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Field Research in Historical Dance

Not all dances were described in dance manuals

Richard Powers

In cultural anthropology, fieldwork is an important part of research. In historical dance, we know that many dances were never described in writing.  We need to include field research in our methodologies, when studying dance forms within living memory. Resuscitating moribund dances is a part of our work, if possible.

I began early. In the 1970s, when I began historical dance, I knew two elderly women and one man who were Charleston champions in the 1920s. I recorded the variations that they showed me, most of which I've never seen in a written description, before they passed away. Today, they're all gone.

I did the same with the early 1920s Peabody (different from the later ballroom Peabody) that was never recorded. I interviewed dancers who had seen Vernon and Irene Castle dance. I collected regional 8-count Lindy variations before Frankie Manning's 1986 Lindy hop revival. I've been interviewing dozens of former 1950s teens, to learn and record their unique "bandstand" dances that were never described in print. I interviewed Katheryn Murray while she was visiting her daughter in Cincinnati, before she passed away. My greatest regret is that I didn't immediately fly to Hawaii to interview her husband Arthur, because I had many unanswered questions about the dances of the ragtime era, the Castles (whom he had studied with), and the early evolution of 20th century social dances. Arthur Murray passed away before I could interview him. That taught me the importance of jumping on any chance to interview an aging dancer.

Many others were still alive. The legendary Lindy hopper Norma Miller often said that there were two primary dances at the Savoy Ballroom: the Lindy hop and the Walk. Neither was ever written up in a description during the Swing Era. Frankie Manning led a successful revival of the Lindy hop before it completely disappeared but he never taught the Savoy Walk, so I brought Norma (81 at the time) to Stanford to teach all of the details of the dance, as she remembered it (pictured above).

The Balboa is a hugely popular dance today, but was never described in its era and had almost vanished by the 1980s. Jonathan Bixby and Sylvia Sykes learned it from Dean Collins before he passed away, and they started a revival of the Balboa.

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I've been asked how I pass on dances that I learned in my field research. Cross-step waltz is a good example.

I have traveled to France as a dance historian 26 times since 1986. Several French dancers showed me a slow cross-step "valse Boston" that they learned in France when they were young, including Josette Courtade (seen at the right), who was raised in the bals musettes in the 1930s. She saw it in the 1940s, and I danced cross-step valse Boston with her in Parisian bals musettes several times during the 1990s and early 2000s, when she was in her 80s. Note that in France, "valse Boston" is a generic term denoting a slow waltz, without specifying whether it's rotary, box step or cross-step. Josette's version was based on the cross-step.

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I also saw Jean-François Lafitte and Andrée Gamelin (pictured at left) dancing cross-step Boston in 1997, and asked them about it.  They said they learned it a long time ago, and that it was still being danced in Southern France but was fading out.  Sylvie and Jean-Pierre Orgeret from Lyon were also dancing this cross-step style of valse Boston at that same time.  All the French dancers began on the Lead's right foot, Follow's left.

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Since "valse Boston" is a generic term, I specified this version as "cross-step waltz" and began teaching it at waltz weekends in 1997. My graduating Stanford students also carried cross-step waltz to many countries. Like the Balboa, the revival is now larger than the original generation, with over 700 videos of cross-step waltz on YouTube, from around the world. It is rapidly spreading throughout Russia, with several cross-step waltz festivals, and even cross-step waltz competitions, each year. What kind of waltzing is done in China? If one searches for "Chinese waltzing" on YouTube, the top hit is a video of cross-step waltz at an outdoor evening dance in Beijing.

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Some dance historians who only live in the world of published documents believe that if a dance wasn't described in a dance manual or article, it didn't exist. Following that belief, they would say that the historical French cross-step Boston never existed; I must have invented it. They might similarly say that the Balboa never existed—Jonathan and Sylvia must have made it up—because it also was never described in dance manuals.

A dancing master knew only a fraction of the dances of his or her era. And the dances described in a dance manual were only a fraction of what the author knew. Dance manuals were far from comprehensive. Furthermore, throughout history, authoring a book was an upwardly mobile endeavor, to enhance a dance teacher's reputation, and writing about a lower class vernacular dance would be counterproductive to that goal. Thus, the dances of the disenfranchised poor or minorities were rarely recorded for posterity. Field research is sometimes the only way to recover vernacular dance forms like the Balboa and cross-step waltz.

Fieldwork—interviewing dancers from an era—is important. I mention this in my Guidelines for Dance Research and Reconstruction:

Interviews are especially important for dances of the past half-century. Conduct your own interviews with people who were there, and don't put this off until next year. Aging dancers might not still be around.

Suggestion: If you find that your questions are not eliciting a response, play original recordings of the music or demonstrate some steps to jog the memory. Follow up for details... you can't ask a book further questions.

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Here are some dances that were never described in writing during their eras:

Circa 1800 Chica
Early to mid 19th century Parisian bal public Can Can (only a late-century description of a polite version)
Pre-1910 first generation Argentine tango
The French Apache dance
The Texas Tommy, the earliest swing dance
1920s First Generation Lindy Hop
1930s Second Generation Lindy Hop
The Savoy Walk
The Balboa
The Camel Walk in the film St. Louis Blues
French Cross-Step Boston Waltz
St. Louis Shag
Pre-1980s Argentine Valse Cruzado
Pre-1980s Argentine Milonga
Chalypso (late 1950s teen swing-based cha cha)
1950s Bandstand style swing
1950s solo Bop steps
        And many more.

We know that some of these existed because of interviews with surviving dancers. Some were mentioned in books but not described. And we know that some of these existed because of films. If motion pictures had existed centuries earlier, we would know of the existence of more dances that were never described in dance manuals.

Bottom Line

If you find someone who knows a fading dance form that has never been recorded, take the initiative to capture it through video and interviews. Follow up for details. And don't put it off until next year. That may be too late.