A Few Words about Blues Dancing

Written (copyright) by Harri Heinila.

During the last decade the term ‘blues dancing’ has popped up in different occasions as the term has particularly been connected to the couple dance style which is mostly danced to blues music, and which reminds slow Lindy Hop.

After reading various accounts especially from the late Terry Monaghan who researched the Savoy Ballroom and its connections to different dances, and after interviewing Old Timers in New York, there seems to be a terminological simplification as different traditional dance styles have been merged together, and they are called as blues or blues dance or blues dancing.

It is quite clear that in New York there was no specific African American blues dance, with the exception of modern dance and ballet-based, in other words, not related to authentic jazz dance, “blues dances” like Alvin Ailey’s ‘Blues Suite’, until the 1970s when Pepsi Bethel obviously created a dance called Blues for his dance company. Monaghan claims that Bethel’s version had more common with ‘Walking The Floor’ dance. There, however, has been Blues Dance in Europe as you can see from this 1960s German clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXbiSL5jV4Q

Arthur Murray defines in his 1941 dance instruction book the dance called The St. Louis Shuffle which is basically the same than the Blues dance step in the beginning of the Ehepaar Fern clip. The St. Louis Shuffle is basically a Foxtrot variation, which, according to Murray, expresses the feel of blues music.

There also exist a few articles in the past, where are mentioned ‘blues’ as a dance, as far as ballroom dancing is concerned. For the U.K. scene the oldest article seems to be from 1923, where it is stated:

“The Blues is simply a particular kind of fox-trot played a quarter slower than an ordinary fox-trot and ‘jazzed up’ with quaint effect. The slower time makes possible the combination of a complete new set of steps to go with the music, and consequently many professional exponents have devised Blues dances of their own. There is, however, no universal dance called the Blues, and any couple trying one of  the new combinations with an alluring name in a big dance restaurant ballroom will probably find themselves in a minority of two.” (‘A Blues Dance Season. Some New Steps, But No New Dances.’ from The Observer, September 16, 1923, p. 9).

For the U.S. scene there is for example an article where it is stated:

“Beverly and Girard, will present their dancing specialities, which include the modern waltz, tango and blues dance.” (‘ “Pleasure” At Strand ‘ from The Washington Post, March 13, 1927, p. F1).

Concerning African American “blues dancing”, a source of confusion is Mura Dehn’s Spirit Moves where Mura Dehn connects as “Blues” to:

1. Ballroom dance which, according to Monaghan, was in effect a slow Lindy Hop danced with a triplet feel, and which was danced at the Savoy Ballroom.

2. different slow dances from the past. Monaghan argues that those dances were especially “Fish-Tail” –type of dancing which became the ‘dancing-on-the-dime’ practice in the dance halls in 1900-1920, and Slow Drag or Grind in the post-World War II period.

There is a description about Slow Drag in John W. Roberts’ ‘From Hucklebuck to Hip-Hop’, where it is stated: “The Slow Drag was a dance done to slow and romantic songs and was always done by couples who held each other as close as could be gotten away with. Some indicated that the Slow Drag partner was carefully selected to show either strong romantic attraction or to signal an existing relationship…When you slow dragged, you slow dragged with a person that you really liked, you didn’t just Slow Drag with everybody”.

Monaghan states concerning the African American “blues dancing” term confusion, “The practitioners and Internet contributors, who use this term have clearly departed from the approach of the early 1980s enthusiasts, who attempted to revive the use of original dance names out of respect for the tradition.” That is true to the historical accuracy, too.

This short article is based especially on the studies and articles as follows:

–     Terry Monaghan: Stompin’ At The Savoy – Remembering, Researching and Re-enacting the Lindy Hop’s relationship to Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom from 2002.

–     John W. Roberts: From Hucklebuck to Hip-hop from 1995.

–    The discussion thread: http://www.yehoodi.com/comment/82776/clips-which-embody-blues-dancing/

–   Arthur Murray: How to Become a Good Dancer from 1941.

– ‘A Blues Dance Season. Some New Steps, But No New Dances.’ from The Observer, September 16, 1923, p. 9.

– ‘ “Pleasure” At Strand ‘ from The Washington Post, March 13, 1927, p. F1.


About authenticjazzdance

The author of the site is Harri Heinila, Doctor of Social Sciences, political history, and the former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Political and Economic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is interested in Authentic Jazz Dance: all jazz dances from different eras of jazz. E.g. Cakewalk, the Charleston, Black Bottom, The Lindy Hop, Mambo, Rhythm Tap. Heinila researches jazz dance, in particular, in the context of Harlem, New York. His doctoral dissertation, An Endeavor by Harlem Dancers to Achieve Equality - The Recognition of the Harlem-Based African-American Jazz Dance Between 1921 and 1943 is a groundbreaking study in the field of jazz dance and Harlem. His ORCID iD is 0000-0002-7783-9010 .
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6 Responses to A Few Words about Blues Dancing

  1. Here are a couple more articles about ballroom type blues from the UK which might be of interest:

    How to acquire the blues balance, Victor Silvester, Nottingham Evening Post, Friday, January 31, 1930. (http://followervariations.wordpress.com/2012/01/02/how-to-acquire-the-blues-balance/)

    1934 Blues Are Lively… Some Basic Steps… You Dance Them When You Can’t Dance Foxtrot, Victor Silvester, Nottingham Evening Post (http://followervariations.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/1934-blues-are-lively/)

  2. Thank you for the articles. It seems that the British competition dancing which is nowadays known as DanceSport was the first one which defined ‘Blues dance’ for ballroom dancing. The example reminds me of Two Step, although it obviously was a Foxtrot variation.

  3. According to my latest article discoveries, it seems that the Foxtrot-based ‘Blues dance’ was in the U.K already in 1923. The British competition dancing scene possibly got the idea about that and made its own version.

  4. Chris says:

    Is Terry Monaghan’s “Stompin’ At the Savoy” available anywhere to read? I’ve been unable to find more than fragments of any of his work. Was this the work he did towards his PhD?

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