How ballroom dancing went from elite pastime to dance hall craze

Waltz. Tango. Foxtrot. These iconic—and sometimes scandalous—moves inspired new generations of dancers to meet, mingle, and improvise.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 6 Oct 2022, 09:14 BST
People dance and swing at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem on April 24, 1953. The New York City neighborhood saw an explosion of cultural expression in the early 20th century—and gave birth to the Lindy Hop, which is still popular among swing dancers today.
Photograph by Hans von Nolde, AP

There’s something endlessly exciting about the dance floor, where people meet, mingle, and sometimes show off in social dances like the tango, foxtrot, or jitterbug.

Although ballrooms were once the territory of the elite and considered off-limits for common people, in the upheaval of the 19th century, new types of dance steps were born—democratising dance floors and drawing inspiration from around the world. Here’s how some of the most famous moves got their start—and were passed on to modern dancers.

La valse à Mabille, 1870. The arrival of the waltz scandalized 19th century conservatives, who disliked that it encouraged dancers to put their arms around each other. Before the waltz, the closest dancers would get to one another was holding hands.
Photograph by Fine Art Images, Heritage Images, Getty Images

Waltz

To modern eyes, the waltz—with its lilting, ¾ rhythm and its graceful variations like the long-stepping chassé and the pursuit, in which a woman dancer “chases” her male partner—might seem like an outdated status symbol that embodies wealth and good taste. But the quintessential ballroom move actually has its roots in the lower classes.

The oldest dance step recognised in modern-day ballroom competition, the waltz emerged from commoners’ courtship dances in 18th-century Germany and Austria. Taking its name from the German term walzen, meaning “to revolve,” the dance challenged upper-class social mores with its free-wheeling motions. But when aristocrats caught on to their servants’ dance moves by observing their rambunctious parties, they tried it—and liked it.

Unlike the carefully choreographed, aloof minuet popular at the time, waltzing allowed partners to have close contact and improvise—and led to the creation of the public dance hall in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There, people could mingle with strangers and twirl and swirl the night away to the tunes of composers like Johann Strauss. As historian Ruth Katz notes, waltzing provided a chance for freedom, romanticism, and social mixing between the upper and lower classes. 

The move was so popular that it sparked a craze in the 19th century despite warnings that it was too sensuous or frivolous. “The waltz not only made it possible for different kinds of individuals to come together on an egalitarian basis, it also made possible a kind of ‘escape’ from reality through the thrilling dizziness of whirling one’s way in a private world of sensuality,” Katz writes.

Legendary ballroom dancer Vernon Castle lifts his wife and equally iconic partner Irene as they dance before a large mirror in a dance studio in New York City in 1914. The pair's graceful movements inspired a legion of dancers to take up the foxtrot.
Photograph by Dietz, FPG, Getty Images

Foxtrot

Dance halls may have first emerged in Vienna, but quickly spread around the world. Whether public or private, they offered a chance for attendees to let loose, sparking a dance craze and an explosion of new forms of social dance. By the early 20th century, couples had invented “animal dances” with faddish names like the Bunny Hug, the Grizzly Bear, and the Turkey Trot, which were often performed to ragtime, a jazz precursor pioneered by Black artists and songwriters. 

With its syncopated rhythms, ragtime gave rise to the foxtrot, a slow-slow-quick-quick step that took dancers across the floor in long, graceful strides. It shot to fame with Irene and Vernon Castle, two ballroom dancers known for their glamorous, light steps. With the help of silent cinema and mass media, the Castles became U.S. household names, and dancers emulated their clothing, hair, and dance moves. By the time Vernon Castle died tragically in an aircraft accident during World War I, the foxtrot had become an established standard on dance floors around the world.

Rudolph Valentino tangoes with Spanish dancer Beatrice Dominguez in front of a full house in a scene from the 1921 film, The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. The film helped ignite a tango craze.
Photograph by Metro Pictures, Getty Images

Tango

Another early 20th-century craze looked to Argentina for inspiration. Tango, which emerged in the 1880s in the tenements of the South American country’s impoverished port cities, blended aspects of African and European dance. The sensual dance also brought dancers scandalously close—which titillated audiences and violated social norms. In male-dominated Argentina, tango teacher and historian Michael Trenner tells QZ, it was often performed by two men in private and thus became a bastion of gay culture. It then spread to Paris and London, sparking a “tango mania” that later made its way to American shores.

By the Roaring Twenties, the tango was known worldwide, thanks in part to the 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which heartthrob Rudolph Valentino tangoed with Spanish dancer Beatrice Dominguez. The dance gave men and women an unprecedented chance to move their bodies in erotic rhythms whose drama enthralled both dancers and audiences.

Lee Moates and Tonita Malau show off their winning dance moves during a Lindy Hop contest at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom on April 24, 1953. The dance style emerged decades earlier during the Great Depression, when dance marathons provided opportunities to vie for cash prizes.
Photograph by Hans von Nolde, AP

Lindy Hop

Hollywood offered moviegoers a chance to see professional dancers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performing finessed, glamorised versions of social dances. But everyday dancers didn’t just look to the silver screen for inspiration: Black culture deeply influenced American ballroom dance and birthed one of the 20th century’s most famous dance styles, the Lindy Hop.

The joyous dance style was born from another dance fad, the dance marathon. In 1920s and 1930s U.S., Depression-era dancers attempted to set records for the longest dances, swaying on the dance floor for hours and even days or months as they vied for cash prizes and fame. “The greater the number of hours the contest had been in motion,” writes dance historian Carol Martin, “the higher the stakes.”

In 1928, George “Shorty” Snowden and his partner Mattie Purnell were participating in a 68-hour dance marathon in Harlem when they lost their grip on one another’s hands, violating a rule of the competition. To cover up the gaffe, Snowden did some quick footwork, then pulled Purnell back to him by her hand. The innovation was a crowd-pleaser, and though it’s unclear who named it, the dance’s eventual title paid tribute to Charles Lindbergh, the aviator who at the time was famous for his aerial escapades. 

Dubbed the Lindy Hop, the dance was also called the jitterbug and led to other forms of swing dance. Gymnastic and even acrobatic, the energetic dance was borrowed by white dancers. When swing fell out of fashion after World War II, Black dancers kept the Lindy Hop alive for decades until a swing dance resurgence in the 1990s brought it back into wide popularity.

Miami Beach dance duo Lucille and Tony Colon demonstrate the cha-cha-cha—a Latin dance in the mambo family known for its twist, turns, and bouncy rhythms.
Photograph by Getty Images

Cha-cha-cha

Another ballroom standard, the cha-cha-cha, looked to Cuba, and violinist-composer-band leader Enrique Jorrín, for inspiration. During the 1950s, Cuban dances like the mambo and rumba gained popularity on American dance floors, and in the early part of the decade Jorrín riffed on an older musical form, danzón, which relied on a 2/4 beat and drew from Afro-Caribbean influences.

The three-part dance form that emerged from danzón music would go on to become the official dance of Cuba. But Jorrín made it into something new when he added a new rhythm to the end portion of the dance in some late 1940s performances. As a result, dancers’ feet dragged on the floor in an energetic triple step—a pattern the band leader called “cha-cha-cha.” The move, also known as the cha-cha, spawned a new craze for both the music and the dance.

Though many older dance forms have waned in popularity, the cha-cha-cha lives on both in ballroom dance competitions and in modern clubs, where its cousin, salsa, also flourishes. 

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