Tag Archives: dance history

Waltz offences: when to call the police

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A fairground waltzer

A waltzer at Winter Wonderland, 2018. With no competition the most horrible experience (the waltzer) I have ever had. I thought I was going to die or throw up or both.

For no reason except that I love the story, here’s an interesting fact about the waltz in 19th century Innsbruck.

According to Eric McKee (2014) after 1780, the term deutscher Tanz, which until then meant any German spinning dance, began to refer to dances—like the Walzer (waltz)—where couples made circuits around the edge of the dance space, while also turning in their own, smaller circles. If you’ve ever been on a waltzer at a fairground, that’s the principle: a surprising case of a fancy name reliably describing the thing it’s applied to. 

For that reason, McKee refers to the waltz, Walzer, and Deutscher with the collective term Deutscher–Waltzer. The difference between these dances and the later “Viennese waltz” was that in the earlier forms, couples tried to co-ordinate their travel around the room with the other dancers, so that it was in effect a very large group dance. By contrast, in the first decade of the 19th century, couples began to treat the ballroom as a kind of anticlockwise circular motorway, choosing to create other smaller “lanes” inside the space, and varying the length of their stride so they could dawdle or overtake, choosing their own, independent speed. 

And here we come to my favourite bit of McKee’s description: 

However, in some regions an ordered an arrangement of dancers continued to be practiced. As late as 1816 in a dance hall in Innsbruck, upon his second warning a man could be reported to the police commissioner for passing ahead of another waltzing couple of the ballroom dance floor (Fink 1990, p. 39)

[The Fink citation at the end is part of McKee’s text. The quote above is from McKee 2014, p. 175)—see references for details].

Having seen the dirty looks that dancers in open classes can give to someone who fails to get out of the way at the end of a travelling exercise, or who is still working out the steps in their head in the middle of the studio while others are about to crash in to them, I can see the attraction of being able to call the police when you’re beyond narked. I’d be interested to know what the police commissioner thought about this—and what similar dancing crimes would be so heinous as to warrant a call to Cressida Dick? 

References

McKee, E. (2014). Ballroom dances of the late eighteenth century. In D. Mirka (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Topic Theory (pp. 164–193). New York: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199841578.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199841578-e-7
Fink, M. (1990). Tanzveranstaltungen und Bälle. In W. Salmen (Ed.), Mozart in der Tanzkultur seiner Zeit (pp. 33–46). Innsbruck: Helbling.

Inventing Tradition: The Chestnut Tree Dance

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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 [1]  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 nationalismit would hardly surprise me if something as bizarre and loopy as the Chestnut Tree Dance surfaced again.

References:

  • 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.