By Greg Clark, March 3, 1934
“Can you dance?” asked Jimmie Frise.
“In a kind of a way,” I admitted. “I do a sort of jig in the summer, when I walk out the French windows into the garden. And in the morning, while I am lathering. I sometimes amuse my daughter …”
“No, no,” cried Jimmie. “I mean dance. Dance! One step. Waltz. Ballroom style!”
“Aw, you don’t call that dancing!” I laughed heartily. “That stuff! Clutching a girl and waddling around with stiff legs! Haw!”
“Well,” inquired Jim, nicely, “what is dancing then?”
“It isn’t that silly walking around!” I stated loudly. “Dancing is one of the oldest forms of human expression. Before men could talk, they could dance. Before mankind had any voice, except a howl of pain and a loud yawp of joy, the only way they could express their feelings was by dancing. Good heavens, didn’t you know that?”
“I not only didn’t know it,” said Jimmie. “It didn’t even occur to me.”
“Certainly,” I went on. “For the first few million years, while we were just developing our voices so that we could growl, groan, gurgle and whine, ages before we even thought of the idea of using words, much less had agreed on what words would mean which, we men were talking with our bodies. We danced everything. We danced about going hunting, about war, about love, fear, hunger, joy.”
“I believe you’re right,” said Jim. “Still, fox trotting, and this modern dancing is something.”
“Wait Till You See It”
“It’s just pathetic,” I said. “It is pathetic as a worn-out radio from which come faint, far sounds. Modern ballroom dancing merely proves that the human instincts of those who participate in that kind of dancing are just about dead.”
“It’s a fact!” I repeated. “Modern people are just pale shadows of their noble and primitive ancestors. They feel faint cravings for something, they know not what. The cravings are not very strong. They are muddled and indistinct. But these, the millionth great-grandchildren of men and women who once danced around the fallen mammoth or icthyosaurus, take timid hold of one another and go teetering around the ballroom to tinkling music. They have nothing to celebrate. Nothing to express.”
“A lot you know about it,” declared Jim. “How long is it since you were at a dance?”
“Well,” I said, hesitantly, “you see I belong to that generation that missed dancing. I was at the war when I should have been learning the social graces.”
“Some night soon,” went on Jimmie, “I’ll take you to one of these five-cents-a-dance palaces and show you something.”
“I’d like to very much,” I agreed.
“And if you think these modem young people need any pointers from their blue-painted ancestors,” said Jim, “I’ll eat your shirt.”
And the following night, under the pretext of attending a meeting of the Anglers’ Association, Jimmie and I got out for the evening, and Jim drove me down to a five-cents-a-dance hall.
It was softly glowing with light and surrounded by hundreds of cars. As we entered its colorful and shaded interior, a muted band was playing low, seductive music, and several hundred young people, some in party clothes, some in business clothes, like Jim and me, were swish-swishing about the large dance floor in a dense, swaying, rhythmic mass.
“H’m,” said I.
We leaned against the wall and watched. The girls were mostly pretty and many of them flushed. Eyes were bright and veiled.
A young chap whose father once saved my life with his water bottle in France came gaily up to us.
“Hullo!” he cried. “Is it a dance you’re after or just a story?”
“A story,” I explained, introducing Jimmie. “Mr. Frise here says there is plenty of what you may call it, plenty of I can’t say, plenty of n’yah, if you gather me, in this modern ballroom dancing.”
“So there is,” said the boy. “Any amount of n’yah, and I do get you.”
“I, on the other hand,” said I “think you have to go back to the square dances, the barn dances, the old-fashioned high-jinks of our forefathers to get any n’yah!”
The young chap looked at me in amazement.
“Pious old hoofing like that!” he cried. “Listen. Don’t go away. The next number is a one-step. But after that comes the carioca.”
“Carioca,” said the boy. “Latest thing from Rio. You may have seen it in the movies. Wait till you see that. Square dance! Huh!”
“Are you with a party?” I inquired
“Oh, sure, this is all a party,” said the boy. “I mean, we know everybody. Do you want a partner?”
“Mr. Frise might like to twirl around a bit,” I suggested.
The boy vanished in the slowly padding mob. The music went boompa, doompa. Swish. Swish went the hundreds of feet.
“I don’t want to dance,” protested Jimmie. “I really can’t dance.”
But the lad returned almost Immediately with two young ladies. The most visible one of the two was a large, blazing Brazilian type of girl, tall, Mae Westish in a kind of Latinized form, and sort of snorty, if you understand me. A new, modern, snorty sort of girl you see more and more of as you pass through your forties. But Jimmie, to my astonishment, passed this large, dark girl in favor of a small, demure little damsel.
“I don’t want anybody leading me,” whispered Jim, “when I’m trying to dance.”
The large Brazilian girl, whose name was Maud, leaned up against the wall beside me and I felt the wall tremble.
The boy made a few wisecracks and then left us.
Just Leaving It to Maud
“Let’s dance this next one,” said Maud.
The band had ceased and everybody was filing off the floor.
“I can do the Paul Jones,” I said, “but not these here slither-foot dances. I stamp when I dance. I jump up and down.”
“Let’s dance this next one,” repeated Maud. She had a far-away expression. I don’t believe she had heard word I said, even about Nelson.
“I never danced before,” I said.
“I’ll lead,” said Maud. “You won’t need to do anything.”
“I prefer not to,” I said, clearly.
“All right,” said Maud, eagerly. “We’ll get ready now, you go in front with the tickets!”
She was pushing from behind. I didn’t like to make a scene, and anyway, I don’t like being jostled. I walked ahead. Got two tickets. Ten cents.
The band, which I saw from across the vacant floor, dressed in Brazilian costumes, burst into another slow, boompa, boompa tune. I think it was “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Amidst a flood of dancing couples, Maud and I were swept on to the floor. I felt Maud take hold of me. She rested one strong, cupped hand on my shoulder blade, lifted my off arm into the air, and in a moment I was being wafted skillfully, slowly, delicately through space.
“M’mmm!” I said.
“Like it?” asked Maud, who was some distance above me.
“M’mmm,” I repeated.
Softly, deftly, smoothly, with a queer tingly feeling creeping up from the soles of my feet, Maud wafted me about the crowded room.
“M’mmm–MMMMM!” said I.
“Don’t talk,” said Maud.
And we finished out the dance, feeling entirely alone in that room of several hundred people. When the music stopped, it was like the lights coming on at the theatre.
We went out and stood against the wall with Jimmie and several young people who had joined us.
“The next bit,” said Jim, “is the carioca. How about it?”
“I’ve got him for the carioca,” stated Maud, loudly.
Several of the young people with us laughed.
“It’s Maud’s specialty,” said one young chap, more Maud’s size, and a little jealous, if I am any judge, although, as I say, I am getting a little dull with age, now. “Maud is one of those genuine South Americans whose ancestors hail from Lancashire. She’s got Rio, if you understand me?”
The band suddenly started. Everybody raced for the floor. Maud pulled me after her. The band was no longer playing boompa music. It was barking, thudding, and somebody was tapping a lot of over the racket a saxophone squealed some sort of tune. The hall seemed suddenly to be filled with waves.
Ancestors Were Never Like This
Maud took my two hands and began heel and toeing, just like a barn dance, facing me. An unholy light glowed down from her face. I heeled and toed too.
Bang went the band, and Maud grabbed me and whirled me madly round and round.
“Hey!” I cried.
“Don’t talk,” commanded Maud between her teeth.
Again the tick-tock blocks, and Maud began dancing around me as if I were a fly and she a large spider, like a tarantula.
Having nothing better to do, I danced around her, feeling like a fly.
Bang went the band again and Maud seized me. She did an awful thing. She cracked her forehead down against mine, grabbed me by the back of the neck and held her head against mine while she twirled me round and round.
“Just a minute,” I said.
Maud cut off my wind.
She held me tight by the neck and while twisting me in a complete circle, turned herself in a complete circle, with her head rolling once right around mine.
But she cut my wind off again, and while the band raved and rocked, she whirled me round and round, miraculously saving me from being dashed to pieces against other dancers. As far as I could see, the whole room was full of people whirling, and cracking their heads together. I caught one glimpse of Jim, and he was, I fear, doing the can can. I tried to shout to him to remember he belonged to a bygone age. But Maud shut off my wind.
She just stood in front of me and glared at me, hypnotically, while she made quite small little motions with her feet, a sort of miniature dance I stood perfectly still. Hypnotized.
Bang, BẢNG! went the band.
It was over.
“Ah,” said Maud. “Isn’t that swell?”
“M’mmmm,” I said, but it hadn’t her meaning. My collar band was ripped. My neck was swollen. I had palpitations. My eyes felt bunged.
We got to the wall.
“Well,” said Jim, flushed and mussed, “how about your bone-gnashing ancestors now?”
I winked at him. I signalled toward the door.
We walked out. We got our coats. We ran dodging behind cars until we found Jim’s.
“Ha, ha,” said Jim. “Seared she’s after you!”
“I don’t like that carioca,” I said, as we got into the car. There’s a dance our ancestors never did. It isn’t natural. It’s a dance for wild women to fling around tame men. Such a dance would only be invented in a nation that was in the last stages.”
“The last stages of what?” asked Jim.
“The last stages of not being like our ancestors,” I said.
“But stick to the point,” persisted Jim. “What do you think of our modern dances? Are they pathetic? Are they feeble?”
“M’mmm,” I said, which is a dandy political answer.
Editor’s Notes: This is the first Greg-Jim story that included a colour illustration. Previously, they were always black-and-white. They would occasionally be black-and-white in the future, but would mostly be in colour going forward. Because many of the scans are based off of microfilm which did not transfer colour well, more editing is required to get the feel of the artwork.
The Carioca song was written in 1933 (a year before this story), and was popularized in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, which was the first first film that included Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It would become a jazz standard that would later be recorded by Artie Shaw, and the Andrews Sisters.
Mae West was a popular actress of the 1930s, known for her sensual style that would get her in trouble with censors.
Paul Jones dances were popular in the early 20th century, which was very similar to square dancing. The fact the Greg mentioned this would indicate that he was old-fashioned.
“Five-cents-a-dance palaces” sound a lot like taxi dance halls, but this does not seem to be the type of establishment Greg and Jim went to, as it sounded like everyone had to pay to dance, even if you had a partner. Taxi dancers were women who would dance with men for 5 cents (later 10 cents) per song. The men had to buy a ticket for each dance, and the women would get a cut based on the number of tickets they turned in at the end of the evening. Taxi dance halls were most popular in the 1920s and 1930s.