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Swing Dance Essay

Jitterbug dancers. Photo courtesy Sallyann Wagoner.

From Cakewalks to the Charleston, to Jitterbugs and Swing—jazz and dance have enjoyed a steamy, cross-pollinating relationship. For over half a century, they were inseparable.

This week on Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band celebrates the marriage of jazz and popular dance in a show we call, Cakewalks and Jitterbugs.

Jazz has had many exciting partners in dance, with moves like the Cake Walk Prance, the Slow Drag, the Clean Up Dance, the Back Step Prance, the Dude Walk, the Charleston, the Texas Tommy, the Big Apple, the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug..

In the 1890s, Ragtime rhythms first began to be heard in traveling tent shows and saloons. The term "ragged time," shortened to "ragtime," was coined to describe the syncopated rhythms of marches, two-steps, and Cakewalks that moved from the rural South to New York vaudeville stages and big city ballrooms.

George and Aida Walker doing The Cakewalk, 1903. Photo in public domain.

The Cakewalk was the first dance that "crossed over" from black vaudeville to white social dancing. Most white audiences in America were introduced to the Cakewalk by the black vaudeville team of Bert Williams and George Walker. Williams and Walker's athletic, hilarious routine was a smash hit, and soon even the Vanderbilts were attempting the Cakewalk at high society bashes.

Cakewalk dancers in the late 1890s, both black and white, put their own personal spin on the dance. Competing at local Cakewalk contests, couples put on a show, hoping to "take the cake" and make it into the Annual Cakewalk Jubilee at Madison Square Garden.

As early as 1905, New Orleans jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was composing jazz piano pieces with a "Spanish tinge," incorporating tango rhythms. The origins of the dance known as the Tango are unclear. Some say it came from society's underbelly—the brothels of turn-of-the-century Argentina. Others insist it is a working class dance from Argentinian port towns along the South American coast. Wherever it got its start, Tango dancing became popular all over the world, including in New Orleans' Storyville district where 'professors' like Jelly Roll found employment playing the piano.

Charleston dancers rehearsing at Club Prudhom, 1920s. Photo courtesy Smithsonian National Archives.

In 1923, the great Harlem Stride pianist James P. Johnson wrote the "Charleston," a hit tune for the Broadway musical Runnin' Wild. It was a dance he'd seen performed in the dives of the New York neighborhood Hell's Kitchen. The Charleston developed into an international craze, closely identified with the 1920s Jazz Age, when Cole Porter hired bistro owner and chanteuse Ada 'Bricktop' Smith to teach his friends in Paris how to dance it with the right savoir faire.

Benny Goodman Orchestra poster, 1936. Image courtesy jazzposters.

Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. The Lindy Hop, the first swing dance, was named for Lindbergh and evolved out of social dancing at Harlem's newly opened Savoy Ballroom. The Lindy Hop led to popular Swing Era dances—the Jitterbug, the Big Apple and the Suzi Q.

Kids everywhere were caught up in the Swing Dance craze of the 1930s, and Benny Goodman was dubbed the "King of Swing."

During these Depression years, dance marathons became a fad. Many out-of-work people would compete for money prizes.

Photo credit for Home Page: Jitterbug dancers. Photo courtesy Sallyann Wagoner.

This sample essay will help you understand how an essay is put together. You can watch instructional videos to help you write an effective essay by clicking here.You can download a copy of this essay at this link: http://bit.ly/SampleEssay

The Magic of Ballroom Dancing

by Jean Reynolds

I’m swirling around a beautiful ballroom in the arms of a handsome man. He expertly guides me through one complex dance pattern after another, perfectly matched to the music playing in the background. At the end of the day I go up to the judges’ table, where I’m given a handful of blue and gold ribbons—awards for my dancing skills. I’ve been a ballroom dancer for over twenty years, and what began as a casual pastime has become a passion. Ballroom dancing has enriched my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

One unexpected change has been increased confidence. I’m an English teacher who’s always been more comfortable in a classroom or library than at a party. When I started taking ballroom lessons, my teacher told me that I needed to go to the studio parties to practice dancing with other partners. I was terrified: Who would want to dance with an absolute beginner like me? What would we talk about? Would I fit in? What I discovered was that dancers are gracious people who encourage one another and aren’t bothered at all by an occasional mistake. Our shared interest in dancing meant that there was always something to talk about, and I began to expand my world beyond the academic little box where I usually spent my time. Twenty years later, I have rich friendships with a diverse group of men and women who love dancing as much as I do.

Another surprise was learning to appreciate music on a new level. I’ve always loved music, I have a huge CD collection, and I often stream songs on my computer when I’m writing. But I had never thought about phrasing, breaks, tempo changes, and other features of popular songs. After a few years of lessons and dance parties, I began to listen more closely to how songs are orchestrated and sung. For example, I used to think that most of Frank Sinatra’s songs were pretty much alike. But now I know that his music can be romantic, sassy, tender, brash, or elegant. My favorite discovery is that I can perform right along with Sinatra by improvising an arm movement or tossing my head at an exciting moment in a song.

The greatest gift that dancing has given me is fun. I love dressing up, experimenting with makeup and hairdos, and wearing fancy shoes decorated with rhinestones. Dance parties are always full of laughter, and often we play games on the dance floor. I used to be afraid of competitions and showcases because I thought the dancers would be stuffy and arrogant. The truth is very different: Dancing attracts people who want to squeeze the most enjoyment out of their lives. Ballroom dancing is surprisingly playful, with lots of teasing and joking on the dance floor. I’m always glowing at the end of an evening of dancing. The biggest surprise of all is that the lessons are just as much fun. It’s a totally different kind of learning that’s good for my body and soul.

It took courage for me to walk into a dance studio the first time, and even more courage to come back for the next lesson. It was scary to watch the other students gliding confidently with their teachers. Would I ever be able to dance the way they did? “The first steps are the hardest,” my teacher reassured me—and he was right. I’m so glad I decided to try ballroom dancing, and I can’t wait to put on my dance shoes again for another evening of sheer delight.

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