The Evolution of Dance
As part of ADSNY’s commitment to educating and engaging the next generation of young people, we are pleased to present to you this mixed-media essay by ADSNY’s 2020 high school summer intern, Julia Davis. Julia spent the summer working with the ADSNY team to research the subject of how Dance evolved during the Deco era––a subject of special interest to her.
Dance performances were, and still are, an important source of entertainment.
In the early 1800s a new style of dance was born in America that would continue to evolve for many years. The term for this style of dance was “jigging” and was later known as tap in the early 1900s.1 The style came about when musical instruments were taken away from African slaves and without these instruments they began to express themselves creatively by making rhythms using their feet. In 1838, William Henry Lane, also known as Master Juba, had an impact on the rise of tap dancing which was also influenced by Irish clogging and jigging. Master Juba was the first black performer to entertain a white audience.2 Before his performance, in what became known as a minstrel show, there were only white public performers. Minstrel shows were comprised of different entertainment acts and were very popular from the 1850s to the 1870s. These shows later influenced vaudeville shows.3
Portrait of Boz's Juba from an 1848 London playbill
Historic footage of Vaudeville Acts from 1898 to 1910
Stemming from minstrel shows, vaudeville shows peaked during the 1890s to the 1930s.4 There would be a lineup of talented magicians, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, jugglers, singers, dancers, plate spinners, ventriloquists, and more to perform in front of large crowds. Tap dancing was also a very popular act in vaudeville shows. Tap dancers were forced to invent unique routines in order to be recognized as they entertained audiences. For example, Buster West, an American dancer, made the stylistic choice to wear oversized tap shoes during his act.5 These were very upbeat, dramatic, and unrelated acts that would captivate audiences and leave them wanting more. People’s interest in entertainment that presented inhumane performances, such as dangerous acrobatic tricks, made these vaudeville shows unique and popular. The audience was mostly made up of urban middle-class men, but overall, vaudeville shows reached a very large number of people for that time.6
Bill Robinson, also known as Bojangles, began professionally dancing at the age of five in 1883.7 Robinson was one of the earliest black performers to go solo, overcoming vaudeville's racial restrictions. He became very well known within the dance community and had a positive impact on race relations in America. Before becoming widely known for his role and tap performances with the popular child actress Shirley Temple in the 1930s, Robinson performed in vaudeville shows and on Broadway throughout the early 1900s. The “stair dance” was Robinson’s signature move, where he incorporated dancing on a staircase into his tap routine.8, 9 Throughout his career he fought racial barriers. It was a new experience for audiences to see a black man holding a white girl's hand as they danced and sang together happily.
Bill Robinson as photographed by George Hurrell in 1935. Photo: George Hurrell, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution © The Estate of George Hurrell
Shirley Temple & Bill Robinson Tap on Stairs, 1935
Besides tap dancing, the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot, Kangaroo Hop, and Duck Waddle are some of the many animal-themed dances that could be seen while ragged rhythms were playing.10 This period, known as the Ragtime era, took place between 1895 and 1919. Animal dances were often linked with the lower class and it wasn’t until the husband and wife duo Irene and Vernon Castle became popular that the middle and upper classes participated in doing animal dances.11 During the Ragtime era, the Castles heavily influenced the popularity of this style of dance.12 The Castles were ballroom partners, dance teachers, Broadway performers, and owners of Castle House, a dance studio in New York.
Modern examples of animal dances, the Castle Walk, and more
Footage of Vernon and Irene Castle dancing
As the Ragtime Era came to an end, the Jazz Age was at its beginning and took place during the 1920s. During this time Americans were also living through the Prohibition era. The ratification of the 18th amendment made it illegal to transport and/or produce alcohol.13 But many Americans found ways around these laws and gathered at speakeasies where they would drink illegally, listen to live jazz bands, and dance their nights away. Music started to pick up speed and became more intense, as did the dancing.14 Walking into a speakeasy, visitors would see people dancing the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, and the Jumpin’ Jive.15
Although speakeasies were considered secretive, flappers were quite the opposite.16 These young women began to behave outside of what was considered the status quo as they began to freely express themselves. Flashy jewelry, headpieces and daring clothing were only a part of the reason flappers gained attention. Their dancing became more wild, scandalous, and free. The Fox Trot, Shimmy, and Charleston were examples of popular dance moves that flappers would perform.17 The older generation of women never imagined acting outside of what was considered socially acceptable.
Fox Movietone Newsreel,1926, featuring Miss Bee Jackson dancing in front of the Jenkins Orphanage
in Charleston South Carolina in 1926. The orphanage band in the background which toured the US and Europe produced such great Jazz artists as William "Cat" Anderson, Jabbo Smith, and Count Basie's long time guitar player Freddie Greene.
Footage of people dancing the Charleston
Women were very influential in the development of dance. Among the growing group of women dancers there was one in particular who accomplished much through her dancing and entertainment: Josephine Baker. She was born in St. Louis and became a popular dancer and singer in France.18 Her career began touring with the Philadelphia Dance Troupe, performing in Broadway shows such as Shuffle Along (1921) and Chocolate Dandies (1924), and singing songs such as her most popular "J'ai deux amours" (1931).18 Not only was she an entertainer but Baker also played a big role as an activist. She refused to perform in front of segregated audiences, so if venues wanted her to perform they were forced to integrate. While entertaining British, French, and American soldiers during World War II she used her access as a performing artist to transport important war messages to allies written on her music sheets in invisible ink when she would travel.19 Her war and civil rights efforts were recognized, and Baker was awarded the Croix de Guerre (1939-1945), Rosette de la Résistance (1946), named Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur (1962) all by General, then President, Charles de Gaulle, and was also NAACP's "Woman of the Year" in 1951.20
Photos of Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker performing The Charleston on August 24th, 1928. Moving Image Research Collections Fox Movietone News Collection
Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, the famous duo, filmed their most popular musical films in the 1930s. In Top Hat (1935) and Shall We Dance? (1937) Astaire and Rogers showed off their extraordinary tap moves. Their creativity is displayed in a scene from Shall We Dance? where the duo tap dances while wearing roller skates. These dance partners were heavily influenced by the Castles and eventually they were cast to play them in the film The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rollerskating in Dance With Me
Fred & Ginger in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 1939
Americans not only watched dance performances but they also engaged in them. Whether it was for money or for entertainment, people would participate in dance marathons.21 They were popular in the 1920s and 30s and consisted of couples competing to see who could last on the dance floor the longest. Prizes were awarded to the longest- lasting couple, which could sometimes be over 1,000 hours.22 This was a time in the midst of the Great Depression and people were struggling to put food on the table. The prize money was a very big incentive for competing.
Today, viewers watch popular television shows such as “So You Think You Can Dance” and “Dancing with the Stars,” without realizing some of the dance steps they are watching can trace back from the 1800’s through the first half of the 20th century. Dance played an important role in the entertainment industry and in social life of the 1920s and 30s and dance from that period continues to have a vast impact on our culture today.
About the Author:
At the time of writing this article in 2020, Jules Davis was a senior at Staples High School, Westport, Connecticut. Many years of dedication to her passion of dancing led to a summer internship with the Art Deco Society of New York. This consisted of in-depth research and writing about the evolution of dance around the time of the Art Deco era.