By Greg Clark, November 3, 1928
A soldier gets the same kick out of marching to the music of a band that the average person gets out of dancing.
“The definition I like best,” says Cecil Da Costa, one of Toronto’s dancing masters, “is this: dancing is moving to music. You can elaborate that definition all you like. But the small child leaping about to the victrola and the highly accomplished steppers performing the latest measures come under that definition. And there is all the room in the world within the same definition for the great mass of dancers who do not bother to learn the newest steps and who one-step or waltz their pleasant way through everyday social life.
“The dancing masters naturally keep abreast of the times in learning and teaching the season’s specialty, just the same as the surgeon keeps abreast of the last word in practice. But the everyday pills and tonics that we hand out are the simple prescriptions for being graceful and sell confident in the performance of the old standard dance steps.”
Each year, along about this time, when the social evenings begin, a new and dazzling dance step bursts upon the scene. Amid a great bally hoo of publicity and outraged discussion in the press, the Charleston, the Black Bottom and the Varsity Drag have come and gone.
What will it be this year?
What new writhing or wriggling of the various cuts of the human carcass are being schemed and planned to convince the elders of the generation that the younger set are simply gone limp?
It was while canvassing the Toronto dancing masters that a rather startling fact was discovered.
The dancing masters do not make the dances.
The professional stage and concert dancers do not create them.
The public does not design them.
Who does then?
The makers of music.
Music is the mother of the dance.
Whatever song or dance number is most popular this winter – outstandingly popular and demanded by public favor – will determine what dance will be popular.
Recent history proves it. Out of jazz which began during the war and rose to a permanent fever that has not yet abated, there developed at last a sort of ecstasy in which rhythm was broken and interrupted and shattered into super-jazz so that even the jazziest dancers had to be more than merely hot-footed. They had to perform some special high-jinks to meet the demand of that interrupted and riotous music. Came the Charleston!
When Valencia Ousted Charleston
The black man has always been an ecstatic dancer. Away back in simple old minstrel days a black man loved to interrupt even the dignity of a cake walk with sudden and uncalled for outbursts of enthusiasm – which he managed to still keep within the pattern of rhythm.
So when jazz music went mad – around about 1924 – and actually demanded interludes with arms and legs aside from mere clever foot work, it was a simple matter to ask the black man to show us a few well known high jinks.
Into the midst of this cheerfully wiggling and arm gesturing world of the Charleston there suddenly broke, almost overnight, a song, a tune – Valencia.
It was utterly apart from the frenzy and ecstasy of the bucket loads of music that was being poured out to appease the Charlestoning multitude. It was a stately, romantic staccato tune simply reeking of Spanish onions. No breaks in it, but a swift, dagger-swinging, shawl waving tune.
Now, if the dance made the music, the world would simply have ignored Valencia. But the music makes the dance. Valencia was one of those earfuls of which there is not more than one per annum. The public listened, sat up, hummed and got bright of eye. The orchestra leaders saw this and played it over and over.
And of course, the world danced.
And suddenly instead of Charleston, everybody was tangoing, trying to remember the graceful twists and bull-fight swagger of the tango. All the sheiks started growing side-burns. And the dancing masters began feverishly to re-introduce into a world shot to pieces by the Charleston some of the upstanding swank, the flashing eye, the stiletto-footedness that they imagined belongs to Spanish dancing.
You remember that phase. It did not last. A multitude of poor little saxophones were wailing out in the storm. Jazzed cornets cried shrilly in the night. And as the result of Charleston being ousted by Valencia, along came the Black Bottom which gives you all the abandon of Charleston with some of the foot-stamping and staccato of the Spanish aroma.
The Varsity Drag was the last – born and bred not out of preceding dances but in answer to the arbitrary tune that tickled not the foot but the ear. Between one dance and its successor there is enough resemblance at least to show that they are both being performed by the same mammal. There are a few bones and bits of meat of the Charleston still left in the Varsity Drag.
Listening for a New Tune
But what the ballyhooers of the dance are waiting for now, all with their ears to the ground, is the arrival of the most popular air for the winter – the one that will endure a winter.
For a little while, they thought it might be Old Man River. There was a haunting quality to that tune that might almost make it the key tune for the season, in which case the curious cadence of Old Man River, with its hesitant little extra beat at the end of each line, would have given us this winter a hesitation one-step, not a hesitation waltz which some of the gray-heads will recall. And being all about the Mississippi, naturally, any dancing to Old Man River would have a lot of Ethiopian Jungle stuff in it too..
Titchener Smith agrees with Cecil Da Costa that the music creates the dance of the season.
“Dancing is divided into two distinct forms,” says Mr. Smith. “Popular ball room dancing, which after all is a social convention in which we can teach merely the routine of simple steps but with great emphasis on the necessity of grace and self-assurance out on the floor. The other kind of dancing includes the ballet and all forms of classical and professional expressionist dancing. That of course is an art and there must be teachers of it as there are teachers of music. Included in that division of dancing are also these popular forms such as the Charleston and Varsity Drag. For you would be surprised how many people, young people mostly, who find dancing a great hobby and who insist on being taught the most advanced forms of these popular and ever-passing dances of the moment.
“What this winter’s genuinely sensational dance will be we cannot yet for certain say. The dancing masters of America meet in a convention every autumn and do their best to determine the trend of popular fancy in dancing, check up on the errors and mistakes of last season from the point of view of art, and attempt to forestall any such similar errors entering the scene for the coming season. We agree on certain modifications and developments of popularly accepted steps and dance figures. We are more concerned with beauty in dancing than popularity, for as most of us have been trained in the classic school, we know how many of the modern dances trespass on the sacred ground of beauty. Yet nine out of ten of our pupils are in search of just a little grace and assurance on the ball room floor. By insisting on the essential quality of grace in dancing, I think the dancing master does a great deal towards controlling that ecstatic expression which modern jazz has carried to the verge of the ludicrous in some cases.”
Cecil Da Costa imagines back in the cave man days some warrior chipping flints with rhythmic strokes and causing the children or women to commence the almost instinctive movement of arms or torso which any rhythm excites in human beings. Just home from a victorious fight, he starts excitedly chipping fresh flints and out of that is born a war dance. From flints to sticks, from sticks to tom-toms is a short more, even for a cave man. And the dance must have been one of the first modes of human expression.
“Maybe we danced,” says Da Costa, “before we talked.”
Editor’s Notes: This seems almost like a follow-up to an article written two years earlier and referenced here.
The Victrola is a generic term for a record player.
As mentioned in the previous note, this was a period in time when dancing followed “rules”. You have to learn the various dance steps, and how “good” you were was defined by how well you performed them.