More doctors are prescribing dancing for their patients.
“The first thing you must understand if you wish to dance is that there is grace in your body whether you have suspected it before or not.”

By Gregory Clark, December 10, 1927.

The leading winter sport in Toronto is dancing.

Not enough snow for skiing, tobogganing or sleigh bells.

The people who golf and tennis and otherwise romp the long summer through are not free to quit, suddenly, all activity. Their nerves won’t permit it.

So they dance. With all due respect to those who denounce the sport of dancing, doctors are ready to agree that modern dancing is nothing but a form of exercise – a sport.

Etiquet forbids doctors to talk for publication but a well known young Toronto specialist answered the question:

“Is dancing good?”

“You take,” replied the diagnostician, “the average young man and woman of to-day, and they are a pretty active pair from, May to November, with golf, tennis, summer resorts, motoring, boating, playing as much of their time as they can spare. It is impossible for them, from purely physical reasons, to suspend all activity from November to May. Their whole being demands action. That explains the popularity of dancing, and it also explains, if I may theorize about something I know nothing about, the extreme simplicity of the modern dance: it is a form of pleasant exercise, reduced to the minimum of artificiality.”

This theory is borne out in the history of dancing. In olden days when duelling was a very formal sport, dancing, too, was formal and ornate. The barn dance, with its vigor and bounding simplicity, was merely a translation into terms of the off season of plowing, reaping and the common activities of the farm.

Modern dancing translates into indoor terms such games as golf and tennis. Waltzes are golf; one-steps and the flat Charleston1 are tennis.

You have to learn golf and you have to learn dancing. The proof that dancing is not a welling up of original sin in a boy or girl is the fact that few people are natural dancers, just as few are natural singers. The easiest way to learn is to start as a youngster, during the unselfconscious years. The great majority of beginners, according to dancing masters in Toronto, are eldest children of a family or only children. If dancing is learned in the home, as part of the everyday fun of the home, the two simple fundamentals of dancing are unconsciously won: unselfconsciousness and natural grace. And they never have to take lessons in an academy.

We visited different dancing classes and public dance floors in Toronto to witness the process by which the sport of dancing is mastered, and to see if it were a pastime to be classed with golf, tennis, skating and so forth as a means of enjoying that period of inarticulate ecstasy called youth.

In all of them, we found a majority of young men. They were attractive as a type, almost without exception. And they were going at the business of learning to dance with a concentration that reminded us more of our early days of squad drill as recruits in the army than anything else.

“If they like this,” said Jim, “we must have liked squad drill.”

First Lesson Just Walking

For the dancing master has only one or two principles to teach and he handles them as dexterously as the drill sergeant handled his “right turn by numbers.”

Picture a large dance floor with forty or fifty boys and a lesser number of girls grouped around the edge.

It is a beginners’ class.

“Take your places out in two ranks on the floor,” says the master.

They stride out, gamely or bashfully as they are constituted, these young students, clerks, juniors in all the callings and professions. The girls are less self-conscious than the boys.

“Watch me move from here to there,” says the master. And he walks, with a slow, graceful, gliding steps, about ten paces.

“The first thing you must understand, if you wish to dance, is that there is grace in your body, whether you have ever suspected it before or not. You can carry yourself handsomely, or you can carry yourself badly. You men will have the greatest trouble in this. I ask you only this: carry yourself in a manly fashion, straightly, easily, and not slinking or heavily. And instead of placing your heels down first, point your foot and place the ball of your foot on the ground first. All right. Now we will walk the length of the floor.”

And the roomful, to the count of the master, paces slowly all together from one end of the dancing floor to the other.

Some of them are extremely comic. The self-conscious ones are suddenly terrifically self-conscious. They shrink into themselves, and stride unsteadily, awkwardly. The bold ones swagger down the floor, with elaborate mincing steps as far from the master’s demonstration as could be conceived.

“Now, then! This is the way some of you went,” and the master imitates the bashful ones. “And this is the way others of you went.” He mocks the swaying, swaggering ones. There is a burst of hearty laughter and the class is suddenly on the way to learning how to walk. For the master again shows the way: body held still and straight, easily and lightly, advancing by an almost cat-like tread on the forward part of the foot. He seems to glide. There is not the slightest up-and-down motion to him. He is a big, manly man, and there is not the faintest trace of sissiness about his actions.

“Now, let’s be graceful. Take it easily. You are all so self-conscious that none of you is looking at his neighbor, so don’t be afraid of grace. It is in you all. Merely let it out.”

For half an hour the master makes these novices walk, walk, walk. They walk around in a circle or across the floor in ranks. A piano quietly cuts in, and they find themselves, each by himself, pacing slowly to soft music. The dance has begun.

“Ladies and gentleman,” says the master, “you are now dancing.”

And these clumsy-footed boys, awkward and painfully self-conscious, these girls rather shy and most of them mincing, under the impression that they must bounce in fairy-like swerves and shoulder-swayings, have delighted expressions on all their faces as they pace thus slowly, their bodies suddenly graceful and consciously graceful because they are light, easy, and under the first control of grace.

The master then lectures them: simply and without pretense or bluff; tells them to practise walking in the privacy of their homes, turning, rounding corners, to the music of the victrola, until they can handle themselves without losing balance, until they teach long neglected muscles to function with ease and sureness.

“Practise as you walk in the streets and in your offices,” he says. “Start right now to walk gracefully. Practise grace consciously until it becomes unconscious. Here endeth the first lesson.”

A dance class consists usually of six lessons. It starts in this simple fashion. The next meeting, the class is taught the first rudiments of steps. Instead of merely walking in a straight line, they walk two steps and turn. One turn is the two-step, another turn is the waltz. Again, the class is suddenly awkward, because new rhythm is demanded from unaccustomed muscles – muscles just left, for years past, to work as they felt like working. Now they must work with grace.

And Doctors Prescribe It

In six lessons, the average dance master can teach his pupils enough to put them at their ease on the ballroom floor.

Cecil Da Costa, one of the leading masters in Toronto, has no belief in much of the pretension and bunkum about dancing.

“The majority of people, wish to dance because it is one of the ways of being happy,” he says. “They are deterred from dancing because they feel they are awkward. Therefore, we simply have to prove to them that they are not awkward. And with the usual exceptions, it does not take more than three or four lessons to make them understand the simple principle of grace – which is nothing but control.

“All sports are graceful in the hands of proficient players – awkward in the hands of beginners. A great golfer is one of the finest exhibitions of grace there is. A great tennis player is not far removed – in his or her perfect control and rhythm – from a perfect ballet dancer. It is nothing more or less than that.

“The fashionable steps which come and go are simply decorations upon an institution fundamentally simple. Not ten per cent. of the people. who are dancing in Toronto to-night know what step they are dancing, or care! They are simply dancing to the music. What the music demands, they give. As in all other pastimes, there are the refinements. In dancing, these are the flat Charleston which the Prince of Wales2 dances, or the Varsity drag3. We give those who want them these refinements. And they must be learned, as Bobby Jones4‘ style of grasping the club must be learned. But we are busiest teaching the two principles and the few basic facts – grace, unconscious grace, and control of the body.”

Always there are the impossible ones. There are certain people who seem to be mentally incapable of conceiving rhythm or the beat of time. Not tone-deaf but time-deaf. And they try so hard. The careful, exaggerated beat of the master’s specially trained pianist is unheard. They stamp and stagger and hesitate all over the floor, trying to put their foot down when the others do, not when the music asks for it. These are hopeless, and are about as luckless as color-blind people in matching silks.

A certain number of elderly people are in every class. They move with an awkwardness born of years. The little finenesses of control in muscles is far behind them. In nearly every case, when investigated, these elderly people are studying dancing on physicians’ orders.

“More and more,” says the instructor, “we are getting what you might call patients – people who must have some gentle exercise or some new interest in life. A doctor called me and told me he was sending a man whose trouble was solely nervous, a man past his youth, who must be got interested in something stimulating to his mind as well as easy exercise.

“Then we have the reducing work: no end of women are taking private lessons for the sole purpose of reducing. They tell me the same story: that after settling down to the routine of married life, they missed the gay activity of their earlier years, and began to put on flesh. And of course, it is nothing new that dancing is the finest kind of reducing exercise. Now the doctors are beginning to prescribe it, most particularly to young married women who have suddenly surrendered their youth and settled down to matronly, habits – which, after years of activity, are bad habits.”

Which all goes to show that dancing may be many things, but really is one thing: a form of sport or pastime which, like many other pastimes, calls for mastery of the body, grace, and a stimulating activity.

Editor’s Notes:

  1. The Flat Charleston is a dance step. Here is a how-to video, also from 1927. ↩︎
  2. The Prince of Wales (future Edward VII) was considered quite the playboy at the time, and followed breathlessly in the press. ↩︎
  3. The Varsity Drag was a song as well as a dance step. ↩︎
  4. Bobby Jones was a champion golfer. ↩︎