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Dance in the 20th Century
Many people used dance as a way of expressing themselves throughout the 20th century. When the American society experienced a major event, such as a war, it appeared that the dance style also changed. One style would be created and suddenly, a few years later, the music would change and an entirely different style would appear. This led me to the question of whether or not the change in society over the 20th century actually had an effect on the popular dance styles as they shifted from decade to decade.
In order to answer this question, I focused on the most popular dance styles of each decade. I researched many historical events and tried to connect them to the different cultural styles and sudden changes in dance. Many historical events had occurred throughout those one hundred years. Because of my love for dance, learning about the many different styles made me love the subject even more.
I found that the change in the American society during the 20th century contributed to the change in the dance style. Several of the changes were based on political and civil rights, even though dance was used as a type of entertainment for people. It was a way for people to express themselves. The more independence they wanted, the riskier the dance steps became. Every decade the dance steps became more sexual. However, the historical events were not the only causes for a change in dance style; foreign influence also had a part in creating new dance styles. It makes me wonder what the popular dance styles will be in the years to come.
(Word count: 284)
Dancing is an art. It is a creative way for people to express their feelings through movements and rhythm. During the twentieth century in America, dance became the main type of entertainment. Some people saw it as a way to express their opinions about certain situations happening in the society and the world around them, such as war, racism, or even simple household rules. Others saw it as an opportunity to get to learn about different cultures. Dance has been used to help keep many Americans gleeful during the country’s crises, economically and technologically. To express their reactions to these changes, Americans danced. As the society changed during the decades, so did the type of dance, creating new forms of entertainment that are now a part of our American history.
At the turn of the century, in the early 1900s, Americans experienced new social and economic development, technologies and fashions. The dance style created during these early years mirrored these changes. It was referred to as “social dancing.” According to Ian Driver, the author of A Century of Dance, social dancing can be defined as “a marriage between popular music and contemporary style” (12). He states that the most popular social dance was known as the Waltz, which is a dance, in three-fourths time, where the male leads and the woman follows as they stay hand in hand. This was considered to be scandalous due to the closeness of the dance partners of the opposite sex. Many adults did not like the fact that the male’s hand had to rest low on the woman’s waist, while her hands rested on his shoulder and opposite hand. This style was certainly a change from the 1890s, where people turned away from their dance partner rather than faced them (15). Fred Astaire, a famous dancer from the 1930s mentions that the Waltz was first introduced through aristocracy, yet over time, the dance and its three-fourth time rhythm became very popular with most of the American society (Engel 52). Driver writes that America’s version of the Waltz was considered to symbolize the “lively” times of the “Edwardian Era,” which was a blissful time period occurring in Europe (14). It changed ballroom dancing all together and dominated the evolution of dance.
Because the Waltz was so popular, other European dances began to flourish in America. Several dances were created for entertainment; however, very few dazzled people’s attention. Driver remarks that the Boston was a well-known dance, yet its popularity died down shortly after it was created. The beat was slower than that of the Waltz; however, it was considered too slow to hold a person’s interest (19). The Tango and Polka were also popular dances during this time. These dances did not die out, but they did not attract the American society as much as the Waltz. According to Driver, most of these new dances were held in assemblies and taught to students as an educational course only, making it hard for the society to gain interest in them (17). As the end of the 1900s approached, the Waltz lost popularity. Many people left it behind and looked forward to seeing what new and exciting things the new decade would bring.
During the 1910s through the 1920s, the American society continued to change through sophisticated dance styles, such as the Tango and Henry Fox’s Fox trot. The Fox Trot varied in style and rhythm from 1916-1930. It was the start of “animal dances,” including the Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug, and the Turkey Trot (Driver 30-32).
In 1917, America joined World War I, putting a halt on all of the new dances. Once the war ended, people attempted to move on to something more pleasant. Many Americans threw out the old dance styles and anything else that would remind them of life during the war. As a result, the Fox Trot and all of the other “animal dances” died down. In an article titled the “Roaring Twenties,” the author describes many of the transitions the American society experienced as they moved passed the war. Many people decided that because World War I had ended, they could finally “escape the horror of the war and release their pent up emotions” caused by the “restricted lifestyles forced on the public by the war effort” (“1920s Dancing”). Soon after, different groups of people came together and used dance as a way to express their individual rights.
One of the first groups in the society who wanted to gain rights was women. By the 1920s women began to feel as though they needed to be seen not as stereotypical females who goes to finishing school, but rather as equal hard workers with voices. To show their disgust toward the societal views of women, they begin to loosen up, to “shake their torsos and throw their legs and arms up in the air” (1920s Dance). They formed a group called “Flappers.” These women became the popular style of the Twenties with short hair and straight, lacy dresses. They created history and became an important part in women’s liberal rights.
Another group of people in the early 1920s seeking expanded rights were the African Americans, who created Ragtime. Driver claims that initially they kept this dance style hidden in “juke-joints” or night clubs. The steps came from traditional African dances and rhythms, such as hip and pelvis movements. Over time, their secrets were revealed. According to Driver, some popular dances that came from this time were tap, the Charleston, Shuffle Along, the Cake Walk, Buzzard Lope, Black Bottom, and the Grind (23). Whites wanted to learn these dances, but they did not want to learn from African Americans because of racial issues. When they finally gained enough courage to copy the dances, the blacks changed their dance style as a result of the culture clash (23). Most of the Ragtime music changed to Jazz. They used bass sounds to represent the African rhythms. Slowly Jazz music and Ragtime Dancing became the main entertainment during the 1920s.
Ragtime ended in 1929 when the stock market crashed. This left many people unemployed and devastated. They attempted to move on by creating dance marathons and new types of entertainment. The longest dance marathon lasted “22 weeks and 3 ½ days” (“1920s Dance”). Their goal was to get through the 1930s cheerfully, with or without money. Dance marathons came up with an era known as the Vaudeville Era. It was called this because many “Americans found escape from economic reality in music and dance and the fantasy world, that Hollywood offered,” in an attempt to loosen the Great Depression’s tight grip on the nation (Skiba).
New forms of entertainment were created all over America during the Depression. According to Driver, one well known type of dance that people enjoyed was Comic Dancing. It came from ballet toe dancing, and was formed into a loose comedic dance to make people laugh. Charlie Chaplin and Ray Bolger, the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, were two of the most popular comic dancers of their time (42). Show girls became crowd pleasers as well. They were known for their follies, giant kick lines, leg splits, and long legs. One of the most popular groups of showgirl dancers was the Rockettes, “the best known precision dance troop… [with] stop-the show- choreography” (49). These new forms of entertainment attracted the audience more so than others because they were strictly humorous or exultant, rarely gloomy or mournful (44-49).
Aside from live performances, Paramount Pictures began to create on screen musicals and motion pictures. Morris Dickstein, the author of Dancing in the Dark, notes that studios created theatre dancing, which contained large production numbers in ballet, jazz, tap, soft shoe and much more. Some iconic names in American film and dance were George and Ira Gershwin, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, and Fred Astaire (Dickstein). The culture of elegance, as represented by Astaire and the Gershwins, was less about the cut of your tie and tails than the cut of your feelings, the inner radiance that was one true bastion against social suffering. They preserved in wit, rhythm and fluidity of movement what the Depression almost took away, the high spirits of Americans, young and modern, who had once felt destined to be the heirs and heiresses of all the ages” (Dickstein). This demonstrates how Astaire helped to entertain the people during the Depression.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers continued to not only perform in motion pictures, but also created huge dance studios which taught people how to ballroom dance. As written in the Fred Astaire Book, they brought many Latin, African, and Indian dances to the surface. They taught people, the Cha Cha, Mambo, Rumba, Meringue, the Polka, the Lindy, and more (Engel).
Luckily, the Great Depression ended in 1939 just before WWII broke out in 1941. Driver claims that during the 1940s, Swing dancing became the popular passive time for many people as they waited for their loved ones to come back from overseas. New steps developed, such as the Jitterbug, Quickstep, and the Lindy Hop, but they also kept some of the popular old dances such as the Waltz, Fox Trot, Tango and Mambo. Sue Goodwin, the author of the article “American Cultural History 1940-1949,” stresses that Big Bands were used to play most of the music during this time. The loud brass, jazz band, music became very entertaining for American soldiers all over the world. The dancing reminded them of home, and was a fun way for them to get their mind off the terrible war (Goodwin).
The big jazz bands created a new style of dancing. It was called Swing. Depending on where people were located around America, the swing dance style changed. Eastern and Western Swing were the two most different types (Skiba). In another article called “Swing Dance Styles” Eastern Swing was faster paced, and consisted of more upbeat triple step movements. Western Swing had a country twang to its rhythm and steps. The “Boogie Woogie, Shag, Double Swing, and the Jive” were some other fun types of swing dances that became popular during WWII (Victor).
At the end of the 1940s, swing dancing was still very popular; however, once everyone was back from the war, dance suddenly lost its importance. By the 1950s, many adults thought that it would be better to stop partying and settle down as soon as possible. In Becky Bradley’s article “American History – 1950-1959,” she explains that many Americans believed that the war was a tragic event which caused many people to feel separated from their loved ones long enough. They focused on having a “normal family” lifestyle with the innocent children and the stay at home wife. For many teenagers being the perfect family seemed too much like being caged. They were not allowed to listen to upbeat music, dance, or stay up late. Richard Powers explains why teenagers during this time were frustrated. They wanted to have fun. They began partying at night in basements, away from any adults who would stop them from expressing themselves in music (Powers).
Within the walls of these basements new styles formed while swing dancing continued. Due to the popularity of this new form of dance, a show called American Bandstand was created (Bradley, Powers). The show was made to teach teenagers in America the Swing and other dance styles that they were missing out on. Over time the music began to evolve into Rock n’ Roll. The audience was mainly teenagers who wanted fast upbeat music where they could jive and bebop. Because of the hip movements, pelvic thrusts, and closeness between dance partners, parents saw Rock n’ Roll as “too sexual,” while teenagers saw this style as pure fun. Elvis Presley, James Brown, Little Richard, Chubby Checkers, and Barry Gordy were well known for several of these movements. Elvis claimed that his “pelvic gyrating was an honest response to how the music made him feel” (Driver 185). Several African Americans mentioned that soul and Motown music created dance styles and energy for Rock n’ Roll as well (Driver 196-197).
When the 1960s arrived, the Rock n’ Roll dance style and music continued to develop throughout American society. According to the article“The1960’s Dance Fads,” dance styles such as the Madison and Twist came together once the Desegregation Law was passed. The law forced students of black and white race to go to school in the same classes and learning environment. Blacks and Whites were finally getting along well enough to work together in order to teach all teenagers in America the new dance steps. Along with these two steps, the Jitterbug, Mashed Potato, and Locomotion (1960s Dance Fads).
Aside from civil rights issues, the Vietnam War also broke out in the 1960s and rock music started to evolve in many ways. In the article “Sixties City- Bringing on Back the Good Times,” Clint Hough expresses how some people wanted America to stop fighting. They began to write songs and create their own light, melodic dance movements. They wanted to create enough of a commotion to share with the entire United States. Woodstock ended the 1960s with a large celebration full of new dance moves, drugs, and, music. People expressed their opinions through music and protests. It was clear that people wanted peace, not war, but because the government did not listen they continued their rebellious behavior into the 1970s (Hough).
During the 1970s the rock music changed in many different ways. The War was ending but was not fully over; therefore, people were still rebelling against the government. With the continuation of war movements, new rock music such as, soft rock, hard rock, punk rock, and reggae were created and the dance styles evolved. Charles Gillis, the author of the article “American Cultural History 1970-1979,” mentions that many different cultures were sharing their dances and music with America at the protests. They used music to show the government that they would like to stop the war, but to make more of an interesting statement; they would perform their emotions (Gillis).
Another popular dance style that was invented during this time was the Disco. It was a wild, new type of dance that was flamboyant and fun. Driver shares that it became popular in movies and night clubs. John Travolta was the spotlight for starting this disco dance, from his role in the movie Saturday Night Fever (212). He also says that this dance style had nothing to do with the war; it simply had to do with the style of the 1970s, which was focused on “groovy” soft rock music. He mentions that line dancing was also discovered. It was a new dance style created in the West for entertainment. Dances such as Country Line, Macarena, Nutbush City Limits became popular. (216-217).
After the 1970s, the public lost interest in the disco and the craze of the 1980s arrived. People wanted to create their own style and be known as individuals. Peggy Whitely mentions that new technology created a whole new technological world to the music. The songs had a more “electronic” sound. Rock and rap music brought new sounds to the radio. Different societal groups joined together to express themselves. Homosexuals created dance steps such as vogueing and wardrobes to show the society how proud they were to be gay. African Americans focused on rap, hip hop movements, and street dancing. Whites focused on rock and punk music (Whitely).
Rio, Rhodes, and Banasy, the authors of “In the 80s - Glossary of the Eighties” claim that the creation of MTV helped spread these dance moves all over the United States. People were coming up with their own hidden dance choreography, creating steps, styles, and fashion that several people wanted to learn.. Some popular faces that appeared on MTV were Madonna, Prince, Paula Abdul, and Michael Jackson. Some of the new dances shown were the Robot, break dancing, the Moonwalk, Slam Dancing, and hip hop (Rio, Rhodes, Banasy). Fun dance steps included the Running Man, the Fishy, the Alligator, the Shopping Cart, the Sprinkler, and the Worm (Rio, Rhodes, and Banasy). For once, America was able to spread their new dance culture with the world.
By the 1990s, people were awaiting the new millennium. Urban dancing was created, which is a type of street dance that became very popular in America. Several bands used this dance style along with hip hop in their choreography. Pauline Westorn, the author of “The 1990s Fashion History Part 2,” states that they attempted to add unique flairs to all the old dance moves, creating styles that stayed popular in the year 2000 and beyond. Erotic and country line dancing were very popular as well. She writes about how the Salsa and the Lambada music became entertaining. It was a chance for women to once again, show off their bodies, mainly their hips and legs (Westorn).
In the twentieth century the American society went through many changes. There appeared to be a crisis in almost every decade. People found ways to express their feelings about each crisis through dance which came from all over the word. The style of dance changed every time the society itself went through a change, whether it was because of war or simple societal rules. When the new millennium occurred people brought with them not only the style from the 1990s, but one hundred years worth of dance, ready to pass on the styles to the generations to come.
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