20th Century Dance

20th century dancing is now being studied using the same methods that have been applied to earlier periods. The written sources are, in principle, far more abundant and detailed (not only instruction manuals, but newspapers, magazines, posters, and programmes), but, in practice, they are still frustratingly difficult to locate. We have recorded music (on wax, shellac, vinyl, magnetic tape, CD, and digital media), but it is the invention of moving pictures, captured on photographic film or video, that has revolutionised our ability to study the actual movements of dancers in the 20th century. Nevertheless, even these are not universally available and do not always give the complete picture, so established methods of historical research are still required.

In the UK extremely different strands of dance emerge and run alongside each other as the century progresses. The influence of America is very strong. Ballet and its more recent offshoots of Modern and Contemporary Dance form a study area of their own and are not dealt with in these pages. Instead, our main concern is social dance. However, cinema (replacing perhaps the stage performances of earlier eras) has a major effect on what happens on the dance floors of Britain. In addition, the 20th century saw both the English Country Dance Revival and the Early, or Historical, Dance Revival. So here we are putting our own development into context.

The Early Dance Circle is bringing this section up to a period well beyond its usual remit. Much as we love the dance floor and all who venture there, our main interest lies in periods over 100 years in the past. We do, however, like to look to the future.

Many thanks indeed to Nira Pullin, who provided much of the information to be found here.

1900 – 1920

The first decade saw little change from the 19th century forms of dance in England, with two new exceptions. The Two Step, the American equivalent of the chassé popular in the 1890’s and danced to John Philip Sousa’s Washington Post March became more popular. Secondly, the Boston, a new style of waltz, emerged in the 1890’s and became popular in England by 1910-11. Important here is the smoother flow, the more natural walking movements and the beginnings in modern dance of dropping the turn-out of the feet.

The Cake Walk

The Cake Walk

Black American dance began to influence modern dance forms. The late 19th century Cakewalk became largely a performance dance, associated with Minstrel Shows. It found its way into some Quadrille figures but was short-lived in popularity.

However, the new intoxicating rhythm called Ragtime changed social dance dramatically. It found its way to the UK around 1911. In fact, dances now came to England from New York rather than Paris and soon spread internationally. This new Black American syncopated music demanded more freedom in dance, a reaction against the restricted dances of the past that appealed to the younger generation.

The names of the new dances sounded more like a barnyard than a ballroom: The Grizzly Bear, Foxtrot, Duck Waddle, Bunny Hug, Turkey Trot and more. Most of these were simply walking, trotting or swaying round the room, imitating the particular animals:
“…dancers would flap their arms, shake their shoulders, bob their heads, hop or slide or stomp their feet, or wiggle their backsides. The elegant, erect posture of previous couple dances” had to give way. See The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances, Mark Knowles (McFarland, 2009). Dance was democratising and slipping out of the control of traditional rules of decorum. The embrace of the partners varied and could be shocking, even scandalous! These dances were short-lived, but did influence the One-Step and later the Quickstep.

Along with the Animal Dances, came the Argentine Tango, arriving in England from Paris in 1912, considerably tamed from the version first danced in Buenos Aires. Tango Teas appeared in nearly every hotel, restaurant and ballroom, as the public went Tango mad! By 1914, this craze helped popularise another South American dance, the Brazilian Maxixe. Its popularity faded during WWI, but was revived in the 1930’s as the ballroom version of the Samba.

THE dance of the Ragtime Era was the One Step, or The RAG. It was simple and easy to learn. One simply walked back and forth to the music. It was made popular by an Englishman Vernon Castle and his American wife Irene, who made Ragtime dance more elegant and refined:
“The Waltz is beautiful, the Tango is graceful, the Brazilian Maxixe is unique. One can sit quietly and listen with pleasure to them all; but when a good orchestra plays a ‘rag’, one has simply got to move. The One Step is the dance for Ragtime music.” See Modern Dancing, V & I Castle (Harper Brothers, 1914). The Castles and other dance teachers revolutionised ballroom dancing and created their own variations, publishing numerous dance manuals to teach the new dances to the general public, practising in the parlour to the phonograph.

Exhibition dance couples began to emerge, notably the Castles, who created their signature dance the Castlewalk (danced closer together and more smoothly on the balls of the feet than the One Step). They also popularised the Hesitation Waltz.

Early in the twentieth century, The Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in London began “codifying” dances and we see the beginnings of modern ballroom dance today.

The Country Dance Revival, late 19th to 20th Century See also our English Country Dance page

As the popular dance world continued to develop, in England traditional dances began to be revived by figures such as Cecil Sharp and Mary Neal. In the six volumes of his Country Dance Book (1909-1922), Cecil Sharp attempted to reconstruct Playford’s English country dance. Sharp published 160 dances from the Playford manuals and 16 traditional village country dances. Dance groups sprang up all over the UK and there was a similar revival of traditional social dance in Scotland and in Ireland that led to the founding of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society in 1923. Many clubs still meet today.

The first collection of modern English country dances since the 1820s, Maggot Pie, was published in 1932. Reconstructions of historical dances and new compositions continue. Interpreters and composers of the 20th century include Douglas and Helen Kennedy, Pat Shaw, Tom Cook, Ken Sheffield, Charles Bolton, Michael Barraclough, Colin Hume, Gary Roodman, and Andrew Shaw.

Morris dance too benefited from Sharp’s enthusiasm after he witnessed the Headington Quarry Morris Dancers on Boxing Day in 1899. The Morris Ring was founded in 1934 and has about 200 member and associate teams today.

The Folk-Song Society was merged with the English Folk Dance Society in 1932 to form The English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS). It aims to preserve and promote the best of folk and Cecil Sharp House in London is still a busy and vibrant centre for traditional dance. Morris, Long Sword and Clog Dancing, among other traditional dances, continue to be performed there and across the UK.

The 1920’s

Josephine Baker does the Charleston

Josephine Baker does the Charleston

WWI left little time for innovation in dance, but afterwards new freedoms and new styles of music, behaviour and fashion began a revolution on the dance floor. American Jazz roared through the popular dance scene of the 20’s and the Charleston was born, reaching England around 1925. Another contribution to dance by African Americans, it was part of the Broadway show Runnin’ Wild. (From other shows came The Black Bottom, Varsity Drag and The Shimmy.) Broadway and the ballroom began to merge, partly due to an important English dancing couple – Fred Astaire and his sister Adele. The Charleston was denounced as “freakish” and “a series of contortions”, but the Prince of Wales was an enthusiastic and accomplished Charleston dancer, so it became even more popular with the public. Its trademark is the turning in and out of the feet and some traits of it appear later in the Quickstep.

The Foxtrot and the One Step were still popular and, after WWI, the Tango returned to cafes and ballrooms. The post-war version, called the
French Tango
was more standardised and gained popularity when Rudolph Valentino dance it in the 1921 film, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It is, of course, still danced today.

Valentino's Tango from The Four Horsemen

Valentino’s Tango from The Four Horsemen

The “Roaring Twenties” was an era of growing leisure and more opportunities to dance; besides ballrooms, there were cabarets, nightclubs and speakeasies, Charleston Contests, etc. as well as hotels, restaurants, local dance halls and seaside resorts. Dance was king. One could easily learn it via newsreels, dance manuals, dancing schools and, of course, practising at home to the radio or records. Fashions were far less cumbersome and allowed dancers to kick and to lift and fling the arms, even overhead. Freedom was in the air, however briefly.

  The 1930’s

Trying to dance the Depression away helped support a waning social dance scene. Dance marathons (“Dance till you Drop” sessions) offered prize money to desperate couples. Film musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, plus the influx of Latin rhythms, helped keep people on the dance floor. In the latter half of the decade, came Swing, bringing a new dance to England with its Big Band sound. The Lindy Hop was named for Charles Lindbergh’s hop across the Atlantic.

The Jitterbug in the dance hall

The Jitterbug in the dance hall

Later the Jitterbug began in the UK. It originated in the late 20’s at the famous Savoy Ballroom in Harlem New York and started the Breakaway and Air Steps (where the feet leave the floor) in couple dancing. Other new rhythms were abroad from Cuba: the Rumba and novelty dances such as the Conga, Lambeth Walk, Chestnut Tree and the Hokey Cokey.

The 1940’s

During the 40’s the Jitterbug, with its “can’t sit still” movements, was spread throughout Europe by American GI’s. It was characterised by the movement from close hold to dancing at arm’s length from the partner. It was followed by the Boogie Woogie and later the Jive. In England, the growing appeal of Latin rhythms brought back the Rumba and it was recognized by the Official Board of Ballroom Dancing. The popularity of Carmen Miranda films brought the Samba and other Latin dances to the dance floor.

The 1950’s

The release of Rock Around the Clock in 1955 created tremendous public interest, especially among teenagers. At this point, dancing in public was mostly to 45’s, to records and to the jukebox rather than to live musicians. The generations drifted apart, with teen culture embracing Rock, Jive and eventually the Twist (thanks partly to Elvis Presley), while their elders continued to enjoy the Samba and Rumba, as well as new dances like the Mambo and the Cha Cha Cha.

The Early, or Historical, Dance Revival, mid – 1950’s onwards

Quite separately from the popular dance scene and the contemporary ballroom, a group of enthusiasts was engaged in developing our understanding of the European dance heritage. Many were part of the emerging Early Music movement. Because the history of dance had become primarily the history of ballet, a steep raising of consciousness was required.

Pioneering work was undertaken in the UK by Mabel Dolmetsch (Dances of England and France 1450-1600; Dances of Spain and Italy 1400 to 1600) and Melusine Wood (Some Historical Dances 1952, More Historical Dances 1956 and Advanced Historical Dances 1960), followed by Wendy Hilton (Dance and Music of Court and Theater, Selected Writings), and Belinda Quirey (May I have the Pleasure? The Story of Popular Dancing). Each had their own distinctive approach. These works may have been overtaken by modern scholarship, but they were invaluable for opening up the field.

Across the UK early dance groups were formed to research and perform Britain’s dance heritage. For example, in 1966 Peggy Dixon founded Nonsuch History and Dance, a performance company that embodied her commitment to the marriage of erudite research and lively spectacle. Under the direction of Darren Royston, Nonsuch still uses the dances of history to teach, train and entertain. Jim Cartmell, with Marjorie Riley, founded Capriol Historical Dance and Musik Group. He forged a new approach that combined scrupulous research into both choreography and music with a showman’s recreation of the social context of dances, whether in masques, feasts, processions or other celebrations. David Wilson worked with Capriol Cambridge on reconstructions and organised many Conferences, editing their Proceedings. His major contributions to the scholarship of early dance include numerous articles and two monographs, 101 Italian Dances and most recently The Basse Dance Handbook. In addition, he laid the groundwork for the EDC’s National Resource Centre for Early Dance now housed at Kellogg College, Oxford. Many groups of dancers (amateur and professional) now study, practice and perform across the UK. See our listing of Classes and Teachers.

Early dance performances offer new audiences a chance to appreciate the beauty, intricacy and fun of Renaissance, Baroque, Playford, Regency and Victorian dance. New scholarship and new enthusiasms are constantly enlarging the field. Two societies carry this work forward in the UK – the umbrella organisation, The Early Dance Circle, and the Historical Dance Society (formerly the Dolmetsch Historical Dance Society).

The 1960’s and 70’s – Back to the Modern Social Dance Scene

Both Rock and Latin (including the Cuban Bossa Nova) continued into the 60’s, but the most important dance was the American-born Twist craze, which made solo dancing the rage. It soon hit the UK. In the Twist there were no standardised steps and no hold, not even a partner is needed, just twisting movements of the body to music and miming, “stubbing out that cigarette”. The teens loved it for its simplicity and individuality and “over 40’s” loved it too. It was even danced by the Royals.

By the 60’s, the modern social dance scene had become so various it is extremely difficult to describe in a short survey. There was a flood of dances like The Mashed Potato, the Swim, the Watusi, the Hitch Hiker and the Hand Jive. The Mods in Carnaby Street did the Ska, the Blue Beat from Jamaica and the Shake. And of course there was the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Traditional ballroom dance seemed to lie on the other side of an increasing generational divide. No one foresaw the coming popularity of BBC TV’s Strictly Come Dancing!

The next decade saw Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta (1977) and the rise of the discotheque. Couples sometimes danced together again. Then came the Hustle, a line dance, and the Salsa, another Latin beat. Break dancing soon spread worldwide from Brooklyn and the Bronx.


That dances such as The Shimmy and the Handjive would one day be considered “historical” would have seemed wildly outlandish at the time, but then the dancers of the galliard and minuet might have thought much the same. To paraphrase Rabindranath Tagore’s advice, we all “lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf.”

Primary Sources

V & I Castle, Modern Dancing (Harper Brothers, 1914)

M Heaney & J Forrest, Annals of Early Morris (University of Sheffield & The Morris Ring, 1991)

Richard Powers Downloads Primary Sources for Historic Dance from the collection of Richard Powers. 107 sources, 58 books and 49 single dance descriptions, not readily available in the Library of Congress or elsewhere. http://socialdance.stanford.edu/powers/Downloads.htm

Victor Silvester, Modern Ballroom Dancing (London, Jenkins, 1927)

Secondary Sources

A. Abra, Dancing in the English Style, Consumption, Americanisation and national identity in Britain 1918-50 (Oxford University Press, 2017)

T. Buckland, Society Dancing: Fashionable Bodies in England, 1890-1920 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

John Charles Chasteen, National Rhythms, African Roots: the Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance (University of New Mexico Press, 2004)

A H Franks, Social Dance, A Short History (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963)

Mark Knowles, The Wicked Waltz and Other Scandalous Dances, (McFarland, 2009)

Julie Malnig, Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2009)

James Nott, Going to the Palais: A Social and Cultural History of Dancing and Dance Halls in Britain, 1918-1960 (OUP, 2015)

P J S Richardson, The History of English Ballroom Dancing (1910-1945) (London, Jenkins, 1946)