Dancing Through the 1920's

In the 1920s, the United States faced both political and cultural changes and the problems associated with regulating the economy, forming a coherent agricultural policy, and determining the correct role of government in the lives of the business community and individuals. The country also had to endure political scandals, which would be unrivaled until the Nixon administration. Some people thought that the country's problems were a result of dark conspiracies. As far as foreign affairs were concerned, the country had to choose between a desire to be a world power and a desire to keep all foreign policy options unencumbered. America and the world debated over an arms race.

 In the 20s, America was also faced with a new technological society similar to today's one. The roles of family and community in governing people’s behavior were questioned and changed. We became an urban society, but not a rural one. There were great changes in the ways we worked, in our standards of living, and in our methods of transportation and communication. More and more, the American society came to be controlled by the functional elite, who could make the society work. Along with these changes, there were many signs of strain. Large groups within the economy failed to share in the general prosperity of the times.

 During this period, Americans also had new sources of information available to them. The new mass media exploited, mirrored, questioned, and affirmed our styles of living. For the first time, many Americans became aware of the richness of their ethnic heritage. The whole generation of American writers and thinkers now demanded a useful and independent culture life. As can be seen, changes had taken place in all areas of Americans' lifestyle, and more and more changes became a constant condition of American life.

No other music defined a decade so definitively as jazz in the 1920s. With hybrid origins taking root both from African and European musical traditions, it was quintessentially representative of America in the postwar world: modern, mongrelized, energetic and vernacular. For a white bandleader, Paul Whiteman, jazz reflected 'the spirit of a new country', confusions, paradoxes and 'cheerfulness of despair' that was 'deep in America'.

 As an ultimate symbol of American modernity, jazz and dances it generated embodied social and cultural changes surrounding class, race and gender that made it a site of both innovation and anxiety.

Seen as 'a distortion of the conventional, a revolt against tradition, a deliberate twisting of established formulas', jazz seemed to diminish social hierarchy and mock cultural distinctions of the past, changing the cultural lexicon, as it challenged traditional boundaries and conventions. While the function of culture had always been the creation of harmony and beauty, jazz seemed to upset this balance: one observer wrote that it 'disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds and to breaking away from all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad'.

 However, by the end of the decade, jazz was widely considered as 'an expression of the soul of America', and it had become the prime arena of the battle between dominant and emergent, or old and new cultural values. While jazz expressed a communal exuberance and energy, its musical cousin blues expressed sorrow and alienation of the outcast. The lyrics by Bessie Smith's 'Lonesome Desert Blues' (1925) expressed a loss and disorientation that was contiguous with Lost Generation sentiments. Through the antithesis of 'normalcy', ‘conformity’ and ‘Babbittry’, the blues portrayed the isolation of the migrant experience. However, the spread of the blues throughout the recording industry from 1920 turned this art from the margins into a mass-produced aesthetic that reflected the contradictions of 1920s in America.

 While neither jazz nor the blues began in the decade, their remarkable spread and rapid development made them to unprecedentedly popular with mass audiences in a way that seemed to signal a musical revolution. This revolution was interlinked with the rise of 'dance mania' that propelled the music in new directions. At the same time, jazz and blues also provided a bridge between the past and the present, rural and industrial, by blending the old with the new.

When folklore collectors went south into the folk past to preserve the voice of the rural sharecropper, the southern musical culture migrated north in order to form exciting new hybrids in urban areas, giving an expression and cultural leadership to a host of artists from minority groups, whose voices had previously been ignored, denigrated or repressed because of high-art cultural traditions.

 The booming economy alongside developments in recording, radio and sound technology sustained the jazz craze, but what was the most revolutionary was that this music of multiracial origin was considered representatively American at the time, when the majority of Americans had still lived racially segregated lives. Few were more aware of prevailing racism than performers and musicians, who created the sound of the era. However, nothing worked harder to challenge that racial division and penetration into those boundaries than the music they created. To Harlem Renaissance writer, J. A. Rogers, jazz was an energetic, improvisatory and multiracial music that illustrated progress in the national identity that knew neither color lines, nor class boundaries.

He celebrated it as the rise of a 'nobody's child of the levee and the city slum' to the status of a national 'common property' symbolic of 'that tremendous spirit, the nervousness, the lack of conventionality and a boisterous good natured characteristic of the American, white or black'. To Leopold Stokowski, the conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, jazz added an unprecedented dynamism to the American culture.

Dancing became a bitterly controversial topic again in the 1920s. Many people agreed that the American Indian policy had failed. However, how should it be reformed? The largest and the most zealous group of reformers were from the Christian church. The commissioner of Indian Affairs supported missionaries. He felt that they sought “the highest welfare of the Indians.” One lurid report was circulated claiming that Pueblo dances involved sexual excesses and orgies. The head of the Indian Rights Association, a lobbying group that included many missionaries, had never questioned the report. The Association lobbied the government to suppress all dancing activities. Other government groups agreed upon it. Indian dancing was probably immoral, and at the very least, it encouraged laziness and the neglect of livestock.

 In 1921, the Office of Indian Affairs issued Circular 1665 to all reservation superintendents. This circular differentiated between ceremonials that brought “pleasure and relaxation” and other kinds of dances. These other dangerous dances included the Sun Dance and so-called “religious ceremonies” that involved self-torture, the reckless giving away of property, the prolonged periods of celebration, the use of injurious drugs and intoxicants, or excessive performances that promoted idleness, superstitious cruelty, and dangers to health. Any dances that fitted these categories were punishable by fines and imprisonment. This directive encouraged a missionary activity on reservations. It also directed missionaries and government officials to turn the non-Indian public, who liked to attend Indian dances, against them.

 Indian people did not stop dancing of course, but they had to do so surreptitiously. One strategy they used was to schedule dances for such American holidays as Christmas and the Fourth of July. Dances could also be held at tribal fairs and rodeos. Religious ceremonies continued secretly in remote and hard-to-monitor places.

 Two years later there was issued a supplement to this circular, again as a response to suggestions made by missionaries. It was known as the Dance Order. Superintendents were instructed to limit dances to one each month, in midweek, to be held at a location in the center of each district. No dances were to be held during planting and harvesting seasons, and anyone under fifty years of age was prohibited from participating in any ceremony that showed immoral or degrading influences. The commissioner of the Office of Indian Affairs then wrote a “Message to All Indians.” He warned that he could arbitrarily end all “useless and harmful performances”, but preferred that Indians should give them up of their own free will. In a year, if they had not, another course of action would be considered.

During the same period, in the early 1920s, the Bursum bill was proposed. This bill presupposed taking land from Pueblo people, who held it under Spanish land grants, and awarded it to non-Indians squatting on the Pueblo land. The Bursum bill aroused public opposition, especially among anthropologists, writers, and artists, who had been inspired by the landscape and the Indian culture of New Mexico. The most determined opponent was John Collier, an activist who lived in Taos. Collier admired the Pueblo lifestyle and felt that the Pueblo culture provided an alternative to the materialism and industrialization of the American society. He received active support from an organization of public-spirited women, who had powerful friends in many places, the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The Bursum bill was defeated by this coalition.

Jazz music did not just overturn the accepted norms of European musical styles, but it appeared to presage a multicultural American future, where universality was no longer colored white and democracy was truly enacted.

 Although jazz represented a new celebratory modernism, careful repressions and control laid beneath the anarchy of such mass-cultural democracy. F. Scott Fitzgerald subtly highlighted these in The Great Gatsby, showing how his class-crossing protagonist attempted to distance himself from his past by means of using music and dancing in order to illustrate his personal evolution out of the gutter: Gatsby's controlled 'graceful' and 'conservative' foxtrot, as his dance with Daisy revealed strenuous politeness that distanced him from the low racial origin of jazz dancing.

 Being positioned precariously in the intersection of racial and social divisions, jazz formed a conscious and subconscious cultural front that exposed and reformulated the prevailing cultural and social hypocrisy. For example, Vachel Lindsay expressed a virulent dislike of such music.

While symphonic jazz offered the recognition of the significance of jazz as an art form, the appearance of jazz in the concert hall disregarded the central role that dancing played in the music's development. Dancers often set the tempo for musicians and used their bodies to accompany music through syncopated hand clapping, foot stomping, tap dancing and shouting. The increasing pace of the industrial society had caused a psychological and social shift that was reflected in movements on the dance floor.

 The call-and-response relationship between the performer and the audience further dismantled the accepted hierarchical behavior in cultural appreciation that was traditionally based on the passive reception of the cultural artifact. Black vernacular dance rhythms became a fad in popular dancing with the ragtime craze of the 1910s. Such dances threw away controlled steps and prescriptions of etiquette manuals in favor of improvisatory and self-expressive steps called 'turkey trot', 'bunny hug', 'grizzly bear' and 'monkey glide'.

Many saw these animalistic dances as scandalously liberated, where partners were free to choose, whom they danced with and would swap around or improvise steps. Such dances became more widespread, when such moves were made popular and respectable by the dance partners, Irene and Vernon Castle, who taught Americans how to dance new styles in a more traditional, upright and controlled ballroom style, notably introducing Foxtrot, which became the most popular dance step of the era.

 However, the popular introduction of jazz in the form of 'Livery Stable Blues' and the death of Vernon Castle in 1917, started a new era of jazz dancing that took increasing inspiration from African-American dancing styles despite attempts to refine, control or even ban the steps. The rejection of white cultural values was represented by a musical event that, as Langston Hughes claimed, ushered in the Harlem Renaissance. To Hughes, it was the all-black musical revue “Shuffle Along” (1921), which chimed the new era for African-American art and the ascendancy of the black vernacular culture.

The musical revue written by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle featured some of the newest and the most talented black artists of the 1920s, such as Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson and William Grant Still. The success of “Shuffle Along” led to a flurry of all-black or mixed-race revues. Similar to “Shuffle Along” musicals incorporated conventions from the minstrel theatre and many were owned and produced by whites and continued to segregate mixed performances. There were not only white dance instructors frequently employed to give shows to some Broadway 'finesse', but also many themes and sets contained stereotypical 'old Negro', exotic or primitive images that contained black performances within stereotypical cultural discourses.

 Despite this, revues offered increased employment opportunities and national prominence to black performers and musicians, as well as a national showcase for their dance styles: “Chocolate Dandies” featured the rising star Josephine Baker, who eventually found herself feted in Paris; “Blackbirds of 1928” led to the national discovery of the tap-dance star Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson; “Blackbird”' made Florence Mills an international star; “Africana” (1927) starred the blues singer, Ethel Waters; and “Hot Chocolates” written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf, with Louis Armstrong in the orchestra and Waller's “Ain't Misbehavin" as a hit song.

The popularity of African American revues in Harlem and Broadway generated a wave of new dances that were copied and imitated around the country, most notably the national dance sensation that defined the era: 'the Charleston'. Although the Charleston became the quintessential dance of the flapper, when the film The Flapper (1920) was released, white audiences connected the city in South Carolina with the dance, which in 1923 became the emblem of the decade. Influenced by the sensational success of the all-black revue “Shuffle Along”, producers Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles approached the producer, George White, to put on another revue called “Runnin Wild” (1923), this time with music by James P. Johnson, and lyrics by Cecil Mack. The show featured a song by Johnson that he had originally composed in 1913 to play at African American dance halls in Harlem, responding to the familiarity of African Americans with dance moves. Similar to other cultural trends, the dance had been popular long before it came to mass attention and had a complex cultural heritage.

Certain elements of the dance, such as body slapping and hand crossing on the knees, were inherited from the 'Patting Juba', a slave dance derived from early African dance moves that were devised to circumvent bans on drumming by using slapping and foot tapping instead, which later became popular in minstrel performances, where it absorbed aspects of Irish folk dancing. Like all dance crazes of the 1920s, it had been a popular dance widely performed among African Americans in honky-tonks throughout the South in the two decades prior to its appearance in the urban North. Such black performers and dancers as Noble Sissle and the Whitman Sisters had seen or even performed the Charleston since 1905, and it had already appeared in the black musical revues “Liza” (1922), “How Come” (1923) and Ziegfield's “Follies of 1923”.

The dance was performed in 4/4 time with fast-paced syncopated kick-steps, with the arms swinging alternately to leg kicks. During the show, the Charleston was danced with hand clapping and foot stamping by the rest of the chorus. The pace, speed and precision of the dance made it appear modern and machine-age, while allowing innovation, individuality and creative expression to flourish through stylistic variations. To most Broadway audiences, the dance was new and revolutionary, appearing to liberate American dancing from upright European styles with its focus on the lower body that used unconventional or humorous styles, such as 'rubber-legging'. Gilbert Seldes in The New Republic commented that 'the first impression made by the Charleston was extraordinary. Another critic announced that the Charleston number in “Runnin Wild” 'pronounced the beat for the lost generation, and liberated the world of jazz movement'.

 The Charleston soon became a signature dance of the rebellious youth and the 'flapper', and a fad that performed the rebellion and rejection of traditional social norms. A writer for The New York Times commented in 1926 that 'the Charleston has now been received with such enthusiasm as only America can express. Dancers young and not so young enjoy the barbarous rhythm of its syncopation; they like the tricky steps and the recklessness that is somehow injected into them' (108). It led to new fashions of shorter and less restrictive clothing that enabled the energetic and athletic moves and signified the liberation of new sexuality with free movements of the hips, thighs and buttocks, and high kick-steps that revealed dancer's underwear to the audience or her partner. Its popularity was enhanced by its versatility, as it could be danced solo by a female or male person, or with a partner (unlike other dance fads of the decade, such as 'the Shimmy' and the 'Black Bottom'). The Charleston also broke down the hierarchy between dancing as a performance and social dancing that anyone could do, merging the two into a more culturally democratic style.

 By 1925, it seemed that everyone wanted to learn how to dance the Charleston: 'schools are teaching it, movie houses hold Charleston contests, little children imitate its steps on the sidewalks,' claimed Gilbert Seldes. Films were shown to movie audiences with such titles as 'How to Dance Charleston' (1925), and movie houses were assured a return attendance with the six-reel “The Charleston in Six Lessons” (1926). Magazine and newspaper sales also increased by promising 'how to' instructions on the Charleston, and “How to Charleston Correctly” (1926) appeared on bookshelves.

Hotel ballrooms and dance halls held Charleston competitions throughout the nation. For such actresses as Joan Crawford and Ginger Rogers, career success was intimately linked to the Charleston as both began in show business by winning Charleston competitions. Rogers was billed as a 'Queen of the Charleston', and Crawford later showed off her skills in the lead role of Our Dancing Daughters (1928). The ability in the Charleston, which is implied, enabled young women to fulfill the dream of upward mobility, fame and money.

The extent of the dance fad inevitably led to an outbreak of public concern over the possible health and moral impact of the craze. Sociologists carried out studies on dance halls in order to establish their function in an urban life.

 The 1924 investigation of San Francisco dance halls concluded that 'all social problems of the modern life are met within a dance hall: sickness, marital difficulties, unmarried motherhood, unemployment, vocational maladjustment, desertion, feeble-mindedness, poverty, ignorance of social hygiene, American manners and customs, and the lack of sex education'.

 When a ballroom at the Pickwick Club in Boston collapsed in July 1925, resulting in killing forty-four dancers, the explosive energy of the Charleston was claimed to be its cause. The tumultuous energy and danger that this event symbolized made the dance banned in many dance halls as authorities reacted to an apparently uncontrollable dance mania.

 In newspaper articles such headlines as 'Charleston? Heart Shimmy? Health Director Blames Strenuous Dance for Prevalence of Organic Troubles among Young People', doctors and medical experts confirmed the risks and dangers associated with the dance and prevailed on flappers to avoid knee and heart injuries. In an attempt to curb the craze, dance experts met to invent alternative dances to try to replace it, or to set about to encourage more traditional and sedate dance styles. These efforts were met with no success at all.

 According to newspapers and headlines at the peak of the craze, the dance represented a manifestation of the 'Lost Generation' death instinct. In 1926, several national newspapers contained the story of the death of a teenager from 'dancing the Charleston', according to her doctor. In June this was followed by the death of a sixteen year old person, who, as doctors claimed, had died for her 'love for dancing', especially her love for the 'strenuous steps of the Charleston'. Later, that month, The New York Times ran a headline stating 'Charleston in Rowboat Costs Lives of Six; Boy Demonstrating Dance Capsizes Craft'.

The dangers associated with the dance were played out in a Pathé Newsreel in that year, which showed a young dancer, Mildred Unger, dancing the Charleston on the top of an aeroplane. Although the dance was replaced by new fads of 'the shimmy' and the 'black bottom' in 1926, these sexually suggestive dances had never become as universally popular or representative of the era as the Charleston.

Mildred Unger's aerial performance of the Charleston suggested a weightless modernity that was further confirmed by the appearance of a new dance in the late 1920s known as 'the Lindy Hop', named by George 'Shorty' Snowden after Charles Lindbergh's successful transatlantic flight in 1927 (116). The dance extended the Charleston with gravity-defying aerial moves and speed, becoming nationally popular as 'the jitterbug' in the 1930s. Blending an elegant swing style of the big-band sound of Ellington and Henderson with a seemingly effortless tension of Louis Armstrong 'breakaway' solo, the dance represented the American mastery of both the body and the machine.

 The dance had been showcased at the Savoy Ballroom from its opening in 1926, and as one of the few mixed-race dance venues, it quickly became the most popular dance hall in Harlem. Wallace Thurman claimed it even inviting an industrialist as a guest to old-time dances that became somewhat paradoxically termed as a 'Henry Ford Night'.

 The desire to control the dance craze and to shape it into an art form that expressed ideas and emotions rather than was purely for mass entertainment was mostly developed in uplifting 'aesthetic' movement of a concert dance in the 1910s and 1920s (122). Modern dances attempted to find ways to express the same dualistic tensions that characterized works by modernist writers and philosophers, seen in the performances by Helen Tamaris dancing “Subconscious” (1928) and Martha Graham's dance “Heretic” (1929), both of which represented the clash between an individual and the society that was central to intellectual thought.

 Graham's style was grounded on pragmatic educational ideals and experimentalism, which she used to explore important issues of the day in such works as “Immigrant: Steerage, Strike” (1928),’'Poems of 1917: Song behind the Lines” and “Dance of Death” (1928).

 Classical aesthetic and concert dancing also attempted to forge a modernist aesthetic out of indigenous American traditions. For example, Graham had her first starring role in the Aztec ballet 'Xochitl' (1920), and by 1930, her choreography had entirely rebelled against formal European classical traditions including Native American and African American influences.


 By 1929, jazz had become the cultural signature of the decade. At the one level, the cultural and racial shift represented by it appeared revolutionary, but by the end of the decade, black intellectuals were not so sure. The universality and ubiquity of jazz merely concealed the re-inscription of racial divisions that had long dominated the American culture. For example, the growth of interest in Harlem by white culture-seekers made Wallace Thurman complain in 1927 that 'Harlem cabarets were interesting once … but their complexion has changed. The frequenters are almost 95% white. Negroes have been forced out of their own places of amusement, their jazz appropriated, their entertainers borrowed'.

 Langston Hughes also became disappointed that the vast popularity of black performances had not generated greater racial equality. The marketing opportunity for jazz recording also remained segregated throughout the 1920s. Anecdotes about racism faced by even the most celebrated black artists illustrated the central paradox that while whites now enjoyed black music and art. They were far from acknowledging or allowing social equality. Examples of prejudice remained profuse: journalist Walter White wrote that on the same night that he received 'wave after wave' of applause from Broadway audiences for his performance in the Emperor Jones, the celebrated singer and actor Paul Robeson was refused services in downtown restaurants.

 Performers in touring shows encountered similar prejudices in unfamiliar or hostile areas despite achieving high levels of respect on the stage in New York. In order to gain access to performance spaces dominated by whites, black musicians often had to accept second-class treatment or to change the way they performed. Claude McKay also noted that behind the 'baroque fantasy of Negro entertainment there lies the grim reality of ruthless jobbery', where even top bands were paid less than their white equivalents even when they played at the same venues. Although dancing was universally popular across race lines there was not one 'Negro-owned dancing hall in Harlem'.

Although radio broadcasting had allowed jazz to be disseminated throughout the nation, the white control of the airwaves also threatened to make broadcasting music a whites-only affair as the growth of the recording and radio industry centralized power and control into the fewer hands and censorship filtered out those aspects of jazz that seemed undesirable for white critics. Many musicians, who had been central to the evolution of jazz, for example, Ferdinand Joseph 'Jelly Roll' Morton and King Oliver, died penniless in the 1930s, having been undercut by agents or replaced by white musicians. Early jazz criticism also relegated black musicians to the obscurity of the margins. In the first serious jazz history So This Is Jazz (1926), Henry Osgood admitted that 'Nowhere have I gone into detail about negro jazz bands’.

There are so many good ones, and it would be hard to pick out a few to specially mention about. However, none of them are as good as the best white bands, and the best players are very rarely as good as the best white virtuosos'. As late as 1928, Princeton undergraduates worshipped Bix Beiderbecke, but they were found to possess only one record by an African American musician.

 Such paradoxes reached their apotheosis in popular entertainment. While The Jazz Singer (1927), the first sound movie, which had reached the ears of a mass audience, addressed certain problems and prejudices faced by the vaudeville performer, the sound era only served to push black performers more fully into the background. In the film adapted from a popular stage melodrama, jazz represented an archetypal modernity in ethnically progressive and secular America, as a Jewish singer pursued a career in the vaudeville against his father's old-world values and prejudices.

The film paradoxically illuminated the erasure of black jazz by white performers in the popular entertainment sphere through the figure of the minstrel played by Al Jolson, one of the most popular entertainers of the era. Although it attempted to submerge such ethnic and racial tensions within a narrative of family discord, the film indicated that modernity was indeed embodied by transgressive racial identities and internalized (if unacknowledged) presence of the despised outcast. However, the most paradoxical thing was that the film's success helped to usher in an era of sound movies that precipitated the demise of live entertainment, which had been the mainstay for such performers throughout the decade. In one night, the movie made old what was representatively modern by upstaging live entertainment, music and dance with a sensational new motion picture technology, changing the face of modern entertainment for the rest of the century.

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