The dances which popularised in each decade tell us much of the societies of which they originate, such as the social gender expectations evident in the dance halls of 18th century Vienna or the obsession with anonymity in the masquerade balls of Venice. Within the last century this is true, however with one key detail added: the “elitist” nature of these dances has been stripped away and the dances are a force for integration between different communities and bringing minority culture into the forefront of the “mainstream”.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the origins of the Charleston, which in the 1920’s incorporated inspiration from numerous BEM backgrounds including the Hispanic-American dance of Contradanza and African-American Juba style of dance. This embracing of numerous cultural ideas and cultural inspiration is a common character of the Swing Jazz age dances, helping create the free rolling Charleston rhythm and its unique character and charm. This demonstrates the ability of dance to transcend cultural divisions, this was a dance originating in black and Hispanic culture which became hugely popular with a mainstream audience which still carried many dogmatic views towards POC.
With the 1930’s came a dance forever synonymous with workplace parties: the Conga. Its origins coming from the spread of the dance from Cuba to America and spreading around the world and becoming a worldwide phenomenon. Like many dances, its success lay in its ability to bring part of one culture into another and impart a gift of what that culture has to bring: in this case it brought Hispanic Cuban culture to the forefront of mainland American culture and beyond. This success led to Hollywood making the Conga a central part of so called “Latin Musicals”, which for all their faults brought Latin American Culture to the forefront of mainstream. Clearly, in the case of the Conga, dance held the power to get ordinary people to engage with a culture they were not necessarily familiar with and create a more positive perception of the minority culture.
And into the 1940’s came the rejuvenation of the Swing Dance movement with the rising popularity of the Jive. Popular in the 1930’s with African-American communities, its popularity spread to the mainstream, possibly due to its upbeat rhythm and bouncy nature fitting in with the celebratory mood of post-war America. Much like the Charleston, the Jive incorporates African American and Hispanic culture, breeding different variants across the world, such as Skip Jive in Britain. The worldwide appeal of the Jive demonstrates the universal appeal of the combination of a strong rhythm and an energetic dance and the power of this to integrate BEM culture into the popular culture and conscious of the nation.
Into the 1950’s came Rock and Roll, with its origins coming from the basis of the Jive and Lindy Hop, but unlike Lindy Hop it was focused more based upon performance elements. The fast paced rhythm, free flowing kicks and acrobatic nature of Rock and Roll dancing reflect the coming tide of increased social liberalism in America, bringing together people of numerous backgrounds and cultures through the medium of dance. Rock and Roll, following in the footsteps of the Jive, Charleston and Conga demonstrated the power of dance to bring together people of different cultures and backgrounds and impart BEM culture onto the mainstream western culture.
Into the 60’s, for which no single dance can truly be viewed as “THE” 60’s dance due to the arrival of the trend of dance crazes, however one of the first and most significant dance crazes was “The Twist”, ignited by a song of the same name it was a major part of the Rock and Roll music scene. The significance of the Twist is not only in its own popularity, but it was the catalyst in a dance trend which created moves such as the “funky chicken”, among other global dance crazes. “The Twist” gains its significance from the fact, like any truly popular dance it contributed to a worldwide dance and music phenomena which played its part in growing social liberalism, much like the Rock and Roll and Lindy Hop dances.
And so comes the most fabulous of all the dances: Disco. The origins and rise to mainstream of disco dancing are exemplary of dance’s ability to bring the cultures of people not perceived as the societal mainstream into the eye of mainstream culture. Disco, the amalgamation of BEM dances and the newfound gay dance scene (after the legalisation of gay acts in most of the western world) spread into the mainstream in the 1970s, though it had come about in the gay and BEM dance scenes sometime earlier. If rock and roll was a trickle of social liberalism transferring through the medium of dance: disco was a rather fabulous flood. The key detail which sets disco apart from other dances of their respective decades is it originating from the gay community, demonstrating dance’s evolution as not just being a unifying force for people of different cultural backgrounds but also bringing the gay community into a more mainstream part of popular culture.
The number of dances which have made a significant impact on popular culture is so large it is near impossible to address all of those wonderful dances, however, from Charleston to the Jive to Disco, it is clear that dance throughout the decades has been a catalyst for bringing people from all walks of life together and increasing appreciation for those not perceived as being in the mainstream of society. That, to summarise, is the beauty of dance.
Written by Matt Cornforth