Forbidden dances and deadly marathons: 5 facts about the history of dancing
We take a look at five fascinating moments in dance history, including shocking dance costumes, deadly dance crazes – and the creation of the iconic Victorian Blackpool Tower Ballroom
Strictly Come Dancing – inspired by the long-running BBC series Come Dancing, which ran between 1949 and 1998 – is a reality television phenomenon. Produced in more than 50 countries (often under the alternative name Dancing with the Stars) the show pairs celebrities with professional dance partners to compete in a dancing competition full of skill, theatre and glitz, overseen by a panel of judges armed with glittery score paddles and eagle-eyed critiques. So, what’s the history behind some of our favourite routines, costumes and dance steps? Here are five facts from dance history…
Over the course of the series, Strictly Come Dancing contestants are challenged to learn a variety of ballroom and Latin dances. Many of these have long traditions, from the passionate Paso doble – a French dance which takes inspiration from the Spanish tradition of bull-fighting – to the elegant waltz, which first originated at the end of the 18th century as a lively peasant dance. Although the latter is a popular dance on Strictly today, it wasn’t always considered appropriate; when the waltz, in which men and women spin together in close contact, first appeared in Regency society, the sight of dancers clasped in each other’s arms led many to condemn the German dance as depraved.
The ballroom tango we might recognise today evolved from the more risqué Argentine Tango, a dance that originated in the working-class neighbourhoods of Argentina and Uruguay in the late 19th-century. With its quick kicks and flicks between partners’ legs, it’s often styled as a seduction between a courtesan and a gaúcho (an Argentinean horseman). However, Daniel Trenner, a tango teacher who lectures on the history of the dance, has shared how the tango was originally danced by male couples who would practice together “so they could impress a woman when the time came”.
“The risqué thing that made the tango different from other dances is you put your leg in between the space between the follower’s legs,” Trenner says. “The tango was their fantasy dance of what they’d like to do with the girls but didn’t get to.”
On the podcast | Hilary French follows the history of ballroom dancing – from its early popularity among the leisured elites to its demise in the face of disco, and recent Strictly revival:
Dancing has long been tied up with beliefs about morality. John Calvin, a 16th-century French reformer, branded dancing an “incitement to whoredom”. A century later William Prynne, a prominent Puritan in the mid-17th century, wrote Histriomastix (1632), a vehement critique against many things he deemed sinful; this included long hair, the theatre and Christmas – as well as dancing.
“Dancing serves no necessary use!” he wrote, declaring the activity “utterly unlawful unto Christians”.
Prynne was also critical of the English tradition of dancing around the maypole, claiming that many a fine young man and woman had gone “dancing down to hell” for partaking in the activity.
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Although there’s no maypole in Strictly Come Dancing, the contestants are tasked with learning the Charleston and the jive, both high-energy dances with rich and scandalous histories.
The Charleston originated in 1920s America and came to symbolise the Jazz Age. Often associated with ‘flappers’ – newly enfranchised women with bobbed hair, short skirts and supposedly looser morals – the Charleston is characterised by frenetic up and down movements and swivelling, akimbo limbs. It was a popular dance in the ‘speakeasies’ of prohibition America, and represented rebellion and loss of inhibition.
Following swiftly on from the innovation of the Charleston, swing dance trends exploded in the 1930s and 40s with popular dances including the energetic jive, lindy hop and the jitterbug. The latter was particularly scandalous, as the ‘jitters’ were often used in jazz culture as slang for someone addicted to alcohol. Popularised in Europe by US armed forces during the Second World War, many of these dances had their origins in predominantly African American jazz clubs in areas such as Harlem, New York.
Swing dancing was also opposed on the grounds of morality: American preacher and writer Dan Gilbert’s 1942 pamphlet Hell Over Hollywood denounced the jitterbug as “conceived in hell and brought forth by the brothel, the dance has established its immoral dominion over the life and destiny of the larger element of American youth".
A trip to the Tower
“I just want to make it to Blackpool,” is the familiar refrain uttered by every Strictly contestant, desperate to make it to the special show each series that is broadcast live from the Blackpool Tower Ballroom. All the contestants hope for the chance to spin around the famous sprung dancefloor in the iconic venue.
Steeped in dance history, the tower was originally opened as a small dance pavilion in 1894. Dance rules originally included: “Gentlemen may not dance unless with a lady” and “disorderly conduct means immediate expulsion”.
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The ballroom, designed by the English architect Frank Matcham, was expanded to its current scale in 1899, ostensibly in order to compete with the newly-built Empress Ballroom in Blackpool’s Winter Gardens. The tower was also home to an aquarium and a circus – the centre of which could transform into an artificial lake and still amazes audiences today. The circus first opened to the public on 14 May 1894, offering admission from 6d.
In December 1956, the ballroom was badly damaged by a fire – reportedly started by a discarded cigarette. It took two years to restore the ballroom to its former splendour. Today, it boasts an inscription above the stage: "Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear" from Shakespeare's poem ‘Venus and Adonis’.
Nowadays, according to the tower staff, more than 650,000 people a year visit the ballroom to twirl around to the seaside strains of the Wurlitzer, the ‘Blackpool sound’ famously created by organist Reginald Dixon.
Going bananas for costumes
Dances are often characterised as much by their costumes as their performance. ‘Skirt dancers’ such as Kate Vaughn and Letty Lind gained huge fame in the 1880s in the music halls of Victorian England. They rippled and swooped the material of their long overskirts as they danced and kicked out, revealing their layers of voluminous undergarments. Later in the century, the dance craze gained a wilder edge; kicks became higher in risqué dances such as the can-can, and performers like Lottie Collins (an audience hit with her song ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’) played with the form to flirt with audiences, lifting the skirt to reveal a glimpse of stocking or even bare leg.
One of the most famous dance costumes in history is perhaps Josephine Baker’s banana skirt. Entertainer Josephine Baker (1906–1975) had an extraordinary life: during the Second World War she acted as a spy for the French Resistance; she was active in the fight against segregation in America and even attracted the attentions of the FBI due to her “anti-United States statements” in the fight for racial equality.
When Baker debuted her banana skirt dance in a show named ‘La Revue Négre’ in Paris in 1926, she became an overnight sensation. Prowling onto the back of the stage, Baker danced wearing a skirt made up of just 16 rubber bananas, waving her arms and swaying her hips. The movements were remarkable for their time. Taylor Gordon, an American singer who saw her dance, remembered “the vivacious Josephine Baker was flopping her bananas like cow-tails in fly time”.
A dangerous pastime?
Sydney Pollack’s 1969 movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? depicts a nightmarish Depression-era dance marathon, where some participants compete until they drop dead. An unusual premise, perhaps, yet the dance marathons that inspired the story were real – and gruelling.
Enormously popular during 1920s America, these competitions were a feat of endurance; the first recorded winner of such a competition was Alma Cummings in 1923, who danced at the Audubon Ballroom in New York for 27 consecutive hours, with six different partners. In search of ever-increasing cash prizes – some as high as $5,000 – couples would stand and sway for hours, watched by audiences seeking entertainment in the Depression era.
However, concern was soon raised about the close physical contact required by the couples, and there are also records of competitors succumbing to exhaustion and hallucination, even collapsing on the dance floor. Many events had on-site physicians to deal with fainting dancers or injuries.
In February 1932, officials in Washington DC prohibited marathon dances or “any dance or contest in which an individual shall participate for more than a total of 12 hours in any consecutive 24 hours”, and more cities and states followed, passing statutes outlawing dance marathons on the grounds of being harmful to health.
One journalist in The Washington Post had reached the conclusion that the event was harmful as early as 1910: “The marathon dance is the latest form that the asininity of responsible persons in small and large cities has taken,” the author wrote. “Prize fights are condemned and prohibited in many cities. So are bullfights and cockfights. The marathon dance, however, goes on undisturbed.”
After all, history shows that dancing can be deadly.
When a woman named Frau Troffea began to dance in Strasbourg in 1518, she began a phenomenon often known as the ‘dancing plague’.
“She danced with a type of madness that was apparently every bit as contagious as it was unstoppable,” wrote Helen Carr in BBC History Magazine. “First a trickle of onlookers joined the impromptu rave – then a flood. Soon Frau Troffea was accompanied by almost 400 revellers, dancing through the streets in a dizzying display of flailing limbs and spinning bodies.”
Even more remarkably, the events of 1518 were far from unique; chronicles from the 14th to 16th centuries are full of reports of people across central Europe being seized by a compulsion to dance – and doing so in their hundreds, sometimes until they dropped dead from exhaustion.
Numerous explanations have been put forward to explain why hundreds of people chose to dance themselves into a frenzy, with Sydenham’s Chorea or Chorea Minor, environmental influences and extreme stress all suggested as culprits.
More than 500 years later, the physical effects of dancing were still causing concern. In 1925, the Charleston was banned by a New Jersey borough mayor, who stated it was “dangerous, frequently resulting in broken shins”.
“I have no objection to a person dancing their feet and head off,” the mayor said, “but I think it best that they keep away from the Charleston.”