Social Dancing in Boston in the early 1920's
THE modern social dance is of distinctly recent growth. It is as yet in an embryonic state. Eventually it will yield to one or the other of the two forces that have molded and controlled all dancing from Adam's time, first the effect on the dancer and second the effect on the audience.
As a general thing the more civilized the nation the more important in its dancing becomes the second of these factors and the less important the first. Among primitive nations the dance served mainly to arouse and work upon the feelings and passions of those dancing, while among the more civilized nations the opinion of the onlooker became more influential and the emotions of the dancer more controlled. For example, contrast the war dance of our American Indian with the Court Minuet of the 16th and 17th century and you have well exemplified the two extremes. Take also the nature dance, the folk dance, the aesthetic dance. All these are designedly picturesque — appeal to the taste and respond to the criticism of the audience.
When the modern round dance came into being, it at first partook largely of that quality of picturesqueness, poise, and dignity that had existed in such marked degree in the square dances that immediately preceded it — the quadrille, the minuet, and the lancers. But there was even then cropping up a desire on the part of the dancer to express his or her individual exuberance of feeling, which while it had not developed into anything grotesque or eccentric, was seeking outlet. In other words, the two schools of dancing were coming together; the primitive school of individual expression and the polished cadencies of the school of artistic dancing — and each was exerting an Influence upon the modern dance. For a time the artistic held sway, and the emotional was kept strictly subordinated.
All beautiful dancing is based on a three-four rhythm, in which rhythm the dancers of necessity complete a poem of steps first with one foot leading, then the other. The best example of this is the waltz step, which in some form or other is the basis of all artistic dancing.
But this type of dance takes time and training to acquire. Our modern civilization was much too hurried and hectic in its pleasures — as well as in its work — to afford the money and time necessary to learn such dancing. What people wanted, without really knowing it, was something they could take up at a moment's notice and, after an hour or two of instruction, dance without the uncomfortable feeling that they were appearing clumsy or ill trained.
So when Vernon Castle introduced his Castle Walk, it achieved instant popularity. It was nothing but a march. Any one could learn it. It furnished a dance that the multitude could take up at a moment's notice and get away with. To make it even simpler and more tempting for the man, the girl did the back stepping and the man did nothing but march forward with a two step turn now and then. Before this it had been considered the height of ill breeding for a man to cause his partner to go backwards while dancing. That was for him to learn to do — and it is a hard thing to do "gracefully."
From the Castle Walk came all the developments of the modern dance — down to the fox trot of the present day. The whole is, in truth, founded on the Cake Walk of our Southern negro. Naturally, it has been slow to become a thing of beauty. Opinions to the contrary, it is an extremely difficult thing to dance a good Cake Walk. It takes time and training to co-ordinate the different parts of the body so that as a picture they make an attractive whole. The foot movements are the least important. The hold, the posture of the body, the position of the arms, head, and chin — are far more in the picture. If people realized this fact at the present day, there would be fewer absurd looking couples on the floor.
In the old days — and in all solo dancing of the present day — the absolute essential in a school of dancing was, and is, a set of mirrors so that the dancer can see how he or she looks at every stage of the dance. Our crowded dance halls do not permit this. Moreover, it would discourage many dancers if they chanced to see themselves in a mirror while dancing. Failing the mirrors, the first thing the dancer turns to in his struggle to appear well is the other dancers. Dancing is nothing if not imitative. You see a couple on the floor of whose appearance you approve and you immediately try to copy their style, hold, and step. But there are no mirrors to show you how you look, no critic to call attention to where you fail, and as a result your appearance is far more apt to be a caricature than an imitation.
Source: Commonwealth-Atlantic News, 1922