The Daily Heller: Dance, Design and the American Dream

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When I was a kid, my parents sincerely believed in the power of dance—that my life would be better lived if I could dance everything from a waltz to the mambo. My mother was a Latin dancer from her teens. Later in life she turned to ballroom. I, however, was an awkward child, and I thought dancing made me look ridiculous. Also, remembering the steps—one, two, cha cha cha, etc.—was too much like math.

I attended Viola Wolf Dancing Class on alternating Sundays. Dress regulations included a suit and tie and white gloves (to avoid staining one’s partner’s dress). Most of the dancing was traditional, but at the end of the class, Mrs. Wolf would blast one or two contemporary tunes—”The Twist” and “Mashed Potato” were favorites. I could tolerate that, since I could improvise.

Dance records were always in our house. And the new book Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance (MIT Press) brings America’s penchant for dancing into a vivid spotlight. This is not just a picture book (although it’s generously filled with album covers) but a deep dive into the Postwar phenomenon that found its way to virtually every American’s life.

I asked the authors (and vinyl experts), Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder, to spin a few discs and set the beat for the world of music that they cover in this must-have history.

Ruben Leon and His Orchestra, A Thinking Man’s Cha Cha Cha, Craftsmen, c. 1958.

Your book Designed for Dancing brings me back to a time before I was self-conscious about dancing. What made the ’50s and ’60s such a special dance era?
During the midcentury, there was an explosion of vibrant dance records, and people took dancing into their own hands, or should we say into their own homes. Dance records and related technologies such as hi-fi systems and portable turntables brought personal selections of dance tunes and dance genres into living rooms, kitchens and suburban rec rooms. Dance instruction records abounded. Of course, grandma with a fiddle, live bands at the social hall, and “champagne” (as in light and bubbly) dancing at a local hotel ballroom were all in the mix, but toting a turntable into a private space and practicing moves and steps with friends and family meant dancing was always one vinyl groove away.

This era also marked a movement from choreographed group dances, like square dancing, to beyond-the-waltz couple dancing. Think of those ‘hot’ Latin dances, to individual dance and self-expression with “The Twist” and rock dancing. Of course, the Lindy combined many of these aspects and pushed forward innovative new moves that were quickly copied, broken down, recombined and pushed forward once again.

Al Stefano and His Orchestra, Rhumba Favorites, Golden Tone, 1960.

What was the reason for doing this deep dive into America’s dancing phenomenon?
We were guided by our vinyl archive and what we call our analog rescue project. As we organized and reorganized our records, we realized that hundreds of our LPs from the 1950s and 1960s were dance records—from Waltz to Watusi. Not just incidentally for dancing, these records featured specific dances, even dance instruction. We wanted to know more about how Latin dance became popular, how the liner notes informed understandings of dancing and rhythms, and to take a closer look at how dancing was represented on the album covers.

And many of the the covers were fantastic. In our previous book, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, we discussed how Midcentury record album covers offered Postwar America alluring lessons and modernist visions for achieving contemporary lifestyles that were fueled by an economy of abundance, choice and consumer sovereignty. We could see that the ideal home, the ideal romance, honeymoon and family, not to mention the Cold War victories in the kitchen and in outer space, appeared tangible, achievable, in the fantastical frame of the record cover.           

But … many of the Designed for Hi-Fi Living record albums featured listening—for example on Let’s Listen! the blond model lounging in the Bertoia Bird Chair. Modernist furniture provided stylish seating for focused listening, but we wondered, what of the fun and colorful Twist and Hula records, nostalgic folk dance albums, and suggestive Cha Cha Cha and Mambo LPs? Would these vintage records, filled with dancing bodies in motion, reflect similar Postwar, Cold War themes? What would they tell us about the convergence of dancing, music and Midcentury identity? We set out to investigate.

Western Europe was alive with dance—did it explode in the U.S. at the same time?
Dance album liner notes often speak to an aspirational audience, including those coming out of the experiences of World War II, with the scarcity and trauma, but also new international consciousness. In Designed for Dancing, we feature the album The Songs We Heard … When We Were in France that highlights military personnel returning from the European arena and recollecting their recent past, seeking meaning in music and dance. At home and abroad, aware of the latest fashions in dress, dance and drink, our dancers step out to experience sophisticated environments, glean clues to the broader world and meet like-minded terpsichoreans. Our chapter on folk dance also looks at U.S.-based communities connecting to other lands: We see this in Polka records, but also LPs such as Italy Dances! and Village Songs: Authentic Folk Music of Lebanon … and even on belly dance records.

I vividly recall Arthur Murray and other dance moguls doing their thing on their own television shows. What was the thrill of seeing dancing on TV?
Television allowed a peek into other people’s music and dances (and living rooms) and provided visual prompts for changing one’s style, whether updating outfits or home décor. If they were around today, Arthur Murray and his wife, Kathryn, would no doubt be social media influencers. They parlayed their expertise and charm into a successful string of dance studios, television programs and dance instruction records. We see how Murray ‘tamed’ many social dances for a mainstream audience—modifying moves and ‘toning down’ eroticism. Their show was an aspirational fantasy of the good Midcentury life, where friends drop by for a pleasant evening of dancing in your spacious ballroom. As Kathryn Murray said at the end of every show: “Put a little fun in your life. Try dancing!”

Les Elgart, For Dancers Also. Columbia Records, photo by Ormaond Gigli, 1957.

Dancing was not new, nor has it ebbed and flowed like other “fads.” Did an industry emerge that kept it energized?
One industry that we discuss is the dance studio.

Ah yes. My parents went to dance studios every Friday or Saturday well into their early 90s.
Dance studios taught popular dances of the day. Anyone who spends much time looking at used vinyl—especially the bargain bins that many record stores put on the floor—has come across Arthur Murray records. Arthur Murray, with his slogan, “If you can walk, we teach you how to dance,” founded one of the earliest franchises, The Arthur Murray Dance Studios, and released dozens of records, which often included a coupon redeemable for a free dance lesson. We’ve only found one original coupon in our albums, but we hope the others were put to good use! Murray began his entrepreneurial dance career by creating foot diagrams of popular dances and selling them through the mail. His dance studios at one point numbered in the thousands, and are still in business today. They offer quick dance instructions for upcoming weddings but also more long-term immersion into social dancing.

And the recording industry wanted to sell records! Arthur Murray records represent an innovative marketing move by the dancing master. Capitol Records recruited popular bandleaders such as Les Baxter and Ray Anthony for the Arthur Murray Favorites LPs, which were reissued several times with updated covers. Even Billboard magazine praised the covers of Murray’s early series of dance records. Today, the cross promotional aspects of the Murray dancing business—free dance lesson coupons; the television show; practice records that mention other Murray records and with Murray’s name above the LPs’ musicians—seem commonplace, but were innovative in their time.

Throughout his career, Murray proclaimed dancing a key to success, a bit like a dancing Emily Post, and “emphasized how dancing could change people’s lives.” Some of his early ads featured Fred and Adele Astaire. The Fred Astaire Studios launched in 1947, when a film company executive convinced Astaire that it would be “a public service,” according to the liner notes from his Everybody Cha Cha! album. Astaire released his “Perfect for Dancing” records on RCA, no doubt inspired by Murray’s successful string of dance instruction discs.

Frug, Forum Records, 1964.

Do you still play your vinyl dance albums? Do you still dance to them?
We have an assortment of turntables, and in writing and researching the book, we listened to every one of the 300 records that we feature. We made wonderful discoveries, such as Rev. Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick’s singing on Square Dance with Soul. Janet continues to promenade and stomp around to Kirkpatrick’s Raise the Roof Off Tonight and Jonathan was inspired to swivel by Dee Dee Sharp and Chubby Checker on Slow Twistin’. So, yes! Vinyl is a vibrant source of dance music in our house. We admit to streaming Pandora for occasional dance sessions, though, and we’ve also created a Spotify playlist, called “designedfordancing,” to accompany chapters in the book.

There is a visual language for dance records. How would you define this language?
We discuss photographic attempts to capture an essence of movement in still record cover shots. Whether it’s in the posing, for example, the stretched-out steps on Tango Time, or a sequence of shots that demonstrate changing position as on Drum Discotheque, or even the multiple exposures on Mambo at the Waldorf, dance records attempt to express movement’s physicality, and intimacy, even for figures dancing alone. Cover fonts and typography often amplify dance qualities, such as a characteristic environment or atmosphere: the elegant, formal cursive on Forever the Waltz, the passionate red exclamation point on Merengue!, the vibrating panels of color on Les Elgart’s For Dances Also, or the hip-bumped ‘B’ on Rhumba Favorites. We include three covers by art director and photographer Ed Thrasher, who shot classic rock covers like Nancy Sinatra’s Boots and Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced. His blurred, dynamic cover photography for records like Everybody’s Doing It: The Watusi by Bobby Jay and the Hawks vividly expresses the energetic movement of ’60s dancing.

I think “The Twist” was among the first pop songs to draw the introverts out of their shells. Can you think of others?
Dancing can be tough for shy people! Some songs offer instructions for the moves, as if everyone is a beginner, and leave space for humor. “It’s Madison Time,” for example, was one of many songs that shouted out what to do, how to step. The Madison also added gestures associated with celebrities or sports figures. The Bostella, big in Europe, but not so much in the U.S., encouraged dancers to lie down and roll around. If a dance caught on, song after song, record after record would be released, attempting to cash in on the latest fad.

All albums from the collection of Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder.

How do you think dancing changed America?
Dance and identity are bound together. Dancing can solidify, but also fragment, identities. Dancing may offer communities connection to deep-rooted strength—building unity to contest static power structures and mainstream mores. Of course, such connection can also be deeply conservative. Dance records reveal the desire to dance other people’s steps. Designed for Dancing features records from the 1950s and 1960s. During these decades, dance floors displayed contentious exclusions, but also border crossings and community mixing. Just recall the Mambo scene, and Maria and Tony’s dream dance sequence, in West Side Story. Dance records present histories and visions, some tied to fantasy pasts, others suggesting a joining of forces for a different kind of future. In America, our records suggest, dancing has participated in, and remains a force for, creating possibilities.