Body Language: Dancing With Wildfire or The Natural History of Social Dance
Dancing, like music, is tied up with the basics: love, worship, fertility, joy, bonding, the rites and rituals of passage, love and belief. It plays an important role in every known human culture and probably has from the beginning. Just like music.
Music and dance are so closely intertwined that some languages have just one word for the two. If you probe the origins of popular song, baroque keyboard and orchestral music, jazz, even classical symphonic style, it doesn’t take long before you stumble (so to speak) across Terpsichore. Notice the ‘chore’ on the end of her name. The word chorus—and all its cognates, choral, carol and the like—properly refers to dancing and only later came to be applied to music. If you are interested in the connections between popular and cultivated art (I am), the best place to start looking is at dance.
But where to start? The dancing at your local club, techno or retro, will probably not offer a whole lot of historical insight. There are books on ballet, on ballroom, on modern and on jazz but if you try to look up social dancing, even in a well-stocked library, you will find mostly How To books. Film archives help some but exhibition dancing is always more interesting to movie makers than common garden variety dancing. In any case, trying to figure out how people danced B.T. (Before Technology) is only a tad easier than trying to imagine what the castrato voice sounded like. Compared with musicology, terpsichology (if that is the word) is not a very well developed discipline, least of all in the field of social dance. Where do the dances come from? What is their appeal? How do they evolve? How did the modern dances—from tango to techno-rave—get to be so outrageous?
My own interest and involvement in the subject started many years ago when my friend Bill Bolcom and I found copies of old ragtimes and began to play them for fun, first at a New Year’s party at my house, later at the popular Free Music Store which I had founded at a small non-commercial New York radio station. Playing ragtime as classical music in a non-conventional context was an astonishingly successful idea. We soon discovered an entire demimonde of ragtime musicians and enthusiasts including, to our astonishment, one of the early ragtime greats, Eubie Blake, alive and well in Brooklyn and still playing rag.
Other ragtimers came out of the closet ranging from avant-garde composers like James Tenney to serious musicologists like Joshua Rifkin. Rifkin, also a friend and neighbor, had been a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band, a famous Elektra group that influenced the folk rock movement. Joshua’s Bach was the real thing but his ragtime was completely unauthentic so he borrowed my ‘authentic’ sheet music and made a famous recording of Scott Joplin rags for Elektra’s Nonesuch label, until that time exclusively devoted to classical and contemporary music; that album was long the biggest seller in the Nonesuch catalogue. Shortly thereafter, Gunther Schuller recorded the old arrangements from the so-called red-back book and these were promptly imitated by Marvin Hamlisch in his Academy-award winning (!) score for “The Sting”. Almost forgotten at the time were the dance roots of ragtime.
The classicalization of rag was actually inevitable. Ragtime, blues, early jazz and much of Afro-American tradition of Afro-American music are the classical music of America. This is not just cant, like calling some latter day bit of pop schlock, “an instant classic.” Joplin’s music is classical, not only because the he lived a long time ago and was a precursor, but because his work contains a lot of passion and physicality in a measured and elegant formal frame. Joplin, as we know now, was perfectly aware of what he was doing. By publishing his rags in a classical sheet music format (with careful performance directions) and by writing ballets and operas, he was trying to given a serious definition to his work. James Reese Europe, Vernon and Irene’s Castle’s music director and one of the most successful band leaders of his day (and the man who introduced ragtime and early jazz to Europe), used his earnings to form an Afro-American symphony orchestra long before Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin. There are many other examples.
But let us not forget that ragtime is dance music as well. The cakewalk, danced to the music of ragtime, is an elegant fancy strut which had its origins on antebellum southern plantations. Like early jazz, it developed in New Orleans and up the Mississippi River in St. Louis, two cities that were major centers of an aspiring black culture that was both earthy and elegant. Cakewalk had the allure of being exotic and sexy and yet, at the same time, classy, measured and formal, a contradiction not seemingly easy to explain but found in other popular dances as well.
When, a few years later, I started to produce for Nonesuch, the director of the label asked me whether I knew of any other kind of ‘classical’ popular music that might be suitable for a classical label and ready for revival. “Yes,” I answered, “the tango.”
The tango, dating from the same years as ragtime, was certainly also both earthy and elegant. I had been to Buenos Aires (at the invitation of Alberto Ginastera, to teach a course in multi-media and organize some events) and was amazed to discover that tango was not a novelty dance or an obscure old joke about Rudolfo Valentino but a living breathing art form with a long tradition and strong musical and artistic qualities that were light years away from “Hernando’s Hideaway.”
From the reissues that I had brought back with me (this was all long before Tango Argentino), Michael Sahl, Bill Schimmel and myself were able to study the master tangueros and recreate a classic tango sound in a modern setting. Purists will argue with some of the details—accordion instead of bandoneon—but The Tango Project succeeded in recapturing a lot of the old spirit. We were even invited to play at an Argentine consulate reception, a tremendous honor which, because of the political situation in Argentina (this was during the Dirty War), we refused. The group and the recordings are still around and have even recently been featured in a couple of films (“Scent of a Woman” and “True Lies”). At the very least, they brought a new awareness of an old form to North Americans and paid genuine homage to some of the great tangueros of the past. The tango could be serious, it could be sexy and it could cut more than one way. It was also good (sometimes great) music and it was certainly always great fun.
As The Tango Project broadened its repertoire and we began working on dance and theater projects, the whole issue of dance and dance music started to come into clearer focus. I began to understand what the great German musicologist Curt Sachs was talking about when he called dance “the mother of the arts”. Music helps give dance its rhythmic charge but it also gets back something as the dance infuses music with its physicality. Song-and-dance is basic stuff in every human culture and some very highly charged emotional and social behavior is involved including, above all, sex: initiation, coming of age, mating, fertility and all that other juicy anthropological stuff.
Dance, along with popular song, creates and amplifies a musical vocabulary that becomes part of the common language of a culture. This highly charged vocabulary then becomes an essential part of the emotional charge of the music. Popular dances and their music appear—usually from below, sometimes from the outside—with such vehemence and sexuality that they threaten the good order of society. But then they get domesticated—and classicized. Composers—Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Joplin, Jarrett—can then take up this vocabulary and create or re-create a dance-rooted music in the form of high art.
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“…a dance and song, so indecent in its text, so repulsive in its movements, that even the most respectable people were inflamed by it…” wrote one contemporary moralist about the latest dance craze to arrive from Latin America. These dances, “sensuous and wild, most passionate and unbridled” seduced the young with a “sexual pantomime of unparalleled suggestiveness”.
The tango? The twist? The dances in question are the sarabande and the chaconne! The quotes date from the turn of the seventeenth century, not long after these dances invaded Spain from Central America, and the writers did not intend these remarks to be regarded as favorable. The “singing and reciting of the sarabande, in whatsoever place” was punishable with 200 lashes plus six years in the galleys (for the men) or exile from Spain (for the women). Naturally the dances immediately spread like wildfire throughout Europe.
How could this be? The sarabande and the chaconne are supposed to be two of the most stately and courtly forms of European music, ennobled by the artistry of great composers like Couperin and Bach. Somewhere between the age of empire and the high baroque, these untamed, wild and sensual dances had acquired social status and artistic cachet.
What is even more extraordinary is that these examples are far from unique; since the middle ages at least, this story has been repeated over and over again. Curt Sachs, one of the few musicologists who truly understood music’s sister art, writes about how uninhibited and explicit dances created by the peasants, the poor and the disenfranchised, are derived from ancient mating and fertility rituals. They well up from below and, although invariably attacked as déclassé, pornographic and subversive, infect the upper strata of society with dance manias so obsessive and irresistible that society has no choice but to find ways to make them socially acceptable. As the good Dr. Sachs (who wrote in the heyday of Freud) tells it, “taming in this connection really means nothing but the concealment of the openly erotic, of the sexual.” High culture and classical art are ultimately based on suppressed sexuality. Maybe so. If dance is the mother of the arts, is music the father?
Examples could be multiplied indefinitely. Take the Italian courante, so “indecent” and “filthy” that one writer demanded that “the police should look into and most strictly forbid it” (“sentence first, verdict afterwards”). In a more enlightened age, Casanova said that the fandango “is the expression of love [i.e. making love—ed.] from beginning to end, from the sigh of desire to the ecstasy of enjoyment.”
Casanova did not recommend lashes or galley assignments for the dancers but the relative tolerance of the Enlightenment was rudely interrupted by the uproar that greeted the waltz at the turn of the nineteenth century as it spun out of the Austrian countryside to fame and fortune in Germany, Paris, London and the world. The waltz was banned in parts of Swabia and Switzerland; it was erotic, an enemy of virtue and morality and “a main source of the weakness of the body and mind of our generation”; worst of all, it had “nothing to do with good dancing”.
P.S.: the waltz survived.
A special feature of the waltz is that, unlike some other popular dances (the tango, for example), it was especially liberating for women and, as a result, it was particularly a female favorite. This only redoubled the efforts of the male moralists. The good Dr Burney, viewing the new fad on the continent, opined as how an English mother would be “uneasy…to see her daughter so familiarly treated, and still more to witness the obliging manner in which the freedom is returned by the females.” Shortly thereafter the waltz craze hit England.
I can find no evidence that the polka and its offshoots, the galop and the écossaise or schottische), were similarly denounced. Nineteenth-century contredances like the cotillion (or contredanse française) and the quadrille (cotillion à quattre; that is, for four couples) are at most only slightly suggestive in a genteel sort of way (cotillion means petticoat; the high-kicking can-can was about as risqué as this sort of dancing ever got). This relatively genteel contredancing survives in the American south and at folk festivals where it goes by the name of square dancing (a literal translation of quadrille) and is performed to country and bluegrass music. Contredancing, which came from English country dancing in the first place, has returned to its country roots in rural America!
Even when the overtly sexual elements were suppressed in the Victorian age, the energy and exotic/erotic appeal of the culture of the lower classes and of foreigners continued to hold sway in the world of social dance. Just as the elegant French gigue comes from the lowly Anglo-Irish jig and the waltz from the Austrian peasant ländler, the cotillon and quadrille come from those English (or Anglo/Gaelic) country dances, quaintly translated into baroque Euro-French as contredanses. And the polka, Polonaise, mazurka and Gypsy dances all come from eastern Europe. Although Gypsy dancing (and the related flamenco) were too specialized and too difficult to ever become popular as social dances, they fit the pattern perfectly. Italian dances like the courante, tarantella and saltarello—all about courtship chases, amorous frenzies and the like—had a similar romantic appeal. Almost everything else came from the Iberian peninsula through which passed Gypsy, Arabic, Antillean and American influences.
In every single case, the story is the same. Wild, untamable, exotic and erotic dances spread like wildfire, are thunderously denounced and threatened with suppression until they are embraced by the upper classes. The dancing teachers, who earlier issued the most devastating artistic and moral denunciations, then abandon their fulminations about the end of Western civilization and take on the clean-up job. They bowdlerize, tame and domesticate so that the formerly outrageous becomes not merely acceptable but socially de rigueur and, eventually, suitable for mass consumption. At this point, a new dance craze pops up from somewhere below and the old dances—once the ultimate in moral degradation, now defanged and as harmless as the minuet—become the mainstay of provincial socials and children’s dance classes. The ultimate fate of passé dances can be measured by the proliferation of How To books and by the appearance of the music as background for children’s plays and kiddie cartoons.
At the same time, as these dances pass into general popularity, their style and musical subject matter also become available for serious classical treatment by composers. Examples are the great dance suites of Couperin and Bach, the minuets and contredanses of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the waltzes of Schubert and Chopin, the polonaises and mazurkas of Chopin, the cakewalks and ragtimes of Joplin, Debussy and Stravinsky, the piano blues of Gershwin, the tangos of Piazzolla and even contemporary works of composers like Andriessen and Torke.
In the twentieth century, the Americas replaced the European Latins, Gypsies, Celts and Slavs as the major incubator of new dances: the maxixe from Brazil before the end of the old century, the cakewalk and the turkey trot from black America with advent of the new one, the Argentine tango at the end of the first decade, the foxtrot and its various derivatives (the shimmy, the Charleston, the black bottom) just before World War I, the Afro-Latin dances like the rhumba (or rumba) in the Twenties and Thirties, the Lindy hop or jitterbug out of jazz and swing in the Thirties.
The cakewalk came from the southern plantations where a cake was the prize for the best fancy dancing among the blacks. It was a popular feature of black minstrelsy and musicals and became such a craze that the Vanderbilts hired a black dance instructor to teach it to the nobs and nabobs at their Fifth Avenue mansion. The faddish animal dances—the turkey trot was followed by the grizzly bear, the monkey glide, the chicken scratch, the bunny hop, the kangaroo dip, the possum trot, the bull frog hop, the buzz and others—are derived from traditional African and Afro-American rural dances such as Juba, ring shout and the buzzard lope. Most of these dances were based on ragtime and its close relatives. Slow couple dancing, the two-step and the foxtrot (another animal dance!), have antecedents in the slow drag, long popular in the black community. The Slow Drag in the finale of Joplin’s Treemonisha is an uplifting inspirational number but the descriptions of slow drag as danced in the southern black jook houses sound like nothing so much as making love standing up.
In traditional black and Latin music, the distance from the sacred to the secular is not always very great. The wild sensuality of rhythm and blues turns into (or perhaps derives from) the passionate and quite physical devotion of gospel music. In a similar vein, many of the Cuban dances including the rumba and the mambo have religious origins. This phenomenon occurs in nearly all the places where African-derived religions are important: condomblé and macumba in Brazil, ñañiga, santaria or lucumí in Cuba, shango in Trinidad, obeah from Jamaica, and the Haitian voodoo or voodun. The view that there is little difference between sexual ecstasy and the spiritual trance of the devout was particularly galling to European administrators and Protestant divines but the Catholic world was more tolerant (see the writings of Saint Theresa or, for that matter, Bernini’s famous sculpture of her which takes the form of a sacred dance of ecstasy in front of an aristocratic audience).
The ascendancy of black dancing was eclipsed for a while (but only for a while) by the rage for tango. Like many New World forms of music and dance, tango has a hybrid ancestry that includes the Spanish version of the old contredanse which in Cuba took on a certain Afro-American swing and came to be called the Habanera. This then travelled from Havana back to Europe (see Bizet’s Carmen) and all over the New World as well. In Brazil, it crossbred with the polka and with African influences to produce the maxixe. In Argentina, it mixed with local dances in the port honky-tonks of La Plata and turned into the tango. We think that the fast-moving international trend is a recent phenomenon but the tango was in Paris, London and New York almost as soon as it hit the cafes of Buenos Aires; it has never disappeared since.
No dance was more roundly denounced than the tango. One newspaper called it “an immodest and basely suggestive exercise tending to lewdness and immorality”. The Bishop of Toledo described it as “nauseating revels and dances of the brothel” and, in 1914, the Vatican took the trouble to issue an official denunciation (which included the turkey trot as well). That same year, Vernon and Irene Castle opened their fashionable dancing school in New York with a public announcement explaining that the tango was much misunderstood; if it degenerates into an acrobatic display or into salacious sensation, it is the fault of the dancers and not of the dance. The tango was courtly and artistic; it was, they explained, really “an evolution of the…Minuet“. The new squeaky clean tango was then actually danced for the pope who gave it his blessing!
The tango—sanitized and now even sanctified—had already travelled back down from high society to the middle and lower middle classes; it was being danced by the lumpen bourgeois as they arranged their trysts at the thé dansante. The old tango rapture was decidedly modified but, no matter, there were plenty of naughty Afro-American dances—the shimmy, the black bottom, et al—waiting in the wings to take its place.
The hot new postwar dance music, based on an expanded and speeded-up kind of ragtime, was beginning to absorb elements of the blues, often in minor keys, and the instrumental, stride sound of early jazz also began to play an important role. As the American writer John Storm Roberts has written, the twenties was as much the Dance Age as it was the Jazz Age and, in fact, both jazz and Latin music rode in on the back of the dancers: the rumba and its Afro-Cuban (occasionally Afro-Brazilian) relatives to a Latin beat, the Lindy Hop or jitterbug to a swing band tempo. In the larger sense and in one form or another, Afro-American dance and its musics conquered the world.
Rumba is not so much the name of a single dance as a collective term for a whole family of Cuban dances that took the world by storm in the 1930s. The original rumba (really son) was said to be a barnyard dance between a rooster and a hen with the ruffled costumes representing the feathered finery of the birds; another popular version, the “Shoeing of the Mare”, was even more obviously erotic. Like the tango in Buenos Aires, the rumba became popular in the dockyard and beach areas of Havana and, true to form, the authorities tried to ban rumba-madness—with the usual success. It was only when Cuban dancing took North American and Europe by storm that this trash music-and-dance of back alley bars and bordellos was socially acceptable in the land of its origins.
An incredible wealth of music and dance came out of the Antilles and the Latin Americas—the Cuban conga and danzon, the beguine from Martinique, samba from Brazil, and merengue from Santo Domingo are a few of the better known—and they are still coming; newer Latin/North American developments include mambo and salsa. True to the pattern, these dances are highly erotic; some also have religious roots. Most of them were, at one time or another, banned by the colonial governments and religious missionaries as pornographic, pagan, seditious or otherwise subversive of the (colonial) status quo. That did not stop them from being danced (when the bossman or the policeman or the preacher wasn’t looking) and many of them have since travelled around the world and even become socially acceptable both abroad and at home.
The story of swing music and dance—jive, jitterbug, Lindy hop—is much the same. As long as jiving and jitterbugging were popular and sexy fads at the Cats’ Corner at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, they were construed as serious (if titillating) threats to the rectitude and moral fiber of the nation. They were denounced and, if not actually banned, declared off-limits to whites. So swing music and jitterbug literally exploded out of the black community and took over the world. Shortly after Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Betty Grable and Frank Sinatra took it up, it began to be taught at the Arthur Murray dance schools.
By 1960, the twist appeared and rock-and-roll emerged from its race-record rhythm-and-blues ghetto, Elvis wriggled his hips and the censors and moralists swarmed out again in force, rolling their eyes and hurling thunderbolts. But Elvis was The King, the Beach Boys and the Beatles made black music work for the white kids, rock-and-roll went round the world and everybody was out on the dance floor. It was mass hysteria, it was world wide and it was (as the man said) déja vu all over again.
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Post Script: Here we will make a caesura and pass over the monkey and the mashed potato, disco, house and rave. The recent evolutions of social dance are closer to us but they are almost equally wrapped in mythology and most of the story, old and new, yet remains to be told. As suggested earlier, the science and study of terpsichology is well behind that of musicology and, like many important things in our lives and culture, social dancing is mostly something taken for granted and rarely granted for study. Fortunately a lot of dance music from early in the century was recorded by companies like Victor and Okeh and the revival of the classical/popular dance music has been an enduring fancy. My newest idea is to turn some of this history into a theater piece, working with Michael Sahl (to tell the truth, it was his idea), and The Tango Project. The piece is called Body Language and we plan to use documents of the period and dancers to give an idea of how these dances and their music were created, popularized, denounced, cleaned up and turned into art. In fact, it was the research for this project that prompted this piece.
I tried to write a discography to accompany the article but gave up in despair; even choosing a selective list looks like a lifetime (albeit an enjoyable lifetime) of listening. The three original Tango Project records, “The Tango Project”, “Two to Tango” and “The Palm Court” are still in print on the Nonesuch label; so are the early Free Music Store-inspired ragtime albums by Joshua Rifkin and William Bolcom. There are now many good latter-day tango bands recording classics and original works; among my favorites are two New York groups, Carlos Franzetti’s Orquesta Nova (Chesky) and the New York-Buenos Aires Connection (VAI Audio), and the Europe-based Nuevo Gran Quinteto Real which records for Philips. For original source material, try the Spanish label El Bandoneon; I would also recommend Original Music, 418 Lasher Road, Tivoli, New York 12583, USA, a veritable gold mine of recordings and literature covering almost every aspect of world music including nearly all of the topics covered in this article.
This article originally appeared in BBC Magazine in 1995.