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Collection An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals, ca. 1490 to 1920

Ragtime Dance

At the end of the nineteenth century, the growing influence of a new kind of popular music substantially changed the nature of dance. Ragtime had become a popular American style of music, chiefly composed for the piano, that flourished between 1890 and World War I. The sparkling and intoxicating rhythms of ragtime, with music by composers such as Scott Joplin, ushered in an era of expressive ballroom dancing, with dances that did not need formal training but which encouraged individualism. The first of these, the cakewalk--a strutting dance of African-American origins--with its imagined scandalous rhythms, was never performed by middle and upper class ballroom dancers in its original, vibrantly competitive form. Yet it did find its way into the stately quadrille and was, therefore, performed in some variation by a new generation of dancers.

La danse. Raoul Charbonnel. Published 1899.
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By the turn of the twentieth century, key elements of society were also beginning to change, especially the roles of women. No longer the shrinking violets of the romantic era, women were becoming more physically active. Women joined men in playing tennis, bicycling, and mountain climbing. As early as the 1850s, a few brave writers such as Mrs. Alfred Webster (Dancing, as a means of physical education, 1851) had encouraged women to exercise. In the 1870s, numerous manuals were dedicated to "physical culture," for example Coulon's Coulon's hand-book (1873), which contained exercises with poles, dumbbells, and elastics. Charbonnel's 1899 La danse also encouraged exercise. Frank Leslie Clendenen's 1919 The art of dancing placed great emphasis on physical fitness and included exercises, along with many alternative suggestions for healthy bodies, including pantomime, dramatic posture dances, Italian body exercises, and rhythmic dancing.

Balli di ieri e balli d'oggi. P. Gavina. Published 1922.
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Freed from the binding constraints of tight corsets and the large puffed sleeves and long skirts that characterized dress during the late Victorian era, a new generation of dancers was swaying, hugging, and grinding to the new rhythms in dances, such as the Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, and Grizzly Bear, shown in a photograph from P. Gavina's 1922 Balli di ieri e balli d'oggi.

In contrast, exhibition dancers Irene and Vernon Castle were everything society considered elegant and sophisticated, and they soon helped revolutionize ballroom dancing, by example, in their own dancing and by teaching private lessons. Their book, Modern dancing, was published in New York in 1914. Lavishly illustrated with photographs of the famous couple, the book provided descriptions of many of the popular ragtime dances including the tango (See Video Clip 80, Video Clip 81, and Video Clip 82),one-step (See Video Clip 74), Castle Walk (See Video Clip 75), hesitation waltz (See Video Clip 76), and the maxixe (See Video Clip 77). In attempting to bring civility back into the ballroom and in acknowledging the format of earlier dance manuals, the Castles also included chapters on "Grace and Elegance," "Proper Dancing-Costumes for Women," "Modern Dances as Fashion Reformers," and "Proper Dance Music." What the Castles had found was a dancing mania but a society that did not know how to dance. Suddenly, just as it had been one hundred years earlier, going to a dance teacher became the thing "to do."

The Castles were not alone, and dancing schools, tea dansants, and numerous publications proliferated during the early teens, giving a wide audience a chance to learn the latest steps. However, unlike the nineteenth century, where it was possible to read several manuals and find the same step description for the basic steps, in the early twentieth century every dance teacher had his or her own variations. In addition to the Castle's book, this online collection contains five additional manuals that were published in 1914. Albert W. Newman's Dances of to-day, published in Philadelphia, utilized text, drawings, a notation system, and photographs to explain the one-step, waltz, tango, and maxixe, as well as many variations for each dance.

Dances of to-day. Albert W. Newman. Published 1914.
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Troy and Margaret Kinney's Social dancing of to-day, published in New York, also described ragtime dances through text, a notation system, and photographs. Caroline Walker's The modern dances, published in Chicago covered the tango (or, one-step, according to Walker), the Castle Walk, the Walking Boston, the hesitation waltz, the dream waltz, and the Argentine tango. J. S. Hopkins's The tango and other up-to-date dances, described the one-step, tango, Brazilian maxixe, and waltz. In The tango and the new dances, Bales O'Donnell published a series of articles written by the well-known exhibition ballroom dancers Maurice and his partner, Florence Walden. As well as the standard ragtime dances, the manual contained nineteen figures for two exhibition dances, "Nights of Gladness" waltz and a dance called "La Habanera.") Taking advantage of the popularity of the tango, Eileen Swepstone published, also in 1914 The tango, a pamphlet that promised to present tango steps "shorn of crudities which caused it to be criticized."

This online collection concludes with several manuals published from 1920 to 1922 that do not reflect the popular, animated dances of the jazz era of post-World War I ballrooms. Instead, these authors wrote about "proper" dances, long since out of style. Aubrey McMahon Cree's 1920 Handbook of ball-room dancing asserted that the most popular dances were the Lame Duck Valse, one-step, foxtrot, and the Lancers (a quadrille). Charles J. Coll's 1922 Dancing made easy stated that the fashionable dances included the Carter Waltz and Schottisch Espagnole. In a series of pamphlets edited by Charles Julius Frank and published in 1922 under the title The latest method, home instruction by mail, instructions for the waltz, fox trot, and one-step were presented with diagrams, exercises, and a few simple steps.

A few sketches of the interior and work done at Foreman Hall-1894. Mrs. H.A. Foreman. Published 1894.
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Fancy dances. While adults were flocking to studios to learn the latest popular dances, writers were encouraging parents to start their children early. H. N. Grant's 1893 How to become successful teachers of the art of dancing, published in Buffalo, was written to assist teachers in setting up schools. Grant covered such areas as how to open the class and how to conduct a private lesson, and he provided diagrams to be used in teaching. Mrs. H.A. Foreman's 1894 A few sketches of the interior and work done at Foreman Hall-1894 was a series of photographs depicting her students in poses from various dances taught at her school.

To answer the demand for fancy dances as well as for tableaux, dances appropriate as home entertainment or as recital pieces, a number of manuals appeared. H.N. Grant published a series of pamphlets including the 1892 The highland fling; the 1895 Irine skipping rope; and the 1895 The double sword dance. Each pamphlet contained preliminary exercises and steps, as well as choreographies for the dances that were either solos or duets.

Irine skipping rope dance. H.N. Grant. Published c1895.
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F. C. Nott's Stage and fancy dancing, published in Cincinnati in 1896, provided instructions for thirty steps and more than twenty fancy dances, such as "Skirt Dance," "Cloak Dance," "Minuet," and "Witches Dance." Clendenen's treatise on elementary and classical dancing, published in 1903 in Davenport, Iowa, is a comprehensive manual with photographs and drawings that covered positions, technical terms, exercises, bows and curtseys, and a section on how to teach fancy dances including the "Highland Fling," "Sailor's Hornpipe," and "20th Century Skirt Dance." Published in 1906 by a leading fashion-pattern house, the Butterick Publishing Company, Masquerades, tableaux and drills provided suggestions for costumes and hair styles, as well as instructions for conducting tableaux, poses plastiques, and the so-called living pictures; a large section was also devoted to choreographies for fancy drills. (For further reading on Ragtime dance, see the bibliography.)