Jazz Age Dancing

24 March 2015

By Judith Mackrell

When F. Scott Fitzgerald called the 1920s the Jazz Age, he wasn’t simply referring to the new wave of popular black music that came out of Harlem and St Louis after the First World War. He was also describing the whole culture of youth and  freedom that came it.

Between 1920 and 1929, jazz became the soundtrack of a generation who were determined to live their lives in opposition to the out-dated codes of their parents. The syncopated rhythms and brash, improvised melodies of this new music conjured up a world of smoky nightclubs and bright city lights; of sexual emancipation, drink and drugs, and young flappers with short skirts and bobbed hair.

Jazz also inspired a new electric, uninhibited style of dancing. In contrast to the waltzes and quadrilles of the Victorian ballroom in which young women were guided around dance floor in the arms of their male partners, these dances of the 1920s fizzed with freedom and energy. From the high kicks of the Charleston, to the provocative flourishes of the Black Bottom jazz dancing was meant to be fun, exhibitionist and very sexy.

It was no wonder that an older generation feared these dances as evidence of a breakdown in the social and moral order. Yet to those on the dance floor the exhilaration of “jazzing” was as much about the physical high of pure movement as it was about flirtation or seduction.
Dance was a major obsession of the Twenties, not only filling the dance halls and nightclubs but also dominating the professional stage. While it used to be singers, actresses or comedians who commanded top billing, dancers too became a major draw in musical comedy and vaudeville.The most emblematic story of the Jazz Age was surely that of Josephine Baker who rose from the chorus line of Broadway musicals to become the highest paid entertainer in Paris. Her long lithe body and  wittily subversive moves were not only admired and copied by thousands of women who watched her perform, they were also much in demand by clothes designers and the manufacturers of beauty treatments who hired Josephine to advertise their products.

As for Scott Fitzgerald, he was surely thinking of his wife Zelda when he first coined the term Jazz Age. She was a skilled, and ambitious dancer, who as a teenager used to go to the local theatre to pick up new moves from the chorus line. And once the Fitzgeralds were married, and became known asthe couple of the Twenties, it wasn’t just Scott’s reputation as a writer that fuelled their double celebrity. It was the also the nights that Zelda went wild on the dance floor, holding a room captive as she shimmied her shoulders, swivelled her hips and lifted up her skirts to show off what Ernest Hemingway was pleased to call her “long nigger legs.”