Western Social Dance: An Overview of the Collection
For centuries, in Europe and wherever Europeans have settled, the ballroom was the perfect setting for men and women to demonstrate their dancing abilities, to show their awareness of the latest fashions, and to display their mastery of polite behavior--qualities required for acceptance in society. The importance of dance and appropriate conduct was echoed in manuals that date back to the early Renaissance, to a time when courtiers, gentry, and wealthy citizens were fortunate enough to have a private dancing master or to have taken advantage of the skills of itinerant masters who traveled from one court to another.
The grandeur of the Baroque court of King Louis XIV and his court at the Palace of Versailles set the stage for a new style of dance that would spread to royal courts throughout Europe. With the development of a dance notation system, published in 1700 by dancing master Raoul-Auger Feuillet, French court dance could be taught in every palace and manor house. By the end of the eighteenth century, when ideals of democracy swept through nations, group dances gained popularity, so dance instruction manuals, as well as etiquette books, were published to enlighten a growing middle class of Europeans and European colonists, especially those in the Americas.
In the era of the nineteenth century, a proliferation of publications were intended to aid those who needed to adhere to the expanded rules and regulations surrounding the growing ritual of the ballroom. As well as knowing the most fashionable dances, precepts for the ballroom also included the organization of balls and the protocol of invitations, introductions, choice of dances, and appropriate music. Dance instruction manuals and corresponding etiquette and fashion manuals provided instruction for fashionable dances, appropriate ballroom conversation, and even the handling of silverware in the supper room.
At the end of the nineteenth century, a radical change in dance style occurred with the arrival of a dance called the two-step. Often performed to the American music of John Philip Sousa's "The Washington Post" march (See Video Clip 7 and Video Clip 8), the two-step was a simple dance that required no tutoring from a dancing teacher. The rules of decorum soon broke down as the two-step was followed by the one-step and dances called the Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, and Grizzly Bear--and all were performed to the music of America's great Ragtime composers. South American rhythms soon entered the ballroom with versions of the tango (See Video Clip 80, Video Clip 81, and Video Clip 82) and the Brazilian maxixe. (See Video Clip 77, Video Clip 78, and Video Clip 79). During the years just prior to World War I, numerous exhibition dance couples, including Irene and Vernon Castle, entertained audiences by night--and, by day, taught a public hungry to learn the latest dances.
Social dance styles continued to change after World War I, but the dancing public did not need dance manuals to teach the popular dances that now included the Charleston, fox trot, and Lindy Hop. People saw the 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. The dance manuals in this online collection from the 1920s reflect this, since very few discuss current dance trends but impart instructions for dances popular at the turn of the century.
The manuals on this online collection are divided into conceptual categories.
The following discussion is intended to provide a brief contextual background for the manuals contained in the collection. For further information, the reader is urged to consult the bibliography. Many of the manuals are mentioned in the text, and they may be accessed by clicking on the title.
Elizabeth Aldrich, Washington, D.C., 1998