top of page
Pre-Swing Era lessons coming soon >>


During the 19th century, most of America's music, dances and fashions were imported from Europe, as composers and dance masters emulated the latest styles from Paris and London.  At the same time, African Americans were combining their native music with European forms, resulting in their spirituals and "Ethiopian Melodies" that were adopted by minstrel shows and American composers like Foster, Christy and Gottschalk. During the 1890s and early 1900s this unique African American music developed into a new sound – syncopated Ragtime music. 

At the end of the 19th century, many Americans were becoming bored with the old music and dances, which were essentially those of their grandparents.  The Twentieth Century was seen as a time to make great changes, so most people were ready for innovations, probably with the expectation that the changes would come from society's cultural leaders.  But instead, many Americans began to find it "modern" to dance their Two-Step to the new Ragtime music from the rural South and Midwest.  Some high society ballrooms embraced the African American Cake Walk as "the popular fad of popular society."  In the early 1900s, Ragtime music gained a wider acceptance and was soon accompanying the new Four-Step (soon to be re-named the One-Step) and a spontaneous menagerie of "animal dances" such as the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug and Camel Walk, especially among the lower classes.  By 1910, the popular phrase was, "Everybody's Doin' It Now," but in fact most of middle and upper class society was only talking about it.  Many could not yet accept the new ragtime dances because of lower-class associations.

In 1911 the newlyweds Irene and Vernon Castle found themselves in the right place at the right time, exhibiting their versions of the new American dances in a Parisian dinner club.  They became immensely popular in Paris, and their fame spread through Europe.  When the Castles returned to Irene's New York home in 1912, their dancing set a new prototype for Americans to follow.  The Castles were a young, elegant, attractive, wholesome, married couple who had become the rage of Parisian high society.  In a word, they had class.  If they could dance the new ragtime dances with propriety, then all levels of society could, and did.  The Castles were joined by other exemplars, such as Joan Sawyer, Maurice Mouvet and Florence Walton, all becoming catalysts in an explosive new dance mania.  And after two centuries of Americans dancing in the European manner, Europe was now importing the latest music and dances from America. 

During the ragtime dance craze, the ballrooms were dominated by the One-Step, a dance where a couple merely walked one step to each beat of the music.  Its immense popularity was due primarily to its simplicity, so that even novices could be modern.  Those who were especially fond of the new dancing had a wide variety of other steps and styles to choose from.  The Argentine Tango, which had been received with great acclaim in Paris, was renowned for its flirtations with sensuality, previously forbidden in public dancing.  In contrast, the Hesitation Waltz was characterized by an elegant, almost balletic grace.  The Maxixe was a swaying Brazilian two-step (polka) that was thought of as a Brazilian Tango.  Vernon and Irene danced the One-Step in a unique style that became known as the Castle Walk.  The Half-and Half was an unusual hesitation waltz in 5/4 time, accompanied by even more obscure experiments in 7/4 time.  Lastly, the Fox-Trot, which combined slow and quick steps in a wide variety of patterns, was introduced in the last months before "The Great War." 

World War I brought an end to the ragtime era dance craze in 1914-15.  Dance floors thinned as men in Europe and then America left for war.  Vernon Castle joined the Royal Flying Corps.  But for a brief four years, the "modern dancing" craze redefined social dancing for the new 20th century, while also changing prototypes for personal relationships, both on and off the dance floor. 

Excerpt from Richard Powers


The Cakewalk



The One-Step is said to be of American origin and is a very simple and easily dance to learn and to perform. Many of the dances of the day (1910s) such as the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear steps were modified to fit the one step, sometimes called the Walking Step and the Collegiate Foxtrot was basically a One Step as well. The American One-Step is said to be done in Dog Trot Style (dancing on the balls of feet) and was mixed with the above dances. The One-Step eventually gave way to the ORIGINAL Quick-Step as they were originally pretty much the same dance.

The English One-Step (a tamer version than American) was introduced to the states in 1911 and when danced to the new Ragtime music, and became a hit. The One Step has been stated and written many times as been introduced by Vernon and Irene Castle around 1912, they state it was better known as the Castle Walk and as a Fox-trot variation. Contrary to this there is much written material on the dance that dates back to the mid to late 1800's as well as sheet music that is stated for "a one-step" that predates the Castle's claim by many years. However with the advent of the Castle Walk, the two dances eventually MERGED and became one using slow walks instead of quick walks, (music for the One Step was slower, than that of the Castle Walk.)

Basically the dance was just a brisk walking step to each beat of music and was done just as the name implies. Usually done to march type music for best results (When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, Stars and Stripes Forever etc.). A smooth movement was desired, trying to avoid bent knees while dancing the One Step with plenty of "pep." The dance was basically a walk on each beat of music.



There is not much written on the Peabody. The Peabody was named after William Frank Peabody (born 1878?), a controversial N.Y. Police Lieutenant (some say Fireman) who loved to dance around 1915, shortly after the invention of the Fox-Trot. The Peabody was basically a unique, jaunty type fast fox-trot, done to ragtime music. It is based more around a dance position (called the "English") which lead to some unique steps or patterns. 

The dance position (the English) comes from the need by Peabody's huge size (girth) to hold his partner on his right side to accommodate his size. The One Step and Peabody went on to become the (modern) Quick-step with a splash of Charleston thrown in. The Quickstep bears very little resemblance to the dance of the Peabody today, however some of the steps remain the same. 

The Peabody is kind of a corny little ragtime dance, that is lively and fun spirited to watch and looks like the participants are having a good time doing it. The music is ragtime (50mpm+) and so is the dress. (Suits and Bowler derby's for the man and long full dresses for the lady.)

The basic step is a Cross-step and Lock step (1920) and the body position is that of "Right-Outside Position" (almost a promenade?). The traveling speed around the floor is quite brisk with the leader changing sides (from right side to left and back again) as he travels around the floor and some slight dipping motions here and there, similar to the rolling of a wave.

Peabody dancing done in the film Taxi! (1932)



The Texas Tommy... is said by many to be the first swing dance. The main reason being is that during this period (1909), all the couples dances were done in "closed position," while the Texas Tommy was supposedly the first modern couples dance of the time to include the "break-away" step (energetically dancing from closed to open position and back) while using the basic 8 count rhythm of swing dance. 

The dance is described by many who were alive during the time as a rough Lindy Hop style, only with a different starting pattern (Stearns book gives a pretty good insight to the dance). The basic footwork was a Kick and a Hop three times on each foot. Imagine using a modern 6 count timing, it might have been something like: 1-2&3 = Kick-step-step-step = Lt-Lt-Rt-Lt - repeat other foot 4-5&6.  After these steps were done, dancers did the Break-Away step and did what ever they wanted to do.  Most times the dancers did a Shuffle Step and swayed back and forth, then back to the basic step again. The Break-Away is described as pretty forceful during the time, as there were acrobatics with the "throwing of their partners around" involved at times. Stearns also writes that this dance was done many times with 4 to 6 couples at a time.

The "Fairmont Hotel" in San Francisco is written to have given birth to the Texas Tommy, which may or may not be true but did have a house band that regularly played the Texas Tommy music and was a major place to be for dancing. Dancers from Lew Purcell's would dance the Texas Tommy and make it popular in San Francisco, many of these dancers would bring some of the dances with them to the Fairmont, which was the swankiest Hotel and ballroom at the time. Anyone who was anyone could be found at the Fairmont doing all the latest dances.  

Tommy by the way was a slang term for a "Trench or Foot Soldier" in the 1890-1910's, which the song title could be saying Texas Soldier. A 'Texas' Tommy was said to be a female prostitute who also worked the trenches and/ or walked the streets in the early 1900s.

Dancing the Texas Tommy on the streets of San Francisco (1914)



The Chalk Line Walk as it was originally known in 1850 in the southern plantations and later became very popular from 1895-1905 as the Cakewalk with a resurgence around 1915. It origins are in Florida by the African-American slaves who got the basic idea from the Seminole Indians (couples walking solemnly). Many of the special movements of the cake-walk, the bending back of the body, and the dropping of the hands at the wrists, amongst others, were a distinct feature in certain tribes of the African Kaffir dances. The African Ring Shout has a certain tie to this dance as well.

These "Walkers" as they were called, would walk a straight line and balance buckets of water on their heads. Over time the dance evolved into a exaggerated parody of the white, upper class ballroom dancers who would imitate the mannerisms (namely the promenades and processionals) of the "Big House" (or masters house) that they observed the White's doing. These Slave's would have some fun with such a dignified walking, flirting, prancing, strutting, bowing low, waving canes, doffing hats, done in a high kicking grand promenade. The Master's and their guest found it amusing, while a few plantation owners frowned upon these shenanigans. For their 'Sunday entertainment', the plantation owners started having contests to prove to the other who had the best slave walker.

The idea of the Cakewalk was that of a couple promenading in a dignified manner, high stepping and kicking, mimicking whitey's high society. Some of the better plantation owners would bake a special cake called a hoecake wrapped in cabbage leaf on Sundays and invite the neighbors over and have a contest of the slaves, different prizes were given but originally it was a Hoecake for the males and molasses pulled candy for the ladies and whichever slave(s) won, would get the cake / Candy ... thus the term "That Takes The Cake!" (Plus others such as 'It's a Cakewalk' = very easy) and the name "Cakewalk" was now set. The dance grew in popularity even after the Civil War (1861-1865), but it would change and become more grand in style and clothing as time marched on. 



The Black Bottom (aka Swanee Bottom) was originally from New Orleans, later worked its way to Georgia and finally New York. Some say the Black Bottom was introduced by blues singer "Alberta Hunter" (which is probably true as many songs/ dances were "stolen" and reproduced by someone else). However, it has been reported that the Black Bottom was derived from an earlier and similar dance called the "Echo." The dance was done all over the South before Bradford wrote his song in 1919. The dance is said to be a copy of a bossy cow's hind legs mirred in mud (12/14/1926 - Danville Bee Newspaper) other newspapers wrote that Mrs. Esther Gagnet from Texas states that the dance came from Sumaria (2/18/1927 - Lancaster Daily Eagle Newspaper) and other newspapers say it is of the Mississippi Negroe trying to dance in the sticky mud (2/12/1927 - Davenport Democrat and Leader).

Perry Bradford's sheet music had the music as well as the dance instructions printed on them. Bradford says that he first saw the Dance done in Jacksonville, (??) and decided to write a song about it in 1907 called the 'Jacksonville Rounders Dance' which used the term "Black Bottom" to describe the dance, but the song was not popular because "Rounder" meant "Pimp" (for the Pimp Walk) and no one wanted to dance to it, so he re-wrote the song and titled it the 'Original Black Bottom Dance' in 1919 which he introduced in Nashville Tennessee. 

The Black bottom was basically a solo challenge dance. Predominately danced on the "Off Beat" and was the prototype for the modern Tap dance phrasing. The Dance featured the slapping of the backside while hopping forward and backward, stamping the feet and gyrations of the torso and pelvis/Hips like the Grind, while occasionally making arm movements to music with an occasional 'Heel-Toe Scoop' which was very erotic in those days. The dance eventually got refined and entered the ballroom with ballroom couples doing the dance.  

In 1926 the "Black Bottom" became the rage and replaced the Charleston all together with the exception of it being done in the Breakaway, with the Lindy Hop eventually replacing the Black Bottom all together. 

Example of the Black Bottom dance

bottom of page