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This popped up on my facebook feed and I thought I’d pass it on. It’s a small collection of photos from jazz age dancing, demonstrating a variety of dance holds.

Jazz Age Dance Holds

While there isn’t a comment thread on the page, there is one on the fb link that I found kind of interesting. I’ve reproduced it below, minus the names of course (colors simply indicate different speakers):

  • My latest Jazz Age ballroom dance page: devoted to demonstrating the cheerful anarchy that prevailed when dancers assumed the ballroom position in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
  • Yes – and one thing common to all the pictures you posted is a very close hold – especially noticeable compared to today’s – with the “frame” and the “air between the partners”…I have the same reaction to anything called “the real vintage swing”. I was around when this dance was created and before it got boxed into “West Coast”, “East Coast”, Lindy, etc…and as I tell young dancers “interpreters” as to the costuming they should look at pictures of their parents and realize that their mothers and grandmothrs did not show her crutch and wore longer skirts, and what they copy is not what was danced socially but created for dance demo for black and white TV – that also was not in every home as a dance historian who shall remain nameless was asserting: “kids learned these dances from the American Bandstand, from watching TV at home”…
  • When a dance form is new and vibrant and developing, it is anarchic and individual and messy. When it becomes “vintage” and preserved in amber, then we lose the spontaneity and create rules to define it as “authentic” – and there is a tendency to confuse performance dancing with social dancing.
  •  Most of my dance performance experience (outside of ballet and modern) involved staged, “kicked up” interpretations of traditional and ballroom dance. We never assumed that Russian peasants really did the tricks we perfected for “Hopak,” and being dipped and flipped around the way I was in some ballroom numbers would have turned a social dance scene into a triage situation. The ethnic dance police were somewhat more severe than the ballroom dance police, but I have always enjoyed incorporating new elements and seeing dance forms evolve. I never assume the way I am doing things is “right” or “traditional” and would never claim any degree of adherence to the original.
  •  (So I particularly enjoy looking at these old stills – hey, I could try that… or that…)
  • Thank you. The looser, more intimate style of foxtrot as danced the 1920’s and 1930’s had a great deal more vitality and honesty to it. When I see people dancing Arthur Murray style at period dance events I sometimes have to scratch my head in wonder. There’s something so stiff and regimented about it, although I appreciate the skill and practice it takes to be good at it… and some people are quite good at it. My opinion is that the average ballroom dancer shouldn’t be trying to emulate performance and exhibition dancing — it creates an unrealistic expectation for most of us (me included, I’m not that good), yet this is more or less what many dance instructors are teaching us to do.http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f0/Ballroom_dance.jpg Just not my style, I guess.
  • My late Honey, Jim Layne, a stellar dance professional himself, used to decry the kind of “ballroom” seen in ballroom competitions on TV as unnatural, having about the same relationship that riding a horse has to dressage. Rather than International style dance, he was a fan of American style, which is more like social dance than exhibition.
  • I am totally with you on this!

This thread really started a couple of thoughts in my head. Please understand that I am not saying I think these people meant what I am about to speculate on, just that they sparked these thoughts in my own head.

Vintage vs. Modern Ballroom Dancing

I find the idea that vintage dances are set in amber to be an intriguing metaphor. I don’t go in for it much myself, but having been a student of Richard Powers, I certainly respect the task of reviving a dead dance. Trying to do something between interpret and reverse engineer a dance from a handful of videos and photos, (or just one or two pages in a single dance manual!) is exceptionally difficult. It is no wonder in my mind that this leads to the “there is only one right way” school of thought. We have no way to tell whether even the most natural seeming variations would have been done at the time.

If you can’t verify something’s authenticity, then you aren’t reconstructing it any more. You are interpreting it. Which is fine, if that is what you are trying to do. The part I’m not so much of a fan is that this seems to logically lead to a stifling of creativity. I’m all for reviving vintage dances, but not to give dance instructors one more way to tell people they are doing it wrong. Instead, i think these dances should be revived as inspiration for continued creativity. There was a reason these dances were popular once, i think it is valid to assume that there are aspects of these dances we should preserve.

One of my favorite examples of this is the Dawn Mazurka, danced at Stanford’s big dance every year. It is a reconstruction of a mazurka by Charles Durang (see here for details). Mazurka quadrilles are not something commonly done at Stanford, or in the Bay Area at all as far as I can tell. The mazurka quadrille has a lot of potential for creativity, and I wish we did them more often. Richard  Powers taught one class at FNW about them, and it just didn’t seem to catch on in the community I guess.

This therefore leads me to a conclusion similar to that made by some of our facebook commenters.  Specifically the distinction between performance and social ballroom dancing.

Performance vs. Social Ballroom Dancing

This is an important distinction in the dance community. Performance ballroom is very technical, choreographed and well rehearsed. There is minimal room for spontaneity. And it is very likely that many of the videos and pictures we have of any given dance are performances. We will likely never know how these dances were danced in a social setting, simply because of their nature. A social dance is not about filming each other, it is about dancing.

Which means that the reconstructions we do, the “vintage” dances, are performances. They were meant as performances, and (debatably?) should be done as performances. A choreographed sequence that shows off a favorable snapshot of a dance that was once so popular that someone made record of it.

Even if we did try to document social dancing, we would have to take thousands of videos before we got a reasonable sampling of the styles involved. Dance style varies so widely from city to city, studio to studio, person to person, and even dance to dance. How could we ever hope to encapsulate it all?

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So I guess what I hope people get out of this post is that I have some advice for the next time someone says (about your dancing) that you are doing it wrong. If they can’t follow that statement with “you are hurting, or likely to hurt, your partner doing it,” stick your tongue out at them and keep doing it your way. Your individual style, is yours, and you have every right to it. And if your creativity comes up with something awesome and new, share it!

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