Animal Dances

Dance fads brought new moves to the lively Ragtime tunes of the early 1900s and to Roaring Twenties jazz. In the ‘Teens and Twenties, a series of dances known as the Animal Dances swept the country, often from west to east since some were invented in San Francisco. Others had African-American origins.

The Bunny Hug was particularly scandalous. It was usually danced to slower music and featured grinding moves like the ones seen today on the dance floor. Even the faster dances involved close contact and so were considered indecent by most. Some clubs banned them. Some people were fined for dancing so erotically. The Vatican denounced one dance–the the Turkey Trot–thereby providing a huge boost to its popularity.

The Horse Trot featured a high kick, a difficult move for ladies with the dresses of the day, which may be why it faded before the Twenties. The Grizzly Bear and the Kangaroo Hop had their fans too.  The Fox Trot outlived them all.

Blackface and Al Jolson

Music historians have likened Al Jolson’s effect on jazz, the blues, and ragtime to Elvis’s on rock ‘n’ roll, since both men introduced African-American music to white and mainstream audiences. But ask the man in the stret what he knows of Al Jolson and most will say (if they know the name at all): “the first talkie.” But before his 1927 talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” Jolson had a successful vaudeville career.

Like many vaudevillians, he often performed in blackface makeup but this Jewish singer identified strongly with blacks and fought discrimination—especially on the stage where he had influence—from his earliest years. For instance, he used to take black entertainers to restaurants that refused to serve “colored” and insisted they be seated at his table. His belief in equality helped pave the way for Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Eubie Blake.

In vaudeville, Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) started as a singer specializing in Sephen Foster songs. As his popularity grew, he moved to the theater stage with musical comedies and George Gershwin numbers. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, he was Broadway’s biggest star.