How dance helped women’s liberation

The early decades of the 20th century were a battleground for women,  in terms of political and legal reform. But women were also testing out another arena of emancipation: their bodies. As fashions grew simpler and skirts rose higher, reaching knee-length by the late 1920s, women found new physical freedom.

On the dancefloor, too, women were displaying an alarming lack of modesty, with the social dances that began spreading through the west just before the first world war. Driven by the rhythms of American ragtime, the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot and the Grizzly Bear.

These encouraged dancers to kick up their feet, rock crazily from side to side and lock their swaying pelvises together. To the young these ragtime dances were part of a new "budding freedom", a sign that "Victorianism" had finally lost its grip.

Nightclubs had begun to appear in London in 1912, these dark and crowded basements promised a cocktail of illicit thrills: smoking cigarettes, wearing lipstick, drinking Pink Ladies – and dancing. 

In the 1920s, ragtime was superseded by the wayward jangle and bounce of the Charleston and by the pert, buttock-flourishing naughtiness of the Black BottomZelda Fitzgerald, famously the inspiration for her husband F Scott's fictional flapper heroines, was also a wicked exponent of the decade's jazz dances. 

If dances were getting wilder, so too were morals. Between 1914 and 1929, the divorce rate doubled in the US and surveys reported that premarital sex was rising even faster. The promiscuity of young women caused alarm, particularly in Britain. The Daily Mail warned that the number of "superfluous" females could be a "disaster to the human race" (clearly the Daily Mail’s attitudes haven’t advanced much, as they are still spouting the same sexist bullsh*t in 2019!)

Young flappers may have thrown off the tyranny of the corset, but they discovered the new tyranny of dieting! Which still lives on in the year 2019!

The flapper represented a new spirit of emancipation. If women were to follow their "inner compulsion to be individuals", they had to throw off their shackling inheritance of obedience, whether to the puritanical tenets of old-school feminism or to the sentimentalised duties of marriage and motherhood. It wasn't hardcore politics but, on the dancefloor at least, these women of the 1920s embodied Bromley's views. As they shimmied their shoulders and swivelled their hips, they were released into a brief but deeply subversive world – a world of freedom.

This blog was put together from extracts of Judith Mackrell’s article on the Guardian. Read Full article here