for this
step?’ So she say, ‘Yeah, let's go for it,’ you know. So I swung Frieda out, man, and I jump over her head, you know. When I jumped over her head, Chick Webb say ‘Boom.’ And then when I turn, and she hit my back, and as she hit my back, and I flipped her over, and she hit the floor right on the music, and as she hit the floor, Chick Webb say, ‘Damn!’ and I say, ‘Yeah, man, we got them now.’22 22. Manning 1998
Frankie Manning became the new “King of Swing” and began a tradition of dancing the Lindy-hop with airsteps that last to this day. Manning, now a living legend, still teaches Lindy-hop workshops around the world even though he is in his 90's and has also recently published his autobiography, Frankie Manning: The Ambassador of Lindy-hop, which describes these glorious days of Lindy-hop at the Savoy.
The Savoy enjoyed great success with both whites and blacks dancing in the same ballroom to the many famous big bands that played each weekend. However, this was not the case outside of the ballroom. Although slavery had been abolished decades earlier, the remnants of white domination still held over black American citizens. John Martin, in his book America Dancing, published in 1936, discussed how America had yet to tap into the art of African-American culture, almost a decade after the birth of the Lindy-hop:
There is also a potentially great art to be developed out of the ingredients of the Negro dance. But as yet these manifestations have not gone beyond the folk stage; they are still waiting for the creative artist to use them consciously for their expressional values. When he arises, it will be against heavy odds, for in spite of the formalities of emancipation, Negro art is still expected to be humorous or erotic.23 23. 37
Despite what art critics said, America's youth, both black and white, loved the Lindy-hop. However, not everyone in the audience at the Savoy was able to dance the extremely physically demanding and acrobatic Lindy-hop from Harlem. “As the Lindy swept the country, dance studios scrambled to regularize standard steps.”24 24. Skiba 2000 At the same time, young Lindy-hoppers continued to push the boundaries, creating more and more elaborate aerials and tricks. They gave the watered down versions of the Lindy-hop names like Swing and Jitterbug. The word jitterbug was “the term black dancers used to refer to whites who were less than adept at this dance form.”25 25. ibid. In a general sense though, all of these versions were called Swing dancing.
Swing dancing has experienced two revivals since the 1920's, once in the early 1950's with a calmer version of the Lindy-hop called East Coast Swing, and again during the 1980's when both the Lindy-hop and Frankie Manning were rediscovered. Both revivals swept the entire country's youth along by creating venues for Swing music and new Swing clubs. Today, both the Waltz and the many versions of Swing enjoy prominent positions in the curriculum of ballroom dancing. They are taught to virtually all ballroom dancers across the globe and are promoted as being two dances that are important to know if one wishes to be a well-rounded ballroom dancer, despite the fact that they were both once considered to be a nuisance and the downfall of American society.
Patsy Holden is currently a graduate student of Anthropology/Archaeology at the University of Central Florida, and is a 19-year veteran of professional competitive ballroom dancing.