History of Old Time Dancing & Music
Old Time Dancing first made its appearance under that name in the 1930s after two decades that had been dominated by the new and fashionable dances of the jazz era and its associated whim for Modern Ballroom Dancing. To understand what constitutes an Old Time Dance one needs to look at the main social dancing both before and after the advent of the dances of the modern ballroom. There is a connotation of course that to be Old Time the dances should be older than the modern forms. That would have been true in the early 1930s, but by the close of the 20th century young people at least would regard any social dancing including the Foxtrot or even Rock n' Roll as Old Time.
The dances of the modern ballroom started to emerge around 1910 following an animal-dance craze. These were seasonal freaks that came and went and included the Turkey Trot, Horse Trot, Ballin' the Jack, Grizzly Bear, The Raccoon, The Fish Walk, The Monkey, Crab Crawl and so on. These dance sensations of American Negro origin were directly associated with the Jazz music of the era and in particular Ragtime and The Rag. Out of these developed the first modern ballroom dance of note, the One-Step. This dance between 1910 and 1912 was popularised by the tune Alexander's Ragtime Band. Although several variations of steps and routine were possible the basic pattern was simply of continually walking around the line of dance. Hence the origin of its name, 'One-Step'. The Tango in 1913 and the Fox-Trot in 1914 followed it. About the same time a slower waltz, 'The Hesitation', came into being by trying to waltz the tango and then a new Brazilian rhythm set the stage for another modern dance The Maxixe. This soon fell by the way but provided the basis for a new sequence dance, The Maxina of 1917.
By the 1920s popular waltz tunes had slowed considerably and the Slow Waltz provided the basis in 1923 for Victor Silvester's revamped version which became known as the Modern Waltz. This in parts of NSW and Qld is known as The Jazz Waltz. It is simply known as The Waltz in the ballroom dance scene. This somewhat overlooks the ancestral rotary waltz of Strauss fame, which surely has a greater right to being called The Waltz.
Further seasonal dance freaks emerged in the late 1920s including the Charleston, Black Bottom and later the Varsity Drag. The Twist of the early 1960s is simply another of these freaks. The Charleston was absorbed into the One-Step as a variation to a different developing tempo. This new and the last of the modern ballroom dances, the QuickTime Flat Charleston or simply the Quickstep, made its debut. The old waltz was re-vitalised into a modern form of The Viennese Waltz by using the same steps as the Modern Waltz but to at least 60 bars per minute. The Polka, in America was also revived briefly with variations as a dance of the modern ballroom.
The 1930s saw the first of the Latin American dances. The Rumba and the Conga appeared and gradually peaked by the early 1950s with the Samba, Jive and the Cha Cha Cha. The Paso Doble representing the bull fight is another dance within the Latin American group.
One of the fundamental characteristics of all of these new dances, apart from the basic step or pattern, is a variable routine. This was usually at random and at the whim of the man as leader. No two couples needed to be doing the same steps at the same time. Also from the 1930s the modern steps were danced with parallel feet and only the fast steps danced on the toes. Slow steps were actually taken on the heel with heel leads. For the first time rise and fall in the dance was provided by the lowering action created by walking steps using heel leads and the contrasting rise from quick runs on the toes. The modern ballroom dances were based on the natural movements of walking (heels) and running (toes). The Tango in a slinking fashion was danced on flat feet.
The music of the era was set to the newer saxophone of 1920 and the big bands with a combination of brass and strings and various jazz, swing and Latin influences.
However modern dancing had its opponents and the close hold was certainly seen by some as too familiar and quite distasteful. The innovativeness of the modern ballroom dances also created a type of class distinction as only very good and natural dancers could really cope with these. This contrasted with the older and easier sequence dances that all could follow. The churches in particular frowned on modern dancing. A combination of this and the poverty of the Great Depression led to a public demand for the older dances which could attract aged veterans who had money to subsidise or keep the costs down for younger patrons. The dance and euchre night and the 50/50 dance came into being with a program evenly divided between the modern and the old dances so that both young and old could be catered for. Generally every second dance was a Foxtrot or a Quickstep (which was still known as the One-Step in the bush), or the Modern Waltz. These alternated with an Old Time Dance, this term becoming established for the first time. Sometimes halls had two floors (upstairs and ground floor) or stood side by side with one section for all modern and one for old-time.
The original Old Time dances were those social dances that were danced from the nineteenth century, the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Britain or a slightly stretched Colonial era in Australia; ie the general social dances popular after settlement from 1788 to 1900. Some will also consider the period from 1900 to the First World War when the big changes commenced as being an extension of the Colonial period.
These primeval old dances or Colonial Dances had several things in common. They were in the main originally adapted from European folk dances earlier in the nineteenth century; dances that had been discovered from the peasantry. They were taken up as a national dance by one country or state and then dressed up for the ballroom by a dancing master and launched to the world via Paris as the latest craze and a must for all, particularly society.
These were generally danced to a fixed routine or sequence of steps, which were always taken on the toe with the feet turned out and aligned according to the five balletic positions. This form of footwork was common to all dances of the time whether on the stage, for ballet or social dancing. Every step of a sequence dance was described point by point with these important characteristic positions. Any rise and fall in the dance was created by ankle and knee movements as can be compared with the gliding Scottish Strathspey; always remaining on the toes. The steps were always small and neat. With the influence of the Circular Waltz and a style set by Waltzing Competitions most dances were smooth and flowing without rise and fall. No old time dance worth its salt would commence without the Circular Waltz and it would conclude in the same manner. There might be more throughout the program including a competition. The First Set was another prerequisite at an old time dance and this usually followed within a dance or two of the opening Circular Waltz. Sometimes the First Set was formed up from a Grand March led off by the guest of honour, local dignitary or MC. The First Set was a graceful dance and allowed sufficient standing out time for couples to converse.
It was different of course for the more energetic hop dances like the Polka, the old Schottische, Polka Mazurka, Highland Schottische and Varsoviana, but nevertheless grace and neatness with small steps was upheld.
The dances were divided into several main categories. Principally there were the Set Dances formed up with a particular group of people. These were sub-divided into the Square Dances of which the Quadrilles and the Cotillions were the principle type. They were arranged generally for four couples, although larger double sets did exist for eights and sixteens. The other older group, the Country Dances, were originally of English background from antiquity and thought to have derived their name from a rustic association as a dance of the village green. On introduction to France the English Country Dance (Contredanse Anglaise) eventually set the pattern for numerous French Country Dances which became known as Contre Danses. This name, even if erroneous in origin, is quite explanatory as generally the Country Dances of long set formation have the men in one line facing their partners, i.e. Contre or opposite. There are of course some long sets in which couples do face couples and then of course there are other arrangements such as couples facing couples in a column down the center of the hall or in 'Progressive Sicilian' style. Other formations in circles are also popular and some of these, particularly in groups of four or eight were originally known as Cotillions, the French name referring to the swirl of ladies' petticoats. The older Cotillions and Country Dances pre-dated the Quadrille (1812), but the party type Cotillion (1830s) and its possible off spring, the Waltz Cotillion, came in later.
Country Dances which are still known today and are extremely popular in the revived 'Bush Dance' and folk scene include the Dashing White Sergeant, Circassian Circle, Highland Reel, Waltz Country Dance, Strip the Willow and the Sir Roger de Coverley or the Haymaker's Jig. The Haymaker in the American form was the Virginia Reel and known to be danced in Australia by the 1890s. These style of dances along with Irish and Scottish jigs, reels, flings and solo stepdances were part of the very early Australian scene following European settlement. However they were quickly displaced between the first quarter through to mid nineteenth century by the fashionable quadrilles and new closed couples dances like the Waltz, Galop and Polka. The old open couples dance as in the Minuet and Gavotte had long departed.
The re-arrangement of favourite figures of the Country Dances and the Cotillions into square sets in France was of necessity due to square ballrooms (the English Assemblies had long rooms to cater for long sets). This led to the creation of the quadrilles. In particular, 'The Quadrille' or First Set came into being towards the end of the eighteenth century in France when favourite Country Dances in square formation were sequenced one after the other into what became known as figures. It was introduced into Britain in 1812 and established in Australia by the 1820s. Many of these quadrilles had four, five or six figures. The First Set, Lancers, Caledonians, Alberts and Waltz Cotillion were the principle quadrilles known as 'sets' in Australia. The Exions, Fitzroys, Royal Irish and Parisian were also popular.
The Round Dances were couples dances where the people travelled around the ballroom instead of being fixed at place as in a set dance. They consisted of two forms although there was no distinction made in their day because all danced the same steps at the same time. The Waltz, Galop, Polka and Mazurka all had the facility for variations, with reversing in the case of the Waltz and the Polka. However everybody always performed any variations at the same time. Nevertheless these were not really sequence dances in the old-time sense. They could be seen as the forerunners of the modern ballroom dance with the variation of routine as in the Foxtrot, Tango, Quickstep and Modern Waltz. It was simply the custom of the day that prevented this improvisation with the older dances.
The other group within the Round Dances were simple Sequence Dances that followed a combination of steps in a pattern and included the Schottische, Polka Mazurka, Varsoviana, Barn Dance and Two Step. To date all of the dances mentioned, including the modern ballroom and Latin American dances, have folk dance origins.
Forming in 1892 the British Association of Teachers of Dancing commenced running annual competitions to discover new sequence dances and as a consequence of this the first of the created or 'choreographed' dances came into being. Several new quadrilles such as the Hussars (1894), Carnival (1895), The Gordons' Square (1898), Princess Ena Quadrille (1906) and the County Cotillion (1907) were also invented.
However quite significantly the Veleta Waltz, the first perceived choreographed sequence dance, was entered in 1899 but it didn't win a place. The music publishers Francis, Day & Hunter, noted its potential and with the co-operation of the arranger Arthur Morris, it was re-vamped and introduced as a new dance in 1900. The Veleta was not really the first of the competition dances. One example is the Victoria Cross of 1898 by James Finnigan. According to F. Mainey (Old Time Dancers Handbook) this dance is exactly the same as the Military Two Step which Finnigan's daughter brought out in 1904.
Nevertheless in popular opinion the Veleta is accepted as the dance that set the pattern for the popularity of many of the new 'choreographed sequence dances'. Some of these included the Fylde Waltz 1902, Military Two Step 1904, the St Bernard Waltz (1904), Eva Three Step 1904, the Boston Two Step 1908, La Rinka 1908, Doris Waltz 1909, Latchford Schottische 1909, King's Waltz 1913, the Maxina of 1917, Bradford (progressive) Barn Dance 1919 and the Royal Empress Tango 1922.
The Parma Waltz of 1920 doesn't appear to have survived in England. But it certainly became popular in Australia along with the Pride of Erin(1911) by the 1930s. The date of origin of the Pride of Erin remains obscure in its native Britain, but the late Shirley Andrews had evidence to suggest it was 1924. Significantly all of these early dances in Britain were still described step by step with the five balletic feet positions on the toes. These new sequence dances were popular in the dance teachers' academies but were not sensations in the manner of great dances of the world when they were first introduced:- i.e. the Waltz, Polka, Mazurka, Quadrille, Lancers, Schottische and Varsoviana or the modern Foxtrot, Tango and Quickstep.
However the revival of Old Time dancing in the 1930s and subsequently in most decades thereafter established a sound footing for simple to follow sequence dances in which ordinary people could easily participate and enjoy. In the first instance many of the dances that had survived up until the First World War were re-introduced to the Ballroom under the Old Time umbrella. Generally the Country Dances didn't make it although Victor Silvester and others like Michael Gwynne, Sydney Thompson and F. Mainey included the Dashing White Sergeant, Circassian Circle, Eighthsome Reel and Spanish Waltz in their Old Time Dance books of the 1940s and 50s. Mainey also gave a description of La Galopede stating it was within living memory. However the sets; Lancers, First Set, Caledonians, Waltz Cotillion and Alberts were all prominent along with the Polka Mazurka, Polka, Schottische, Barn Dance and Varsoviana. At the time of the First World War the newest of the sequence dances like the Eva Three Step tended to be eclipsed because Modern Ballroom Dancing had just taken off. The modern dances were the new time setters. The older dances of the earlier 20th century, although overshadowed, had established the pattern of the modern sequence dance even though their particular steps were still on the toes in the five balletic feet positions.
New Vogue Dances
From about 1932 the modern ballroom dance teachers had to take on board the whim for older dances. To suit their fancy they created new dances in a 'perceived old time style'. This consisted of new sequences of steps recombining sections from the older dances and re-aligning footwork in the style of the Foxtrot and Modern Waltz. This meant that the old feet positions on the toes were discarded in favour of parallel position with the slow steps being longer and using heel leads. Fall and rise as a consequence of the lowering action induced by the long heel lead and then the rise with the short quick steps running on the toes creates the lift in the dance. This is a style that contrasted greatly with the old dances with the turned out feet and very small steps taken on the toe. In Britain this new style became known as Modern Sequence Dancing and in Australia it was at first called Modernised Old Time, until the term New Vogue was coined. 1935 if not earlier established this Australian term. In the process of revamping dances the Australian teachers (who were really modern ballroom dancers) had little knowledge of the earlier Veleta, Eva Three Step or Maxina, or of interpreting instructions that arrived from Britain for the likes of the Parma Waltz and the Pride of Erin. The Australian versions of the British originals ended up quite different. Albert Boal, well known Australian dance teacher and arranger of many new dances was originally from Belfast and knew the Eva Three Step. The Australian counterpart was so different he re-named it the Evening Three Step. Phil Leggett of Legget's Ballroom Melbourne made the comment that most of the dance teachers really wouldn't have had a clue how the British originals per description would be danced.
There is a lot of hype about New Vogue dances yet there really is no difference between these and the Pride of Erin, Canadian Barn Dance, Parma Waltz, Canadian Three Step, Gypsy Tap, Charmaine and Tangoette. All of these were introduced as New Vogue dances in the 1930s. Even the Progressive Barn Dance, which came into being in England in 1919, was introduced in Australia in the late 30s as a New Vogue dance. Many good dances such as the Swing Waltz have evolved from the New Vogue scene. People seem to use the term 'Old Time' for popular dances that they like and 'New Vogue' for those they don't like or vice versa. From the 1930s they were all the same style of dances. Perhaps it is because these dances were invented. What might be missing is the simplicity of the older good fun dances of folk origins like the First Set, Polka, Highland Reel and Varsoviana.
It is difficult to reconcile the confusion between Old Time and New Vogue. There are just as many Victorian or Colonial Assembly sophistications we refer to tongue in cheek as 'New Vogue Bush Dances'. Most Scottish Country Dances popular today have been created with only a few dating back to Victorian times or earlier. There is a great difference in style between the genuine old time dances that predated the Foxtrot and the subsequent New Vogue form with its erroneous perceived old time pattern. But it is probably a bit esoteric to dwell on this in the 21st century. All that can be said is that with a proliferation of dances at any given period, a new dance must have wide popular appeal to survive and perhaps be accepted as Old Time instead of New Vogue. Such dances are generally not sophisticated. New Vogue has become a dirty word and probably the Ballroom Dance scene haven't helped by reviving the 1930s term in their 'That's Dancing' promotion on TV. New Vogue needn't have the flamboyancy or artificial attire that the stage or professional judge might demand. It is this image that creates a negative public perception of New Vogue. The Ballroom teachers of course prefer the title New Vogue because Old Time implies an out of date fashion, a term that is not readily attractive to a young audience.
One has to realise that whether a quest for something new or cherishing something old, it can either way be a vitalising thing and a blend of both can be extremely worthwhile. Many good dances have come from the New Vogue background the same as some very old or antique dances have become popular when revived as something new or different. The collection and revival of some of the surviving folk style old time dances from country communities has been well received. It, as part of our heritage is something to treasure and hold onto. The scene in the folk clubs and festivals has been most supportive in maintaining that tradition.
Most ordinary people only want to learn a dozen of so dances to get them through. They are not dancephiliacs. If you look at social dance programs over the decades and centuries, any one generation had no more than that to comfortably cope with. The specialist dancers will of course seek more than thirty or so and there are literally hundreds of sequence dances that have been invented since both 1900 and the 1930s. They are still being introduced today. It is probably more a question of program balance that determines whether it is a New Vogue or Old Time night. The balance of new New Vogue dances are sophisticated and demanding on concentration whereas Old Time dances are relatively straight forward and allow easier social interaction, fun and conversation. Many of the early New Vogue dances have become perennial favourites and nobody today would think of them as anything other than Old Time.
The 1930s saw many or the first New Vogue dances introduced through professional ballroom dance circles and included the Canadian Barn Dance and Canadian Three Step, the Gypsy Tap, Parma Waltz, Pride of Erin and so on. Most of these don't seem to have a recorded date of invention although we know the Parma Waltz (1920) and Pride of Erin (1911) had an earlier British background. The Charmaine was put together in 1935 and the Tangoette possibly about the same time or a little later. The Venetian Schottische was 1933 and the Veola 1939. The Swing Waltz likewise was choreographed in 1939 but wasn't introduced to Melbourne until the 1950s when Albert Boal dressed it up by adding the reverse Viennese waltz. These dances often took a decade or so to reach country district circuits. The Swing Waltz really didn't become widely known until the mid 1970s. This is true of many of these dances that followed promotion by the Old Time Dance Clubs when they formed at that time. The Old Time Dance Clubs generally favoured a New Vogue repertoire. It would be unusual for them to start and finish their programs with a Circular Waltz and to include the sets and the polkas. Usually some of the teachers in that scene also had contacts via the ballroom professionals and their priority was to introduce further sequence dances as they appeared. The popular Lucille Waltz dates from 1966, the Joyette 1962, the Carousel 1974 and the Merrilyn Schottische 1964. Although the St Bernard Waltz dates back to approximately 1904 in England, the two part Australian version was introduced by Mr. and Mrs. Harry Leggett in 1937 and taken back to Scotland on one of their tours. It was not until the 1950s or later that it became known at ordinary dances in the Bendigo region.
In the last decade or two following extensive collection from various country districts several interesting traditional style old time dances have been revived and include the Prince of Wales Schottische, the Princess Polka, Manchester Galop, Berlin Schottische, Dutch Hoe Waltz, Berlin Polka, Bon Ton and Uncle Ev's Barn Dance. Apart from this there are interesting variations of the well known dances between the states.
Western Australia has very different versions of the Maxina, Pride of Erin and Boston Two Step and Queensland has different types again. Queensland and parts of New South Wales share a version of each of Mazurka and Varsoviana which is markedly slower and devoid of mazurka hops in comparison to that in Victoria whose forms are closer to the European originals, well as far as can be ascertained.
The compilation of dance music on The Bush Dance and Music Club of Bendigo and Emu Creek Bush Band new series of CD's 'The Waltz, Polka And All Kinds Of Dances' covers a good cross section of the traditional style old time dances of the primary period before World War 1 together with the modern ballroom dances and the perennial old time favourites that emerged during and after the 1930s.
The music and instrumentation is in a perceived traditional style but it should be realised the eras covered are really quite vast and contrasting and not possible for one group to represent. Up until the time of the First World War the instrumentation revolved around the old 'Quadrille Bands'. These were in the main 'String Bands' consisting generally of piano, violin, cornet and flute as a minimum, but cello, double bass, piccolo, banjo and harp are other instruments that could be used. Triangle was generally used to maintain time instead of drums. Very special occasions called for a Brass Band and particularly the ubiquitous German Band of the day, or a Military Band of brass and woodwind combination.
Regular functions were generally held to a solo instrument such as piano or violin whilst in the bush the fiddle, tin whistle, concertina and button accordion were the primary instruments, but again often solo. Drums were rare, sometimes a bass drum or home made article from a kerosene tin with a kangaroo skin top was used to keep the beat. More often in the bush the squeezebox and fiddle players thumped the rhythm with their feet. They used vamp and bellows punch to hold time and the fiddler used accentuated bowing in a likewise manner. Amateurs with the playing of the bones or spoons sometimes enhanced rhythm. By the close of the First World War jazz had largely taken over in the cities. The introduction of the saxophone in 1920 plus piano as a prerequisite for ragtime and vamp and the program domination of the One Step and Foxtrot brought about major changes. The Quadrille bands and the German Brass band were a thing of the past. The 'new' old time bands gradually took up drums and a typical combination in the towns consisted of piano, slide trombone and drums. Increasing popularity of brass instruments established a favoured grouping of saxophone, trumpet and trombone with piano and drums, sometimes banjo and double bass and particularly by the 40s and 50s 'slap bass'.
Old Time Dances were frequently held to radio broadcast with bands recorded on 78 records. These combined elements of the old String and Brass/Military bands and were often accompanied by the singing of the popular favourites of the day. Harry Davidson's Old Time Band was quite notable. Broadcasts of Old Time Balls from Newcastle and Wentworth were heard Australia wide to the respective music of Jack Papworth, William Flynn or Hal Carter with vocals by Jack Speering. Radio stations like 2UE had their own old time dance bands recording and broadcasting music. It is from this station's record that what is possibly the original Gypsy Tap tune was discovered.
The popularity of Jimmy Shand in the 1950s saw a revival of accordion music, perhaps more so on piano accordion, and Graeme Bell's jazz band was a model for much of the style at the 50/50 dance. The old squeezebox and fiddle was largely relegated to kitchen teas and back to's in the country towns, but some groups like the Gay Charmers from the Lake Charm area near Kerang have gained enormous popularity since the 1960s.
In 1973 the ABC's filming of the Nariel festival and Old Time Dance created a sensation and sparked a revival of the authentic Old Time Dance and traditions. Not long after the Wedderburn Oldtimers formed (1975) creating national interest when they promoted what they considered the genuine old time dances of the bush that existed around 1910 and to the music of the old squeezebox, fiddle, tin whistle and piano. Their recordings led to 2 platinum and 6 gold records and ocean cruises, the envy of many pop groups.
Emu Creek Bush Band has used the Gay Charmers, the Wedderburn Oldtimers and Con Klippel's Old Time Band and junior and mini band of Nariel as a model in their purpose and in their recording. The Bush Dance and Music Club of Bendigo is determined to maintain the dancing tradition.
*Prepared on behalf of the Bush Dance and Music Club of Bendigo & District Inc by Peter Ellis.