All That Jazz (1995)

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The powers restricting “raves” in the Criminal Justice Act are not the first authoritarian response to a dance-based culture. The association of popular dancing with sex, intoxication, and black people has made it an object of moralist suspicion at various times in history. It was the jazz dance craze which swept across much of the west that was the source of both pleasure and panic in the 1920s, as Jill Matthews told a meeting of London History Workshop (an informal group of radical historians) in November.

In Australia (where Jill comes from) the dance craze began around 1911 and really took off in 1917 with the arrival of the new “hot jazz” sound from New Orleans. Within a few years, dance halls holding up to 2000 people had opened in most Australian towns, with dances being held almost every afternoon and evening. Dance styles with names like the Whirligig, the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot and the famous Charleston (1926) rapidly succeeded each other in popularity, each lasting for a year or two before passing out of fashion. While these steps were highly formalised by today’s standards, the emphasis was more on rhythm than on the more difficult to perform steps that existed before 1910, and this was part of their mass appeal.

Soon the dancefloors became a battlefield as the moralist backlash gathered momentum. Dance was condemned as sensual, barbaric and pagan by churches, with the Methodists leading the way in banning mixed dancing on their premises. Doctors got in on the act, with some claiming that doing the Charleston could cause death. There was a strong racist element, with black US jazz musicians being banned from the country in 1928 as part of the government’s White Australia policy (supported by the Australian Musicians’ Union).

Meanwhile professional dance associations sought legitimacy by trying to distance themselves from the undisciplined dancing masses. Their aim was to reimpose the boundary between the artist and the audience by insisting that dancing should be the preserve of properly trained experts. Such dance entrepreneurs reached a compromise with the anti-dance moralists on the basis of licensing respectable dances properly controlled by professionals. By the 1930s a range of local and national licensing laws
and restrictions on building use had succeeded in regulating and taming the dance craze.

The discussion after Jill’s talk included parallels with the CJB and other situations. Somebody said that in France in the 1840s, particular types of dancing were banned and the police had the power to come on to the dance floor and arrest people (usually working class youths) for dancing in inappropriate ways. Not even Michael Howard has thought of that one yet…
Neil

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