The uptight etiquette of ballroom dancing ruled American dance floors at the beginning of the 20th century. This came to an end in the decade during which Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place: the Roaring Twenties and the Prohibition Era. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously documented the social freedom of these years in The Great Gatsby: “The parties were bigger. The pace was faster, the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser and the liquor was cheaper.”
While more conservative dances lingered in older segments of society, throughout the 1920s hundreds of dance crazes—including the Black Bottom—swept the nation’s youth into a dancing fervor. To set the scene for August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (onstage at the Mark Taper Forum through October 16, 2016), here are dances you would have found at the time.
- Black Bottom
- Named for Detroit’s predominantly African-American Black Bottom neighborhood, this dance became so popular it even overtook the Charleston to become the main social dance of the era. Ann Pennington, star of The Ziegfeld Follies, lays claim to the most iconic performance of the Black Bottom in a Broadway revue staged not by Ziegfeld but by his rival, George White. Perry Bradford, who composed “The Original Black Bottom Dance,” laid out explicit instructions: "Hop down front and then you Doodle back / Mooch to your left and then you Mooch to the right / Hands on your hips and do the Mess Around / Break a Leg until you’re near the ground / Now that’s the Old Black Bottom Dance.”
- NOTE: The above video is an interpretation of the original dance by a white performer and not representative of the people who actually created the Black Bottom.
- Although the origins of the Charleston are hazy, it is commonly believed to have originated in the early 1900s in an African-American community based off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. To dance the Charleston, simply kick your feet both forward and backward while swinging your arms back and forth; if you’re feeling ambitious, you can even add a little tap into the mix. The dance became popular thanks to the 1923 tune “The Charleston” by James P. Johnson and an appearance on Broadway in Runnin’ Wild. Though not nearly as fashionable as in its peak years, it is still oft-danced at jazz clubs.
- Pairs dancing the breakaway would split apart or “breakaway” from each other while still holding hands to perform a one-person version of this swing dance, before coming back together again. George Snowden, a popular Harlem dancer in the ’20s and ’30s, regularly appeared at New York City’s Savoy Ballroom and is credited with debuting the dance at the Lenox Avenue venue. Not familiar with the Breakaway? You’ve probably heard of its descendant, the Lindy Hop, which was also popularized at the Savoy.
- In 1914, vaudeville star Harry Fox made his solo act debut on the rooftop of the New York Theatre. Onlookers described his dance, set to ragtime tunes, as “Fox’s Trot,” and the name stuck. At first glance, Fox’s dance appears similar to the waltz, but upon closer inspection it becomes clear that each has a distinct style. While the waltz has a 3/4 time signature, the foxtrot retains the 4/4 time musicians and dancers tend to prefer.
- The name “shimmy” is sometimes credited to dancer Gilda Gray, who, when asked about her dancing style, supposedly responded that she was “shaking my chemise.” (Gray later denied having said any such thing.) To dance the shimmy, you simply hold your body still and move your shoulders back and forth in a shimmying fashion. Due to its sensual nature, the dance was sometimes viewed as indecent, with many dance halls banning it.