Choreogeography:
American Vintage

By Richard Duree

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American Vintage Dancers by Richard Duree Why do we dance the way we do? Why does anyone dance the way they do? Why are the differences between the flamenco of the Spanish gypsies and the American Lindy so obvious and extreme? Or the Ukrainian "Hopak?" Or the Greek "Hasapiko?" Why, indeed, do people dance the way they do?

Indeed, why do we dance at all? And what is dance anyway? It's a bit like asking about the meaning of life. If we give it some thought, dance, and how we perform it, tells us a lot about ourselves. And not just ourselves; with a little insight we can see into the intimate values of anyone who dances. And that includes almost everyone. Serious studies are made on lesser questions and learned social scientists devote entire lives and careers to them.

Dance ethnology is that unique science that relates dance to the personality and aesthetics of the ethnic group to which it belongs and identifies the social, geographical, and historical factors which effect the dance's form and character. It seeks to understand not only how, but why one culture's dance differs from another and what the dance tells us.

The theory is that dance will survive as long as it satisfies a contemporary social need and aesthetic; if it does not, it will not survive and will pass into history or, at best, be preserved only artificially. But its movements and relationships will tell us much, if we only learn to observe.

For centuries, dance served as the social center of polite society and the artistic release for the peasantry. Dance historians and ethnologists have an almost limitless supply of dance history upon which to ponder, though much of the dance that has been recorded has been that of the court and the upper class. The dances of the peasants, like their very lives, was not deemed worthy of record and we are dependent on tradition and memory to retrieve them.

America's own three hundred year-old folk and social dance traditions are entirely worthy of such ethnological examination as both the product of a rapidly changing society and a clear record of the evolution of contemporary social values and attitudes. And it gives us a clue to the people's reaction to historical events and changing economic conditions.

Our social dance tradition goes back well into the 18th Century with the importation of country dances from England, Ireland, Scotland and France, Germany and Scandinavia. Even the Fandangos of Early California are important.

George Washington loved to dance. His favorite, "Sir Roger de Coverly," now known as the "Virginia Reel," is a version of the Baroque Minuet, dancers standing apart from partners, gentlemen supporting heavily-gowned ladies through the latest complex figures created by touring dance masters.

The formal Polka and Waltz from Europe became the popular ballroom dances of the 19th Century, delayed at first by the reluctance of 18th Century minds to accept the dangerous new closed dance position. The new dances swept European society by storm, although the peasants had been dancing them for generations. In America, the Waltz and Polka were strong ties to the Old Country and were cherished as a reminder of a heritage left in the bitter-sweet emigration to America and the movement on to the frontier. America still looked to Europe for cultural inspiration and carefully followed developments from the continent. There is even record of the Polka being danced in the California gold camps seventeen years after it was first recorded in Bohemia in 1834!

West Point cadets were expected to be proficient in dance as part of being an officer and a gentleman. Many an elegant Waltz in the finest Viennese style was seen at military balls throughout the Civil War and subsequent Indian Wars on the frontier right up to the time it disappeared. Officers in European-style full-dress uniforms would not have been out of place in a Grand Victorian Ball on the American frontier.

Not all American ballroom dance was of the Waltz and Polka variety. New Englanders danced barely-changed English country dances, performed in long-ways sets, called "contras" or in square "quadrilles," clearly descended from the previous century's Minuet. Each dance had a set sequence of well-known figures and the dances were well and eagerly attended in the many small New England villages. A person's reputation and standing in the community was frequently enhanced or diminished on attendance and skill at the dance and the style of the dance was not universal throughout the area. The smooth gliding movements of one area would have been considered wrong in others – and vice versa.

From Tennessee to Georgia, Irish and English settlers brought their dances to their isolated Appalachian Mountains an interesting merge of styles. The Irish "Jig" took on a different flavor, influenced not only by the wearing of heavy work boots, but by the freely expressive dance movements of African slaves – we know it now as the Clog and it is a truly American folk dance, registering perfectly the origins and aesthetics of the Appalachian people. It was an earthy, grounded dance, powerful and intense as would be the character of a hardy and isolated people who wrested their livelihood from a reluctant soil.

To this mix of Appalachian aesthetics, add the country dances of the English. The evolution of the Big Circle Dance is an adaptation of one or more English dances, with the added element of called figures and clogging, danced in isolated hamlets in wooded hills and valleys for generations.

Following the Civil War, New England farmers began to abandon their rocky farms and Southerners left destroyed plantations to seek new land out west. Expansion into the Indian lands of the Great Plains from Montana to Texas began in earnest in a period of American history familiar to us all – the Old West – and the dance went with it where it took on new forms and new roles in the new society about to be born.

Imagine the scene: widely scattered small towns and ranches, populated with a mix of people from not only the North and South, but by newly-arrived immigrants from Europe: Czechs, Poles, Irish, Germans, French, and many more. In this vast land with few amenities, dances were eagerly anticipated and well attended by people from vastly different backgrounds who barely knew each other. The New England Contras and Quadrilles would not work here – no one knew the sequence of the figures. High-topped riding boots and lack of a wood floor made clogging impractical. Necessity created the Quadrille with called figures and our national square dance was born, its complex figures requiring attentive teamwork and cooperation from everyone, perfectly reflecting the social climate and aesthetics of American culture which are still with us – we hope.

As the 20th Century emerged, things needed to change – and things were indeed changing. The frontier was gone, the Industrial Age was upon us, a new middle class was emerging, and great social and technological innovations were on the horizon. The 19th Century – and Europe – were in the past, old fashioned and out of step with the modern new times. The Waltz and Polka and even the Square Dance must step aside for something different and new, just as the Minuet had a century earlier.

To social historians, the most significant socio-economic movement of the new century was the "trust-busting" campaign of Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, relieving the huge business conglomerates of their feudal strangle hold on the American society and economy. An "aristocracy" had risen through corrupt, self-serving, and ruthless business practices unfettered by government restraints and had claimed control of the nation's economy to its own benefit in fine European feudal style. Child labor was common, as were ten and twelve-hour work days, six-day work weeks, sweat shops, and subsistence wages. A merchant class was almost nonexistent and an enormous void separated the upper and lower classes – a void soon to be filled.

The nation's industrial base had become well-established. Everyone was fascinated with the new mechanical gadgets, everything from washing machines to apple peelers were being produced and consumed in a frenzy of mechanical technology. The automobile came into its own as a popular form of transportation, thanks to Henry Ford's excellent vision, and America's most enduring new industry was born. Cottage industries were disappearing in the shadow of factories and mass-produced goods. Consumerism was a new part of social life and the economy as more and more new products came on the market.

Labor unions became an emotional part of American society and the working class suddenly began to realize its economic power. Labor riots raised emotions to new highs on both sides of the issue, but wages began to rise and working hours began to lessen. People began to realize not only expendable income, but also exciting new products and leisure time to obtain and enjoy them.

It was also the time of the powerful and emotional cause of women's suffrage. With the vote, women moved ever closer to legal and social equality with men and a major shift in the social order was underway.

This volatile mixture of changes in power, the increase in competition, the growing purchasing power of the people, and rapidly evolving social and economic values led to the single most important social development in modern American history – the emergence of the American middle class. It happened in less than a generation.

This new social phenomenon suddenly thrust America into an unfamiliar but eagerly grasped role as one of the world's powerful nations, emerging outside the crumbling and unstable empires of the Old World. Teddy Roosevelt built and sailed the Great White Fleet around the world to prove it.

This newly affluent middle class exhilarated in its sudden wealth and, free of the feudal business practices of the "Gay '90s," sought desperately to distance themselves from the lower classes of which they had so recently been a part. In searching for their new identity, elegance and newness became highly prized symbols of success: new fashions, new music, new machines – new anything. And they began to look for new means of expression of their new status – something fresh and new – something American!

Ragtime music appeared, fresh and new; its syncopated sounds quickly became popular in spite of its disreputable origins as entertainment in the finer "sporting houses." The combination of African rhythms and syncopations produced a sound very different from the 19th Century ballroom music of Strauss and others.

One of those African-American brothel pianists, Scott Joplin, was discovered by music producer, John Stark who, fascinated with the new music and able to see its possibilities, contracted Joplin to write new songs in his Ragtime style. Maple Leaf Rag was published in 1898 and the rest is wonderful Ragtime history. For two decades, Ragtime was almost the only new music composed in America.

The "nouveau riche" at first disdained the "vulgar" new music as more suitable for the lower classes, but its lively, infectious new sound eventually won out and Ragtime music was "in."

But those awful dances! To "high society," the black community's dance was vulgar and unsophisticated, dances called "Grizzly Bear" and "Bunny Hug" and "Turkey Trot." These weren't dances! They were the strutting and carryings on of the trashy lower class. Nobody would be caught dead dancing them, especially when one was striving to identify with "polite" society." Remember, this was generations before modern "political correctness;" references abound to the desire for grace and sophistication in all things and the exclusion of vulgar or crude behavior. So the middle class waited . . . and waited . . . for something new and elegant, more suited to their new status in life.

It came in the form of Vernon and Irene Castle, a young couple who, while seeking their place in the Paris spotlight, had created and performed a new form of ballroom dance – elegant, smooth, and sophisticated. An instant hit in Europe, they were just what the folks at home wanted: fashionable, handsome, young, fresh, suave, wholesome – and married! Their new style of dance was perfect for Ragtime music and a perfect match with the expectations of the new America. The Castles launched a dance craze that has not been equaled in this country before or since.

The "One-Step," "Castle Walk," "Tango," "Maxixe," even the Polka seem quaint and archaic to us now, simplistic in their approach to the dance, but they are symbolic of the American personality of the first twenty years of the 20th Century. They were danceable, fun, and elegant and everyone could dance them. It was democracy in dance and America wanted all it could get. The Castles became fabulously wealthy, giving performances across the country and giving dance lessons to the wealthy at prices that are unheard of even today.

Alas, it could not last. World War I changed the world, abruptly tearing America from its innocent past and Europe from its feudal one. Vernon Castle's death in 1918 was painful for his millions of fans, dampening the Ragtime fever, and America was left seeking something to fill the sudden void. After only twenty years, the 20th Century needed to be reborn.

Suddenly America realized something! We were a world power! We had conquered a mighty foe and brought American thought and values to the rest of the world! We were young and powerful and we could do anything we wanted. We had natural resources beyond imagining and we could build anything. The energy of it all was ready to explode into the "Roaring '20s."

Suddenly Jazz appeared and became the new craze of American society. Jazz had experienced a parallel development to Ragtime, primarily in New Orleans, out of the mainstream of East Coast and Mid-Western society. Like Ragtime, jazz pianists had entertained customers in the brothels of Storeyville, New Orleans' 28-block long red light district. Storeyville was shut down in 1917; the brothels were closed, the gambling halls were locked up, and all those wonderful musicians were suddenly out of work. Their exodus from New Orleans must have been a difficult one as they migrated to the big Eastern cities of New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and elsewhere.

Jazz took up where Ragtime left off and the Roaring '20s were underway! The economy soared, Prohibition added its contribution to the mix, and Americans began the great experiment of redefining America.

Many of us still living recall dancing the "naughty" Charleston in defiance of their parents' disapproval. The Charleston actually began with the African-American community over a decade earlier and became popular with the general population in the mid-1920s as an ideal expression of the exuberance in America's new power and wealth. For the first time, women took an equal and energetic part in the dance, celebrating suffrage as the law of the land. Mothers were aghast at their young daughters' short skirts and shameless antics, unthinkable under the 19th Century standards of the great, dour Queen Victoria.

Interestingly, the Fox Trot was the most popular dance of the 1920s, in spite of the Charleston's notoriety. The Fox Trot evolved from the One-Step's smooth, graceful and sophisticated style. Etiquette books of the day plainly state that this is the dance for those who would appear elegant. It is still the dance of sophisticated society and has been with us longer than the Waltz and Polka had been at the turn of the century. It's smooth, yet bouncy style combines the elegance and dignified energy admired by Americans.

The Great Depression of the 1930s needs no description. All of us know what it did to our country and to the world and to our own parents and grandparents, as the thoughtless excesses of the 1920s resulted in the bleakest period in American economic history. We know about the dance marathons, where dance emulated the grim, dogged struggle to survive. The carefree, sassy Charleston became the heavy deliberate Shag, again adopted from the black community's prolific repertoire, because it satisfied the incessant urge to express the human condition in movement. Jazz and the Blues became the voice of American music and we cherish it still as a major part of our traditional repertoire.

World War II, for all its horror and sacrifice, revitalized America. Thrust abruptly into a conflict of monumental proportions, Americans found new pride and energy in their ability to respond to the greatest threat ever to our values and way of life. Factories sprang to life, everyone worked for a common goal and the nation focused on one thing – victory.

And there, in the midst of it all, Benny Goodman's bubbling, energetic, optimistic Swing appeared, perfectly defining America's mood. The dance which accompanied it, an evolution from the Shag, still rates as one of America's greatest folk/social dances, strongly effecting American popular dance to this day. Women were free to express sexuality and strength and femininity, an equal partner in the dance as they had been in the war effort. The Swing would have been sorely out of place in the Ragtime years.

Many of us remember the music of the 1950s and what Rock and Roll did to it. This new music style revolutionized not only our music, but spread around the world as the symbol of America and what this country represents. The evolution of Rock and Roll and the countless dances created for it has been a mirror of rapidly changing social values and economic conditions, varying from gentle to frantic and beyond. Dancers abandoned the embrace and support of a partner, preferring to display their art from a viewable distance. Music and dance styles alike appeared, flared brightly and disappeared, to be replaced by something else. Disco appeared in the mid-1970s, emulating the 1960s fascination with newfound sexuality and gender competition, just as the Charleston did fifty years earlier.

Love it or hate it, Rock and Roll now has a 50-year history which must be recognized.

An interesting phenomenon awaits us in the not-too-distant future. Looking back over several hundred years of Western history, the beginning of every century has been marked by great social evolutions. The Baroque Period emerged in the early 18th Century and gave us the stately, proper Minuet. The Waltz and Polka, with the embarrassing embrace, pushed their way inevitably into a reluctant 19th Century. We have just witnessed Ragtime's role in our recent 20th century.

A new century has arrived. A new millennium! Think of it! What forces, what needs, what new aesthetic will emerge to shake off the hoary old 20th Century and create new ideas and behavior standards. Dance will invariably be a visual expression of that change.

What kind of dance and music do you suppose the people born in the 1990s, will adopt as their expression of their new world and new century? Might they discard their parents' sixty year-old Rock and Roll and start something yet unimagined? What can they do to shock and scandalize a generation raised on rap music and MTV?

Wouldn't it be interesting to be around to see it!


Used with permission of the author.