Dance and Films
Dance and Films
Dance and music together have always dynamically given expression to the spirit and personality of all cultures. So it can hardly be expected that modern western dance does not do the same. It is also very much part of this global language with its roots running wide and deep. Forms of modern western dance have their roots in dance forms of taverns of Ireland and the ballrooms of Europe, not to mention the Czarist palaces of Russia. Traces of these forms go back to the fluid tribal rituals of Africa. These diverse native dance forms were brought by people of different cultures when they landed in America. Different people, who never had any exposure to one another, gathered and danced on common ground.
The cowboy for example was not the most graceful of dancers. Spending long hours in the saddle and having to do strenuous work produced dancers with two left feet. Even the temperament of the cowboy was not given to mastering graceful dance steps or to lead a fair maiden across the floor to where the violinist was playing melodious notes. A cowboy would much rather join a dance with a wild whoop and a goat cry. Joseph McCoy, the first great cattle baron, wrote in 1874 that the cowboy “usually enters the dance with a peculiar zest, his eyes lit up with excitement, liquor, and lust. He stomps in without stopping to divest himself of his sombrero, spurs or pistols.” This form of dance referred to by Joseph McCoy was more a spontaneous adaptation of traditional moves that were brought to America by immigrants of diverse cultures.
There was one problem though. Orthodox views, religious prohibitions, and traditional customs also accompanied the immigrants to the New World or America. Dancing was often frowned upon, and if not banned completely, all dance forms were created to keep contact and spontaneity at a bare minimum. As a result forms of dances that were felt to be in keeping with modesty became popular. The minuet, cotillion, pattern dances, courtly processions, and “safe” folk dances were some types that were favored by the early settlers.
The endless tracts of land of the Wild West molded the character and played a decisive role in the interaction of its settlers. Community events were organized like barn dances, husking and quilting bees (gathering of friends and neighbors who come together to work on creating a quilt), cowboy balls and get-togethers. Invitation could only be by word of mouth and those who heard usually came to dance. So that there was no chaos on the dance floor (few people knew the same steps), a figure that would go down in the history of dancing soon emerged. This person was the caller and it was his job to arrange the diverse crowd into a harmonious movement each time a new step had to be performed.
The caller has been credited with some inventiveness as he used dances steps from the quadrilles and some folk dances to create “cowboy waltz” position. This also helped promote the square dance. This new hybrid dance form was far less formal that the traditions from which it derived. However, the young wanted a dance that would give them a more intimate hold on their partner.
Then came the Polka dance. This is what the young men were waiting for. Polka had the intimacy of the Waltz and the liveliness of the Irish jig. The Polka was well received. The Western immigrant included the Poles, Germans, French, Irish, Jews, Scandinavians, Czechs and Russians. Even though they enjoyed their own folk dances, they took a liking to Polka. New hybrids were also developed – the Varsouviana and the Two Step. In El Paso, Texas, the German settlers developed the Schottische and line dances. From these dances were born modern western dances such as the Cotton-Eyed Joe.
People would gather just about anywhere to dance, whether ranches, barns, even under the starry sky. Slowly a dance form began to take shape that was specifically “western”. Novelty moves and styles popular in Appalachia and the South came west and were absorbed by the new settlers. The stylistic influence exerted by Black Americans is visible even in today’s country swing dance. But, it was the cowboy whose influence was most felt.
The cowboy couldn’t care about traditional dance forms. An observer commented in 1873, “Some punchers (cowboys) danced like a bear ’round a beehive that was afraid of getting stung. Others didn’t seem to know how to handle a calico (an animal having a spotted or parti-colored coat), and got as rough as they do handlin’ cattle in brandin’ pens.”
The swing of the leg at the time of getting off a horse became a mighty Polka gallop. Cowboys just didn’t know how to handle any women differently from cattle. Added to this was the problem of heavy army boots that made footwork appear clumsy. Cowboys couldn’t get out of the habit of wearing spurs even on the dance floor. This forced them to keep their feet apart and shuffle as they moved to the music. Many such cowboy mannerisms, although tamed, are present even today in forms of modern western dance. The “double arms over” can be likened to the final “tying off” of a calf’s legs before it is branded. The basic “push pull” position imitates the rhythm of holding the reins.
The start of the twentieth century saw new trends in music and dance. In the middle of all this was the Black American whose chief relaxation and entertainment was their kind of music and dance. In the old southern states, plantation workers would be made to compete with each other in contests to see “who owned the fastest dancer.” This rhythmic freedom of Blacks made the Whites envy them.
By the turn of the century, black dancers became a common feature in carnivals, minstrel shows, medicine shows and later vaudevilles. The wacky Black dance style was known as “jazz” or “eccentric dancing”. These were fast, gyrating, and acrobatic dances. They had names like the Turkey Trot, Grizzly Bear, Kangaroo Dip and Chicken Scratch. Black dance was viewed as a novelty. Although at times it came in for a bit of ridicule, the intricate footwork and fluid motions of such dances were slowly becoming integrated into America’s dance repertoire.
By 1916, two years into the World War I, the jazz scene in New Orleans was in full bloom. A year later historian Bernard Grun proclaimed Chicago the “world’s jazz center”. Inspired by the improvisational elements in jazz, couples began to experiment on the dance floor twirling, jigging, separating and more.
Throughout the 1920s, the Americans were listening consistently to music on the Radio. Chicago radio station WLS began broadcasting the “National Barn Dance” in 1924. A year from then the celebrated “Grand Ole Opry” from Nashville was initiated.
In the late 1920s, George Snowden also known as ‘Shorty’ had the audience at Savoy Ballroom spellbound with his rapid, break-away solo steps. Snowden named his dance ‘Lindy Hop’, after Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 crossed the Atlantic in one dramatic ‘hop.’
In 1938 Benny Goodman created a new style of jazz. The world sat up and listened to his big band swing and soon the Lindy Hop gave birth to the Jitterbug. The jitterbug was a combination of fast moving fancy footwork, elaborate spins, twirls, and turns. Even today, many moves of this dance can still be seen in contemporary country swing moves.
The legendary Bob Wills put together his own western big band and created a style of music called western swing. Modern country swing dance is based on the music Wills played and the way people danced to it.
Post World War II an entirely new style of musical tempo could be heard. It was called Be-bop. This was a kind of wild and dizzying swing offshoot that quickly gained acceptance in big cities before eventually giving birth to “pop” music. Rockabilly hit the music scene in the ’50s and by the middle of the ‘50s, it became known as rock ‘n’ roll.
Rock ‘n roll may belong to the ’50s, but the accompanying dance bore close resemblance to Jitterbug and Swing. The ‘60s saw a dramatic change in the style of dance. Dance partners became couples in name only and each was more interested in moving his or her body to the sounds, lights, and strobes.
Couple dancing picked up once more with the arrival of Disco in the mid 1970s. But, Disco was short lived and country music rose rapidly in its popularity. This indicated a renewed interest in western dance. All of a sudden, older dancers had become models for a new generation.
- Argentine Tango
- Hip Hop
- Hula / Tahitian
- Cha Cha
- Irish / Ceili