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Dance floor encounters and the global rise of couple dancing, c. 1910–40
Authors: Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

Worlds of social dancing explores the huge growth of couple dancing in commercial venues across the globe as a major trend in the history of popular culture in the era of the two World Wars. Looking out for the appearance of modern steps around the geographical world, it also shines a light on the social world of dancing, where conventions that were specific to this realm shaped the conduct of its population. It considers how significant these ‘worlds of dancing’ were for class, gender, race and inter-generational relations, for personal relationships and social interactions. In case studies from Buenos Aires to Tokyo, from Manchester to Johannesburg and from Chelyabinsk to Auckland, the anthology also examines how dance cultures spread around the world and analyses their local adaptations. Finally, the volume asks how, and with what consequences, the mass culture of radio and film affected social dancing as an institution in various parts of the globe.

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Dance floor encounters and the global rise of couple dancing: an introduction to the worlds of social dancing
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

The introduction presents the growth of couple dancing in commercial venues around the world as the object of study and formulates questions about the reasons for this trend and its effect on class, gender, race and inter-generational relations, which are the main topics of the book. It positions the volume in the historiography and outlines the sociological concept of ‘social worlds’ as the theoretical move that the volume undertakes in order to tell new stories about social dancing in the era of the two World Wars. The introduction concludes with a summary of key findings from the chapters to address the volume’s two main questions about the ‘social’ and the geographical worlds of modern couple dancing.

in Worlds of social dancing
Women, style and intimacy, 1920–40
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

This chapter explores dance hall culture in Buenos Aires during the 1920s and 1930s, paying special attention to the cultural depictions and lived experiences of young women who patronised dance halls. In particular, it explores the rise of these places and their impact on young women’s leisure time. In order to do this, the first section investigates the development of milongas, academias and cabarets, and analyses the diverse patrons that attended them, the social values these places endorsed and the dances that were in vogue in Buenos Aires during this period. The second section explores female representations and young women’s involvement in dance hall culture. It examines two female types that condensed the moral panic generated by the dance hall, and explores ‘actual’ young women’s visual styles and their encounters with men at the various dance venues. The chapter analyses the yellow press, general interest magazines and women’s magazines in order to examine representations of gender and dance hall culture, and explores how young women experienced them through opinion pieces, advice columns and letters to the editor sections. The historiography on Argentine women in the 1920s and 1930s has explored women’s significant involvement in the public sphere. It has focused, particularly, on the feminist movement and on female political engagement, education and labour market participation from a social history perspective. This article engages with this scholarship and argues that popular culture, and principally beauty, fashion, intimacy and courtship, were relevant practices in the lives of young women as well as crucial discourses in the shaping of their identities.

in Worlds of social dancing
Dancers, musicians, and the transformation of social dancing into mass culture in the USA, c. 1900–41
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

This chapter addresses two topics. To begin with, it asks why popular social dancing in the USA changed from a disreputable, cheap amusement into a legitimate mass culture between the turn of the twentieth century and the beginning of the Second World War. This question is answered with reference to a dance hall industry that emerged in the 1920s and that integrated with network radio, sound film and the music business. Changes in the organisation of social dancing had implications for encounters on the dance floors, which are the second topic of the chapter. Zooming in on these encounters, the chapter argues that the mass culture of social dancing that was established by the 1930s softened the boundaries of class, but reinforced distinctions of gender and race. The chapter proceeds in three chronological parts. The first part looks at ‘tough’ dances in working-class saloons in the first decade of the twentieth century and argues that these steps often served young men and women as a strategy to avoid (rather than initiate) intimacy. The second part focuses on irreverent ‘animal’ steps in Broadway cabarets in the 1910s and explains their adoption by respectable middle-class dancers with peer pressure from a critical mass of people who relished improvisation and thus sanctioned ‘outlandish’ conduct. The third part moves to the dance palaces of the 1920s and 1930s and shows how this ‘Dreamland’ facilitated romantic encounters between white heterosexual men and women, while excluding ethnic and sexual minorities.

in Worlds of social dancing
Working-class men, dancing and the renegotiation of masculinity in interwar Britain
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

The explosion in the popularity of social dancing which emerged following the First World War coincided with considerable debate about changing gender roles and a perception of masculinity as fundamentally challenged by the conflict that had killed or maimed so many young men. Dancing in particular was singled out as a ‘suspicious’ activity, better suited to women than men, and indicative of the wider feminisation of much British life and culture after the First World War. Whilst interested in this discourse for what it tells us about dominant attitudes towards masculinity in the interwar period, the purpose of this chapter is also to examine the lived experiences of working-class men and in particular to examine the ‘social worlds’ that dance halls created. It will highlight the role of dancing and the dance hall as ‘social worlds’ where men negotiated their relationships with women, and developed their own social, gender and personal identities. In the world of the dance hall, men had opportunities often denied them outside. Furthermore, the dance halls’ extremely codified rituals were formative in developing and shaping men’s relationship with women. Thus, the dance hall offered alternative formulations of masculinity beyond the dominant ones championed in the world outside its doors. Drawing upon a range of contemporary newspapers, social surveys, oral histories and Mass-Observation reports, this chapter sheds light on the changing and multidimensional social world of the dance hall in interwar Britain, where men performed a number of social roles and identities to a variety of audiences.

in Worlds of social dancing
The making of segregated dancing worlds in South Africa, 1910–39
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

During the first half of the twentieth century, the South African ballroom scene saw opportunity for growth. As a British colony, it was, in a sense, an extension of the United Kingdom: British enough to follow dancing trends and expert guidance, and international enough to allow for a variety of global, Americanised influences. This allowed the dances to be morphed so that they were practically and morally suited to their domestic ballrooms. This chapter explores how the diverse and segregated communities living in Johannesburg experienced, imagined and (re)created the social dances that they imported from the UK and the USA.  Though in different venues, by the late 1930s black and white couples in the city danced very much the same steps to the same music. This chapter uses oral histories and contemporary published sources to trace the making of Johannesburg’s dancing worlds. Through this lens, it focuses on situational factors: asking where dance halls were located; who danced; what infrastructures developed around dancing; what music was selected to dance to; who judged at dance competitions; and what dances were danced. The chapter follows the fashionable theatre tangoes of the 1910s and continues to trace dancing trends and their surrounding infrastructures until the late 1930s.  It concludes with an exploration of the vibrant jive of the early 1940s and explains how social couple dancing became all-night affairs with improvisation in the townships – in contrast with the more codified dance events in the white commercial dance halls.

in Worlds of social dancing
Modernities, ethnicity, and politics, 1926–47
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

This chapter offers a comprehensive account of the social and political worlds that emerged in the ballroom-style dance spaces of Kenya between the 1920s and the late 1940s. This chapter is interested in Kikuyu and colonial discourses about ‘European dances’ for what they tell us about African agency in the making of new local dancing cultures and for how they highlight the disruptive impact of British colonialism upon local power and gender relations. I examine whether ‘European dances’ in Kikuyuland amplified the scope and scale of Kikuyu youth ethnic expressions between the mid-1920s and 1947. By reclaiming African rhythms and adapting Euro-American partnering styles to new dance steps, the Kikuyu youth who engaged in ‘European dances’ were enlarging the boundaries of a contested Kikuyu embodied ethnicity. Many of these new dancing worlds were also intrinsic to Kikuyu militant anti-colonial struggle and advocacy for African rule, with dancing spaces hosting political activism.

in Worlds of social dancing
The case of New Zealand between the two World Wars
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

During the 1920s, New Zealand, like many other components of the British Empire, experienced the arrival of a strain of popular culture that had originated in the United States of America, imported either directly or indirectly. This was the arrival of jazz. Jazz bands toured, overseas music publishers circulated jazz music and gramophone manufactures released jazz recordings. Alongside this, a number of new dance ‘crazes’ (enjoying perhaps one season of popularity before disappearing) that had also originated in the USA were performed in the Dominion. Such dances were depicted in films of the period shown in New Zealand’s cinemas. Fast-paced, ‘frivolous’ and ‘fun’, these dances gave way to more sedate forms in the 1930s. In tandem with these developments, anxieties regarding dances and dance halls rose and fell during the years between the two global wars. This chapter investigates this transformation and argues that it was caused as much by changes in the music and entertainment ecology – for instance the rise of radio and the growing synergies between dancing and film – as it was the efforts of dance teachers and regulators to keep the public from performing ‘improper’ steps.

in Worlds of social dancing
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Tango music and dance in Japan, 1913–40
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

This chapter examines the cultural history of tango in Japan, 1913-40, in the context of Japan’s ‘modernisation’. One crucial culture from abroad brought into the Japanese aristocracy during the late nineteenth to early twentieth century was social dancing, paving the way for tango’s arrival in the 1910s through British–American dance networks. At first feared, tango’s cultivation as news story, popular stage performance, leisure pursuit and music genre impacted its dissemination across the wider Japanese population, influencing social relations. Key Japanese dance aficionados and transnational networks played a central role in this story, as did technological change and the regulation of dance and entertainment. From the late 1920s, Japanese dance aficionados established the popular Japanese dance hall culture, and collaborated with the media as well as with major record companies to disseminate ‘authentic Argentine tango’ music and dance steps across Japan. In this process, disjunctures between class positions and racialised discourses surrounding Argentine tango, influenced by the ‘elegant/vulgar’ debates in the British–American dance networks, shaped the processes of authenticating tango dancing in Japan. The early reception of tango in Japan illuminates the processes of inclusion and exclusion through, and within, dancing, listening and knowledge production.

in Worlds of social dancing
Glamorous careers, romantic fantasies, and sexual dreams on the dance floors of Shanghai, 1919–37
Klaus Nathaus and James Nott

The 1920s and 1920s witnessed the rise of a dance industry in Shanghai. Many of the city’s ballrooms and nightclubs featured dance hostesses or taxi-dancers, and by the late 1930s most of the young women working in this profession were Chinese. This chapter examines the following questions: 1) To what extent did dance halls in Shanghai serve as platforms for modern romantic encounters and courtship rituals among their customers? 2) Did dance establishments in Shanghai encourage and facilitate meaningful social and cultural interactions across racial, ethnic, class and national boundaries? 3) How did the ubiquitous presence of Chinese hostesses in the city’s dance halls influence and shape patterns of courtship and romantic and/or sexual encounters between men and women in the city? The chapter begins by examining the origins of couple dancing in Shanghai and shows how fashionable dances were taken up soon after their launch abroad by foreign settlers in the city and how ‘localised‘ jazz music began to attract Chinese patrons to western-style dance halls. The second part follows this trend to the late 1920s and presents factors that helped make couple dancing attractive to Chinese patrons, who at first had to overcome strong reservations against couple dancing. The third part traces the rise of taxi-dancing in the city. Focusing on the figure of the dance hostess and her role in Shanghai’s social world of dancing, it discusses couple dancing’s position between prostitution, stardom and romantic love and asks how their presence affected social relations in dance venues.

in Worlds of social dancing