Today, organized dancing is a niche activity. In the past, however, 1920s dance styles were a staple in society. Young women and men would head to popular speakeasys or dance halls, where they would socialize, drink liquor, smoke cigarettes, and dance the night away to live music. While these were considered “indecent” activities during this time period, a group of young women called Flappers saw it as a way to challenge cultural norms while also having a bit of fun. Popular dance crazes swept the nation - some of which were considered more salacious than others. Because dancing was such a popular activity, Flappers also needed clothing and shoes that could keep up with their active footwork. Read on for more information about the famous dance crazes of the 1920s and learn how they effected the fashions that was popular during the period.
Popular 1920s Dance Styles
Without a doubt, The Charleston is one of the most iconic 1920s dance styles. When the Roaring Twenties is represented in pop culture, a version of this dance is typically performed. It can be performed either solo or with a partner, making it very popular among partiers in during the Jazz Age. The dance moves from the Charleston first originated in African-American Harlem dance halls in the early 1920s. It wasn’t until it hit Broadway, however, that it became a part of the larger cultural consciousness. In 1923, the hit Broadway show “Running Wild” featured a wild dance set to a quick-paced 4/4 tune by composer James P Johnson called “The Charleston.” Not long after its on stage debut, it was a dance craze that swept the nation and became popular among flappers and their male counterparts.The dance itself consists of twisting your feet, kicking your legs, and swinging your arms in unison. It also is typically set to exciting jazz music, just like the song from which it earned its name. Click here to see view the Charleston’s iconic dance and enjoy its timeless tune.
The Fox Trot
You can’t talk about popular 1920s dance styles without mentioning the Fox Trot. This dance rose to popularity in the mid 1910s and remained popular through the 1920s, 1930s. It is even is referenced in dance moves that were popular during the 1940s and 1950s. Some people even argue that the 1970’s dance craze “The Hustle” can thank the Fox Trot for its origins. In 1914, a man named Henry Fox was hired to perform a dancing Vaudeville act on one of New York City’s biggest stages. He and his “American Beauties” performed trotting steps set to ragtime music, which thoroughly entertained the masses. This popular dance was emulated throughout the city and eventually became known as “Fox’s Trot” before becoming just “The Fox Trot.” At its most basic, The Fox Trot combines forward and sideways footwork, all to music set in 4/4 time. Click here to see a basic version of the Jazz Age Fox Trot in action.
The Texas Tommy
The Texas Tommy is considered the first swing dance to hit dance halls. It originated in San Francisco in around 1910, where it reportedly was a staple in African American dance halls. It wasn’t until it was danced at The Fairmont Hotel - a “respectable” white dance hall - that it rose to popularity among the masses. Popular dancer Ethel Williams had performed the Texas Tommy in San Francisco and brought the movements back with her to New York City. There, the dance was then adapted for the stage and was performed in a popular Broadway production called “Ziegfeld Follies.” The Texas Tommy would eventually turn into “The Lindy Hop” of the 1930s and fuel the swing dance craze of the 1940s. The dance itself was originally described by critics as “acrobatic,” “eccentric,” and “a whirling couples dance.” It was the very first popular dance to incorporate a breakaway step and an 8-count rhythm. Click here for authentic footage of people dancing the Texas Tommy in 1910.
The Black Bottom
Like many other dances that became popular during the 1920s, The Black Bottom originated in African American dance halls. While the dance originated in New Orleans in the early parts of the 1900s, the name references an area of Detroit that was known as the “Black Bottom.” The dance itself was a staple among African Americans in the South. In 1924 it had worked its way to Harlem and was subsequently performed by Ann Pennington and Tom Patricola in a Broadway musical revue. Once it hit the stage, it became a true sensation. It soon became even more popular than “The Charleston” among the general population. The Black Bottom even comes with written instructions, which are as follows: “Hop down front then doodle back / Mooch to your left then mooch to the right / Hands on your hips and do the mess around / Break a leg until you're near the ground.” While these slang terms don’t mean much to us now, they were used in the 1920s to spread the word about this popular dance craze. Click here to see dancers from 1926 perform The Black Bottom.
While all forms of dancing were considered a bit scandalous in the 1920s, The Shimmy was the considered the most salacious of all 1920s dance styles. By today’s standards, this simple dance seems incredibly tame. But when you consider that the chaste, modest Victorian Era was only a few decades prior, it helps us understand why this particular dance was often banned from dance halls in the 1920s. The Shimmy has roots in dances like the “Haitian Voodoo” and the Native American “Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble.” It became popular nation-wide thanks a dancer of Polish origin named Gilda Gray. When asked about the interesting new dance she was performing, she reportedly said, “I’m just shaking my chemise.” Her distinct Polish accent, however, made the word “chemise” sound just like the word “shimmy.” While a fun story, its authenticity is up for debate. Famous actress Mae West also claims to have invented the name after she saw the dance being performed in African American clubs. No matter where the name came from, the dance caused a stir. The movements consist of keeping the lower body still while the chest and shoulders are very rapidly moved back and forth. Click here to see silent film actors from the 1920 perform The Shimmy in a comedic scene.
The Brazilian Samba
As the name suggests, the Brazilian Samba originated in South America during the late 1800s. This popular dance took center stage at events like Carnival before making its way to North America in the early 1900s. While early samba music was performed by unknown musicians, in 1917, a tune called “"Pelo Telefone" was recorded by a famous Brazilian musician and became popular thanks to radio air play. This opened the door for other Brazilian musicians and eventually these exciting sounds became mainstream. While the samba was the most popular Brazil, it still managed to make its way across the Western world. In the early 1920s, the Samba was performed in Paris and became a sensation. The samba’s sensual dance moves eventually became popular in North America among the dance hall set. This music would also go on to influence modern later Blues and Bossa Nova music. Click here to see a couple from the late 1910s performing traditional samba steps.
How Dance Fads Changed Fashion
Flappers are famous for changing cultural norms. Not only did they partake in scandalous activities like drinking and smoking, they also cut their hair short and wore clothing that changed the way women dress forever. Perhaps surprisingly, their love of dance halls is what largely influenced fashion trends during this decade. When it came to dancing, proper undergarments were key. As one can imagine, restrictive corsets had no place in a vivacious dance hall. Women needed to move and breathe freely, which meant restrictive dresses and undergarments were no longer in vogue. Some halls even had “Corset Check Rooms” where women could ditch their corsets before heading to the dance floor. Flappers didn’t just wear short skirt to raise eyebrows of the older generation - they wore them because they needed garments that allowed their feet to move freely while dancing to The Charleston, The Black Bottom, and The Fox Trot. This is one of the reasons that short dresses became so popular during the 1920s. Not only were they more comfortable and contemporary, they allowed young ladies to show off their fancy footwork. Handkerchief hemlines and dazzling embellishments also enhanced the beauty of every single movement. Appropriate footwear is also key if you plan on drinking and dancing the night away. That’s why the T-strap sandal became so popular during the Jazz Age. Traditional pumps and boots, after all, would be difficult to dance in. Footwear with extra straps ensured that a flapper’s shoes wouldn’t fly off while kicking her legs and swinging her feet. While today we look at T-strap or ankle-strap scandals as purely a fashion statement, they originally became popular because women wanted to partake in popular dances.