trading halos for high jinks

above, a scene from Caught in a Cabaret with Charlie Chaplin, 1914
left, "The Return from Toil," working girls as sketched by John Sloan; right, Variété (English Couple Dancing), 1912/13, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Special to The New York Times.Thursday, February 6, 1913
Mrs. Taft being the President's wife...

A week ago or so at a client meeting I found a book in the "free" pile–
Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York by Kathy Peiss. Published in the 1980s, the book has a very academic and earnest "Women's History" approach which would be enough to turn me off normally, but I particularly got caught up in the chapters on dancing and "Putting on Style."

The first decades of the 20th century brought legions of girls and young women–garment workers, salesgirls, artificial flower makers, tobacco workers– into the work force. Some of these women even lived on their own– a very new phenomenon. The book focuses mostly on working class women who were intrigued by the novel concept of "leisure time", influenced by feminist intimations of the "New Woman" and enticed by a range of modern consumer options.

Most people think of the 1920s as erupting into dance, champagne and louche-ness in a fireworks display of Modernity when in fact, the years leading up to the First World War were rather "fast" and raucous in their own right. Much of the behavior the "Jazz Age" gets credit for had its beginnings before the War.

New York was "dance mad." Social clubs and amusement societies held rackets or blow outs at one of the many dance palaces that would hold up to 3000 patrons. "Rough girls" smoked and teased their hair into high pompadours, augmented with puffs and rats. They wore red high heels and exaggerated straw hats drooping under the weight of stuffed birds, and sprays of artificial flowers. They flocked to dance halls, hotels, restaurants for dancing teas and a chance to learn the One-step, the Gaby Glide, the Hesitation Waltz, the Maxixe, Tango, and the Shimmy.

Some of the dances became huge controversial fads and were banned from respectable establishments. The Grizzly Bear, Bunny Hug and the Turkey Trot in particular were said to have originated about 1906 in the brothels of San Francisco's Barbary Coast and were judged vulgar, bordering on obscene. The very worst of the dances invited "much twirling and twisting and easy familiarity...in nearly all the men in the way they handle the girls," according to an observer. "Once learned the participants can at will instantly decrease or increase the obscenity of the movements."

Many venues instituted patrols to maintain decorum and public declarations were made against the new dances. The New York Times of January 16, 1912 reported an announcement at the Hotel Astor "Should there be any of you who have the inclination to dance the grizzly bear, the turkey trot or an exaggerated form of the Boston dip the members of the Floor Committee will stop you."

Investigators sent to prowl the dance halls by the Committee of Fourteen (whose focus was the suppression of commercialized vice) found patrons "smoking cigarettes, hugging and kissing and running around the room like a mob of lunatics." The girls, they found, were "game and lively and sought out flirtation. They go out for a good time and go the 'Limit'".

* * *
"It was the hesitation drag...and never before has there been such a gliding sliding hesitancy; never before such a dreamy drag; never before such a culminating triumph as the whirl, a la pivot. It was supreme; it was new... It was a dance that renounced halos for high jinks, disapproval for complete surrender."
Djuna Barnes– Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 5, 1913

* * *
What I enjoy most in reading history is when the accrual of a few small casual details suddenly makes the subject recognizable. In an instant a description of "history" becomes knowable, the facts lift from the page. Despite the fact that we see the 1910s in black and white and consider it part of history, it no more felt like or unfolded like "history" than right now feels to us. History is not a place– it is not bound by "the past"– it's simply a stream of everydays.



Recently I saw "Man on Wire," the film about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in the summer of 1974. I was slow to warm to the film's charms but the tale finally and completely won me over. Primarily, this is because Petit is an intriguing, exasperating, narcissistic, fairy tale figure. A little prince in many senses, he is both a singular personality and a caricature–as well as very very French. (Which is almost like being a caricature, anyway.)

What I didnt expect from the film was how emotional I would be over seeing so much footage of the World Trade Center: its construction, as backdrop against the city, sweeping aerial beauty shots.

For most of its existence I was indifferent, at best, to the WTC. I have no recollection of actually visiting the towers though I think there may have been a trip to the observation deck at some early juncture. They served a purpose as a visual anchor, a directional on which to get my bearings upon emerging from an unfamiliar subway stop. Other than that, I disliked their needlessly overscaled banality– their crudeness. I had been attuned to architectural grace notes and these buildings were power chords.

It was totally without context, then, that less than a year before they were destroyed I had an abrupt change of mind about the WTC. I was virtually struck in one epiphanic moment. The double towers in tandem, along with their uninviting windswept plaza were one conceptual gesture about scale, less about execution and finish than idea. A simple notion that, for some reason, I had not comprehended, and then I did.

Like lightning rods the WTC attracted Petit's fanatical curiousity. His nearly mystical draw to the towers began with an article he'd read in 1968 about their initial planning and was not extinguished even after completing his mission 6 years later. In the film, Petit recalls his high wire walk as spiritual, a "gift", "elation...I was actually venturing in another world.” The footage in the film shows Petit practically dancing on the wire, weightless, it seemed, and imparting an unexpected delicacy to the colossus he was so barely tethered to. He pulled off this caper, this coup, and managed to bring the building itself into the poetry of the moment.

When he stepped onto the roof after his 45 minute sojourn a quarter mile in thin air he was ambushed by police and reporters. Barraged by what Petit termed a "typically American question" he was repeatedly asked "why did you do it?" The disconnect between the question and the event itself was a sadly comical point in the movie.

Twenty-seven years later in the aftermath of a devastating surreal spectacle people were again asking, "why did they do it?"

Images from top: Tom Fletcher's New York City architecture; "before 9/11" by Baldwin Lee; from wikipedia; from Man on Wire.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...