A HISTORY OF VINTAGE DANCE
By Ian Whitcomb
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com
Who exactly are these exotic creatures, these vintage dancers? Are they merely anachronisms? Sometimes dressed Victorian, sometimes Edwardian, sometimes (and very late times) dressed as flappers and collegians. But never will you see any of them wearing a baseball cap the wrong way 'round.
Vintage dancers are reactionaries in the best sense of the word. They are high-kicking against the beastliness of modern life: against restaurants where there is noise instead of conversation; against the cattle-car cram of a jumbo let; against the ubiquitousness of the isolationist cellular phone caller, clutching and kissing and confessing into that molded plastic as if it were a holy relic. In these activities we note an absence of community spirit, of common courtesy, of natural intercourse, of plain old-fashioned good manners.
The vintage dance community you are about to join brings a sense of order and decorum into a fragmented world of broken glass and selfishness. So come enter the safe and secure palace of dance. Hear the door close swishingly behind you. Discover on the gleaming parquet floor a cool and collected society traveling smoothly in pairs, in one direction, around the ballroom, as if on skates-never bumping, never cursing. Ever smiling, ever helping, dancers-citizens-moving selflessly to the rhythm of the heart- beat, to the cycle of the seasons.
Come to the ball-and bring the rest of the world along with you. Perhaps we will realize a heavenly world in regular motion, synchronized waves on a frienthy ocean.
If I sound drunk with missionary zeal that's because until recently I was suffering from the legacy of the swinging sixties when you "go-goed" with yourself and you shot off on solitary trips, ending up in designer flares and platform shoes, pointing and pouting and posing to the dull pounding of a disco beat. But after the silly seventies came the first of the Ragtime Balls and my salvation. Then did I discover Victorian Balls with their Grand Marches and silver-buckled Dancing Masters...but I am ahead of my story...
A bit of pre-history, misty and mystical, is necessary to set the ball rolling.
In the Beginning was the Dance, even before the Word. The pre-hisorrics through themselves around in movements of pure self-expression, doing their thing without direction by any authority: a jump for joy, a hop of pain, some vigorous stamping to keep out the cold.
Soon came purposeful steps, ritual patterns designed to bring down the rain or to bring out the sun so that the crops would rise. There were set figures around the sacred tree, with cries to the tree-god for more babies so that the tribe might survive. To keep the beat-the life pulse-the dancers clapped their hands, or banged shells and stones. And then there were drums.
Drums were essential for softening up an enemy before battle. Often a war was averted and what would have been a blood-letting became a hop-skip-and-jump, each rival trying to kidnap the devil inside the other. During their rare times of leisure, the folk whirled around and around in spontaneous queer dances until they were out of their heads and into a realm of ecstasy. Now were they closer to God and to pleasure-for in those days the spiritual and the carnal were not separated.
In ancient Greece, crathe of Western civilization, dancing was made to serve Man on Earth, not Man in Heaven. The Greeks believed in celebrating the here and now, and they meant it to be concentrated on the body beautiful. Physical movement, nobly expressed, portrayed life's ideal: correct proportions, balance, restraint, self-sculpted order in a brainless cosmos.The Romans, in their decadence, let down the Western side by allowing the fine pursuit of body-worship to slither into a mess of sexual orgy Dancing declined into an appetizer for self-indulgent satisfaction.
Organized Christianity, next in line as leader of Western civilization, reacted with righteous vigor, denouncing all secular dancing. Only the liturgical form was allowed. Uncontrolled spontaneous dancing was condemned as evidence of Satan's work. During the fourteenth century, in the heart of the Dark Ages and the Black Death, a sudden dance mania broke out all over Europe, especially during church services and funerals. The clergy had their hands full trying to squash this crazed flinging and flaunting of limb. There seemed to be no good reason for such outlandishness. ,
Despite the Roman Church's denunciation, country folk continued to dance un- abashethy, even rudely. Eventually, the clerics came to recognize a division between the sacred and secular, so long as their flocks paid their dues by supplicating in church on Sundays. Rustic weddings provided a nice common ground for abandoned dancing, encouraged by plenty of strong home brew. That such dancing encouraged lust can be clearly seen in Breughel's painting "Wedding Dance" (1566).
The communal dances-circle dances, round dances, square dances-recreated an integrated society in ritual step. About this time, as Breughel showed, couple dancing starts cropping up within the classic circle-a new development, a breakaway. These whirling couples are still whorled within the flow of the group, are still part of village society. From such fancy-free, even quaint, folk settings there emerged new and energetic dances performed by improvising couples. These were soon spotted by the sophisticated and added to the diversions of a jaded aristocracy and its hangers-on.
For example in the 18th century, peasant couples in southern Germany had been observed breaking away from the dance circle to rotate alone, hugging each other for safety's sake. They leapt and stamped as they turned and turned again, ending their revolutions in a state of collapse on the earthen floor. These revolutions were adopted and adapted by their social superiors in the waltz, a revolution in itself and another problem for the Church and those in authority. Just as the Black Death had spawned a dance mania, so the Napoleonic Age relieved itself in Waltz Balls, which seemed never-ending. In Vienna, frustrated feelings were exposed in public displays of intense whirling. Cares turned into sweat to be evaporated- in the sun of a brand new era.
However, new ages and new civilizations are not created by the folk. It is to their social "betters" that we must now turn to continue our story of social dance and its codification. From the Elizabethan age onward, in castle and country house and especially at court, the elite ha~ been fashioning a method of courtship, based on the rules of chivalry, in order to cool the ardor of the over-passionate and the under-civilized-in other words, the young. A cornerstone in the art of becoming a gendeman was the dance, almost as important as fencing. " Manners Maketh The Man" ran the dictum, and on the ballroom floor was to be displayed the visible expression of the finest in current correct social conduct. Even standing still was an art
In this rarefied setting, the true ruler was the dancing master. First flourishing in the courts of Renaissance Italy, the dancing master became the confidante of princes and the scourge of the ungainly. Instruction books gave this pedagogue the power to lay down the law of the ballroom to the finest detail. Would-be ladies and gentlemen must learn how to curtsey and how to bow, how to hold a hand correctly and how to make small talk while walking a slow and stately minuet
By the time of Louis XIV, the true ruler was the dancing master. Versailles was the HQ, issuing the latest steps, stamped by the King himself. Dancing was now a vital part of the good governance of society." The upper classes were taught to dance on their toes, reaching for higher things-for spiritual matters, for grace as well as favor. When the steps became too high and tricky, the gentlemen employed professional dancers as substitutes. As a result was ballet born, soon to split off into a separate art Meanwhile, the rules of social dance spilled into ordinary life: it became de rigeur to walk with toes turned out, a sign that one was not of the hoi polloi, those rude and crude masses already -howling anarchy just outside the palace gates.
Thus did the Age of Reason, of cold classicism and precision, give way to the Age of Revolution and of Nationalism, and, of course, to Romanticism. An age of the heart ruling the head, and, later, of hot and not always natural passions pulsing beneath the thick and heavy clothing of the Victoria n Age. After the fuss over the whirling waltz came the hopping polka from the unguarded wilds of Bohemia. Both dances were corralled and branded by the dancing masters.
Fortunately for the dance establishment there was one revolution that worked in its favor. The Industrial Revolution created a midthe class for nouveau riche anxious to learn upper class style and behavior. There was a big demand for etiquette manuals, for guides on deportment, for advice on how to lay a formal dinner table. As for dancing, these arrivistes eagerly absorbed the essential handbook, Dancing And Its Relation to Education and Social Life by Allen Dodsworth, America's foremost dance master. His main point was a good one: "that all pleasure depends entirely upon the kinthy cooperation of others." His thesis was that the ballroom, being a glittering idealized reflection of the outside world, must demonstrate cooperation at its most sublime in such set dances as the cotillion, the quadrille and the Lancers. Individuals had an important part to playas members of a well-drilled team under the captainship of an official dance master.
In 1879, these "professors" had formed a society for teaching and regulating correct behavior in the ballroom (and, it followed, in life itself). That they had their work cutout is shown by this extract from a period dance manual:
"Loud conversation, profanity, stamping the feet, writing on the wall, smoking tobacco, or throwing anything on the floor are strictly forbidden. The practice of chewing tobacco and spitting is not only nauseous to ladies, but it is injurious to their dresses."
However, by the end of the century the dancing establishment had achieved such success that it could boast of a national ballroom that was a model for the world, a great democratic society where even ploughboys and cowboys read books as they worked, and where every American could, through hard work and good guidance, become every bit as civilized as the most highfalutin denizen of wicked old Europe!
Of course, few could deny that out in the untamed hinterland-down in the boondocks, deep in the bellies of big cities-were places of disrepute: dance halls (or "hells"), full of painted women, and hurdy-gurdies and jook joints, and all manner of unsupervised dives where lewd movements gave public dancing a bad name. No wonder no respectable citizen would dream of taking his wife to such a spot (although, once in while, he himself might sneak off there). This was the underworld, and it had always been thus. However, in time all would be reformed and shine in an ethereal light. Soon, in the new century, there would be no under-classes, but only midthe classes with their bold industrial leaders. In fact, everybody would be All-American. Let us now enter the apogee of the Great American Ballroom at the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, we are guests at the annual ball of noted society hostess Mrs. Schuyler-Robertson, wife of the famous captain of industry and of polo teams. The location is their mansion on Long Island. The season is Fall. The year is 1901...
A STATELY (AND PRIVATE BALL)
However brutish and anarchic the outside world may appear, inside this magnificent walled estate, built on the lines of Versailles, all is neat and tidy, in apple-pie order. High-buttoned, high-stepping; and high-class, our animated dancers are having a highly-organized gay old time. In one perfect movement; an elegant wave, the dancers revolve around the great plain of the dance floor. This fine social organism, assembled not for personal gratification, but for the shared pleasure of the entire company, has been well-educated during recent decades. Behold a triumph of Victorian social engineering!
For here is a self-contained society still governed by the hallowed printed word. Apart from a library of dance manuals, there is also the etiquette book ("Good manners are simply the art of making people feel at ease) and the dance card ("Only one dance per person. Do not monopolize"). Even the music has strict direcdons: "Tempo di Valse- regulation 54 bars per minute. Not too loud. "
Directing proceedings is Professor LeFevre, dancing master. His title is honorary and he's French by way of Paris, Texas. His learning; however, is from France, still the center of high culture. From head to toe, everything is prescribed by the professor-and much is proscribed too. What a bother it is keeping up with the capricious tastes of his rich patrons! Take the polka: no sooner had this rough folk dance been stripped of its national politics-oppressed Poles leaping symbolically against Russian imperialism- and presented to America as a healthy hop, when suddenly the dance is considered out of fashion!
In these modern times, it seems, everything must be new and hasty and tasty. Dancers haven't the time to master the fine old classic steps. Instead, they gallivant about like drunken soldiers to the march beat of the popular Two Step. Even so, the waltz is still in fashion because it changes with the times. These days it's not so fast; not so tricky to learn. Of course, it's very romantic as well-and a good professor must be vigilant in enforcing proper conduct on the floor: sometimes producing a measuring rod to make sure that couples are far enough apart.
"After The Ball, " the waltz now being played, is a catchy-enough jingle, but certainly not appropriate for a classic Viennese waltz. It's an example of the song products of this fast-growing popular music industry. These New York music merchants have no standards-they roll with the taste of the time, which means bending to the person-in-the-street; Your uneducated vaudeville patron. A professor's lot is not a happy one... "And the next dance will be a Two Step." Perhaps this vigorous exercise will work off any lingering lust from that last waltz, which encouraged much close holding and even hugging, as well as the and-social activity of moodily gazing into your partner's eyes!
Moving from the fevered brain of Professor LeFevre we find the stately galleon figure of Mr. Schuyler-Robertson, organizer of this grand ball. With their husbands out busily making money, the ladies are left to take care of social events, often usurping the authority of dance directors like our poor professor. The rich, still arbiters of taste and style, have sealed them- selves off in their castles, keeping the mob away.
"My husband sees quite enough riff-raff when he's at work, " explains our hostess. "You can say that again, " adds her man, a big one, as he prepares to bite into a beefsteak. "/ love the romance of the ballroom, but don't get me wrong! I'm no fairy-toed tripper-I'm a captain of industry." Tonight he is costumed as a General, befitting an era of growing American imperialism. Queen Victoria, symbolic of stuffiness, passed away in January. Teddy Roosevelt, go-ahead and progressive, will be President of this restless young country in September. Times are changing fast. The red-blooded men of action like their dances to be fast as well, and simple.
"Blaze Away," the n umber being played now, is perfect. One can use it as a Two Step or as a Grand March. Not a military march, mind you, because its 6/8 time has a lolloping swing, which wouldn't frighten an enemy. Abe Holzmann, the composer, is a seasoned journeyman in this burgeoning popular music business. He's proud of his ability to turn out tunes for every occasion. "Blaze Away, " for instance, was written as a dance orchestration, but it serves well as a march. Sousa would approve-his "Washington Post," an 1889 march, was adopted by the Dance Masters of America as the official music for the then new Two Step.
"They are moving with characteristic Yankee bounce, " opines a tall, dignified gentleman standing off at the side. Dan Godfrey; an English visitor, is a celebrated conductor of dance orchestras in his own country. Fascinated and amused, he observes the Americans quick-marching 'round the room, punctuating their militariness with chilthike skips. Being from the Old World, he knows that these skips are a variation on the chasse, which dates back to the end of the Napoleonic Wars when an over-excited populace believed that freedom and individualism were just around the corner.
Here, in the land of the free, is a simplification of decades of dance development. Everything reduced to a Two Step, a dance anybody can do. In truth, Dan Godfrey prefers the slower and more natural glide of a British version, the Boston Two Step, in which the strident Yankee march is smoothed into an ambling walk, a saunter. The British move slower, they are in no rush.
This brassy music is a din to sensitive ears! In contrast, the orchestras of Albion are sweet and smooth, an English garden of violins and celli, of oboes and bassoons, pushed gently along by the subtlest of percussion. Over in America, it would appear, bands rage as if the Red Coats are about to attack.
Sensible Godfrey, however, checks his racing mind, reigned in by the policeman of his commercial senses. He knows that for too long John Bull (a stereotypical Englishman) has called not only the tune but also the dance. He knows that his Empire-laden countrymen are becoming complacent. He remembers that England has for ages been a filter for dances originating in Europe, He recognizes the Two Step as the first authentic American dance. Already it is being exported to London, Paris and Berlin. Thanks to Mr. Sousa, and countless minstrels, there is another native American export currently enjoying a vogue in Europe, and even in Russia-ragtime! The world turned upside down by a trick of emphasizing the normally weak second beat. The very heart beat disturbed! Perhaps the end of an ordered world led by polite society with its dance master sergeants!
And the next dance is a cakewalk...
A MUS1CAl MONTAGE
"Ragtime had the dyspepsia or gout long before it died. It was overfed by poor
nurses. Good ragtime, and half a million imitators, sprang up.
Then, as result, the people were sickened with the stuff."
John Philip Sousa
Francisco where the weather's fair
They got a dance out there they call the Grizzly Bear."
1911: "Come on and hear, Come on and hear, Alexander's Ragtime Band."
1912: "Everybody's doing it now."
A DANCE MASTER'S REPORT (1914)
"I wish I were able to report progress in our field. Alas, there has been stagnation in traditional ballroom dancing. Private balls thrown by the Best People have been dwinthing. It would seem that the aristocracy, followed by the midthe classes, have decided to come out and play with the lower orders.
One can observe them at Broadway restaurants and new-fangled cabarets contorting themselves to such fleeting 'rag-time' sensations as the Bunny Hug, the Chicken Scratch, the Buzzard Lope. I have seen a famous industrialist, flushed with lobsters, oysters and all manner of baked viands, shake his considerable corporation in rime to this wretched 'Rag-time' while simultaneously pointing his finger in the air and declaiming, 'It's a bear!' Has our society abandoned all aspirations towards lofty ideals?
The worst aspect of dance madness is that hitherto unopened flowers-1 mean our young women-have been bent by the winds of syncopation and then plucked and placed in the lusty embrace of a dance hall gigolo, those sleek creatures of lambent hair and lizard eye and slick line of chatter. Self- appointed dance instructors, dragging the bedroom into the ballroom, spoilers of the true art of dance.
How often do we see people we believed to be well brought up clutching at their partners like two sordid 'Barbary Coasters '? Our girls spent money taking grace lessons, but when the 'Rag-time'starts they grasp a perfect stranger in a position that would shame the lowest creature. Dances do not require hugging and crossed arms to make them enjoyable. Insist, with a ruler if necessary, that partners stand at least four inches apart Remember, a proper dancer keeps the upper body erect, the midthe region firmly in place, while allowing the feet to do the talking.
So no more shoulder-wriggling, hip-shaking, arm-pumping, elbow-flouncing. No more hopping, jumping, deep dips or back bends. This is not a ju-jitsu class!
Take your lessons from the official Dance Masters of America. To ignore our guidance is to become one more lost soul in the metropolis of life.
Mark my words and pray for reform."
TALES OF THE BARBARY COAST
When Maisie Johnson was eighteen, she went sweet on a fellow in show business. He was Daniel Potts, know in vaudeville as Dancing Dan, and he stepped real clever, all the latest steps. Maisie met Daniel in her hometown of Scranton. She was drop-dead pretty and one night she slipped over in the snow. Daniel picked her up, brushed her down, and exercised his accent He was an Englishman and Maisie found the accent awfully cute.
Soon they were sitting in an all-night coffee shop, and soon she was watching his act over and over, and meeting him after the show. She was nuts on show business, forgetting that her upbringing was strictly Baptist
She told Dan she was keen on geography and history (because they sounded like safe subjects) and that encouraged him to tell stories of his adventures. Of course, being an Englishman he liked to spin yarns. He excited her with tales of the Far West..
"In 1910 I visited the infamous Barbary Coast in San Francisco. Raucous, lined with dance halls and saloons, open all day and night In search of the most colorful excitement, I was at once pushed through me swinging doors of Purcell's, a Negro dance hall mat catered to white adventurers. The idea was that we whites would watch the Negroes exhibiting the latest steps. Well, a weird waltz involving frenzied clutching and sliding ended with the dancers collapsing on the dusty floor.
"Next, the floor manager, a big lug with a cudgel stuck in his belt, blew a whistle and announced, 'Okay boys!... now you can drag 'em!' That's when the hot stuff began. The Negro lads and their ladies gave a demonstration of their own special dance figures, steps you'll never find in any official dance manual. As if a faraway rural innocence had been contaminated by the big city. The dancers were sometimes in teams, sometimes in pairs, sometimes breaking away to show off their inventions. They swooped, rocked and shuffled, getting down close to the floor, fingers sweeping the splintery wood. None of that stiff and upright stuff we were taught in school. They were crouching with arms swinging, and men they were climbing over each other shouting 'Get over Sally!' and tossing their girls in me air and over their shoulders. They could wadthe like ducks, grunt like hogs, growl like bears.
"Neethess to say, I was sold on Purcell's and I was determined to learn these odd and quirky nameless dances. So, I returned night after night, joining the tour bus slumming crowd-excited society folk in evening dress, eyes and wallets bulging. You know, a lot of celebrities visited Purcell's, among them Sarah Bernhardt, William Randolph Hearst, and Pavlova, the great classical ballet dancer. She was mad keen on a sexy step, and when she asked its name, one of the dancers, Johnny from Texas, came up with 'Texas Tommy.'
"Now this funny scramble is the very father of the ragtime dances of today. Well, I shouldn't say 'father' because the Texas Tommy refers to a Lone Star lady of ill repute. The steps are an impression of one of these lovelies at work on a client. You run across the floor fast and jerky. Then you kick and hop three times on alternate feet. You must do it all with a swing. This new T urkey Trot is merely a variation of the Tommy, except mat you flap your arms like a bird trying to avoid Thanksgiving. In the same way, all the loose-Iimbed steps have been named after animals, but I suspect there's a bit of sex in there too.
"7hanks to AI Jolson and Irving Berlin these crazy ragtime dances have been publicized all over. Still, nobody much knows how to do them. Of course, I do! I live for ragtime! I've found my calling!"
And Maisie had found her man. She followed him to New York, not quite to Broadway, but not too far away-Hoboken to be exact Maisie's father cursed her, and her mother wept, but nothing could Stop this modem girl. When she turned up on Dan's doorstep, all dolled up and breathless, he exclaimed, "Well, I'm dashed! If it isn't Madcap Maisie!" Then he got serious and said she could stay if she paid her way-no strings attached. Maisie was ever so grateful.
So while Dan slept after a hard night's hoofing in vaudeville, Maisie toiled as a stenographer. On weekends, she liked to go dancing with Dan. lf he was too tired or was rehearsing a new partner, she went with a girlfriend, because dance halls could be dangerous.
In 1914, it seemed, everybody and his wife were out dancing. Everybody wanted to be a performer, spreading their wings to a ragtime beat, even a white midthe class beat.
Sometimes the beat got out of hand. One night, backstage, Maisie caught Dan in a close embrace with his dancing partner. He claimed he was only showing her a tango. Who was he kidding? Maisie flounced off. She moved in with an office pal, Gertrude, a large and safe woman. All this was on a Friday, and me next day the two females decided to go on a marathon of dancing so as to forget. They would take advantage of me dancing currently being offered at all times of day. "I'll show that cheating Dan!" said Maisie. She would show him that she was the very embodiment, curves and curls and all, of an "emancipated" woman, even a "feminist." New words for new times! She would show that she could be as manly as a man! She would write down her Saturday adventure with a view to her story becoming a movie scenario. Whether as a drama or comedy, she just didn't know at his stage of me game.
MADCAP MAISIE"S DANCING DAY
Saturday, December 15,1914
Pleasure bent, we hopped a trolley And were soon at Claridge's Hotel for the lunchtime dance. The orchestra was hidden behind palms, very discreet. All a bit stuffy. Gertrude and I waltzed together, but then a couple of fresh-faced college boys asked me for a one step. The loser got Gertrude. "By around two o'clock we were in such a sweat! The boys treated us to a wicked drink called 'white mint frappe.' They started getting too fresh, so we did some fast dances with 'em to try and work off their lust. Soon, it was time for the dansant-a tango tea, to be exact, at Gimbel's Department Store, with a free tango demonstration. The boys took us over in a taxi, pulling down the shades and again attempting funny stuff. However, they soon felt the sharp end of my shoe.
"Gimbel's was more wine than tea. So, we munched hors d'oeuvres to keep us from falling over. The papers recently have been warning that tea dances are more dangerous than nighttime affairs, because mothers are fooled into believing their daughters are innocently out shopping. Wish I had the loot for that!
'The tango demonstration was stunning. Scary too. It was done by a hot couple called Maurice and Walton. I'm fascinated by the tango-no sooner has the rhythm started when it Stops, quivers like a hesitation, and then plunges on. The dancers seem so serious, so intense. I try to laugh when I tango, but my partners aren't amused. They put on fixed grim expressions and seem ready to plunge a knife into you or worse.
'The tango couple was impressive-he in a tight-fitting tuxedo and she in a tight- fitting dress with a slit up the side. The band played that latest hit, 'El Choclo,' and at once Maurice sized up Miss Walton and moved stealthily towards her, circling her like a panther ready to pounce. Pounce he did, but she submitted willingly, even stroking his hair as he shoved her all over the floor. He clutched at her neck and he bent her backwards, flung her around him and he played a snaky footsy-footsy between her feet. Dangerous stuff; but I could see the attraction.
"So could our male companions. Right after the demonstration, fired up with cocktails, they wanted to try out their tango. I suspected this would be merely a thin cover for some attempts at love-making. Gertrude and I moved tables, but the place was now so crowded we could only find space at a table where sat an elderly couple. However, they seemed pleased to make room and they quickly introduced themselves as Colonel and Mrs. Gilbert. The old gent had rapithy taken in our predicament: jutting out his chin and waggling his waxed mustache at the approaching boys, he ordered them to 'About turn and quick march!' which they did as if they were at some Victorian ball.
: "They were a frienthy pair, the Colonel and his lady. Dancing is for them a 'calisthenics exercise ' and as a result the Colonel's gout ~ is much better. Besides, it gets them out of the house and into the excitement of modern life. The Colonel's back was ram-rod and his wife kept throwing out her ample bosom and taking deep breaths. When Gertrude congratulated them on their posture, Mrs. Gilbert pulled out a book and pointed to a certain chapter: 'Dance and ~ Health' by 'An eminent New York physician. 'Well, we hadn't come ..out to read, but l took note that the book is Modern Dancing by Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle.
"Of course, everybody knows about this fabulous young couple who are setting standards for ballroom dancers all over America. Reputed to be the highest-paid act in vaudeville, they've also established dancing schools everywhere. Vernon Castle's thin as a rake and English with, they say, aristocratic connections. Irene, his wife, is thin as well, but in an athletic manner. She wears skimpy, ree-flowing clothes, perfect for dancing. I really love looking at her, in the papers.
The Castles are on a mission to bring elegance back to the ballroom, to banish loutish dances like those college boys who'd been annoying us. They , encourage old folks to leave the bridge table and step out to the light fantastic. The Gilberts are a good example. Col. Gilbert simply radiates health and vigor. 'How old dye think I am?' he asked me teasingly. J didn't like to guess. 'Well, I'm sixty-one!' 1hen his wife chipped in to tell us a fact she bet we didn't know: There was less champagne sold last year than was sold in ten years. That's because everybody's dancing.' She tapped her copy of Modern Dancing as proof of her statement. 'It's my bible, ' she cackled. The Colonel suggested we should be moving along.
'They invited us to join them. Perhaps they were a lonely couple. We joined them in another taxi ride, this time a safer one. As we passed the Jardin de Danse, I noticed a sign advertising James Reese Europe's Orchestra. Dan was always enthusing about this colored band, claiming they were the bestest band for ragtime dancing. I mentioned this to the Colonel, and he said that his kind of Europe was European cuisine. 'And that's exactly what we will sample now!' To our delight we were told that our new friends were taking us to dine at the world-famous Rector's Restaurant on Broadway.
"On the way into this grand lobster place, Gertrude took me aside to whisper that she wondered if this couple were on the level. Why? They didn't recognize the Europe Orchestra-they're the bunch who provide music for dIe Casdes. Vernon's nuts about Jim Europe. Claims he's the guy that invented the fox trot ,
"Our doubts vanished as we entered this bedazzling restaurant Polished marble floors, oak display cases full of expensive china and silver, tons of gilt and crystal chandeliers, lots of electric light A mixture of old and new. I was startled to see the Colonel expectorate onto the marble floor. When he ordered ham and eggs, the waiter quietly explained as how Rector's doesn't offer such dishes. Instead we had the whole table d'hote from soup to nuts. In-between courses-especially the baked frogs-we danced to a band that featured the novelty of a saxophone. Very velvet Gertrude and I went for a chat in the ladies' powder room, and when we returned our host and hostess had vanished. On the dance floor, we guessed. They still hadn't returned when the bill was presented.
"Very discreetly we explained we hadn't enough cash to pay. Just as discreetly we were dog-trotted to the kitchen by two burly waiters. There we were handed aprons and cloths and invited to join the washing-up crew. Gertrude rather enjoyed her work, even smoking a cheroot.
"Around midnight the management released us. Gertrude, tired out, decided to go home and demanded that / accompany her. No, sir! All my blood was up. / was furious at having been taken advantage of in so many ways. Today had been my chance to come out and shine! So / accepted an offer from one of the waiters, Bert, to come with him to the Paradise Ballroom down on the shady West Side. 'You're asking for trouble,' said Gertrude. Maybe trouble, was what /wanted. My destiny.
"Bert was nice enough, though a bit too working class. Still, anything to get back at Dan. The Paradise is a huge brick barn with no class at all, but lots of racket and clumping feet. Couples weren't going 'round the floor in the correct way, but sticking in their own patches, pressed close together, doing a bouncing trot. A fat man in a derby, cigar clamped to his mouth, was patrolling the floor. He made no attempt to stop any lecherous moves. Bert was a pretty bad dancer and so / didn't mind when he led me to the bar. The drink he bought me was a lethal concoction because my head was soon splitting. Everything began whirling around in a crazy waltz. So sometime or other, / was up in the balcony where in dark comers were couples writhing and moaning-the smack of a kiss and the snap of elastic. At some time, / found myself in the foul-smelling embrace of a man in a dark suit who told me he was an investigator with a reform organization and that / should mend my ways or he would pounce on me. Before / could reply, he had pounced, but suddenly, in the nick of time, there came to my rescue none other than- Dan!
"The reformer slunk off. Dan bowed to me and introduced a thin figure emerging from the gloom. I was astounded to learn this fellow was Vernon Castle himself! It was funny because he wasn't in his tails, but in a raincoat with a soft felt hat on his head. Dan explained that they were old chums from school days in England. 'Shall we repair to Maxim's?' said Vernon Castle. My heart melted. I forgave Dan at once.
"In a comfy booth at Maxim's, as breakfast was served, Dan and Vernon talked of how they'd both left England to seek their fortunes. Far from being in aristocratic circles, Vernon is, in fact, the son of a saloon keeper. 'Now, ' said Dan, concentrating his eyes on me. 'That position you found me in backstage with my female partner-we were only practicing the tango.' What about the deep arching of her back as you pressed close to her? At this point Vernon Castle took over. Every word was a pearl, he was mesmeric. I listened with a throbbing heart
"'There's never any need for excess on a dance floor. Dancing should be an extension of a graceful walk through life, an outward display of our inner grace, While the fox trot is a fine way to make a safe trail trough life's brambles and thorns, me tango is a flight of the spirit, our heavenly nature soaring into the ethereal... Tango is our ideal future. Tango is our hope... : Here Mr. Castle drooped. Dan gently explained that his pal is very upset about the war In Europe. We ~ will both be enlisting soon, but... 'There was important work to complete on the dance floors of America and I, for my part, would help these two men.
"As the sun came up in that gilded night spot, Dan, encouraged by Vernon, proposed to me, and I accepted. We would be partners-on the dance floor and in life. Both were the same.
"So elated was 1 that the next week, on my lunch hour, I tangoed down the street until I was arrested. The cop said I was crazy, and l said 'Yes, and wouldn't you like to be crazy like me?!'
End of My Diary
P.S. Dan helped me shape this story, so any excesses are his fault. "
THE LEGACY OF MR. & MRS. VERNON CASTLE
What happened to Vernon Castle's dream? Dance music, from the 1920'S to the 1950'S, became Big Business, providing music for waves of jazz steps, which caught the fancy of the world: the Charleston, Black Bottom, Lindy Hop, rhumba, samba, and the cha-cha. Until rock 'n' roll arrived, banging the death knell of the now old-fashioned dance band.
First, the kids were prepared to jive in the swing
manner, but then came the twist, a solo exercise. From then on it was
self-obsession, an age of narcissism.
I know-I was part of the scene, contributing a rally to "Do The Jerk" in my Top Ten hit, "You Turn Me On" (1965).
In the 1970's, I retreated into ragtime, examining the music in microscopic derail, forgetting that it was essentially dance music. In the 1980's, I met Professor Desmond Strobel, a reincarnation of a dancing master. I listened to his evangelical speech, I examined his library of dance manuals, I suffered gladly under his tutelage: "Don't point in public places...offer your arm to the lady..." A little later the lady became my wife. We met at one of the Professor's ragtime balls in Los Angeles, a center for the preservation of vintage everything.
Through the Professor I learned of Richard Powers, the doyen of vintage dance and the founder of The Flying Cloud Academy of Vintage Dance based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Every year since the early 1980's, dancers from all over the world assemble to take classes from the very best teachers and to try out their learning at evening balls. There, one hot night in June, my wife and I ventured shyly into one of the Academy's balls. At first I was a shrinking violet-it looked so difficult, so elegant, so grand-but Academy members immediately invited us to dance with them and all was plain sailing. Cooperation was the secret. And we were soon moving along nicely in the everlasting current.
From Grand March to Last Waltz was effortless and enjoyable, because we were, finally, a moving part of society.
So now come to our ball-join us in an old world that is forever new!
NOTES ON THE MUSIC (And Suggestions For The Dance Programme)
THE GRAND MARCH
The origins of the Grand March lie centuries ago when royalty and aristocracy used a parade or promenade (which they headed up) in order to start a ball or social function. In this way, they could show who was boss and also meet some of their subjects. So a Grand March is a promenade, with figures.
Every modern vintage ball should start with one. It's not as grand as it sounds. All you and your partner do is join the line of pairs assembling behind the dance master and his lady. Off they step in a purposeful stride to a lovely tune, nothing military. The limbs will be exercised and the dancers wi1l meet and greet each other. For, after a while, our leader will about-turn and initiate arches and then break us off into sweeping lines and daisy chains that will serpentine around the hall. We will bow and say "hello" to pairs we pass. Elaborate patterns will be created tha skilled professor, like a tasteful version of a Busby Berkeley movie routine. Speaking of movies, rent a video of John Ford's Fort Apache to get an idea of what a Grand March looks like. Even John Wayne is "gainly" in this.
"Blaze Away" (1901) was written by Abe Holzmann when he was still in his twenties. During the cakewalk craze of the 18905's he contributed hits like "Smoky Mokes," but his ebullient march (and two step) was more in-keeping with twentieth century America as a young imperialist giant.
"Viva Regina!" is a march in the British Music Hall style, with a touch of Irish folk music. "Regina" refers to my fiancee ( now my wife). After we'd been pronounced "man and wife" in 1990 at the Altadena Country Club, the band struck up this number and down the aisles we marched and into the dining room. Professor Strobel led our guests, making sure there were no slackers or laggards. No one could eat until they joined in the march. It was our substitution for a formal reception line.
"Blazing Ambition " is in the more military 2/4 tempo. It climaxes Act One of my musical Lotusland (1992) when my hero Alexander Jones (based on James Reese Europe) leads his military band off to the Great War.
We don't expect readers to hire a military band in order to enjoy this number (although there is an arrangement available)-a piano will do. Failing that, you can play the companion recording as you tramp around your home. Of course, the neighbors may believe a revolution is in the making. And they will be right: vintage dance is one sweet way to help bring back a sort of civilization.
By the early 1900's the ultra-fast, whirling (and often dizzying) Viennese waltz was giving way to the slower (and more sultry) Boston. The new waltz had less turning and it allowed couples to liberate themselves from the unified mass rotating around the hall. Such a mass was a joy to behold, but a real workout to execute. Many were bruised or cut. Not a few fainted or had to be hospitalized. Like the popular two step, the Boston was a more natural step. Couples could now escape the eagle eyes of the dance master and gaze into each other's eyes. Perhaps, that's why the waltz continues to be popular: a formalized public romance, with the possibility of consummation after the ball.
"Fascination," by Joseph Marchetti, was a favorite in Parisian cafes and restaurants at the turn of the century. Slow and gently lilting, the waltz served both as an invitation to dance and also as unobtrusive background music. Customers were lured thus not only by the food and drink, but also by the music.
"Nights of Gladness" echoed famously through the heady and heedless last days of Edwardian England, an era of endless parties and balls, with no thought of tomorrow. The coming of war took the revelers completely by surprise. Charles Ancliffe, the composer, was an Irishman with a background in military bands. He went on to become a pillar of the British light music establishment, conducting in seaside bandshells in the summer and in London theatre orchestra pits in the winter-champagne and oysters ever at the ready.
The other waltzes are modern, written by the author of this book. "At the Masked Ball" has an eerie, icy opening strain (influenced by a Charlie Parker riff), which takes us to the Czar's court where there's starchy posturing and Rasputin is lurking in the wings. Happily we're whisked away eventually to a Bavarian village, where a peasant party, well-supplied with lively pilsner and strong sausage, is in progress. "Merry-Go-Round By Moonlight" is in the French musette genre. That is, the tempo is faster than the modern waltz and the musette (a detuned accordion) dominates with wheezy swirls and that typical Gallic touch of asthmatic nostalgia.
"Home At Last!" is an antidote to the tourism above. True, we've enjoyed being to faraway places, but it's high time we were home, shut away from the unedited version of life.
THE TWO STEP
In the late 1880s, the formal Victorian set dances were put in the shade by the arrival of a new, faster style of dance, done by couples not by groups- the two step.
Performed to a march beat in 6/8 time, the new step thus mixed waltz time with military time. The result intoxicated dancers young and old. Extremely simple, and
therefore very popular among the masses, the couple
quick-marched in waltz position in a new variation of the old galop, without the
springing and with some
skipping. The two step remained the rage until well into the 20th century. Early on, the Dance Masters of America recognized the dance and recommended Sousa's
"Washington Post" as the official music.
"The Teddy Bears' Picnic" (1907), by John Bratton, started as a topical two step celebrating Teddy Roosevelt and his spin-off toy. In Britain in the 1930s, lyrics were set to it by Jimmy Kennedy and the new song eventually became a world-wide favorite. There is something slightly sinister about the music in the opening strain.
There was no standardized choreography for the ragtime dance of 191O's, spreading like a virus from the untamed frontier of the West Coast to thinly-Euro-civilized New York. The rag craze had happened too fast for the dance establishment to put It under quarantine. The new steps may have had names-turkey trot, bunny hug, etc., but beyonq the description in the title, nobody seemed to know exactly how to do them. Folks soon realized they could do whatever they wanted-and even in their street clothes, forgetting tails and elaborate gowns.
Irving Berlin, the whiz kid songwriter always quick to cash onto the current craze, used song lyrics as musical newspapers: to report, to editorialize, and to advertise. In 1910, to the march tune of George Botsford, he told how the Grizzly Bear had started in San Francisco and was now the fashionable dance to do. He ordered:
"Hug up close to your baby, Sway me everywhere...
Show your darling beau
Just how you go to Buffalo, Doin' the grizzly bear."
Next, partly due to Berlin's rallying call of "Alexander's Ragtime Band," the clever writer was stating, correctly, that "Everybody's Doing It Now." The world had gone ragtime crazy. As in "Grizzly Bear," we find couples throwing their shoulders in the air in a very un-Victorian manner. Now the ragtime band is described-no more a sedate orchestra, but instead a brassy affair with trombones smearing and sliding so much that they seem to be "busting apart."
People were dancing, like Madcap Maisie, in every place and at any time of day or night According to the Tin Pan Alleymen, there wasn't even peace out on the ocean. "The Oceana Roll" (1911) tells of Billy McCoy who, oddly, serves not only as a sailor on a cruiser, but also as a ragtime piano tickler on the same ship. His music works wonders on the fishes and worms, and even the ship itself, which does a "corkscrew turn." It's marvelous what rhyme can do to a sensible world.
They say a picture's worth a thousand words. In the case of dancing, the cliche is true. Verbal descriptions boggle my mind, but a video can be closely studied, with slow motion and freeze frame. Rent the movie Alexander's Ragtime Band and see a fairly accurate depiction of the ragtime dances of the 191O's. In Applause, you can savor the sleazy side of show-biz: a burlesque show with a chorus line of overweight women shouting out "Oceana Roll." To me, the atmosphere of the ragtime era is as important as learning the steps-whatever they were.
My advice in this murky area is to imbibe the vibes and get out on that dance floor and do your thing. If l sound 'sixties, it's intentional. I've always believed there's a strong connection between the rhythms of ragtime and of rock 'n' roll. Both depend upon enthusiasm and spontaneity.
THE ONE STEP
The American one step, basically a walk, was popularized by Vernon and Irene Castle. It helped clear away the chaotic condition on the dance floor created by anarchic ragtime dances. The Castles imported much of their culture from Europe, particularly Paris. Vernon, of course, was English. The tune recommended for the one step, 'Too Much Mustard," was written by another Englishman, Cecil Macklin.
The virtue of the one step was that it was so easy; There was no need to go to the experts in order to enter that confusing and almost Masonic world of ballroom dance. In their best-seller, Modern Dancing (1914), the Castles put the matter plainly: "The One Step is the dance for ragtime music." By this, they meant a smooth, if slightly stiff-legged walk-the correct march with which to deal with the threatening raggle-taggle army of wiggle-wagglers. The Castles were there to teach a middle-class America anxious to learn the correct way.
While the old-time dance masters were in disarray, the young Castles were ready to lead the country into modern life with fun, style and elegance.
"Fuzzy Wuzzy Woo!" was composed in England by an American, Jay Whidden, one of the many entertainers who'd invaded the islands armed with effervescent syncopation. The British fell immediately, so Whidden decided to linger a while and publish snappy songs for eager natives. His partner, Harry Carlton, a 1ocal music hall lyricist, thought up the premise of "Fuzzy Wuzzy Woo!"-that the British could fight the threat of American jazz with home-grown dances such as this offering. Like so many dance craze hopefuls, this 1919 song doesn't make clear what steps are to be done. So, I have devised my own routine, as simple as the one step...
You bounce around as high as you can, and you keep on bouncing. I have bounced to this number on The Merv Griffin Show (1 was not invited back).I have bounced with a symphony orchestra in Dublin. In Colorado, at a jazz festival, I invited the audience to bounce out the door with me and to follow me 'round the festival. We had a good trip. When we returned, my pianist-partner was still pounding out "Fuzzy Wuzzy Woo!" (mind you, he'd also interpolated the entire works of Scott Joplin in the time it had taken to bounce around the park).
"My Wife Is Dancing Mad" pretty well sums up the situation in the American home of 1914, peak year of the dance craze. Life is supposed to imitate art, and here is proof: having performed this song for many years, as an example of comic exaggeration, I have recently become the victim of a dance-obsessed wife. Every night my Regina is at class, or a hop, or even a ball. I don't mind, however, because the exercise keeps her healthy, and the men are no threat because they are of the kind who wear ties on pen-lined, short-sleeved shirts.
THE FOX TROT
At the annual convention of the American Society of Professors of Dancing in September 1914, there was approval of only one ragtime dance-the "fox trot," as presented by William Pitt-Rivers (a name of distinguished British lineage). The new dance had not come hot and steaming from low dives or dubious dance halls. Neat, trim and clean, it was the contribution of the middle classes.
The Castles claimed invention, with help from their associate Jim Europe. Harry Fox, a vaudeville star, countered with his claim. No matter, the fox trot was an immediate hit and swept away all the other bamyard steps of Ragtime's murky, but exciting past. From the 1920s, the easy step became the standard ballroom dance, getting faster and faster until by the end of the Jazz Age, it had become more like a racing one step. After that, it deteriorated into the "Businessman's Bounce." Anybody on a packed, postage-stamp hotel floor could do it. New sounds were fitted into the fox trot box: when Bill Haley's rock 'n' roll anthem "Rock Around the Clock" was released in the early 1950s, the label described this revolutionary disc as a fox trot. Parents could heave a ( temporary) sigh of relief.
In 1914, though, the dance was much slower-a reaction to the frenzied animal dances that had caused such a fuss in proper society. Basically, the step was another simple walk with skips, an ever-alert fox off on a promenade. Thus, foxily, the couple should be on tip-toe with a little spring in their movement and a smile on their face, always ready to greet other couples and to avoid collisions.
Although "Ballin' The Jack" is in fox trot rhythm, the lyrics of this African-American song take us back to the unsupervised cauldron of hot syncopation in the land of a thousand dances where standardization is unknown and individualism runs riot. Writers Smith and Burris are at pains to describe the dance, so by the end of the chorus one can be full of local color, but none the wiser. There seems to be a lot of twisting going on. "Ballin' The Jack" was explained variously as an activity taking place either on the railroad, in the bedroom, or even up against a wall. The song was a hit of the Zeigfeld Follies of 1913 and there, at least, audiences could watch the dancers executing various exotic movements-shaking, shimmying, and twisting.
Harmonically this is a very eccentric song. The verse jumps from key to key in a manner suggesting that the composer was, refreshingly, self-taught and not subject to rules of conventional music theory.
"After You 've Gone" has become a standard and needs little discussion, except to say that the innovative chord progression of the chorus was much borrowed during the 1920's (e.g.,"Glad Rag Doll"). Turner Layton, the composer, later settled in England where he became a local star.
"Foxing The Goose (Goosing The Fox)" was commissioned by vintage dance expert Richard Powers for use at his Flying Cloud Academy. As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I had been welcomed into the fold in Cincinnati during the June Dance Week. In no time at all, I was excusing myself from the rigorous classes in order to write dance music at a spare piano. Richard said he needed a fox trot in the 1914 rhythm-a light and bouncy 2/4 feel, rather than the frenetic 4/40 time 1920s version (see "Whispering" in the special Modern Fox Trot section.)
So "Goose" anticipates the 1920s, but also nods to the Victorian ballroom, to the schottische. This was an antecedent of the fox trot-for nothing is created in a vacuum, everything is linked and we all dance in me shadows of our forefathers.
As described above, much faster and more like a one step ,"Whispering" was a West Coast song made famous by a West Coast band-Paul Whiteman's Orchestra. Whiteman's recording became one of the first dance band discs to sell in the millions. The overwhelming success of the Whiteman-arranged dance music sound led to a period when most bands sounded alike and there was nothing but the fox trot; to a stiff metronomic beat. Thank God for the Great Depression.
Latin American rhythms, with their characteristic beats of hesitancy, have been present in the literature of the American piano bench since the middle of the 19th
century. "La Paloma," a habanera, was a hit o fthe 1860's; LouisGottschalk, Americas first "art music" composer, incorporated Latin rhythms. Ragtimers Ben Harneyand and "Jelly Roll" Morton tirelessly pointed out that the "Spanish tinge" was crucial to their music. The first strain of WC Handy's "St Louis Blues" is a tango.
Despite rival claims, the tango probably started in Argentina in the demimonde of lustful sailors searching for pleasure around the dock1and of Buenos Aires. I like to believe the story that the first tangos were ritualized knife fight: two men circling each other with one hand concealed in tlhe small of the back clutching a dagger. Later, women substituted but as willing victims, bent back in subjugation, conquered by the macho tough guy. Feet flew between legs in a flurry of sexual aggression. Argentinean society liked to go slumming and watch but the dance was shunned at proper balls.
The tango reached Europe by way of Marseilles, a seaport and me shipping-off point for the Argentinean white slave trade. In the Paris of the 1910's some of the tango's sensuousness had been removed and a certain amount of refinement introduced. Here, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Castle picked up the dance and later took it to Broadway, via London. The tango arrived in America in a cloud of controversy .A state worse than ragtime. Tango pirates-exotic individuals prowling the dance floors-were denounced by the usual keepers of public morality. Ordinary middle class folk were worried by the pirates, who seemed like dangerous powder puffs to burly Americans. A British magazine had already labeled tango as the "Dance of Moral Death," and the Kaiser had ordered his soldiers never to tango in uniform. In America, couples were already breaking bones attempting tricky foot movements. One tango stage star, quite a he-man, actually died of wounds received on the dance floor.
The Castles' gift to America looked like it was becoming too dangerous a game. In Modem Dancing they downplayed the disreputable Argentinean origins of tango, pretending it was a quaint Spanish gypsy dance. Tango, they promised their readers, was "today a polished and extremely fascinating dance, which has not had its equal since the days of the minuet " Ah! The dear safe minuet!
The 1980s saw the appearance in America of the genuine article presented in the hit show Tango Argentino-hard hitting, no holds barred, full of sensuousness. Middle-aged couples in formal dress but burning with passion, not lost to golf and crossword puzzles. I saw Tango Argentino five times in a row. I invited the orchestra to perform on my Los Angeles radio show. They played a fiery version of "EI Choclo," a 1913 Argentinean number and quite a hit in the America of that time. They dispelled any lingering romanticism by informing me that "El Choclo" is a sexual reference and not some storybook animal.
When I dared to play my tango, "When Sophie Dances," they dismissed it as "European." I reminded them that "Jealousy" is Scandinavian. They countered by dashing into an obscure early tango by a fellow called Jenkins, which, they said, was the last word in musical aphrodisiacs. I asked them if Jenkins was Welsh. They wished me "goodbye."
However, I had learned from my Argentinean friends: A few years later, again at the suggestion of Richard Powers, I wrote a sultry (and even sexy) piece called "Dreams of Old L.A."
A good way to learn the basic tango (and also some of the ragtime dances) is to study the video of The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, the picture starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Irene Castle was the advisor for the film, so you can be sure that the dances are authentic.
THE SOFT SHOE
As a diversion we offer a solo dance that can, all by itself, be music to the ears and a thrill for the eyes. Who has not delighted when Bugs Bunny casually goes into a few time steps, shuffling to an old-time vaudeville tune? In-deed, the essence of vaudeville was the song-and-dance man, he of twirling cane and straw hat and shoes that tap-tapped a syncopated clatter needing but the barest musical accompaniment
The modern tap dance evolved from the soft shoe and sand dance of 19th century American minstrelsy. In turn, these dances were influenced by the Irish jig and the Lancashire clog (done in wooden shoes. African American non-stop syncopation provided the swing and leather shoes provided softness and grace. The new minstrel style done to ragtime was called the "buck and wing."
Traditional jiggers and cloggers, however, who danced ramrod-backed with arm glued to their sides, frowned upon the dance as a bastardization of their hallowed Celtic steps. Nevertheless, this "Essence of Old Virginny" caught on with audiences and, by end of the 1890s, it had become the most characteristic dance in minstrelsy.
Eventually the "Essence" was refined intOothe soft shoe. Performed with delicacy and seeming ease, the upper body glides like an ice skater, while the legs and feet work hard like rowers in a Roman galley ship.
The star exponents of the soft shoe were called "picture dancers" because they were so pretty; the acknowledged king was George Primrose, a white minstrel. "Just the way he walked was poetry," said one fellow dancer.
The rhythm for soft shoe should be a medium slow 4/4 with a suggestion of 6/8 triplets. The signature tune is Felix Arndt's piano novelty "Nola"(1915), which led to a slew of triplet-tricked instrumentals in the 1920s. My latter-day effort, "Rocking' Baby To Sleep," employs the same device. Tap and soft shoe are enjoying a revival, and it won't be hard to find classes in your neighborhood. Let your fingers do the walking.
THE LAST WALTZ
Now comes the time when you should dance with the lady of your dreams. This is your chance to express real affection, as the lights go down low and the band plays a sweet and lovely waltz. "After The Ball," our offering, had the honor of becoming the first million-selling (1892) pop song in sheet music. Its success marked the beginning of popular song music business, for the writer was also the publisher and a tremendous, promoter-Charles K. Harris, a musically-illiterate Milwaukee banjo player, who paid a star to plug his song on stage. He also put the man's picture on the cover. Harris covered every angle, and soon he was a millionaire and living in New York.
"After The Ball" is an unlikely candidate for smash sales today. The four verses tell a very Victorian tale (mistaken identity at a ball, which eventually ruins two lives.) However, the chorus, when it arrives, is mostly melodic. This ballad became so ubiquitous in Britain that like certain anonymous amateur songwriters over there, not without a little jealousy, decided to write a follow-up song in the form of a question...
"What happens after the
That's what I want to know.
In the one step they all hold you so near
and whisper things that a boy shouldn't hear.
And in the two step they have a new step
that isn't in the dance at all.
When the ragtime starts you'll have a surprise.
You can see their thoughts right there in their eye
If that's what they do when they're dancing...
What happens after the ball?"
Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.
You can find Ian's main website at ianwhitcomb.com