Friday, May 24, 2013

Civil War Soldiers Dancing

Union soldiers in camp.

In May 1863, the 12th R.I. was camped about midway between Richmond, Kentucky and Lexington, Kentucky. The two towns are 27 miles apart, so I don't know how far the young ladies of Richmond had to travel, but it was probably significant.

This is a time when the officers have the edge, since there were far fewer of them than enlisted men, so the ladies were not put in the uncomfortable position of having scores of potential partners.

From the time of our arrival here, up to Saturday the 9th, the weather was very disagreeable. Considerable rain fell, and for six days we were enveloped in clouds and fog. But in spite of all this, our general and his staff had frequent visits from the fair ones of Richmond, whose acquaintance they formed during our short sojourn there. They came in groups of half a dozen at a time. The band was called on to serenade the fair visitors, who forming with our officers upon the green in front of the church, joined in the mazy dance, and "tripped the light fantastic toe."(Joseph W. Grant, The flying regiment: Journal of the campaign of the 12th Regt. Rhode Island:. S. Rider & Bro., 1865
 p. 128-129.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Bee Palmer's Shoulders

Bee Palmer

I had to post this because it amused me so much.  

Nick Caraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, and Jim Burden, the narrator of My Antonia, were very earnest young men. They each came from the midwest of America, each went to college, worked in New York, each  witnessed and described a story that helped define the American spirit. Each ended their book sounding pretty depressed.

 I think it's fun to see that other similar young men used their college educations to write humorous poetry.

On First Looking into Bee
Palmer's Shoulders
["The World's Most Famous Shoulders"]
MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of
And many goodly arms and shoulders seen
Quiver and quake—if you know what I mean;
I've seen a lot, as everybody has.
Some plaudits got, while others got the razz.
But when I saw Bee Palmer, shimmy queen,
I shook—in sympathy—my troubled bean,
And said, "This is the utter razmataz."

Then felt I like some patient with a pain
When a new surgeon swims into his ken,
Or like stout Brodie, when, with reeling brain, 
He jumped into the river. There and then
 I subwayed up and took the morning train 
To Norwalk, Naugatuck, and Darien.

"BEE" PALMER has taken the raw, human—all too human—stuff of the underworld, with its sighs of sadness and regret, its mad merriment, its swift blaze of passion, its turbulent dances, its outlaw music, its songs of the social bandit, and made a new art product of the theatre. She is to the sources of jazz and the blues what Francois Villon was to the wild life of Paris. Both have found exquisite blossoms of art in the sector of life most removed from the concert room and the boudoir, and their harvest has the vigour, the resolute life, the stimulating quality, the indelible impress of daredevil, care-free, do-as-you-please lives of the picturesque men and women who defy convention.—From Keith's Press Agent.

(Franklin Pierce Adams, Something Else Again, New York; Doubleday, Page, 1920.)

If you don't remember your English Romantic Poets, here is the text of Keats's poem for comparison.

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific — and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A little more dancing in The Great Gatsby

We shook hands with him gravely and went back outdoors. There was dancing now on the canvas in the garden, old men pushing young girls backward in eternal graceless circles, superior couples holding each other tortuously, fashionably and keeping in the corners--and a great number of single girls dancing individualistically or relieving the orchestra for a moment of the burden of the banjo or the traps. 

By midnight the hilarity had increased. A celebrated tenor had sung in Italian and a notorious contralto had sung in jazz and between the numbers people were doing "stunts" all over the garden, while happy vacuous bursts of laughter rose toward the summer sky. A pair of stage "twins"--who turned out to be the girls in yellow--did a baby act in costume and champagne was served in glasses bigger than finger bowls. The moon had risen higher, and floating in the Sound was a triangle of silver scales, trembling a little to the stiff, tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn. (F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

Examples of the graceless and torturous

Monday, May 20, 2013

Foxtrot in the Great Gatsby, 1925

A Foxtrot from 1926

 "I'd a little rather not be the polo player," said Tom pleasantly, "I'd rather look at all these famous people in--in oblivion."
Daisy and Gatsby danced. I remember being surprised by his graceful, conservative fox-trot--I had never seen him dance before. Then they sauntered over to my house and sat on the steps for half an hour while at her request I remained watchfully in the garden: "In case there's a fire or a flood," she explained, "or any act of God."
Tom appeared from his oblivion as we were sitting down to supper together. "Do you mind if I eat with some people over here?" he said. "A fellow's getting off some funny stuff." (F.Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

In contrast to the wild extravagance of a shimmy dancer, Gatsby and Daisy know the current elegant dances. The foxtrot was new and popular in the 1920s and, according to Coll and Rossiere, it was especially dignified.
"Fox Trot is hardly a descriptive title, as indeed this dance, which seems to hold the fundamental principles of modern dances, is most unlike a trot. Indeed it is a smooth, easy dance and the most dignified of modern dances." ( Coll, Charles J. & Gabrielle Rosiere Dancing made easy. New and rev. ed.  New York: E. J. Clode 1922. p. 73.)

The easiest way to approach the foxtrot is to think of it as a combination of one-step (slow) and two-step (quick). According to A.M. Cree, you can string steps together in any combination  you like. One pattern that we like to use is counted like this, 1, 2, 3, and 4, 5, 6, and 7, 8. or the same pattern can be counted like this: slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, slow, quick, quick, slow, slow. 

The fun thing about Foxtrot is that dance manuals of the time used diagrams to show patterns of steps on the floor. As a dancer, you can think about those geometrically inspired patterns made by your feet, even while the fact that you are dancing with a partner makes those patterns appear softer and indistinct to a watcher.

Diagram from Cree, 1920

THE Fox-Trot is an American importation that, I think, has come to stay. It is an admirable dance and has become very popular in England in the last few years, the movements being simple and suitable for a fast-moving and full ball-room, and the beat of the music being "catchy" and full of spirit.

The music is very similar to that of a One-Step, but slower, the beat being best thought of as "1-2" (one foot), "3-4" (other foot). It will be seen from the diagram that the dance is really a combination of movements--walking, running, gliding, and two-stepping--and not a distinct set of movements. The various movements should be performed at will, not in any given order and not any given number of times. (Cree, Aubrey McMahon, Handbook of ball-room dancing, London, John Lane; New York, John Lane Co., 1920. p. 51-52)

Diagram from Coll and Rossiere 1922

The name foxtrot comes from horses, not foxes, not someone named Fox. In the late 19th century, American horses had a variety of gaits. The main gaits were walk, trot and canter, but there were 4 other distinct gaits and foxtrot was one of those secondary gaits.

The walk, trot, pace, and gallop are the cardinal or natural gaits, and need no description to be generally understood. The artificial and acquired gaits are as follows:
First—The Fox Trot is a slight modification of the true trot, and perhaps to call it a 'broken' trot, in which the fore foot touches the ground an instant in advance of the diagonal hind foot, will convey as correct an understanding of it as a most elaborate description of the alternate placing of the feet. It has the slowest limits of the artificial gaits, and is an all-day gait. Its range is generally from four to six miles per hour, though occasionally a horse may show a rate of seven miles an hour. It is the utility gait of the general saddle horse, and every one worthy the name is expected to have it. At this gait a loose rein is always used, and the horse is apt to carry his head low. Drivers of trotting horses in harness will recognize it as a step frequently taken for two or three strokes by horses just in the act of slowing into a walk. (Wallace's Monthly, vol. 10, no 1, February 1884, New York: John H. Wallace, p. 15)

By saddle animal I do not mean what is known as a gaited saddle horse; although I do believe that if our cavalry horses were bred from fox-trotters, and our officers and men taught how to ride them, we could break all records for distance traveled in the field and for condition of both man and horse during and at the end of a campaign. The foxtrot does not in any way interfere with the regular walk, trot and gallop. It is merely a gait between the fast walk and the pounding trot, at which the horse can continue for almost as many hours as he can at a walk, and cover about one-third more distance. It is easy for the horse and for the man, and at the end of the day the horse will be comparatively fresh and the rider will not have had every bone in his body pounded until it is sore. He will be fit for something if occasion demands it in the way of guard or night work of any kind. 

Do not confuse the fox trot with the dogtrot, for they are as distinct as the trot and gallop. The fox-trot is peculiar to the United States, and a cavalry command mounted on fox-trotters could make its marches of thirty and thirty-five miles every day with less grief to horse and man than we can at present make twenty and twenty-five miles. Any saddle-horse man will confirm this statement. Such an ability would be a supreme advantage to an army. To secure it, however, would take several years' attention—probably ten or fifteen, and the experiment will not readily be made in this country. (Maj. Lloyd S. McCormick, Seventh Cavalry. Remounts; a plan for providing suitable horses for cavalry and artillery purposes. Armor, Volume 15, U.S. Army Armor School., 1905 - p. 587-588)

So, in terms of styling, we can think of a Foxtrot as an easy comfortable dance that won't tire out the dancers. Just in case all this talk of horses is confusing, you can see a lovely foxtrot on British Pathé by following this link: A Foxtrot 1924

Friday, May 3, 2013

Dancing in The Great Gatsby, 1925

You Cannot Make Your Shimmie Shake on Tea (a 1919 argument against prohibition?)
My recollection of The Great Gatsby is that it is full of dancing, but on rereading I find there are only three or four mentions of dancing.  This is probably due to the amazing writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald. His description of Gatsby's parties is every bit as evocative and enduring  as Charles Dickens' description of Fezziwig's parties. There is an underlying difference, of course. Fezziwig is perfectly comfortable in his community and in his role as host. His parties are a symbol of kindness and good feeling. Jay Gatsby is a self-invented man and he is not comfortable. He is obsessed with Daisy, the girl with whom he fell in love years before. He was a young officer and she was a society girl when they met, but now he is a millionaire and she is married to anther. Gatsby holds parties to try to lure Daisy to him.

His parties are bigger and grander than you would have found in the world of society parties where he first met her, but his parties are also missing the community that her society parties had. Without a community of people with shared values (and similar economic status), Gatsby's parties are a place without rules. That is why they attract show business types and pretenders as well as society folk. It's also why they seem so magical and serendipitous to outsiders. Oh, if only Gatsby could bring himself to fall in love with a chorus girl, the story might not end in tragedy....
There was music from my neighbor's house through the summer nights. 
In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On week-ends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city, between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants including an extra gardener toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before. Every Friday five crates of oranges and lemons arrived from a fruiterer in New York--every Monday these same oranges and lemons left his back door in a pyramid of pulpless halves. There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour, if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler's thumb.

At least once a fortnight a corps of caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby's enormous garden. On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d'oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his female guests were too young to know one from another. By seven o'clock the orchestra has arrived--no thin five-piece affair but a whole pitful of oboes and trombones and saxophones and viols and cornets and piccolos and low and high drums. The last swimmers have come in from the beach now and are dressing upstairs; the cars from New York are parked five deep in the drive, and already the halls and salons and verandas are gaudy with primary colors and hair shorn in strange new ways and shawls beyond the dreams of Castile. The bar is in full swing and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside until the air is alive with chatter and laughter and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other's names.

The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Laughter is easier, minute by minute, spilled with prodigality, tipped out at a cheerful word. The groups change more swiftly, swell with new arrivals, dissolve and form in the same breath--already there are wanderers, confident girls who weave here and there among the stouter and more stable, become for a sharp, joyous moment the center of a group and then excited with triumph glide on through the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light. Suddenly one of these gypsies in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and moving her hands like Frisco dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray's understudy from the "Follies." The party has begun. (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, 1925.

Gilda Gray

The workers lay canvas to make a dance floor outside. It sounds much nicer than dancing on grass or gravel. The music is very up to date, and jazzy, with lots of wind instruments.This is the era of Prohibition, but it is only illegal to sell alcohol, not to drink it. Prohibition began January 1920, but there had been a temporary wartime prohibition on strong alcohol since November 1918, so by 1923 (the probable date for the events in the book) there would be a crop of young women who had no recollection of the names of various cordials, and also little remembrance of people drinking in moderation.

The young woman who is first to dance is not the understudy of Gilda Gray, but by bringing up that name, Fitzgerald's audience would be clued in to exactly what kind of dance she is doing.

Gilda Gray was popularly credited with inventing the Shimmy. Of course, Bee Palmer was also credited with inventing the same dance. In both cases it was a matter of an attractive young woman shaking her shoulders until her entire body wiggled. It seems to be a precursor to the Charleston, and even makes the Charleston look a bit refined. From the sheet music, it looks like the Shimmy was most popular in 1919.

You Cannot Shake that "Shimmie" Here (but maybe you can at Gatsby's!) 1919
Gilda Gray
Bee Palmer, I Want to Shimmie, 1919