By Alex Wallace
I once remarked on a radio show on which I was a guest that I had two great loves: speculative fiction (alternate history most of all) and social partner dance. In this article, I hope to bring dance to the alternate historians and alternate history to the dancers; this article is aimed primarily at alternate historians by virtue of its host, but I hope that passer-by dancers find something to appreciate in it. In some ways, I think that the two have more in common than is immediately obvious. The dancer will find that I don't talk much about steps or patterns or turns; rather, I try to tell stories of dancers as people; it’s more interesting to write, and I hope it’s more interesting to read. The alternate historian that is familiar with my work would be surprised that I see so much of myself in those lines by Barry Manilow:
A disclaimer: all the discussion of the emotional content of these dances is my own. I am a young man, a Filipino Tisoy that can pass as Southern European, whose dancing has been mostly in the Virginia Tidewater and Greater Washington D.C., and one that hasn’t been much involved in professional dance competition. I represent nobody else in writing this. In some ways, this piece is a very personal one, almost a memoir. In other ways, it’s a product of research, in which I have tried to present the truth; nevertheless I am certain there is something I have not considered. I am certain that the knowledgeable dancer will find plenty to dispute, and I have made several judgement calls that cannot claim to be universally agreeable.
I do not write this as an explicit advertisement of social partner dance as an activity, but I am aware that some people who read this article may well be inspired to try it when the pandemic ends. Cognizant of that possibility, I have strived to represent social dance culture with accuracy, honesty, responsibility, and humanity.
I will also note that during the composition of this piece (which took several months and several revisions, some almost from the ground up, amidst great worry and one panic attack), I received formal diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the former of which I had suspected for years. My conditions doubtlessly color how I view dance as an activity and as an art. Parts of this article now read to me as something clearly written by somebody with those diagnoses.
A warning to dancers: this piece will discuss nightmarish societal traumas, both historical and ahistorical. We alternate historians are used to this; what that says about us I shall allow you to make of what you will.
I also will say that, with one exception, all music linked is music I have danced to in various venues.
. . .
It’s the roulette wheel that tells you what steps you’ll use next. It’s the Viennese waltz that sends you twirling like a top on a table. It’s the aggressive strings of a tango that make you feel like you’re on a rope bridge about to fall into a river full of crocodiles. It’s the wannabe caballeros that dance like they have a rose in their teeth. It’s the nagging feeling that watching the shaking hips of rhumba or cha-cha in the mirrors on the walls of the studio is just ever so slightly voyeuristic. It’s the randomized jukebox that gives you music of a wildly different style every few minutes. It’s the candy bowl of movement that comes from Cuba and the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and Brazil and Argentina and Spain and Austria and the United States. It’s the satisfaction in yourself that comes from having become conversant in six or more dances. It’s the glitz and glamor of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s a feeling of having traveled the world within a few circles around the floor.
It’s a ballroom dance.
To do some defining: I’m using ‘social partner dance’ as any dance involving two people, one leading and one following. This would include, but is not limited to, the loose grouping of dances that we call ‘ballroom dance,’ as well as to the various permutations of swing dancing (Lindy Hop, Charleston, etc.) and blues dancing, as well as Salsa and Mambo and other Caribbean dances that have made their way into the United States (and from there, the rest of the Western world) that aren’t under the umbrella of ballroom (to elaborate: the ‘core six’ ballroom dances are waltz, East Coast Swing, foxtrot, rhumba, cha-cha, and tango, all in Americanized forms that often deviate noticeably from their forebears). The ‘social’ part of that term means that this dance is being done for simple enjoyment, rather than for judges (‘competition dancing’). In this article, I will be discussing mostly swing and blues. Note that most of what follows does not apply to the Latin dances; I have relatively little experience at Salsa dances or others of that nature.
In my experience in dance halls and practice rooms in multiple states of the Union, but centered mostly in the corridor between Virginia Beach and the Beltway, ballroom and swing and blues dances are often havens for niche communities more than the image of the casanova tango dancer with a rose in his teeth would suggest. I was taught my first steps by a student instructor who compared it to Counterstrike, and I remember coming across a woman at a swing dance wearing a Deadpool shirt and saying to her:
“You’re wearing a Deadpool shirt and you’re at a swing dance. I like you already.”
I’ve talked about many strange things while dancing, like the Battle of Castle Itter, aspects of the central thesis of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, or the merits of The Rise of Skywalker, and my partners have more or less been receptive to it. I suspect that the sort of person who is attracted to such an old form of socializing would naturally have other niche interests, and I have profited immensely from talking to such people. I have danced with sailors and scientists, programmers and bureaucrats, ridden to a dance with a city councilman, trained under a prize-winning instructor, and topped it all off by dancing with the president of my alma mater.
In terms of it being a niche interest, it’s just that: niche. And when something is niche, its likelihood of being portrayed accurately in the media tends towards zero. I have seen movies and television shows all try their hand at portraying it, with more misses than hits. I have been rendered apoplectic by Shrek 2 and confused by Back to the Future, but delighted by The Godfather and Tora! Tora! Tora! I can name three Batman movies with social partner dancing and only one gets it right. Likewise, shows like Dancing with the Stars portray these dances as far more artificial things then they actually are; I’ve been told that watching these shows will teach you to dance poorly. It is in this environment that I wade into the waters of social partner dancing in alternate history.
To the similarities between alternate history and social dance that I mentioned earlier: I think, in some sense, both heavily involve improvisation to a theme. One selects a point of divergence and expounds on that in accordance to the laws of history and narrative, and one hears a song and brings out an appropriate step, and chains step after step in a logical chain until you reach the final triumphant fermata or whatever ending the song has. They both require a very flexible mindset that abhors dogma.
In a real ballroom or dance hall, a man never goes up to a couple in the middle of the song and asks to take the lady’s hand; I have explained that to the puzzled newcomer that making that particular faux pas is the rudest thing you can do at a dance that doesn’t actually involve physically touching somebody. The rule of the dance floor is that a partnership lasts for a song; you then thank each other and bow if you’re feeling fancy, and then you break off and find new partners to last for the rest of the song. Violating that, by what I describe, or by trying to keep somebody for two consecutive songs without their permission, comes off as ghastly uncouth.
Some other common misconceptions about social partner dance that have been reinforced by the media:
If any dancer tries to kiss their partner (barring the possibility of the couple being in a relationship already), that dancer will probably be thrown out of the dance and possibly be barred from the venue. If dancing is Catholicism, kissing a stranger is tantamount to mortal sin. It’s a fundamental violation of the central precept that partner dance is a partnership equal in dignity where boundaries are respected.
We use the name of the dance as a verb. Nobody says “do the Lindy Hop;’ we simply Lindy Hop. That construct can be used for individual moves (“do a tuck turn”), but never for the dance itself.
Likewise, the term ‘dance party’ is used only by a certain sort of ballroom studio; we say ‘dance’ or ‘social’ - e.g. ‘swing dance’ or ‘blues social.’
Not all of us are arch-traditionalists. Not all of us dress in period clothes and dance to period music and stick very sternly to men leading and women following. The first two are aesthetic choices, but the latter is a real social issue (for the record, I love the aesthetic elegance of the time that these dances were born in, but the push towards a more flexible understanding of gender in dance is something I view as unabashedly positive).
In my article on H. G. Wells’ The War in the Air, I compared the airship to swing dancing, in that they both are signifiers of a refined interwar setting, of private eyes and treasure hunters, femme fatales and villainous Nazis. Overwhelmingly, that is the use of social dancing in media, with the exception of the ballroom movies of the eighties that in part jump started modern ballroom dance culture, is that as a signifier.
One may ask: a signifier of what? The answer, overwhelmingly, is refinement. Class. Sophistication. The things that you associate with lavish parties in New York hotels during prohibition. Compared with the pounding noise, the unskilled movement, the flagrant sexuality, and the ephemeral relationships of the modern nightclub, the ‘logical’ steps and eloquent outfits of a proper ballroom dance seem like the height of the perquisites of wealth and taste. To most people today, it’s an alien experience, like riding in a zeppelin or eating a five-course meal in full dinner dress, and the presence of such dancing brings out the alienness of the whole situation.
To note, before I start deconstructing alternate history works: that portrayal is very much a creation of the era after partner dancing became seen as a quaint, sometimes sexist, anachronism. In the golden age of social dancing when Arthur Murray made his fortune and Frankie Manning dazzled the Savoy, the feeling was different. First and foremost, it was the regular haunt of young people looking to congregate en masse. Learning to dance was something every lady and gentleman did, albeit not quite the same dances as they’d dance in the scandalously integrated Savoy.
. . .
“When you are dancing with your partner, for that two and a half minutes, you are in love with each other. You're corresponding with each other by the moves that you make. It's a love affair, between you and your partner and the music. You feel the music, you feel your partner, she feels you and she feels the music. So there the three of you are together. You've got a triangle, you know. Which one do you love best?”
Frankie Manning, one of the greatest Lindy Hoppers to ever take the floor.
. . .
More generally, I think that a lot of portrayal of social partner dance in the media ends up, in one way or another, stripping the humanity out of it. This sort of dance is used by Hollywood writers as ultimately a signifier of setting, as part of the environment that their characters inhabit. It is only in the great dancer movies (like Dirty Dancing or Cuban Fury or Strictly Ballroom) that really delve into what dancers are feeling about what they do. In my years of doing it, my conclusion is that social partner dancing, of any type, is ultimately about the possibilities unlocked by allowing yourself to be vulnerable; you have to let your guard down to dance with someone that closely, even if you remain in open position (that is, with maybe a foot between the two people’s torsos, connecting mainly at hands and shoulders). A related, and equally fundamental, conclusion I come to is that everyone brings their life to dancing; we bring our anxieties and our fears, our follies and our joys, our obsessions and our fascinations to every floor we step on and every partner we briefly commune with. This conception of dance is ultimately how I will analyze the three shows discussed herein.
Let me demonstrate this conception in my own life: I started ballroom dancing (and from there would move to swing and blues dancing) when I was a depressed, lonely freshman in college who loved big band jazz, and had been brutalized by the dehumanizing trials of a distinguished public high school in Northern Virginia, where I had aspired, mostly out of obligation, to be a ‘Washington insider,’ whatever that actually means. I was working myself to death for goals that were chosen for me but not by me, and it was destroying me. I felt like I had no dignity and no control over my own circumstances.
This contributed to how I enjoyed dance, and what I liked in dance. I fell in love with the electricity of swing, as it relieved a life full of ennui. I fell in love with the intimacy of blues, as it allowed me to be human, to be vulnerable, in a life that had previously been defined as how good my grades were and how impeccable my resume was. I fell in love with wild spins and dips, because it gave me a sense of being in control. I fell in love with elegant interwar clothing, because it gave me a sense of dignity and respectability, and partially because there was a noticeable difference in how people treated me on the floor when I was wearing it vs. when I wasn’t; with I was treated something like a dashing, loveable rogue of the likes of Han Solo, whereas without it I felt like an outcast, a freak, that people only danced with out of a sense of obligation.
I brought with me the trauma of the ‘gifted kid.’ I brought with me a trauma from high school involving a missing folder of sheet music, leading to a very tight grip that hurt my partners and in one case caused a significant injury, which was the case for the organizers of my regular blues dance host to stage what was effectively an intervention. I think that, on some level, every dancer has their version of the above.
. . .
It’s the bouncing impetus of a million stones skipping through a pond at a million miles an hour. It’s the sound of feet like a hailstorm or the crack of a whip. It’s loud, brassy melodies and pounding rhythms that hit you like a direct injection of adrenaline right into your veins. It’s the wild energy of people throwing themselves at their partners and missing, of the whirligig spin brought about by the persistent “BUM BUM THUMP-A-THUMP BUM BUM THUMP-A-THUMP” that surrounds you with the clatter of a rockslide. It’s the cavalier leads that pound their heels on the hardwood floor with the sound of firecrackers. It’s a dynamo shooting electricity this way and that, and the cars at a racetrack zooming off at the flag, and the sort of swagger and braggadocio exuded by a man who had the gall to say he’d hop the Atlantic and then followed up on the boast. It’s the dawning understanding why somebody would believe they’d go to hell for partaking in this, and the determination to make hellfire worth it. It’s the intense heat of so many bodies crammed together, and the sweat streaming down your forehead, and your hair ceasing to adhere to the elegant comb you gave it, and the fabric on your brightly colored dress shirt sticking to you after a long night. It’s the knowledge that you’ll go home that night sore in all your limbs, crash in your bed after a shower, and wake up at one in the afternoon.
It’s a swing dance.
“I've never seen a Lindy Hopper who wasn't smiling. It's a happy dance. It makes you feel good.”
"In full view of the audience, which included many boys and girls apparently still in their teens, couples on the floor gave way to almost every form of indecency. Dancers violently threw their arms about each other, frequently assuming immoral postures.
Lights were lowered, and to the strains of syncopated music action that are indescribable took place. This is the full flowering - the fruition of modern erotic music, which has so crazed and befuddled the moral make-up of young people...."
“Dancers are the athletes of God.”
If you read enough primary sources from that period from the United States, there are three different places corrupting the youth of America: speakeasies, whorehouses, and dance halls. It was in that outsider, anti-establishment spirit that Charleston and Lindy Hop were born, and the energy has not dissipated in the century or so that has come since. Compare this to the swing revival of the 1990s, where a lot of the appeal was the classy aspect of the whole thing, an opportunity to ‘straighten up and fly right.’ The revival was a different beast from the original heyday of the dance and the music; the fashions were different, the instruments more electric, and the lyrics oftentimes raunchier (I can tell you right now there never would have been a pioneering swing band with a name like Cherry Poppin’ Daddies in the days when the Savoy still teemed with energy; one of their songs, Zoot Suit Riot, is perhaps the flagship song of the revival, and is still played to this day).
Daniel Newsome puts its latter-day appeal well:
“It was a different time. A naive time. But, it was absolutely exhilarating, intoxicating and probably the most excitement around the dances of the swing era since they were first invented. For some people (like myself), swing was an instant match to what we were looking for in life. It was decidedly grassroots, the vibe was counter-culture but all about good manners and positive vibes, it was interactive, happy, and grounded in early American culture. All the media exposure meant a constant influx of people, and a youthful lack of good judgement meant aerials that created a ton of excitement and jam circles served as inspiration for scores of new thrill-seekers. It was a rocking, rolling, high-flying, self-publicizing fun machine that attracted nerds, punks, trend-followers, couples, empty nesters, pre-hipster-hipsters, theatre kids and just about everyone else. At the peak of the 90’s swing boom, my mid-size hometown of Denver had a whole section in the newspaper devoted to the different swing nights, and some nights there were 5 places to go, and lines around the block at each one.”
From Swing Dance in the ‘90s and Early 2000s on The Home of Happy Feet
The modern swing scene is something of a strange pastiche of a period starting in the 1920s and ending in the early 1960s, just before the D-Day of a certain band from Liverpool. At a modern ‘retro’ swing dance (as opposed to a more ballroom-style dance with all sorts of pop music), you’ll hear the classic jazz tunes of the interwar years, the great wartime swing songs, and fifties rock, and some smattering of songs from afterwards, a strange potpourri of different musical movements and different variations on swing dance whose proponents are at each other’s necks when not on the floor (a musical example, to put it more concretely - this is the one song I haven’t danced to that I mentioned before, but I have danced to its components several times). You will also see dances not in the lead-follow form, like shim-sham or a conga line (almost always to Jump in the Line); in any case, there’s a zaniness to them that has everyone in the thralls of excitement to just about every song (even if it happens to be about a serial killer). You will see a variety of dresses on the women, some emulating the flappers, and the men may be either dandies or greasers (I’m an unrepentant dandy, with a feathered bowler hat - that earned me the nickname of ‘macaroni’ in college - and cape that once had one fellow say I looked like Zorro and another time had a group of children think I was the magician booked to perform in a different part of the building). Historical memory is a strange beast when the ballroom is a funhouse (and I say that lovingly).
Furthermore it’s something of a fallacy to refer to a single dance called ‘swing.’ What most people say when they mean that is a dance more properly known as Lindy Hop, but there is also East Coast Swing (which Lindy Hop has an uneasy relationship with), West Coast Swing (a slower, slicker Lindy Hop adapted to the music of the sixties), Charleston (in both twenties and thirties forms a very kick heavy-dance and one of the lasting images of ‘swing dance’ in the public’s mind, with both forms regularly interwoven into Lindy Hop), balboa, collegiate shag (which is such an unfortunate name for a dance nowadays), jitterbug, and several others of lesser popularity.
One of the enduring stereotypes about swing dancing is that it is a dance of truly wild moves where the follow is flung about through the air in a display of sheer acrobatics. Those do exist, and I believe it’s one of the reasons swing attracts thrill seekers and adrenaline junkies. Some have argued that this came about in part to please white people who had begun to take interest in the dance (but it had antecedents earlier - dance history can be clouded at the best of times). Consider what Langston Hughes said in The Big Sea:
“The lindy-hoppers at the Savoy even began to practice acrobatic routines, and to do absurd things for the entertainment of the whites, that probably never would have entered their heads to attempt for their own effortless amusement. Some of the lindy-hoppers had cards printed with their names on them and became dance professors teaching the tourists. Then Harlem nights became show nights for the Nordics.”
On a more practical level, aerials (as we call them) are moves restricted to competitions, for they require great risk and great practice. To lead such a thing on an unsuspecting follow is to be considered dangerously reckless.
I suspect that modern ‘traditional’ swing dances (there are more ‘modern’ swing venues that play more modern music and dress more casually, but I have more experience in more ‘traditional’ scenes) operate in a manner similar to the Society for Creative Anachronism, the large medieval reenactment group. A common discussion of how that group recreates the Middle Ages is that they enact “the Middle Ages as they ought to have been,” and that they pick and choose what they like for purposes of enjoyment. Likewise, modern ‘traditional’ swing scenes (and other dance scenes explicitly harkening back to that period between the 1920s and early 1960s when Chubby Checker inadvertently began its destruction, which I like to call the ‘Golden Age of American Social Dance’ - interestingly, roughly coterminous with the Golden Age of Science Fiction, where the modern alternate history genre got its start) operate on something like “the golden age of social dance as it ought to have been.” We gleefully take the fancy clothes and bouncy music and the partnered dance and the elegant ballrooms, but we discard the segregation and the lynch law and the rationing and the conformity.
Now, to the actual alternate history, I’ll be discussing three different television series: Agent Carter, The Plot Against America, and The Man in the High Castle in that order. I think that television is more likely to showcase social dance as a signifier because dancing is such a visual, physical thing; it is much easier to get across that energy in a more efficient manner visually and audibly than in text (a truly great writer can absolutely do that, but it’s not the sort of thing that comes up much in dramatizations).
An aside: the only time I’ve come across Lindy Hop in written alternate history is in Mary Robinette Kowal’s story Articulated Restraint, set in her Lady Astronaut universe (although I regret to say I haven’t read the main series as of writing). The main character, an astronaut training to go into space, dances in a lindy hop group. Unfortunately, Kowal never shows us this dance ‘on screen;’ the portrayal is regrettably window dressing, reducing it to a mere display of physical vitality.
I know I’m stretching the definition of ‘alternate history’ by including Agent Carter in this discussion, but I think it operates in much a similar way that the other two series do, or at least try to. Here, dancing very much shows a genteel setting, postwar and not interwar, but with every intention of bringing about those same emotions.
Of the two seasons, the portrayal of dance is more interesting in the first than the second (which has some decent if not terribly interesting portrayals of waltz as well as the name dropping of contextually appropriate dances). There’s a scene where Carter infiltrates a dance hall that is also being used as a meeting ground for organized crime, which is more accurate than most modern depictions are. The dancers are Lindy Hopping in both eight-count and six-count forms (which is sometimes called East Coast Swing) a very accurate portrayal of the dances danced at the time, if one that is somewhat biased by modernity by virtue that those two step patterns, whilst intimately related, are creations of two very different milieus.
In explaining that, I dive into a culture war within swing dance communities. Lindy Hop is a black dance that evolved partially from the Charleston, known for its bounce, and the Texas Tommy, father of the swingout, the core step pattern of Lindy, and other African-American dances in the period, and usually danced to jazz (and is incidentally named for alternate history’s favorite American dictator in the interwar years). East Coast Swing is the name given to a relatively more restrained dance, and involves shuffling left and right, with the occasional turns. East Coast is a dance that was designed by white dance instructors, Arthur Murray first among them, as a way of creating a swing dance that was more marketable and more teachable to middle class white people in the 1940s (here’s a good site on that history). Arthur Murray and other dance instructors like him did to African-American and Latin American dance what Elvis Presley did to the African-American music that formed the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll: he made it popular among middle class white people, while changing it in the process in a manner that isn’t universally seen as good.
In the modern dance scene, the East Coast six count pattern, with the dancers going left and right, is taught as the introduction to, and as a form of, Lindy Hop, whose more traditional pattern is an eight count pattern where the dancers go around in a circle (inherited from the Texas Tommy). Some would say that East Coast Swing is a distinct dance from Lindy Hop, with its different stylistic norms, whereas others will use East Coast to describe the six count step and Lindy Hop the eight count step. At a swing dance, you’ll see the two patterns interwoven into one another.
East Coast Swing is the name used to describe a six-count swing dance at ballroom lessons, and here we get into the distinction between a ‘swing dance’ and a ‘ballroom dance.’ To simplify a good fair bit: a ‘swing dance’ today is the direct inheritor of the mostly-black Savoy and its ilk, whereas a ‘ballroom dance’ is a descendant of the white-designed ballroom studios that Arthur Murray pioneered. Both will have that six-count pattern among their dances, but if one looks very closely you can see differences in technique. A swing dancer at a traditional venue will dance six-count Lindy Hop to traditional-styled music, whereas a ballroom dancer will dance a very similar dance to whatever upbeat pop song is the style at the moment. The swing purists will say the ballroom dancers have appropriated a black dance and whitened it to unrecognizability, but others (myself included) will say that the history is unpleasant but that East Coast or six count Lindy Hop (whatever you call it) has gotten so many people into swing dancing that its presence is a net positive.
In regards to that particular dance scene: it’s a very good look into the gender roles of traditional swing dancing. Carter is dancing whilst she is being pursued by her enemies, and she sees one of them. To have her face moved out of their way, she commands her lead to dip her, and he confusingly obliges with her prodding. This scene is interesting in how it characterizes Carter as a woman who will not take the commands of men without question, and will take charge when it suits her.
Traditionally, there is a lead and a follow in all social dance. The lead sets forth the dance moves, and the follow interprets them. The lead is the traditionally male role, and the follow the traditionally female role; this is what I mean when I say there’s some social conservatism baked into the thing. As a new lead in the latter half of the 2010s, I was told that “it’s your job to make her look good, because she’s the one people are paying attention to” and “she is the picture and you are the frame,” to name but two pieces of old dancer wisdom. It is only in recent decades that this orthodoxy has begun to be questioned. In a modern dance hall, you’ll see both sexes in both roles, but overall tradition still holds sway. You won’t be thrown out for going against the traditional role (in my experience, women break the mold more than men) but in many cases you will be in the minority. This is something that is still in flux; even so, lead and follow will never go away so long as these dances continue to exist.
But despite all that, as the dance culture of the common people has passed this sort of dance on, it persists. Why does something that seems so anachronistic continue to be popular? I think, ultimately, there’s something very special in being that vulnerable to another person, where for a few minutes you share their fears and anxieties, their joys and triumphs. It’s a connection that thrills in a way that nightclub dancing doesn’t; it is here the Gods of the marketplace tumble. The rapidly shifting coupling of a swing dance or a blues dance is simultaneously very intimate and very social; you’re very close to a person, but minutes you’re very close to another person, and this goes on for a few hours.
But on one level, that scene in Agent Carter fails to capture the humanity of swing dance. The swing dancing going on there is ultimately a furnishing for the nightclub she infiltrates, which itself is a furnishing for the show’s lavish postwar setting. She dances to blend in, and not for its own sake; she brings a professionalism to it from her job, and enough vulnerability to blend in, but it’s not a psychological thing for her as it is for people who live it.
Moving on from Agent Carter, we will consider The Plot Against America. There is but one scene of dancing in the entire series, but it is an intensely revelatory one if you are familiar with social dance. There’s a scene in the factory in Philadelphia where Alvin has found work, and he dances with his beau in full view of the workers. It’s a scene that’s interesting for two reasons.
Firstly, the dancing is completely accurate East Coast Swing, in both steps and in sociology. They dance it as if they were taught by Arthur Murray himself. East Coast Swing, as previously noted, was invented to teach middle-class white people how to swing, and the Levins are the exact demographic that Murray was aiming for. It was research done well, and I was satisfied.
But on a more metaphorical level, the scene struck me emotionally. Here, the energy and the intimacy of the dance is contrasted with the stultifying industry of the shop, and with the encroaching fascism of Lindbergh’s America more broadly. It’s a scene where Alvin brings his fear of being murdered for his ethnicity in a country that has chosen fascism, and his own commitments to opposing that (he volunteered to fight in British service against the Nazis). He brings his anxiety due to racism, and his desire for intimacy and closeness in that miserable time. The scene makes the dancing a very human thing.
There is a long history of social partner dance being opposed by autocrats and bigots, and those dances serve as refuge from those awful things. In America, swing dance was in part a cultural touchstone for African-Americans in a ruthlessly racist society. The Ku Klux Klan thought these dances were evil. In some ways, that resistance is baked into the DNA of Lindy Hop.
And this was not only in America, for the intoxicating energy of this sort of dance transcends borders and cultures. In Nazi Germany, an entire subculture of youth, the Swingjugend, united around that music and that dance as a rejection of the stultifying conformity of that regime. The Nazis themselves hated the dance, having tried to turn swing music into something acceptably ‘Aryan;’ in an infamous poster they included the jitterbug as a symbol of American cultural degeneracy.
Indeed, the entire notion of social dance, of its spontaneity and thrills and intimacy not backed by any ideological framework, is anathema to a totalitarian state, left-wing or right-wing. What follows is a description of an international youth congress held in Warsaw in 1955:
"Spontaneity in art led to spontaneity in behavior. At times, crowds grew ugly. When the sound system broke down at one event, the rioting and anger were so great that the sound technicians had to escape to their van and drive quickly away. People complained loudly about the shortage of food, the poor quality of some of the duller events, and the propaganda emitted by the ubiquitous loudspeakers. 'In Warsaw, one dances in the name of something, or against something,' one party writer had solemnly declared in his summary of the festival, a sentiment almost everybody else found annoying. There were many tedious performances, from stiff folk dancing to unsmiling waltzes, from which the crowds turned away in droves.
And yet - sometimes the crowds grew spontaneously joyous as well. At one point, the Bim-Bom cabaret group was supposed to have an official meeting with a Swiss delegation. But instead of a stiff exchange of greetings, moderated by a translator and presided over by a Union of Polish Youth official, someone began to play jazz. The young people started to dance. And this time, the cabaret artists and their new Swiss friends were dancing neither for something nor against something. They were dancing just for fun. At that moment - as they did the jitterbug to the jazz music, as they ignored the distressed officials, as they sang along to the songs and paid no attention to their surroundings - the totalitarian dream suddenly seemed far away."
From Iron Curtain: the Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, by Anne Applebaum
That passage is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing that I have ever read (and those who know me well know that I read a great deal). It was a magnificent coincidence of timing that I read that a mere hour or two after coming back from a swing dance in a lushly refurbished ballroom in the style popular in the 1920s. It puts so well, in my mind, a core appeal of social partner dance: a refuge from the cruelty and the arbitrariness of this miserable world. In my mind at least, social dance in the liberal west is a reaction to a hyper-commercialized, intensely isolating culture where laissez-faire social mores have led to the destruction of communal experience, once more resurrecting its towering stature as the great equalizer and the great relief. These Polish youth were bringing their suffocation under a stultifying ideology, and people like me, in the United States or Europe or the white Commonwealth, are bringing their suffocation under another stultifying ideology.
I will admit to you that I teared up upon reading that passage.
And now we move to that holy of holies of televised alternate history, the show that brought us every other alternate history show barring Sliders: Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle. Perhaps more than anything else, it has propelled our beloved genre into the mainstream. But how does it fare in its portrayal of the other of my two great loves?
Let me put it like this: one scene infuriated me like no other portrayal of dance in the media has ever done (barring perhaps Shrek 2) by virtue of a huge missed opportunity, and one, perhaps inadvertently, made me laugh like a maniac.
What The Man in the High Castle did in season 4 is what it should have done in season 2: showed the effects of the colonization of America by the Germans and Japanese on non-white Americans (I think it was a good idea to let the book characters have the first season). Season 4 looks a good deal at an African-American revolutionary organization that fights both occupying powers. There is a very moving scene at a resistance gathering in San Francisco, occupied by the Japanese, where they talk about their relatives that have been murdered in gas chambers and on the street, eerily reminiscent of Settling Accounts.
But what precedes that scene is that which infuriated me so much. It wasn’t so much a failure to signal refinement so much as it was a lack of a desire to signal anything at all. The dancing that they do is the sort of dancing you see in modern nightclubs; by oneself, ultimately, and very free-form. More importantly, this scene is framed as an underground black space. The scene, which left the dancing almost as an afterthought, called for something solemn, yet also rebellious. In doing what they did, they missed a huge opportunity to signify something, and to tap into the legacy of a certain historical black space. There is a long tradition of African-American social dance that was born in such a space that would have fit the bill much better.
. . .
It’s the great exhale you make after a long day at work. It’s the dimmed room, lit in reds and oranges and purples and blues. It’s the smell of cologne and a faint whiff of alcohol. It’s the mournful plucking of strings, the worshipful voice of a gospel choir, the snappy sound of snares, and the fat inflection in the trumpets and saxophones that veers on the indecent. It’s not the zap of a spark, but the warmth of the coals of an open fire. It’s the feeling of your woes evaporating off of you like water boiling in a crock pot. It’s the bafflement you feel when you look in one direction and see a couple dancing daintily with room for Jesus between them, and then look in another direction and see a couple whose lurid gyration has no room for Him at all. It’s the wonder that strikes you about how those two couples equally feel like they belong here. It’s the strange feeling that a hardwood floor in a backroom is holy ground. It’s the thrill of intimacy, the shock of touch, the ecstasy of physical contact. It’s the intoxication of getting lost in a perfect moment that you wish would never end.
It’s a blues dance.
“Blues, in New Orleans, Louisiana, at the beginning of the 20th Century meant blue entertainment, music not fit for polite society, music that was subversive, risqué, dissonant, bawdy, and conspicuously secular. Blues often mocked antiquated superstitions. Blues was the soundtrack to social progress and tolerance, it challenged the tyranny of the Church, because of this, it was demonized.”
Chris Thomas King, What is the Blues?
"Everything comes out in blues music... joy, pain, struggle. Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance. It's about a man and a woman. So the pain and the struggle in the blues is that universal pain that comes from having your heart broken. Most blues songs are not about social statements."
“Blues dance isn’t inherently sexual. It can be suggestive, sensual, and a variety of other emotions. Blues can be sexual between two consenting adults, but then again, so can really any dance style.”
RDU Blues website, What is Blues Dance?
Perhaps more accurately described as a family of dances (a common way of putting it is ‘blues idiom dances,’ which include slow drag, Piedmont triple, stride, strut, funky butt, and several others - this is a good overview of the diversity of the name), in the twenty-first century there is a general consensus of what ‘blues dance’ looks like (albeit its current form is, to my understanding, a relatively recent thing; it also varies by region - this account is an interesting overview of the origins of the modern scene). It’s danced in the normal lead-follow arrangement, where the couple sways back and forth as the closest thing it has to a basic step (whether blues even has a basic step is a contested point in and of itself; that particular step is based off of slow drag). It’s a dance where “bodies [sway] like reeds on the banks of the Congo,” to quote W. C. Handy, one of the earliest blues musicians.
It is here I shall reiterate that I speak for nobody but myself in my interpretation of the emotional content of dances. What follows is my observations of the relevant dance scenes in the locations I have partook in them, refined through discussion with dancer friends and through my own research. Consider:
“Blues dance is a family of related movement that was created organically over a long time to a highly varied musical genre and by many different people. As such, you will find many different opinions, definitions, and categorizations within our community. Differing opinions and frameworks are inherent in the nature of a vernacular social dance.
No single person, dance, or movement embodies the entirety of blues. While it may be confusing, we should celebrate and recognize differing perspectives and opinions. I encourage you to find the definitions that make sense to you as long as they pay homage to the original creators of this art form.”
Consider also this piece by Dave Madison: Blues is a Street Dance.
Blues dance, and the music that accompanies it and is inseparable from it, is a child of fire. It was born in a context of horrific oppression, and if you look in the right places you can see the signs of it everywhere within it. Blues is a very complex dance (I’d argue more complex than Lindy Hop), and I find writing this part of the article to be a tougher nut to crack than the writing that preceded here. It has gone through many more revisions than anything else in the article (and became more than half if it in the process). It is a dance that, I would argue, has a much greater emotional range than most partner dances that are still danced widely in the United States today. Blues is a celebration of being human, a celebration that became necessary at a time of great cruelty and great strife. In my reading of it, a lot of the blues ethos can be expressed in a (recontextualized) line from the musical Hamilton: “Look around, look around, and see how lucky we are to be alive right now.”
To the casual observer, there appear to be two different ways of experiencing blues dance that coexist uneasily. If you go to enough blues dances, you may perceive the two compete and jostle for which becomes dominant in each song and for each couple. They fight like crusader and saracen, redcoat and minuteman, fokker and spitfire, and neither seems like it will win the great contest of wills between them.
On the one hand, blues is one of the most atmospheric of all social partner dances; when danced to some proper old music (blues or the slower, sulkier type of jazz), it can feel very intimate, soulful even, bringing you back to a darkened backroom at a juke joint as the Roaring Twenties gave way to the Great Depression (the stereotypical blues dance purist will say that blues is most properly danced in a sleep-deprived haze at two in the morning whilst vaguely tipsy). A lot of that classic music is of a religious theme; John the Revelator is a favorite blues song of mine to dance to. At times it feels like almost a holy act.
Blues has always had a religious element. Many of its songs came from the gospel tradition; the two genres have had a free exchange of ideas between each other since their inceptions. T-Bone Walker said “The Blues are just Gospel turned inside out.” Many blues musicians got their starts performing in churches. James Cone, noted African-American theologian, said that “...the blues and the spirituals flow from the same bedrock of experience, and neither is an adequate interpretation of black life without the other.” The site for the Mississippi Blues Trail provides an interesting discussion thereof.
There’s something amazing about dancing to that sort of simpler religious blues song, something in that atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re standing atop Mount Moriah, or in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or any of the myriad other sacred sites that dot the Holy Land. Blues is a slow, intimate dance, more about the shared experience than about impressing people with fancy footwork and polished routines. In that regard, where sharing experience is so important to the practice, one can begin to see why it feels like it belongs in a church. Blues dancing, ultimately, is an act of congregating, of communing.
But this stands in rather stark contradiction to the other reputation (that some would argue is unearned) that blues dance has among dancers (especially Lindy Hoppers). When I was introduced to the dance in my college swing club, it was called ‘swing but sexier,’ and Lord knows does it often earn that title. When I, as a neophyte unfamiliar with the cultural norms of blues dances, went to my first blues dance ‘in the real world’ at the age of 21 I received two sharp shocks:
“People actually dance like that outside of movies?”
A visceral education in the meaning of a ‘transgressive thrill.’
(Dancer’s note: I know there are issues with the above impression. Bear with me.)
And I’m not the only person to have noticed such things about blues dance. I was at a blues festival in August 2019, which culminated in a dance held in a Black church in Southwest DC hosted by Chris Thomas King, musician and actor, best known for playing Tommy Johnson in O Brother, Where Art Thou? He, a bluesman from Louisiana, said that blues dancing always had a sexual element that was misinterpreted by white people as being solely a lament against very real oppression; he furthermore said that the word ‘blues’ has a sexual connotation in Louisiana creole it doesn’t have in standard American English. He said that this understanding of sexuality was a holdover from French rule in Louisiana, which was only driven underground when the plantation aristocrats of the southern colonies came to their ascendance after the Louisiana Purchase. Capping that off, he snarkily remarked that we danced blues in a very chaste way compared to what happens in the land of its birth; that shocked me, given how much the ‘real world’ blues dancing had shocked me after being exposed to a watered-down blues in college (this ties into how I think that the way blues dancing is introduced to people is often quite hypocritical, where the newcomers, women especially, are taught that it is a refined and elegant dance, which it can be, and then thrust headfirst into Cockaigne with the consternated reaction of a baby at an Orthodox baptism).
Consider also this excerpt from Characteristics of Negro Expression, an essay by noted anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston in 1934, which is clearly (if only circumstantially) describing an antecedent to modern blues dance, perhaps slow drag:
“The Negro social dance is slow and sensuous. The idea in the Jook is to gain sensation, and not so much exercise. So that just enough foot movement is added to keep the dancers on the floor. A tremendous sex stimulation is gained from this. But who is trying to avoid it? The man, the woman, the time and the place have met. Rather, intimate little names are indulged in to heap fire on fire.”
This source is interesting because it avoids three pitfalls that many dance commentators have; she does not have the cultural separation of a white writer, or the gender separation of a male writer, or the temporal separation of a twenty-first century writer. She perhaps is showing a conception of what is ‘sexual’ removed from our own, but in any case as a historian I find this to be a very interesting document. Even without the sexual element, the notion of ‘gaining sensation and not so much exercise’ sounds like the restrained, collected way blues is danced today. In any case, it definitely supports King’s notion that African-Americans of the period were more liberal in terms of sexuality than their white contemporaries
“Sensuality is integral to blues music. Scholarship on the blues has often focused on the written communication of the sensual by highlighting the sexual references in blues lyrics. However, as Murray notes, blues is ‘dance music’ and is written to inspire the body to move. The reader should keep this point in mind because of the limitations of the written language to communicate hands, hips, feet, torsos, pelvic regions and their deep communication with the sonic output of pianos, voices, guitars, and drums.”
“Romantic relationships often failed as a result of the poor life conditions of the plantation economy. Sex in the blues imagination was not an embarrassment or a carnal desire that alienated human beings from the promise of eternal life. Viewed from the long history of enslavement, sex for blues people was a reclamation of the humanity that was repressed and manipulated by the masters and mistresses of enslavement.”
These quotes come from Decolonizing Revelation: A Spatial Reading of the Blues by Rufus Burnett Jr., published by Duquesne University’s Duquesne Scholarship Collection, specifically Chapter 3’s subheading Sensuality and Embodiment in the Blues. The entirety of that subheading is informative reading on the subject.
Blues ‘in the real world’ treats sexuality as something of a touchy subject; note how the quote from the RDU blues website frames the issue. I would wager that if the percentage that sexual desire forms of the emotions an individual dancer brings to a blues dance approaches one hundred percent, the probability that aforementioned dancer is escorted firmly out of the venue by event staff likewise approaches one hundred percent. Indeed it is quite possible to dance blues in a manner that isn’t sexualized at all. As Burnett says, sexuality in blues, as experienced by the people who danced it in the time and place of its origin, saw it as an affirmation of their survival and their humanity. To simply use blues as a receptacle for such a base desire and not as the celebration of life that is is an appropriation that many in the community dislike intensely.
The unrestrained sexuality of the modern nightclub would be at a blues dance gauche in its presence and garish in its presentation. I would describe blues dance as requiring a certain composure, a certain self-control, and a certain refinement (psychologically rather than sartorially; the feeling at a blues dance is generally more casual than that of a swing dance) that has generally gone out of style in the West since the sixties; one could compare it to the ‘stiff upper lip’ of Victorian times, and I remember being told in college to “dance blues like you’re too cool to be here.” In that regard, I think it shows its origins in the early twentieth century. Sensuality was always part of it, but it was but one way of experiencing the culture of the blues milieu; there are a variety of emotions that blues can express well (more on why I think blues is so flexible later).
People in the twenty-first century, having been calibrated to see sexuality in all things by the media, will more often than not, upon first seeing the dance, focus on (what appears to be) the sexual aspect of blues over all other facets (in retrospect, the sentiment that blues is ‘swing but sexier’ is a very Lindy Hopper sentiment, although if one takes a look at six-count Lindy Hop and then at the most common blues frame, the kinship is clear). There are arguments, not without merit, that some (mostly white) people use blues solely for sexual gratification, thereby diminishing its original cultural significance. There are also arguments that as blues has grown in popularity as a competition dance, it has been sexualized to hell as a way of getting judges’ attention (flirtatious looks and swinging hips are as attention-grabbing to dancers as they are to most everyone else. For those wondering about what these competitions look like, imagine blues being given the treatment that this scene from Strictly Ballroom, one of the great ballroom movies, portrays; it’s an exaggeration, but as someone who has been to one big competition, I can tell you it’s not as much of one as you’d think. I can see how someone knowledgeable of the particular cultural context in which blues evolved could be angry of it being given that treatment).
But even if it wasn’t the original intention of the dance, it very much is experienced that way, as I suspect is inevitable in anything that puts men and women that close together. I’ve seen too many people at blues dances (mostly women, but I’ve seen it in a few men) with deer-in-the-headlights expressions on their faces upon seeing how people dance this dance, sometimes after having it led on them. I feel that not discussing this frankly is tantamount to dishonesty, and it does nobody any favors to pretend it isn’t there. In discussing it this way, I hope that nobody who discovers blues dance through this piece feels like they’re about to be hit by a car at their first social (and of course, if their partner makes them uncomfortable, they should absolutely tell the organizers).
To remedy this, I’d take a page from Salsa; in that scene, they have a way of teaching the follow that she can stiffen her right arm to prevent her lead from coming too close. My recommendation is to make that mandatory, perhaps even the first new thing after being taught frame, at every introductory blues lesson. More generally, I think that there needs to be more forthright instruction of what a follow can do to express and enforce her own boundaries.
Damon Stone has written a good piece about blues and appropriation, but not about sexuality (I have no experience in blues fusion circles so I will not comment on them). He talks of the necessity to acknowledge that blues as an idiom is something of great significance to African-American culture, and for those dancing today to place themselves within that culture rather than to turn it into something unrecognizable. Given what Hurston and Burnett say, I think there is a fair argument that there was always a sexual component to blues. But ultimately, blues is a celebration of life, of humanity, and of the full range of human emotion. Making the sex drive the sole core of your blues experience is reductive and disrespectful.
(A note for dancers: the above discussion of blues and sexuality is the part of this piece that worries me the most; I do not believe that this, or any part of this piece is the final word on the subject; I am but one man, and I stress man, trying to explain it to my alternate historian colleagues, especially in light of the not-uncommon phenomenon of people taking one look at blues dance and thinking it’s a heavily sexual thing, as was my initial mistaken impression. You may recall from the opening that I had a panic attack when writing this piece; this was the section that provoked a night of a pounding heart and sweat streaming down my forehead, which messed up my sleep schedule for just shy of a week. I can only hope that I handled such a sensitive subject with honesty, tact, and taste. In writing this section, I hope that I have counteracted one of the most frustrating misconceptions about blues dance. Furthermore, I feel that an honest discussion, where realistic expectations can be formed, is the only way to minimize potential harm. There is a spirited debate in internet history circles about popular historians, especially those on YouTube, and their responsibility to avoid forming misconceptions in the reader; I take this even more seriously for the purposes of this piece, because a failure of me to take proper care in the discussion of these elements could lead to real people being harmed.)
As an aside, I think that the mood of any individual act of blues dance is set by the music; you get one feeling from this song by Ruthie Foster (who I’ll discuss more later) and a very different feeling from this song by Etta James. It’s something that upon some thought feels absolutely bizarre, that such a dance could seem to be two such contradictory things.
Having blues danced for a period of perhaps two years before the virus came to town, I can personally vouch for the existence of both ways of experiencing that dance. Being a socially stunted young man with great anxiety brought about by an economy and an academy that seemed intent on grinding me into a fine powder, there was a part of me that enjoyed its more prurient possibilities. I will very frankly admit that, as a dancer, I have feet of clay above soles of felt. But, at that dance where Chris Thomas King spoke to us in a Black church in Southwest D.C., as I danced to that relatively low-key music in a house of worship, I could not help but feel that I had a glimpse of the sanctity that this dance must have held to many in the Delta, and to Black communities throughout the country. In a world that seems intent on confining me to a computer screen and serving me up my own biases on a silver platter, there is something positively sublime about that communing, that simple act of being together.
There are other emotional timbres to blues, too, beyond the first two I discuss. There’s a certain atmosphere at blues dances that I find almost impossible to describe; I have at times felt that I was in an almost meditative, transcendental state while dancing blues in a way that I haven’t while dancing swing. It’s intensely calming, and deeply intoxicating, and gave me the impression that this is what being human should be. It’s hit me a number of times; the time that stands out to me two years later was dancing in a dusty dorm common room after a college club swing dance at about one in the morning to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s Save My Soul (linked earlier), where the ends of my dress pants would always be caked in a grey-white powder. It’s an emotion for which I don’t think English has good words; it’s serene and awe-inspiring (something like reading a mindblowing science fiction novel - for me, Childhood’s End or The Three-Body Problem or The Time Ships). I felt almost as if this was the platonic ideal of blues dancing (but this is something that people will always disagree over).
I wonder, at times, about how sanctity and sexuality coexist in the same space and in that same atmosphere. Upon thinking and reading about blues in more detail, I think I’ve come across the answer: that whether it’s with God or with another person, both are very intimate, and that intimacy requires that you let you be honest with your intentions. In a world that is so full of stress and anxiety, intimacy is destroyed and dishonesty prospers. You are cut down to a lonely individual in a lonely world, filled with bluster and posturing and what Harry Frankfurt calls bullshit. All partner dances are intimate in a sense; the newcomers at my alma mater’s ballroom and swing clubs would often talk about how awkward it felt to be so close to a stranger. In doing this, you bring all your triumphs and tragedies, all your fears and follies front and center to your partner. However, blues is oftentimes danced more slowly and closer than most dances, and in that regard it heightens the effect of vulnerability. Sensuality and intimacy and prayer all require a level of openness, of honesty, that the world just simply won’t allow you at most times, and allowing yourself that indulgence can be positively intoxicating (sometimes to excess - I’ll discuss that later). In a very real sense, I think the sensuality-sacredness dichotomy is a false one when sufficiently analyzed.
People have different boundaries; what people bring to partner dancing generally and blues dancing specifically appeals to varies from person to person. My current blues dance venue was known to my college club, and many of them thought it as a skeevy place. Having danced there perhaps a hundred or so times, I’d say it isn’t skeevy; rather, the average boundaries differed between there and in my college club. In my regular venue, close embrace (where the lead and follow’s bodies hug one another between neck and waist) is common. When I danced in college, it was almost nonexistent.
Ultimately, I would argue that blues is comparable to a reusable water bottle. The bottle can be used to hold water or coffee or soda or an energy drink, but it none inherently fits there better than any other. However, it is very clear that the bottle is designed to hold liquid.
Raw honestly about the human condition is a key theme in the lyrics of blues music (and genres that grew out of it; as Willie Dixon said, "The blues are the roots and the other musics are the fruits.”); lamenting loss of status or wealth or love or any number of things is its bread and butter. Death Came a Knocking is about how human beings are ultimately vulnerable to a relentless entropy that leaves the body systems that keep us alive falling apart at the seams. I Just Want to Make Love To You is about the twisting helixes that give form to ladders of nucleobases whose sole commandment is “be fruitful and multiply.” Dust My Broom is about the lack of a distant loved one. Kansas City is about the allure of a distant place, while Sweet Home Chicago is about the allure of home. Mustang Sally is about the allure of materialism. Bad, Bad Whiskey is about the allure of alcohol and other substances of that sort. Songs like Mannish Boy and Feeling Good aren’t explicitly about loss, but about loudly and proudly proclaiming the singer’s rights and their feelings. Blues allowed Black communities in the South in the period to be honest with themselves and with the world in a way that was denied to them by white supremacist hegemony. I think, ultimately, that’s the appeal of blues, music and dance both. They create a space where we can all bring our imperfections and rough edges and deep desires, and they tell us that that is all okay. Blues tells us that we are human beings, and that that is valid.
“Musically speaking, the Jook is the most important place in America. For in its smelly, shoddy confines has been born the secular music known as blues, and on blues has been founded jazz. The singing and playing in true Negro style is called ‘jooking.’
The songs grew by incremental repetition as they travel from mouth to mouth and Jook to Jook before they reach outside ears. Hence the great variety of subject manner in each song.
The Negro dances circulated over the world were also conceived inside the Jooks. They too make the round of Jooks before going into the outside world.”
Zora Neale Hurston, Characteristics of Negro Expression
“Downing my whiskey, I get to my feet, maneuvering through hugged-up bodies and swaying hips, all shedding the pain, labors, and trials of their days. A few men - long past drunk - try to stop me, but I slip away easy. The one fool that grabs my arm, I set a look on him so fierce he don’t know if I’m God or the devil, and he lets go quick.”
P. Djèlí Clark, in his novella Ring Shout, describing a juke joint. It is the only representation of blues culture I have ever seen in alternate history.
One of the locations that was so important to the development of Blues was the juke joint, a combination of dance hall and restaurant and gambling den, where the poor Black laborers of the South congregated after Emancipation in the 1860s. These juke joints, along with their own churches, were places that were kind and safe in a world that was neither. It is here that I shall make explicit that which I have hinted at before: blues, and other forms of African-American music and dance from this period, evolved in a time that was filled with existential terror for that people.
This was a time when the Reconstruction-imposed progressive governments were being ‘redeemed’ by white supremacists into what were effectively single-party states, at times heavily backed by the Ku Klux Klan, that instituted Jim Crow. This was a time when black communities were ethnically cleansed by white majorities; it was when the black communities in Forsyth County, Georgia, or Wilmington, North Carolina, or Tulsa, Oklahoma or many others were destroyed utterly in pogroms comparable to those against Jews in the Russian Empire at a similar time, and may count as what Ben Kiernan, Director of the Genocide Studies program at Yale, describes as a ‘genocidal massacre’ in his book Blood and Soil: a World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. This was a time when mere hearsay could have a black man strung up upon a tree while the whites of the town threw community dinners and took family pictures in front of his corpse; sometimes they’d put a picture of the macabre spectacle on a postcard. This was a time and a society that saw African-American vulnerability as deserving of truly atrocious violence, of being turned into ‘strange fruit.’ This is the bloodsoaked time, the nadir of American race relations, that blues was born in.
Black people in that time had to create their own spaces, away from all of that, if only to maintain their sanity in a ruthless environment. They brought all their humanity to the juke joint. They brought with them their exhaustion with discrimination, their fear of the Klan, and their terror of the rope. They brought with them the faith, the hope, and the aspiration of a people that had so often seen themselves in the story of the Israelites in Egypt, enslaved by a whole class of white Pharaohs to build themselves a pyramid of cotton profits. They brought with them other things, too, the sort of more universal thing that doesn’t make for prestige historical dramas; they brought with them their worry and their regret, their jealousy and their aspiration, their envy and their desire. They brought with them things that all human beings carry, for oppressed people are still people (even if we internet history buffs tend to forget that, turning them into abstractions to prove a point). They brought all of these, and more, to the stewing gumbo pot that became blues, music and dance, because it was the space carved out by blues that allowed them to be human where few other places in the Jim Crow South did. The blues, as Burnett says, is an affirmation of life.
It is no wonder, then, that something that came out of escaping the various forms of misery survived and now does the same to a great many people in a great many places of a great many ethnic backgrounds; blues at its core is an act of catharsis. Misery is everywhere; Henry Kissinger (loathe as I am to concede him anything) said that we historians “have to live with the sense of the inevitability of tragedy;” I take no joy in telling you that there will always be things that people want to escape from. At blues dances, I have seen all the anxieties and all the fears brought by people I have shared the floor with; I’ve noticed that blues attracts a sizable number of divorcees. For all these people, and many more besides, blues gives them the vulnerability they crave. I have talked previously of my neophyte shock at the sexuality at these blues dances; at a more fundamental level, I think, I was shocked by an environment where people were vulnerable to me, and I could be honest to them in turn, no matter how closely we danced. In other words, I was shocked by the humanity of it all. As a dance, it’s more vulnerable than most; the dancers are oftentimes much closer than they are in Lindy Hop, and it’s slower, and it has less deviation from a frame (slow drag, one variant of blues, emphasizes staying in frame over anything else). As Son House said, “The blues ain’t nothing but a low-down, aching chill.”
I think on some level that the blues dance idiom is a very emotionally flexible one. You can dance it sacredly or sensually, joyfully or mournfully, with the movement of ballroomin’ or the stillness of slow drag. I would ascribe this to the emotionally diverse atmosphere of the juke joint (again, I stress this is my own analysis). I also think on some level the desire to escape something is universal; that’s what allowed blues to grow beyond the juke joint as new people from all walks of life began to appreciate it.
Regarding flexibility, consider:
“Philosophically, the blues provided commentaries on Black life, displaying a vast array of emotion. Surfacing in the early 1900s and heard from tenderloin districts to street vendors, the blues relayed one’s personal response to a particular event, which presented opportunities for protest and political engagement. As a catalyst for power, singing the blues provides one a catharsis regarding her or his misery, making life bearable again. Blues originate out of sorrowful songs of roustabouts and stevedores, the enslaved’s field hollers, and from those Spirituals known as sorrow songs.”
From Sacred and Secular in African American Music by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts, edited by Frank Burch Brown.
I would reckon that a musical genre that grew into soul on the one hand and metal on the other has some flexibility to it. Furthermore I’d argue there’s a single ‘blues milieu’ or ‘blues culture’ that encompasses both music and dance; I believe Burnett’s article cited above provides evidence for that framing.
Blues has changed from the days of the juke joints; no cultural phenomenon survives unchanged when it lasts upwards of a century. The music has gotten more diverse as blues’ fruits have sprouted and flourished; my college club liked to play this song to as a song for blues dance. Like swing and ballroom circles, the traditional gender roles have loosened, with same-sex dance pairings being not uncommon. One thing I have heard from Chris Thomas King and other sources is that some of the predecessors to modern blues dance were danced together by couples who came together; now, blues is danced with the rapidly shifting pairings of other partner dance scenes (which strikes my non-expert mind as one of the more profound shifts).