‘Just Like Being At The Zoo’: Primitivity and Ragtime Dance
in Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy, Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader
ed. Julie Malig
Champaign: University of Illinois Press
The period from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century is often regarded as merely the precursor to the more exciting Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance, particularly in terms of popular music and dance. The dance and musical forms of the ragtime era are important contributions to American popular culture in their own right. In addition, by examining the aesthetics of popular dance and music at this time, we are able to make claims about the racial social dynamics in the United States and, in turn, recognize the importance of the Gilded Age and ragtime era for social dance. During this time, one of the first uniquely American forms of social dance to gain national popularity developed out of an African American tradition and was influenced by European traditions and contemporaneous attitudes about race, sexuality, and class. In the time between the 1893 stock market crash and World War I, the rhythms of the ragtime piano and the youth culture of the post-Victorians greatly influenced the nature of social dance and vice versa.
Most of ragtime's dances were first popular in African American communities in the South and North and then moved from these jook joints and house parties to traveling shows, such as medicine shows, gillies (miniature carnivals), and black and white vaudeville to large venues like ballrooms (black and white) and Broadway musicals. The migrants of the Great Migration brought their dance styles to their new homes and greatly influenced the cultural mise-en-scene. The competitive spirit influenced much of the creativity in the steps, and dancers were constantly trying to outdo one another and come up with the next craze. The most popular dances were often the ones that displayed the most technical difficulty. Fancy stepping and syncopated rhythms led to gravity-defying aerials and comedic antics. In all of these venues, dances of different racial backgrounds and classes borrowed, stole, and one-upped one another. The story of social dance during this era is a complex negotiation that can be read on the body. In this chapter, I attempt to untangle some of these dynamics.