The new music and dances were fast paced and energetic, like the optimistic 1920's themselves. They were an escape from the horror of war, and an opportunity to release pent up emotions created by the restricted lifestyles forced on the public by the war effort.
Dancing Evolved along with Jazz and Blues
Ragtime which had been popular during and after the first world war was suited to the new music tempos and so it flourished. However, old favorites like the Waltz and Foxtrot remained popular due to promotions by people like Arthur Murray who ran dance schools and published "How to" books on all the popular dances. Younger people added their own variations to traditional dance styles - like toddling to the Foxtrot. Dances like the Tango and Charleston received a huge boost in popularity when featured in movies by stars like Rudolph Valentino and Joan Crawford. Freed from the restrictions of tight corsets and the large puffed sleeves and long skirts that characterized feminine dress during the late Victorian era, a new generation of dancers swayed, hugged, and hopped to the new lively dance rhythms.
While the new dances appealed to the youth they were not so popular with the older, more conservative generation who saw jazz in particular as decadent. This was partly due both to the nightclubing and parties that were the venues for the dancing, and to the style of dance itself. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gatsby" illustates the lifestyle of young people at this time.
It is worth pointing out that in the early 1900's both the Waltz and the Tango were considered scandalous dances because they involved physical contact between partners during the dance. Once the dance crazes which took off in Paris were demonstrated in America, they were embraced by the public and close dancing became a social norm. In the 1920's and 30's the Lindy Hop, named for the pilot Charles Lindburgh's first solo flight, emerged and was the first dance to include swinging the partner into the air, as well as jumping in sequence.
People saw the new dances in Hollywood movies and practiced them to music from phonograph records or to radio broadcasts before going out on the dance floors of nightclubs or school gymnasiums. Dancing was a major part of peoples entertainment and an important part of every party. Schools taught dancing to small children, while churches used dances to attract young people. Tangos, Foxtrots, Camel Walks, even Square dances (which were heavily promoted by Henry Ford) were popular.
Magazines and books on social dancing and related social activities were very popular, as were dance schools teaching all the latest dance crazes. Dance etiquette inherited from the previous century began to change. Parents who could afford to would send their children to learn Tap and Ballet dancing. Dancing was an extremely popular social activity for all age groups. Dance marathons occurred every weekend with the longest ever recorded being 3 weeks of dancing.
Young people introduced their own fashion styles and so the "flapper" and "sheik" came into existence. Young women with short bobbed hairstyles, close fitting hats and short skirts were referred to as flappers, and young men with ukeleles, racoon coats and bell-bottom trousers were called "sheiks".
Dancing began to actively involve the upper body for the first time as women began shaking their torsos in a dance called the Shimmy. Young people took to throwing their arms and legs in the air with reckless abandon and hopping or "toddling" every step in the Foxtrot, and soon every college student was doing a new dance which became known as the Toddle.
The 1920s Charleston Dance Craze
The dance that epitomizes the 1920's is the Charleston. The Charleston was introduced to the public in the Ziegfield Follies of 1923 by the all black cast Afro-American Broadway musical "Running Wild", and became so popular that even today, it is still a symbol for the 1920s Jazz Age. The Charleston is characterized by outward heel kicks combined with an up and down movement achieved by bending and straightening the knees in time to the music. Flappers with their knock knees, crossing hands, and flying beads danced the Charleston, and a dance called the "Black Bottom", first introduced in a 1926 Broadway production. Within the year, the dance swept not only America, but the entire world.
The overwhelming popularity of the Charleston inspired choreographers and dance teachers to fabricate and promote several new fad dances to a public hungry for novelty. A new style of Blues Dancing also developed to fit the disreputable atmosphere of the speakeasy. It seemed as if the good times would never end, however the prosperity and optimism of the 20's came to a halt with the Stock Market crash on Black Monday in September of 1929. America's mood changed significantly during the Great Depression that followed.
Learn the Dances
The "Lindy Hop" - This was the first dance where men swung their partner into the air.
Ultimate Lindy Hop Volume 1 DVD - Lindy Hop Fundamentals and Essential Steps
"The Charleston" - Lots of different versions taught here including the original 1920's Charleston
Ultimate Lindy Hop Volume 2 DVD - The Charleston: 1920s and Modern
"Fox Trot, Kangaroo Hop, Chicken Scratch, Turkey Trot, Castle Walk, Tango" and more
HOW TO DANCE THROUGH TIME Vol. II. Dances of the Ragtime Era 1910-1920 DVD