Dancing your country back
The Chestnut Tree Dance is a bizarre bit of British dance history. It seems worth remembering for a moment in the current atmosphere where some English have been printing “I want my country back” on badges and t-shirts, and Sarkozy wants to reclaim France “for the French.” If you got your country back, and “reclaimed it” in some way that meant you got the right to impose national dress and culture on people who happen to share the same nearby landmass, what might the dancing look like?
Well, maybe a bit like this. In her article  on social dance in interwar Britain, Rishona Zimring quotes contemporary accounts of nightclubs and rhythm clubs (mainly from the Mass Observation project of the time) that demonstrated the novel diversity of social dance habits of the time:
These were places where races mixed: the interviews reveal that club-goers were highly conscious of this mixture, in some cases attracted by it, in others, uncomfortable. Places where social dancing occurred or where dance music was played were locations of everyday “cosmopolitan modernity.” They displayed a hybridity hard to discern elsewhere (say, at Cambridge) but highly significant as a challenge to English xenophobia and a harbinger of a new, multicultural society. (p. 715)
Those who were uncomfortable with this hybridity wanted something that could reclaim social dancing for the English. The dance halls in comparison to rhythm clubs were a bit dull, and couldn’t compete with the novelty of jazz. As Zimring explains:
The dance halls’ monotony arose in confrontation with the multiculturalism of jazz, which for some in the music business was a problem, a threat to English identity as revealed and bolstered by native traditions in music and dance. The solution was to invent a tradition. (p. 715)
Inventing tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance
The result was the “Chestnut Tree Dance,” invented and marketed in 1938 by a dance hall impressario, C. L. Heimann. As a press bulletin of the time stated, this dance was a conscious revisiting of past epochs (they wanted their country back then, too).
“The musical basis . . . is an old-time melody—this and the Dance itself is severely ENGLISH. So many of the new and short-lived dances that have been introduced in recent years have been American, and based upon Negro rhythms that have not been suited to English temperament.”
What could be more English than a chestnut tree, what could be more unlike a nazi Salute than raising both arms to symbolise it’s branches? And of course, if you did this in a dance hall, you’d be reasserting your national identity through the medium of dance. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can see what it looked like:
You can imagine how well this might have gone down with people already in thrall to new rhythms, nightclubs, jazz, and a change from the Lambeth Walk:
The Chestnut Tree”’s flexibility as a symbol made it especially resonant as a potential icon of social coherence to counter the hybridity of jazz that threatened the dance halls. Mass-Observation assiduously collected responses from volunteers about “The Chestnut Tree”; it was the dance whose impact they most doggedly pursued (to discover, through interviews, that the majority of dance hall attendees found it fairly silly). (p. 716)
How I found the Chestnut Tree Dance
I’m delighted I found this article. I wouldn’t have done so, had it not been for this beautifully written review of the video game Bound by Farah Rishi. She quotes a journal entry about dance written by Virginia Woolf in 1903, which I found also referenced by Maria Popova at Brainpickings (Party like it’s 1903: Virginia Woolf on the Ecstasy of Music and Dance). That led me to Zimring’s article, and to the Chestnut Tree Dance. A few months ago, I would have read this and thought “how quaint.” Now, with Trump, Sarkozy, and Farage all circling round what Billig calls banal nationalism, it would hardly surprise me if something as bizarre and loopy as the Chestnut Tree Dance surfaced again.
- Zimring, R. (2007). “The Dangerous Art Where One Slip Means Death”: Dance and the Literary Imagination in Interwar Britain. Modernism/modernity, 14(4), 707–727. http://doi.org/10.1353/mod.2007.0096 [currently available here]
Zimring has also written a whole book on the topic:
- Zimring, R. (2013). Social dance and the modernist imagination in interwar Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.