Selected popular dances of the Jazz Age

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The…

Shimmy
Black Bottom
Varsity Drag
Collegiate Shag
Toddle
Charleston
Lindy Hop
Foxtrot
Waltz
Baltimore


The Shimmy – “A shimmy is a dance move in which the body is held still, except for the shoulders, which are alternated back and forth. When the right shoulder goes back, the left one comes forward. It may help to hold the arms out slightly bent at the elbow, and when the shoulders are moved, keep the hands in the same position.”

So says the article at Wikipedia. It confused me at first to hear that the body (including the torso) is to remain still in the “Shimmy.” I thought that the more shaking of the upper body, the better the Shimmy. Was I was wrong? Maybe I was half right. Is it even possible to move the shoulders “back and forth” without the upper body moving? It seems like you’d have to pivot somewhere south of the shoulders, namely at the waist and hips, if only slightly, in order to move the shoulders back and forth. Put differently, back and forth movement of the shoulders will inevitably cause the spine to turn, or vice-versa. Rotation of the spine involves rotation of the entire upper body. I’m periodically standing up and trying these moves as I write this and can’t seem to work out how to move the shoulders in this manner without much of the rest of the body moving as well, including my hips and legs. If I sit down, however, I can move the shoulders back and forth without involving the hips, but please tell me how it’s possible to keep the torso still while you’re doing this. Also, I cannot presently do the shoulder movements rapidly. Speed seems to be an important factor in doing a shimmy well.

I’ve noticed disagreement from site to site as to exactly what the shimmy consists of and how to accomplish it. There seem to be at least two very different types of shimmy or shimmie described: one where the hips shake or shimmy and the other where the upper body does most of the shimmying. Some assert that the movement is generated from the knees; you bend the knees and rapidly alternate your weight from side to side; this causes a hip shimmy and seems to be related to Egyptian belly dance. Here is a description of that kind of Shimmy which I found at the site Connections-JazzAge:

The Shimmy is a belly dance. It is really quite entertaining. It is actually an Egyptian dance. You dance this by first having the right posture. When belly dancing, or in other words, doing the shimmy, it’s very important to be conscious of your body at all times during the dance.

  • Stand up, and put your feet on the ground about a foot apart from each other.
  • Focusing on your hip area, bring your shoulders back and firm up your stomach and buttocks.
  • Stick your chest out and up, and put your hand down to your side.
  • To shimmy in belly dancing, you need to take advantage of the power in your knees.
  • Bend your knees slightly, and then raise them up and down quickly like you’re running.
  • Be sure that you’re feet don’t leave the ground! This will move your hips back and forth, creating a shimmy effect.
  • Be sure not to start off too quickly or you’re probably going to hurt yourself.

When you first practice this dance, you should do it in slow motion until you develop the correct movement. Be sure to pay close attention to your form. Your left knee should control your left hip, and the same goes for the right side. Once you get a more fluent motion, try to speed up the process. It should be almost seamless in movement, and your knees will pump as quickly as they can go. (How To Shimmy Hips Belly Dancing 1) Follow these steps and you’ll be shimmying like a pro in no time! Just be sure you don’t hurt yourself!

Other sites give a definition similar to that provided at Wikipedia’s main article on the dance. They describe a shimmy generated by rapidly alternating movements of the shoulders resulting in shaking of the upper body. One site straddles the fence, saying that the upper body usually shakes but sometimes the hips or other parts do. Where is the Shimmy authority!?

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The site Streetswing.com suggests some early sources of the movement known as the Shimmy: “Haitian Voodoo” dances, horon dances of the Black Sea region, the Shika of Nigeria, and a German dance of the 15th century called the Ahselroten. [Note: Ahselroten is probably a misspelling because streetswing.com is the only hit on a google search of the word.] But they fail to show a logical thread from any of these; so the connections appear to be merely speculative, based on perceived similarities to the Shimmy. Streetswing is quite comprehensive in some areas such as a page where they list more than twenty different titles with the word “Shim” or “Shimmy” (or Shimmie and other variant spellings) recorded from 1917 to 1927.

In 1917, a dance-song titled “Shim-Me-Sha-Wobble” by Spencer Williams was published, as was “The Jazz Dance”. The lyric of the latter mentions by name the dance called the Shimmy-She as well as the dances The Texas Tommy, The Eagle Rock, and The Buzz (See the excerpt from the book Jazz Dance below).

(Right) Bee Palmer, c. 1921

The origin of the name of the dance called the Shimmy is often attributed to Gilda Gray, a Polish emigrant to America. An anecdote says that when she was asked about her dancing style, she answered, in heavy accent, “I’m shaking my chemise”. However, in an interview Gilda denied having said this, and earlier usages of the word are recorded. In the late 1910s others were also attributed as being the “inventor” of the shimmy, including Bee Palmer. Mae West claimed to have herself retitled the unfamiliar dance she observed as the shimmy.

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Shim-Me-Sha-Wobble (Spencer Williams) — live 1987 performance by the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, a band from San Antonio, TX

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The following image is an excerpt from the book Jazz dance: the story of American vernacular dance by Jean Stearns, pp. 109-110. The quality of the image is not great, but it’s easier to read if you click twice on it.

The Jazz Dance (W. Benton Overstreet) – In it’s section titled The First Jazz Records, redhotjazz.com indicates that (W.C.) Handy’s Orchestra of Memphis was the first to record the song, during a 22 September 1929 session. But the title used by Handy suggests that it might have already been known: That Jazz Dance (The Jazz Dance that Everybody is Crazy ‘Bout).

Blake’s Jazzone Orchestra recorded the song in November 1917 and released it under the simpler title, The Jazz Dance. “Thought for a time to have been a session led by Eubie Blake, Blake’s Jazzone is now known to have been a band from Richmond, Virginia.” – redhotjazz.com

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1926-Original Black Bottom Dance-composed 1919-m. Perry Bradford, w. Gus Horsely-1

The Black Bottom

history and description of the dance from the Wikipedia article:

Black Bottom refers to a dance which became popular in the 1920s, during the period known as the Flapper era. The dance originated in New Orleans in the 1900s. The theatrical show Dinah brought the Black Bottom dance to New York in 1924, and the George White’s Scandals featured it at the Apollo Theater in Harlem 1926 through 1927 where it was introduced by dancer Ann Pennington. Jelly Roll Morton, jazz player and composer, wrote the tune “Black Bottom Stomp” with its name referring to Detroit’s Black Bottom area. The dance became a sensation and ended up overtaking the popularity of the Charleston, eventually becoming the number one social dance.

StreetSwing.com provides a similar history of the dance, here.

Wikipedia says:

“The Original Black Bottom Dance” was printed in 1919. It came from an earlier dance called “Jacksonville Rounders’ Dance” printed in 1907. The word “Rounder” was a synonym for “pimp.” Both “dance-songs” were written by black pianist/composer/dancer Perry Bradford [1] and were based on a dance done in Jacksonville, Florida “way back.” One professional dancer stated, “That dance is as old as the hills.” The dance was well known [sic] among semi-rural blacks across the South. A similar dance with many variations had been commonly used in tent show performances, and “Bradford and Jeanette” had used it as a finale. The dance was featured in the Harlem show Dinah in 1924, and then “The Scandals of 1926,” whereupon it became a national craze.

Bradford’s version printed [the following instructions] along with the sheet music

  • Hop down front then Doodle back, (Doodle means slide)
  • Mooch to your left then Mooch to the right
  • Hands on your hips and do the Mess Around,
  • Break a Leg until you’re near the ground (Break a Leg is a hobbling step)
  • Now that’s the Old Black Bottom Dance

Instructions for the Mooch are “Shuffle forward with both feet. Hips go first, then feet.”

The rhythm of the Black Bottom is based solidly on the Charleston. [1]

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The sheet music cover above refers to a 1926 show Broadway Gaieties, suggesting that the song was introduced in this production. This might be technically correct if the lyrics were added for the show. The following recording features the song’s composer as director and vocalist for The Georgia Strutters, while the lyricist is also a member of the band, playing banjo.

The Georgia Strutters – recorded 21 October 1926 (says the provider) — Perry Bradford (vocal/director), Bubber Miley (clarinet/trombone), Herschel Brassfield (clarinet, alto sax), Edgar Sampson (alto sax, violin), Mike Jackson (piano), Gus Horsley (banjo).

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HOWEVER, the most familiar version of The Black Bottom was written by the songwriting team of De Sylva, Brown, and Henderson in 1926. Wikipedia’s article on Ann Pennington claims that Henderson wrote it for her:

[Pennington] became famous for what was, at the time, called a “Shake and Quiver Dancer,” and was noted for her variation of the “Black Bottom”. She was also noted as an accomplished tap dancer. Ray Henderson wrote the extant version of “Black Bottom” for Ann – she had already been performing the popular version of the dance for some time. Some years prior to this, she had also topped the bill on Broadway in her performance of the musically similar “Charleston”.

Following are two early recordings of Henderson’s Black Bottom.

Johnny Hamp and his Kentucky Serenaders – 1926

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Howard Lanin and his Orchestra, vocal Frank Harris1926

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Ziegfeld Girl Ann Pennington photographed by Alfred Cheney Johnston. Date unknown. She wears an outfit very similar to that worn by the first dancer in the video below.(Below) The next video shows two versions of the Black Bottom from different eras during the Jazz Age, early and late. The early version, dated 1919, is demonstrated by a solo dancer in a skimpy outfit which resembles that worn by Ziegfeld Girl and famed dancer Ann Pennington in the photo at right by Alfred Cheney Johnston. Wikipedia claims Henderson wrote his version of Black Bottom for her, though she’d already been performing the popular dance The Black Bottom for “some time.” In the later version, labeled 1927, partners demonstrate a more conservative dance, but with more complex steps.

This is followed by a return of the first model who does an exuberant dance to the song The Varsity Drag, another song by De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, which has obvious similarities to their Black Bottom. I haven’t identified the dance demonstrated last when the couple reappears.

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The Varsity Drag (m. Ray Henderson, w. B. G. DeSylva, Lew Brown) – composed for the original 1927 musical Good News. The show was very successful, running for 557 performances.

The YouTube provider gives some information about the dance:

VARSITY DRAG became popular nationwide (and especially in the New York area) in the late 1920s, mostly because of the 1927 hit song “The Varsity Drag” followed by the movie (1930) [According to IMDb, the film The Varsity Drag was released in 1929] with Ann Singleton,”the rubber girl”, making her memorable “shag dance” show [sic]. In 1930s the Varsity Drag transformed into the Collegiate Shag, and in ’40s — into the Jitterbug. Like many other dances popular in the big band era, the “shag dances” have roots in the 1920s Charleston, believed to be from New Orleans. All of them are primarily the 6-count dances full of kicks, hops and taps done to fast jazz.

Frank Black Orchestra – 1927

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Jack Hylton Orchestra — recorded 23 July 1928

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The Collegiate Shag

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(below) A 1937 short film in which Arthur Murray is shown teaching students various steps in the Collegiate Shag, followed by students demonstrating “four different styles of Shag”, a dance which he says has hundreds of steps, all being variations on those he has just taught them. The clip finishes with a staged performance at a club.

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The Toddle

See a description of the dance known as the Toddle at Street Swing.

The provider of the video below attaches the following description: “The Academy of Danse Libre performs The Toddle at their spring show, “Ghostlight Tango” on, June 9, 2012. Choreography by Joan Walton.”

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The site 1920-30.com provides some cultural history in the following extract from an article on how popular dances (and social mores) evolved along with jazz and popular music during the 1920s and ’30s:

It is worth pointing out that in the early 1900’s both the Waltz and the Tango were considered scandalous dances because they involved physical contact between partners during the dance. Once the dance crazes which took off in Paris were demonstrated in America, they were embraced by the public and close dancing became a social norm. In the 1920’s and 30’s the Lindy hop, named for the pilot Charles Lindburgh’s [Lindbergh’s] first solo flight, emerged and was the first dance to include swinging the partner into the air, as well as jumping in sequence.

People saw the new dances in Hollywood movies and practiced them to phonograph records or to radio broadcasts before going out on the dance floors of nightclubs or school gymnasiums. Dancing was a major part of peoples [sic] entertainment and an important part of every party. Schools taught dancing to small children, while churches used dances to attract young people. Tangos, Foxtrots, Camel Walks, even Square dances (which were heavily promoted by Henry Ford) were popular.

Magazines and books on social dancing and related social activities were very popular, as were dance schools teaching all the latest dance crazes. Dance etiquette inherited from the previous century began to change. Parents who could afford to would send their children to learn Tap and Ballet dancing. Dancing was an extremely popular social activity for all age groups. Dance marathons occurred every weekend with the longest ever recorded being 3 weeks of dancing.

Young people introduced their own fashion styles and so the “flapper” and “sheik” came into existence. Young women with short bobbed hairstyles, close fitting [sic] hats and short skirts were referred to as flappers, and young men with ukeleles [sic], racoon coats and bell-bottom trousers were called “sheiks”.

Dancing began to actively involve the upper body for the first time as women began shaking their torsos in a dance called the Shimmy. Young people took to throwing their arms and legs in the air with reckless abandon and hopping or “toddling” every step in the Foxtrot, and soon every college student was doing a new dance which became the Toddle.

Assorted dances

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The Charleston

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charleston-Africanisms in American culture-2005-pp51-2-ext

(Above) an extract from the book Africanisms in American Culture, by Joseph E. Holloway (2005) pp. 51-52.

The Charleston (m. James P. Johnson, w. Cecil Mack*) – Johnson, one of the originators of the stride style of jazz piano playing, was inspired by dockworkers from [in?] South Carolina to compose the music. The dance known as the Charleston came to characterize the times. It was this song that propelled the dance to international popularity and a place in musical history. – adapted from Wikipedia

Piano roll by the composer James P. Johnson, 1925

Django Reinhardt – record 21/4/37 (21 April 1937) in Paris – Quintet du Hot Club de France – Stephane Grappelli (v), Django Reinhardt, Pierre Ferret, Marcel Bianchi (g), Louis Vola (b). Djangopedia indicates that it was mistitled upon release as Swinging With Django.

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Lindy Hop History

Introduction (from the site The Lindy Circle)

The Lindy Hop (or Lindy) is a partner dance that originated in 1920’s and 30’s Harlem, New York. The Dance itself consists of both 8 and 6 count steps and it includes footwork borrowed from the Charleston and Tap.

The dance can be wild and spontaneous, with frenzied kicks and body movements, or it can be cool and sophisticated. The most important aspects of it are that it is danced with your partner, to the music, and that you enjoy it!

The Lindy Hop is considered a cultural phenomenon that broke through the race barrier when segregation was still the norm. Modern dancers, interested in cultural history are piecing together the roots of Lindy through the tales and film footage of the original dancers, now in their 70s and 80s. Although the lineage and history of Lindy may be muddled, it is certain that it was born from the blending of African rhythms and movements with European structured dance.

The Lindy Hop has enjoyed a revival since the mid 1980’s, when Swing Legend Frankie “musclehead” Manning, an influential choreographer and performer of the era, was rediscovered. Now the Lindy Hop and other Swing dances and variations are part of a world wide [sic] trend to get back on the dance floor. [Read more at The Lindy Circle] Headings of subsequent paragraphs include the following:

The Forerunners of Lindy Hop
The Savoy Ballroom
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers
The Granddaddy of Swing
The Jitterbug
Hollywood Style

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Foxtrot

From the Wikipedia article:

The foxtrot is a smooth progressive dance characterized by long, continuous flowing movements across the dance floor. It is danced to big band (usually vocal) music, and the feeling is one of elegance and sophistication. The dance is similar in its look to waltz, although the rhythm is 4/4 instead of ¾ time. Developed in the 1920’s, the foxtrot reached its height of popularity in the 1930’s, and remains practiced today.

The exact origin of the name of the dance is unclear, although one theory is that took its name from its popularizer, the vaudeville actor Harry Fox.[1]

Two sources credit African American dancers as the source of the Fox Trot: Vernon Castle himself, and then dance teacher Betty Lee. Castle saw the dance, which “had been danced by negroes, to his personal knowledge, for fifteen years,” at “a certain exclusive colored club”.[2]

The dance was premiered in 1914, quickly catching the eye of the husband and wife duo Vernon and Irene Castle, who lent the dance its signature grace and style.  [read more]

Wikipedia also notes that dances related to the foxtrot include the quickstep, the Peabody and the Discofox [the latter a mid-1970s development].

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Waltz

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The Baltimore

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* Cecil Mack is a pseudonym of Richard C. McPherson, aka “R.C. McPherson”

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. V.E.G.
    Oct 30, 2010 @ 10:07:52

    Ann Pennington is of Old American stock and of Quaker origin.

    Reply

  2. Steve Tapp
    Aug 07, 2011 @ 00:09:01

    What a page!

    Reply

  3. Stacey Haggard Brewer
    Jan 28, 2016 @ 15:39:19

    Wonderful!
    I came across this page by accident, and it made my day!

    Reply

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