Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Scandalous Tango

I don't write about my passion for dancing often enough. I convinced my wife, Kelly, to take up tripping the light fantastic almost ten years ago after a weekend's old movie binge. After seeing a few dozen smoky supper clubs with smartly dressed folks dining and dancing to the swing of Benny Goodman or Cab Calloway, I'd pretty much punched my own dance ticket and we started taking lessons that same year. Later I'd find out Kelly had thought (and maybe hoped) this would be a passing fad and that I'd kick the jitterbug after I found out how much work it was to learn dance. Coming up on an decade later and we've only expanded the sorts of venues and music we call our own.

For those in the know, we started pretty much in the same way as everyone else who goes to one of the big, industrial dance complexes for their instruction. We got a good teacher who we really loved and we started out with American Ballroom's version of East Coast Swing, Rumba, Waltz, and Foxtrot.  It took us a year to get pretty good - good enough that we started asking a simple question, what did we really want to get from dance anyway? The answer is, like most things in life, complicated. We wanted fun, we didn't want to compete or medal or fulfill anyone else's definition of "good dancing", but we wanted to keep learning and growing. So, at the three year mark we made the controversial decision to drop the Ballroom Waltz and Foxtrot neither of which felt right to us. We justified this, thinking we just were "swing dancers" and should focus on that dance alone.

Now, ten years into dancing, we understand that it wasn't that we didn't like the Waltz and Foxtrot, we simply didn't like the Ballroom Waltz and Foxtrot. You see, as a culture we've become so disconnected with dance that we assume there's really only one Waltz, one Foxtrot, and one of every sort of dance and furthermore that the one right way to do any of these dances is the way you'll see on some schmaltzy, staged, reality show like Dancing with the Stars or Strictly Ballroom. Don't get me wrong, Ballroom dance is legit and if you're happy with it, more power to you, but it's important to realize that not only isn't Ballroom the only way to dance, it's not even the original.

Before Irene and Vernon Castle began the quest to "civilize" dance in the early 1900's, every region had its own collection of dances, many having evolved from similar dances in nearby regions. Fads rolled across the country, like the "animal dances" of the ragtime era, and you were likely to have learned to dance in elementary school and polished your style by picking up moves from relatives and friends. The resulting dance world was a wild, mish-mash of styles and steps that often left societies mavens aghast and offended with they perceived as the bawdiness and downright immorality of youth culture.

A quote from the preface of the 1917 book Dance Mad or The Dances of the Day captures the general attitude of those who would dare be creative on the dance floor, "Some rising young dancer stumbles on to a new step, while practicing; he teaches it to some innocent girl; of course she asks, What is it? Then the villain thinks quickly of a name; his mind instantly recalls some slang phrase he has heard while making the rounds, with no sense of shame he calls it by the new (?) name, regardless of how degrading or ridiculous." The turn of the 20th century was the era of ragtime and the scandal of "animal dances."

As far as the scions of good taste were concerned, the Turkey Trot, the Grizzly Bear, and the Bunny Hug were a bona fied sign of the impending collapse of American society and the Apocalypse couldn't be far behind. Suddenly young people were...touching...even embracing in public! The dances were banned in cities across the country and there is some evidence that fears of the Turkey Trot might have led Woodrow Wilson to cancel his inaugural ball in 1913. In jurisdictions across the land, from rural Kansas to New York City, you could land in jail for any of a number of "lewd and suggestive" dances. Heck, in Cincinnati, Catholic bishops told their flocks that they would not be forgiven for the sin of dancing the Turkey Trot. Enter Vernon and Lillian Castle.

The Castles chief contribution to dancing was to popularize a formalized style of dance roughly equivalent to what we'd call Ballroom dancing today. Gone were the hugs, silliness, and creative interpretation, and in was a system that endorsed one "right" way to do a few dances that were acceptable for social and public dancing.  Take a quick look at the difference. First you've got an example of the dance too risqué for President Wilson, the Turkey Trot, followed by Lillian and Vernon Castle performing their own Castle Walk.

Does one of these look more fun than the other? Well, though having too much fun in public was one reason the uptight wanted to ban many dances, there was a far more sinister reason and it mainly had to do with race and class.

America, the great mixing pot of the world, has long had trouble practicing what it preaches and that shortcoming extended (and probably still extends) to the dance floor. As far back as the 18th century, British cultural mavens were decrying the Waltz as "... the indecent foreign dance called the Waltz was introduced (we believe for the first time) at the English court on Friday last … it is quite sufficient to cast one’s eyes on the voluptuous intertwining of the limbs and close compressor on the bodies in their dance, to see that it is indeed far removed from the modest reserve which has hitherto been considered distinctive of English females. So long as this obscene display was confined to prostitutes and adulteresses, we did not think it deserving of notice; but now that it is attempted to be forced on the respectable classes of society by the civil examples of their superiors, we feel it a duty to warn every parent against exposing his daughter to so fatal a contagion." In America, World War I meant Johnny wasn't only exposed to trench warfare in Europe, but he also got to experience one or two French clubs and dance in ways deemed immoral and indecent back home. He likely heard black musicians playing syncopated tunes by performers like Josephine Baker, Django Reinhardt, and Sidney Bechet. They came home wanting to drink and play away the hidden pains of war and having a penchant for forbidden music.

But back home segregation kept whites separated from African American and Latin American performers and their music. Old taboo dances like the Fox Trot were updated to make them a little more jazzy, but it would take the final overreaching of the moralists to really bring African rhythms and syncopation to a broader and whiter audience. Prohibition aimed at eliminating the vice of drink from the land, but all it really accomplished was driving drinking underground. Gang-run speakeasies featured  African American musicians like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and King Oliver. Every move to tighten moral control resulted in an equal backlash by youth culture: skirts got shorter, women bobbed their hair, men donned Harvard bags, slang became more outlandish, and dance got closer, more outlandish, and sexier. By the time World War II commenced, the proverbial cat was out of the bag and people were dancing the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug in Harlem on a Friday night.

And that brings us back to where I started, my own dancing. After experiencing the Ballroom version of the Fox Trot, Waltz, and (eventually) Tango, Kelly and I came to the decision that we wanted to learn something different. Just last year we began taking lessons in Cross-Step Waltz (a version that was common during the American Civil War), the Jazz-Age Fox Trot, and most recently a 20's era Valetino-style  Tango. In the coming year I'll try to give updates on what it's like learning these dances and our progress.

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