THE HISTORY OF BALLROOM/PARTNERSHIP DANCE IN AMERICA:
A Talk Given By Frank Regan
and summarized by Barbara Bernstein
On 2/10/06, Frank Regan, a famous ballroom champion, choreographer, and dance historian, gave a lecture on the history of ballroom dancing in America. Mr. Frank Regan has one of the most impressive biographies that a choreographer can have. (He is always willing to consider choreography jobs in case any readers are in need of this expertise.) To read his bio, credits and honors, click here.
I have summarized below the highlights of his delightful talk. Members of his outstanding performance team, the American Dance Montage, demonstrated some of the dances mentioned. And I had the honor of leading a Salsa Rueda demonstration as the closing number.
Mr. Regan's Talk:
1900 to 1920
Prior to this period, people would often sing, play, or sit and listen to a piece of music. But in the early 1900's, for a tune to be a big "hit," you had to be able to dance to it. And the celebrated ballroom dancers Irene and Vernon Castle helped make some dances widely known. They were a talented, charming couple and the public loved them.
Vernon Castle had been taught, in turn, by an older man named John Lee. As a young man, Frank Regan also had the honor of working with Lee in the 1960s when Mr. Lee was an older man in his 80's. In fact, Lee was responsible for getting Regan his first job as a choreographer. Frank remarked in his talk that he gained a lot of perspective on the development of ballroom dancing from working with Lee.
In this era, the Waltz was a "tradition of sophisticated gatherings."; Regan says that it was recognized as the "mother of social dancing." The Waltz became popular in Boston and New York.
Waltzes are done to music with three beats in each measure. Viennese Waltz is a very fast paced version of the waltz, and though lovely, ladies found it tiring.
So Castle introduced a dance called the "Hesitation Waltz," involving less movement so it would not be as tiring. Essentially the dancer alternates between stepping three times in a measure of music and in the next measure, stepping on just the first beat and then "hesitating." It is easy to see that this dance would be far less tiring!
The Castles did other dances as well, such as The Turkey Trot, which was done to ragtime music and had elements of the Polka and what we call today "Quickstep." The dance became very popular though some considered it scandalous. Indeed, the Vatican disapproved of the dance and proclaimed it "sinful."
Vernon Castle also researched Tango in Argentina and brought it back to the U.S. He had to "refine" it a bit for the American public which still wasn't used to a dance that complex, or one with a lot of contact and sexual suggestion. Indeed, he created a form of Tango called "Innovation Tango" in which partners danced around each other and only touched at the end.
Castle also introduced the "Castle Walk" which was one of the forerunners of the Foxtrot.
Ultimately it was a Vaudeville actor Harry Fox who introduced the Foxtrot. Born Arthur Carringford, he adopted the stage name of "Fox." As part of his act, Harry Fox did trotting steps to ragtime music, and people referred to his dance as "Fox's Trot." Harry Fox built on the foundation that Castle had created in developing the dance.
Another popular dance of this era was the Maxixe. This dance originated in Brazil and was brought by the Castles to New York. The Maxixe was particularly popular from around 1912 to 1918 and was the forerunner of the Samba.
Frank Regan made the interesting comment that dances are not invented but rather they are discovered. This implies that the elements of a dance exist prior to becoming popular and taking a final form. It is much like the concept in science that discoveries are made by "standing on the shoulders of giants" who made related discoveries.
To better understand the development of these first two decades in dance, an informative movie, now available in DVD, titled "The Story of Irene and Vernon Castle" was recommended by Mr. Regan. Note that this video has a "Hollywood twist" to ensure that it would entertain audiences. So everything in the movie isn't literally accurate but it does provide an overall picture of what went on in that era.
Historically, during this decade, the first Miss America was crowned; Babe Ruth became famous; and women won the right to vote. This was the era of Prohibition in the U.S. Alcoholic drinks were prohibited by law, but people went to speakeasies and drank anyway.
This period was aptly called the "Roaring Twenties" and the Charleston and the Blackbottom were key dances. Both were considered unacceptable by the church. Mr. Regan says that "Americans drank and danced to excess" despite the prohibitions against both!
Also in the 20s, Tango was said to make a "comeback" with Rudolph Valentino helping to popularize the dance. Valentino did not originate the dance but he did a great deal to market it to the American public as well as the public world-wide. Tango was often used to illustrate the conflict of love triangles.
Fred Astaire became famous during this decade. In the news of the era, Bonnie and Clyde were sought by police; the New York World's Fair opened; and Cole Porter's music became popular on Broadway.
The Foxtrot was still popular and evolving during the 30s. It was done at varying speeds. A fast-tempo Foxtrot was called the "Peabody" and it was named after Mr. Peabody who danced at the famous Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
And a dance from Cuba named Rumba became popular here around this time. Once again, Mr. Regan reported that the dance had to be "watered down" to be "palatable to the American public."
A Spanish dance called "Paso Doble" was also developed. Interestingly, the dance was imported from Spain as a popular folk dance. But it was developed in France as a partnership dance. As a result, although it is a Spanish dance, many of the steps have French names. It was a dramatic depiction of the corrida in which the man plays the role of the "matador" and the woman plays the role of the cape.
In addition, swing was becoming increasingly popular during the 30s. On March 26, 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened its doors in New York. The Savoy mostly featured music called Swinging Jazz. With the discovery of the Lindy Hop and the Jitterbug, the communities began dancing to the contemporary Jazz and Swing music.
Once again, Tango was said to have been making a "come-back." There are varied forms of Tango. The dance started out with a "rougher" style and then it "smoothed out." The clip below shows a gentle style of the dance called "Tango Liso" which is also referred to as a "Smooth Tango."
Click here to see a clip of Smooth Tango.
The style of movement in Tango evolved, not surprisingly, along with the music. When I was preparing this summary and checked my draft with Mr. Regan, he said that a man named Carlos Gardella should be mentioned here because he was so influential in the field of Tango music (which affected Tango dancing). The development of Argentine Tango which is very popular all over the world today was largely due to Mr. Gardella's musical impact. In other words, the musical evolution that he was a part of changed the style of dance.
During this decade, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the U.S. entered World War II; USO clubs promoted dance entertainment; and dance contests were featured at the Savoy Ballroom.
This was the era of big band music. Jive, a particularly popular form of Swing dancing, was in its heyday. People came to love the swinging feel and happy spirit of the dance, which still remains popular.
In addition, around 1947, Mambo was "beginning to make itself felt."
This was the heyday of Latin dancing, including dances such as Mambo and Cha Cha. Cha Cha was developed from slowing down Mambo music. Slow Mambo was called "Triple Mambo" and had three steps replacing the single slow step in Mambo. Eventually, this evolved into Cha Cha. Many people attended the Palladium Ballroom in NYC where dances as well as dance contests were held.
In this decade, dances that involved acrobatic elements such as lifts, spins, and twirls in the air, etc. developed.
And a dance called the Bolero developed as well. This is a romantic dance that is portrayed with what Mr. Regan calls "dramatic intensity." (Anyone who has seen a good Bolero performance knows exactly what this means!)
This was a era of profound social revolution, and consistent with the spirit of the times, partnership dances were not the focus of dance activities. Just as society was focused on "doing your own thing" and "self-actualization," (i.e. self development and fulfillment), so dances were more self-focused. Thus, dances like "The Twist" featuring solo movement were more in style. As Frank Regan said, "Some people remembered what happened in the 50s in terms of partnership dance and continued to do that!"
This was the era in which Hustle became popular. Hustle combines elements of Swing and Latin. John Travolta brought the dance to national attention in the famous movie "Saturday Night Fever."
Meanwhile, Salsa was coming into widespread popularity at this time all over the world. Salsa bands were touring everywhere, bringing the Latin sound to all cultures and influencing the music of those cultures the process. It is no exaggeration to say that Latin music altered the shape of music and dance world-wide.
A group form of Salsa done by couples in a circle developed in Cuba and became wildly popular. This dance, called Rueda de Casino ("Salsa Rueda"), spread all over the world as well.
Click here to see a clip of Rueda de Casino performed by DanceInTime and some members of American Dance Montage.
Heart-felt thanks go to Frank Regan who organized and delivered this unique lecture as well as reviewing the first draft of this summary.
Special thanks also go to the dancers who appeared in the show: Dmitry Savchenko, Reynaldo Perez, Marsha Bonet, Tania Nunez, Susan Cox, Fabio Bonini, and Daryll Adams for the ballroom demonstrations. The Casino Rueda dancers were a mixture of members of the American Montage and DanceInTime. They included Fabio Bonini, Doug Reynolds, Reynoldo Perez, Nissim Albaig, Susan Cox, Wendy Christensen, Sheila Gordon, and the caller, Barbara Bernstein.
Note that Mr. Regan also created an all tango show that is modern and shows the
many styles and dimensions of tango dancing. He asked me to videotape this
show and some clips of a few of these routines and two photos are below.
As always, anyone interested in having a ballroom/musical theater show
choreographed by Mr. Regan, can contact him at
Whether you are looking for the early dances of the twentieth century or
something more modern, Regan's presentations are truly beautiful!
Frank Regan has also worked with Dance In Time, helping prepare some choreography.
copyright: 2002 by Barbara Bernstein
Copyright Barbara Bernstein of DanceInTime.com, 2005