Social Dancing

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An age-old means of communicating messages that reflect social trends, social dancing is secular partnering between males and females or participation among groups. The secular and sacred combine in some cultures, and a few religions ban dancing. Rooted mainly in Europe, Africa, and Latin America, social dancing in America is as varied and changing as its cultural, age, and geographical groups. Attitudes toward the body and sexuality in public affect attitudes toward social dancing, which came to include sexier and faster-paced dances.

Early History

Seventeenth-century Puritan-dominated New England had laws against dancing and punished violators. Only children were allowed to play; the Protestant ethic held that such behavior was the enemy of work and a diversion from spiritual purposes of life. But most settlers in America danced. As a means to improve a person's social life, itinerant masters taught dance with its attendant etiquette. Recreational dance had taken hold in the colonies by the time of the American Revolution. Indeed, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were zealous dancers. Formal dances such as the minuet required skill, but country dances were for everyone. John Playford first collected English country dances into a book in 1651, and he published subsequent editions of dance manuals until 1728. Social dances occurred at county fairs, jamborees, log rollings, husking and quilting bees, barn raisings, homes, community centers, religious facilities, town squares, formal assemblies, cotillions, dance halls, fire halls, hotels, nightclubs, and stadiums.

Purpose And Growth

Dancing often marks crucial stages of the life cycle, especially "sweet sixteen" parties and weddings. Encouraging cheerfulness and banishing grief, dance also makes manifest good health, provides healthy physical exercise, and helps to keep people young. An escape from mundane realities of the workaday world, dancing often provides a free-feeling and altered state of consciousness. Dancing is a venue of self-expression as well as a way to try out different roles and fantasies.

An acceptable form of body contact with another person as well as an acceptable form of couple switching, dancing is a way for people to meet and court. Each generation sets itself apart with its own movements (often recycled versions of earlier dances), along with social decorum, dress codes, and music. Some classic dances such as the waltz, rumba, and tango persist through generations, and retro fads also occur.

The vast repertoire of folk dance jamborees, dances of different nations, line, group, circle, couple, threesomes, foursomes, and fivesomes provide face-to-face interaction in an increasingly mechanized and computerized society. Dancers talk about the humanity of contra dancing, the etiquette of eye contact, the opportunity through the folk dance network to find dances in different towns in America, and the uniqueness of dancing as a social activity, in which you touch people the same evening you meet them.

Social dancing is central to the way many people celebrate their heritage and maintain a sense of community. Of anonymous origin, handed down by image of eye, national, ethnic, and folk dances may salve nostalgia for eras past. The pan-Native American powwow has religious, social, and competitive elements to celebrate Indian heritage. Dancing may be an anchor or ballast in a sea of uncertainty for immigrants, as well as for inner-city youth and college students. Some traditional dances are transformed into new hip dances—the bhangra, of Punjabi, India, for example, is popular among South Asians.

Of course, the so-called American "melting pot" evolved new forms such as the Juba, ring shout, cakewalk, and street-corner tap dancing, with its roots in the Irish jig, clog, African rhythms, improvisation, and body fluidity. Square dancing emerged from country dance spirit and ballroom elegance.

Coincident with eroding European monarchical power, the waltz appeared in Germany and Austria in 1830 to revolutionize Western social dancing; for the first time, men and women danced in close, sensual physical contact. But because it required stiff control and agile skill, the waltz was replaced by the polka, spieling (wild spinning), and two-step, and then in the twentieth century by more natural "tough" dances known as rag and animal dances rooted in the black vernacular (derived from the dances of numerous African groups). Dancing positions changed from the woman's hand on the man's shoulder, his on her waist, and their other hands clasped, to partners clinging to each other's necks and shoulders and dancing cheek-to-cheek. On the frontier, dancing was rowdy and vigorous. Fiddlers and callers told dancers what to do, and calling became integral to square dancing.

Twentieth Century

From the 1890s to 1930s, immigrants came from southern and Eastern Europe. Working in a factory culture of silence, their self-expression exploded in "dancing madness." The freer style dancing reflected women's growing independence in society. Between 1880 and 1920, the establishment of dance halls commercialized leisure. Undermining old-world chaperonage, dance halls attracted young men and women who found unprecedented autonomy and their own norms. Women authoritatively passed over certain men for dances, refused invitations to step out, and defied parents' notions that companionship led inexorably to commitment and attempts to arrange marriages. Of different nationalities and social classes, yet equal in terms of dance experience, dancers congregated in dance halls and palaces. By 1910, greater New York had over 500 dance halls, some attached to saloons and associated with drink and immorality.

During the ragtime period (1890–1917), America became known as the land of a thousand dances, including the fox trot, turkey trot, bunny hug, duck waddle, camel walk, kangaroo hop, grizzly bear, monkey glide, chicken scratch, kangaroo dip, bull frog hop, buzz, and Texas Tommy. Also popular were dances with instructions, such as ballin' the jack and Argentina's tempestuous tango. The 1912 advent of afternoon tango teas attracted unescorted women to dance with male partners employed by café owners.

The blacks' substantial contribution to American dance was not always known or acknowledged. Blacks created social dances that were later coopted, "sanitized," made less sexy, and stylized by whites. Beginning in 1916, a mass migration of blacks from the South to Harlem led to new dances driving America's roaring 1920s. An element of cultural identity, black dance encoded messages such as hierarchy, inclusion-exclusion, and exchanges across social boundaries. Covert expression of political challenge occurred with symbolic stylistic rule breaking in dance. So artistic freedom for African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance was a historically meaningful civil right.

Some whites deemed the black dance vocabulary of hip swinging, pelvic rotations and thrusts (known as the Congo grind), torso undulations, and shoulder shimmying to be immoral. Yet other whites frequented Harlem nightclubs, thrilled to partake of a sense of illicit sexuality. By the time whites had adopted black dances as their own, blacks had moved on to new dance invention or reinvention.

The shimmy, big apple, black bottom, and flirtatious Charleston, with limbs tossed and kicked, gained popularity during the 1920s. Then one day in a Savoy Ballroom dance contest, all-time champion George "Shorty" Snowden did a breakaway, flinging his partner out in aerial flight and improvising a few solo steps of his own to an eight-beat count; he called the step the "Lindy," after Charles Lindberg, who made the first transatlantic airplane flight in 1927. These new dances became part of the 1930s and 1940s jitterbug and swing big band era.

Between 1920 and 1940, taxi dancing (male patrons paying female dancers a fee for a dance) attracted primarily immigrants. In 1930, New York City had thirtyseven dime-a-dance palaces, 35,000 to 50,000 male customers per week, and 2,500 to 3,000 employed female dancers. Taxi dancers in Latino barrios have been catering primarily to undocumented Mexican immigrants since the late 1970s.

Beginning during the 1920s dance craze, diversionary marathons symbolized survival during the Depression. Contests of stamina, nonstop dancing to set records was an escape from crowded tenements, factory drudgery, patriarchy, and poverty. Unemployed youth suffered for the dream of prize money. Alma Cummings danced nonstop for twenty-seven hours in New York City, waltzing and jitterbugging through six partners.

The 1930s and 1940s were the first golden age of Latino dances such as the rumba danzon, cha-cha, and mambo from Cuba, bolero from Puerto Rico, pasadoble from Mexico, samba from Brazil, and merengue from Haiti. African American line dances, such as the Madison originating in Baltimore, hit in the late 1950s. The shuffle, a few dance steps on the football field performed by a player who made a touchdown, appeared.

Accessibility to TV made new dances rapidly accessible nationwide. Dancers could watch programs such as American Bandstand (1956, reaching about 20 million people daily), Soul Train (1971), and Solid Gold (1979). In 1981, Music Television (MTV), playing music videos twenty-four hours a day, arrived on the scene. Then the Internet began providing dance information on sites such as

The 1960s twist (below the waist) wrested apart couple dancing into an era of rock 'n' roll. Twisting hip movements and nontouch dancing remained in the pantomime jerk, frug, skate, pony, swim monkey, mashed potato, and hully gully. Psychedelic hippies engaged in free expression and trancelike self-absorption on the dance floor.

Discotheques with disc jockeys playing vinyl records through big sound systems began in Europe, a product of World War II austerity, and emerged in America in the early 1970s in casual underground spaces. Homosexual, African American, Hispanic, and working-class communities of large urban centers joined with the "beautiful people" at, for example, Studio 54 and Xenon in New York City. An otherworldly admixture of blinding stroboscopic lights and projected images on walls created Dionysian playgrounds.

Closed-couple touch dancing returned in the 1970s with salsa music and the hustle, birthed in New York City among Puerto Rican blue-collar workers.

"Breaking," featuring competitive, sometimes risky, artistically inventive, pyrotechnic acrobatic and gymnastic dance movements, began in the 1970s in the Bronx, New York, among young African American and Latino males as an alternative to inner-city gang violence, and a way to be number one without "blowing somebody away." The 1980s witnessed the eruption of hip-hop solo or group break dancers spinning on their shoulders, buttocks, or back, freezing in pretzel forms, and popping (segmenting body movements that ripple through the body) on sidewalks and in parks. The hip-hop style crossed racial and ethnic boundaries and spread among young people in America.

About this time in New York City, white punk youths in combat boots, torn jeans, and metal-studded dog collars and bracelets were slam dancing to aggressive harsh music. They collided into one another in the "mosh pit" in front of the stage. At rock concerts during the 1980s and 1990s, the grunge movement, with clusters of males circling and charging each other, knocking and stepping on innocent bystanders, began. Thousands of scantily clad, pierced, and inked bodies participated in body surfing (riding the crowd's shoulders, hand over hand, until diving, falling, or being propelled to the stage and recycled back into the arena dancers by ushers).

Jamaican reggae, first appearing in the 1970s, infused hip-hop dancing and influenced Washington, D.C.'s gogo style. Reggae's "winding" (pelvic rotation) was also common in Cuban dance. In the next twenty years, dancers made popular the butterfly, bogoloo, and skettle.

A surge in country-western couple dances, called "shit-kickers," in Texas, occurred in the 1980s. The Tucson swing, two-step, and line dances for couples appeared in bars and honky-tonks. The films Dirty Dancing, Saturday Night Fever, and Flashdance influenced social dancing.

During the 1990s, voguing (a dance incorporating modeling poses) was common among gays. A swing dance (an umbrella term for Lindy, hand-dancing, Chicago steppin', Philly bop, North Carolina shag, and Detroit hustle) revival of the 1920s to 1940s invention became popular into the twenty-first century. There was also freestyle funk, reggae, house, club, and rap dance. Held in different places, rave dances developed as part of an underground culture. The attraction was experiencing altered states of consciousness through dancing en masse all night to a throbbing repetitive music beat and hypnotic light show. The line dance known as the electric slide replaced the electric boogie. Mexicans danced the banda with the quebradita, a little break in which the man straddles his partner and leans her back parallel to the ground.

By this time, male-female partnering included new configurations in teenage and young adult freestyle, including da butt, freaking, booty dancing, "doggy dancing," "front piggy-backing," and "dirty dancing." Partners twined thighs, touched and rotated pelvises, and tilted upper torsos away from each other. In another pattern, females pressing with back and buttocks, or bending over with hands on the floor, pressed and ground against the front of their male partners' bodies. Some females hiked up their skirts, exposing thong underwear.

Latin dancing (rumba, samba, cha-cha, mambo, pachanga, merengue, bolero, paso doble, cumbia, bachata) flourished with Central and South American immigration. The forward- and backward-hugging bodies with intertwined legs of 1989's Brazilian lambada was short-lived and later banned by Brazil. The macarena line dance from Spain hit in late 1993. Ketsup followed. Latino influence escalated with salsa dancing, a recycling of 1950s mambo and merengue. Hot salsa seen in clubs and on television is similar to freaking.

Musical shows encouraged audience members to dance in the aisles. Such performances included the Gypsy Kings, Salif Keita, "Hairspray," and "Harlem Song."

Throughout the twentieth century, people danced waltzes, fox trot, and tamed versions of many less conservative dances at formal occasions, in small cocktail lounges, and in senior citizen centers. People tend to continue to dance the dances of their youth.

In short, social dancing is a nonverbal form of communication about self, heritage, and interpersonal relations that engages mind, body, and feeling. The persistence of social dancing through history, and the religious, civil, and political attempts to control it, attest to its potency in human life.

See also: African American Leisure Lifestyles, Dance Classes, Dance Halls, Latinos Leisure Lifestyles, Raves/Raving, Square Dancing, Teenage Leisure Lifestyles


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Social Dancing

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