“A Dance through Time” by Jeremy Barlow

51tOsTFRY2LWhat attracted me to this book was the prospect of light reading and lots of pictures. Anyone who has struggled through a denser tome (coughMarshallStearnscoughcough) would understand my hesitancy to jump right in to something heavy.

Just by flipping through the pages of A Dance Through Time, you can see that the vast majority of text and pictures are devoted to depictions of dance in early to modern Europe. This makes sense as the author, Jeremy Barlow, appears to be both British and a specialist in music from 1550 – 1750. However, some modern bits tend to float up from time to time.

Included in a chapter on circle dances, you’ll find a half-page of text and a photograph of British dancers circling together in joy at the end of World War II. The most insightful comment on this is:

The most one can say is that when all unite in celebration, then the act of linking and moving together, whether in a line or a circle, powerfully expresses communal joy.

Succinct and accurate.

A couple of pages in the chapter entitled “Illustrations for Instruction” reference the observations of Victor Silvester, a bandleader and authority on modern ballroom dances of the early 1900’s in Britain.  I’ll have to somehow find a copy or transcription of his 1944 booklet “This is Jive” because the quotations excerpted for this book are too intriguing to ignore:

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 2.07.21 AMHowever…when the resident band came on, they played jazz and the majority of the dancers started to jitterbug like mad. Some of the couples were truly spectacular and performed marvellous acrobatics, greatly to the delight of the other patrons…”

Does this mean there were couples throwing air on the social dance floor?  Or were there exhibitions?  Or contests?

All lifts, throws and other exaggerated movements should be entirely eliminated. These movements are acrobatics, which is not dancing, and quite unsuitable for the ballroom.  If ever this form of dancing is to develop, the standardization of a few basic steps is essential.

Buuuuuuuuurn.  Also, we see here where he starts talking about the standardization of the jitterbug, and how necessary it is, not just for a decorous ballroom, but for its very survival as a dance.  He also changes the name from jitterbug (“a ridiculous word”) to Jive, which was already in use in the U.S.

And finally, he lays down this common modern difficulty:

The difficulty of the teachers is to judge the taste of the public exactly…they have to decide whether the new feature can be put on a ‘teachable’ basis and whether the version they lay down will be acceptable to the dancing public in general.

I think this is different from how lindy hop teachers think today.  I mean, sure, we try to slice up moves and rhythms into digestible sizes for our students.  But I feel we also know the importance of constantly checking and re-checking your lesson concept against an actual social dance to make sure that what you’re teaching is actually what you’re doing.  Personally, I’m not sure that a dance ever needs to be “dumbed down”, but it’s true that the approach needs to be carefully crafted.  You’re not only teaching the mechanics of 8-count footwork, you’re teaching footwork as a way to get somewhere.  And students don’t want the watered down version…they don’t want “good enough”…they want to grasp the very thing that inspired them in the first place.  Right?

I found some intriguing thoughts in the chapter entitled “Burlesquing the Bourgeois”.  After a section describing a ritual wherein a knotted handkerchief would randomly assign dancing partners, the author goes on to note that…

Over the centuries etiquette made it hard for a woman to refuse a request, however repellent she might find the man inviting her…More than two hundred years earlier, in Orchésographie, Arbeau’s pupil Capriol had worried that ‘if the young woman refused me I should be thoroughly shamed’. His teacher reassures him that refusal would make the woman, not him, look foolish. Male pride must be protected.

He goes on to say, however, that…

Surprisingly, Arbeau did not mention that either gender could request a dance in the sixteenth century.

Apparently, there were guidelines instructing ladies on how to be direct with a prospective dance partner.  It eliminated awkward confusion about who she was talking to, and made it much more comfortable for the gentlemen to accept.  But then…

It is not known if female invitation was a regional practice, or when it died out, as it certainly had by the nineteenth century.

Too bad.  But these brief interludes of surprising gender expectations certainly give me something to mull over.

The chapter then concludes with a brief mention of the cakewalk and its origins, which I won’t re-iterate here, and the illustrations of that dance which features a typical “knees-up” pose that the author points out several times to be a signifier of dancing motion.

Overall, the book has beautiful pictures, and some good observations.  For me, it was a platform to jump off and look at original sources but on its own has no clear, strong, thesis.  I give it 3 out of 5 Suzy Q’s.

2 thoughts on ““A Dance through Time” by Jeremy Barlow

    1. Thanks so much! I’m sorry your comment was hanging out in WordPress limbo for so long. I’m still trying to figure out my admin panels.


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