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Salman Mohammed - October 9, 2016

Charleston dance contest in front of St. Louis City Hall, 13 November 1925. Photograph, 1925. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collection. Groups. N01603.

Charleston dance contest in front of St. Louis City Hall, 13 November 1925. Photograph, 1925. Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collection. Groups. N01603.

As the tensions of World War I subsided, American women increasingly challenged the social landscape of the United States through dance. In the 1920s, a cohort of fashionable young women adamantly asserted their desires for independence and pushed against stereotypes of women as reserved and modest mothers. These women, known as “flappers,” smoked, drank, danced exuberantly with men, and broke many social traditions. These nonconformists danced late nights and contested social barriers, in the process creating a dance revolution which spread throughout the U.S.

The 1920s witnessed the proliferation of many new and older dances. Early in the decade, flappers appropriated the “Charleston,” a previously popular African-American dance. Other new dance styles emerged that soon had everyone copying them. In addition to the “Charleston,” these styles included “Black Bottom,” “Raccoon,” “Varsity Drag,” “Collegiate,” and “Tango”. Dance marathons were competitions that tested the endurance of participants. These social events started a craze that challenged contestants to dance as long as they could despite fatigue. Large crowds gathered to watch dance marathons, and many attempted to set new records. In 1923, the record hit a high at 182 hours. Social dancing at nightclubs, however, won most peoples’ favor.

While the spotlight of the 1920s focused on dances, the main stage for this cultural fascination was located in New York City. Harlem, in particular, attracted attention for its late night parties. Visitors came from across the world for this singular experience. Jazz bands played in large music halls, such as the “Come Clean” and the “Funky Butt Hall,” providing a beat for dancers to move to. “Slumming,” the practice of white Americans visiting black dance halls and speakeasies, created a multi-ethnic experience outside of the over-publicized white social gatherings.

The affordability and accessibility of Broadway musicals, Hollywood films, and radios allowed most to indulge in this inexpensive craze. Dance instructor Arthur Murray taught five million people the most popular dance steps in five years with footprint diagrams and instructional information that arrived in subscribers’ mailboxes. Many films featuring flappers contained at least one dance scene. These scenes showed women energetically dancing with male partners, displaying the alluringly sexual and playful behavior of the era. Most notably, the film It with Clara Bow was big hit for its dance scenes and accurate portrayal of the social landscape. Other films such as Dancing Mothers, released in 1926, conveyed the same message. By the end of the decade, American dance culture had expanded to many corners of the world.

Salman Mohammed is a first-year undergraduate within UNLV’s Honors College. He is majoring in Pre-professional Biology in order to gain admission to medical school. His hobbies include Photography and Fitness, which he often dedicates his time toward. He also looks forward to helping people or volunteering with any organization that is related to the medical field.

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Broer, Lawrence R., and John Daniel Walther. Dancing Fools and Weary Blues: The Great Escape of the Twenties. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1990.

Drowne, Kathleen Morgan., and Patrick Huber. The 1920s. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!: An American History. 4th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2014.
Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003.
Zeitz, Joshua. Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.