1920s Dances: Styles, Moves & Music

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  • 0:01 Music and Dance Revolution
  • 0:31 Types of Dances From the Era
  • 3:06 Types of Music
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

It's an era that changed the face of entertainment. In this lesson, learn about the dance styles, moves, and music of the 1920s. Then take a short quiz to test your knowledge.

Music and Dance Revolution

They weren't listening to Hip-Hop and dancing Dubstep like you might be today, but the 1920s was its own music and dance revolution. Basking in the optimism of a nation that escaped from the horrors of The Great War, dancers took to the floor sporting moves in styles such as the Shimmy, the Tango, the Waltz, the Foxtrot, and the Charleston. For the first time, dancers were closer together, some were even touching, and the music was faster, more soulful, and louder than ever before.

A Change in Music, A Change in Dance

Once the 1920s became the Jazz Age, a term coined by 1920s-era author F. Scott Fitzgerald, public dance halls and clubs started opening in larger cities. In the dance halls, at vaudeville shows, and at clubs many people of all races were exposed to African dance styles like the Shimmy, the Turkey Trot, the Buzzard Lope, the Chicken Scratch, the Monkey Glide, and the Bunny Hug, many of which were former slave dances. Other, more fast-paced dance styles, like the Charleston and the Foxtrot, were first seen in dance halls and even on Broadway, which also had its major peak for performers and audiences in the 1920s.

Many of the dance styles were seen as almost scandalous by people of the older generations because the male and female dance partners were moving quickly and touching one another in ways deemed inappropriate, such as men with their hands on a floor. Do you see how close woman's hips or twirling her across the dance the dancers are in this photograph of the Tango on Brighton Beach, New York from 1914? Dancers got closer together before the 1920s but close contact was made even more popular by the dance styles of the time.

Dancing the Tango, 1914
Brighton Beach Tango 1914

Dances, like the Turkey Trot, which was later replaced by the Foxtrot. The Foxtrot, involved hopping side steps and scissor-like actions with the feet. The Charleston, named for the city in South Carolina, involved fast kicking of the feet. Some Charleston dancers even wore tap shoes. The Shimmy involved shaking the shoulders back and forth and leaning forward and backward to the music.

Other dances incorporated partners. The Tango originated in Argentina and Uruguay, but also had a lot of African influence. In the Tango, dancers were close together and glided across the floor. The Waltz also featured partners, but this time they danced, holding hands, in a box-like formation. Both the Tango and Waltz have several variations to them.

One of the more popular dances of the 1920s, which was still seen on dance floors into the 1950s, was the Lindy Hop, which later became known as the Jitterbug. The Lindy Hop was the original swing dance. Big band orchestras, like the Glenn Miller Orchestra, would cater the music to the movements of the swing dancers. Swing dancing involved bold movements and often the male partner sweeping the female dancer off the floor.

Most of the dances of the 1920s involved a lot of contact between the dancers and many were performed in public by women known as flappers. A flapper was a single woman who was exploring her independence in the era after the Great War. Today, the music, dancing, and behavior of the 1920s might seem tame, but for their time, they were part of a revolution.

Dancing to the Music

That revolution was characterized by the music of the era. One of the early musical styles of the 1920s was ragtime, which peaked in popularity just before the '20s began. Known for its ragged style of notes, the ragtime style came from the African American communities near the growing city of St. Louis. Composers, such as the famous Irving Berlin, who penned God Bless America, also incorporated ragtime into their works.

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