Note from Ginger: Today is Meg's usual day, but she's asked C.K. to fill in for her. I know you'll enjoy her interesting contribution and we hope she'll be back as a regular guest.
Dancing has not always been considered respectable, but Westerners loved to cut a rug. Barn dances, elegant parties, the notorious dance hall girls. Ooh la la! And then came the gay 90s. This is the era when Ragtime--you know--JAZZ, began. And while it may have originated in the southeast, it quickly spread across not only this country, but also into Europe.
With the music, came the dance. The Cakewalk, newly originated, was based on black people poking fun at the way white folks moved. Very soon whites loosened up and adopted the new fad as their own.
Dance tunes had provocative titles like I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby, Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay, & A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight. Sometimes the lyrics were a little risque. Who knew? This was still the Victorian age, after all. Dance bands might also be playing songs like The Band Played On, The Sidewalks of New York, Daisy Bell, or After the Ball. A country style song going the rounds was The Cat Came Back. Even I remember hearing this one, and believe me, I wasn’t around in 1893, the year the song came out.
The waltz, as it had been since the early 19th century, was still one of the most popular dances, only now it had variations--sometimes named for the place where some inventive person created new steps and they caught on. The two-step, the polka, the schottische, mazurka, galup, and quadrille were others one might see. The two-step, polka and schottische survive; I don’t know about the others. The tango also began in the 1890s. I’m pretty sure it isn’t the Argentine tango you’ll see on So You Think You Can Dance or Dancing With the Stars! Oddly enough, even in the finest ballrooms in New York City, an evening likely would end with the last dance being an old time reel. Another interesting point is the length of time allotted for a dance. Dance cards of the day show them lasting ten to fifteen minutes. I suspect ladies might have very sore feet after an evenings entertainment. One hopes she chose her partners well.
Informal dances were held in many different venues, including country barns. Furniture might be cleared from a home’s parlor to make space; hotels often held afternoon tea dances. Not far from where I live is a well-preserved, stately four-story home of the 1890 - 1910 era where the entire top floor is given over to a private ballroom.
High in popularity with the young set, dance pavilions built out over the water at various lakes drew large crowds. Can’t you just imagine the music floating out over the gently lapping water, stars shining overhead, soft night air brushing the lady’s bare arms lifted to embrace her partner? Gentlemen’s cigar smoke would waft in from the darkness to mingle with the women’s perfume. Bliss.
It is at one such pavilion that China Bohannon and Gratton Doyle, the main actors in my historical mystery series, trip the light fantastic. China is in heaven--until one of Grat's cases intrudes.
Excerpt from Three Seconds to Thunder in which China and Grat are attempting to get evidence in a cheating wife case:
The band, made up of horn, strings, and percussion, broke into a lively waltz as Gratton and I entered the pavilion. We walked our own slow promenade around the dance floor perimeter before Grat swept me into the waltz. He was a good dancer. I might have known, having seen his grace in other, more dire circumstances—like fights. And baseball games.
He smiled down into my eyes, holding me a little closer than is exactly proper, and bent his head so he could speak without shouting. His mouth touched my ear. “Did you see her anywhere?”
I missed a step. “No. Did you?”
“No. She’ll be here though. Her husband said he found a note making the assignation.”
“Then I guess we’ll have to wait until she—or they—arrive.”
He chuckled, warm against my ear. “I guess we will.”
The next hour was tremendous fun. I enjoyed the froth of my skirt around my ankles, the twirling to the music, the lights, the people’s laughter—all right, and being in Grat’s arms—right up until he stiffened.
“Look. That’s her, isn’t it?” He nodded towards a statuesque blonde hovering at the pavilion entrance and spun me in her direction for a better view.
“I think so,” I said, breathless. The blonde certainly wore her hair in the same style as the woman in the picture. In person her face was softer, more relaxed, but really, there was no mistaking the slide of her nose and her wide-spaced, light-colored eyes. Ice blue, as it turned out, which I hadn’t been able to tell from the photo. Her head was thrown back, laughing at something the man with her said.
Then I gulped, missed a step, and trod on Grat’s toe. “Oh, no,” I moaned. “No!”
Grat hadn’t yet seen what I had. Or who I had, I should say. As he turned me in order to see the woman, the other couple had also rotated and brought Alice Pemburton’s dance partner into view. I recognized that partner all too well.
“Hell and damnation,” I said.
Gratton made a clicking sound with his tongue. Disapproval. As if I hadn’t learned such language from him. On second thought, perhaps I’d learned it from the man dancing with our quarry. His name was Porter Anderson, and he was my good friend.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9PzG0P4FqxA (Notable events of the 1890s, accompanied by music of the day.)
A gown (the blue one) such as China might wear. The one with big sleeves is a little extreme for the occasion as I've described.