1920s Blues

(Le Blues & Fox-Blues)


Introduction

People have been dancing to Blues music for over a century. But what were they dancing to it a century ago?

While there have been many ways of dancing the Blues over the years, for a window into Blues dancing in the 1920s, we can look to Paris, where French dance masters like Professor André Peter's were fastidiously documenting the latest dances from around the world on a monthly—sometimes even biweekly—basis, including the 20s version of "Le Blues," which was reported to have come to Paris by way of New York [AM21].

A source from January 1923 noted that Le Blues had been around for "at least a year and a half" [AP23a], which would place its arrival in Paris prior to the summer of 1921, almost exactly 100 years before the creation of this page. A source in the late 20s recalled that the Le Blues experienced an "insane vogue" in the early 20s, reporting that "we danced it everywhere," and "we danced it on everything, so easily [did] its steps adapt to all rhythms" [PB28].

Blues variations were described under two names: Le Blues and Fox-Blues. Some authors only described one [AM21, BH26, GL26, JN27, PB28], while others used the two names to refer to different sets of variations and/or tempos [DC26], and others used the two names interchangeably [AP22a, AP22b, AP22c]. Looking at all of the sources at once, there's no clear distinction between the steps that were categorized as Le Blues and Fox-Blues. If anything, Fox-Blues refers to a faster tempo (~152 bpm), and Le Blues refers to a slower tempo (~116 bpm), but all of the steps can be danced throughout the whole tempo range. This is consistent with a source from the late 20s that said Blues can be danced to "slow, medium, and fast" rhythms, but regardless of the tempo, the steps remain the same [PB28].


The Dance


The Style

The movements of the Blues were described as "very slow" [AP27], "very elongated" [AP22c, AP23f, DC26], and "very elegant" [AP22a], having a "very particular grace" about them [AP22c].

One source noted that there is a "very slight" lifting motion as you take off into each step [AP22c], after which you land on a flat foot [AP22c], consistent with another source's advice to keep the steps "light and flexible," landing "silently" [PB28]. While the idea of an upward movement in Blues might initially seem odd, lifting up as you take off into each step also implies that you are landing down into each step. Think about leaping slightly into each step, without ever leaving the ground, as if you're running in slow motion through molasses on the moon, and you'll get the idea.

In addition, several sources described a "discrete" oppositional movement of the shoulders: as you step with the right foot, the left shoulder moves slightly forward, and vice versa [AP22c, GL26, AP27, PB28]. Another source, however, said that there was no movement of the shoulders [AM21].

Finally, one source noted that there was an "extremely subtle" movement of the hips [AP22c].

Once you've acquired these style points, it was advised that you back off on all of them so as to make them "imperceptible." In watching a skillful couple dancing the Blues, one author said, a spectator should "only be able to suspect" these movements [AP22c].


The Steps

In the brief descriptions of the steps below, the Lead's footwork is described, and the Follow dances opposite unless explicitly noted.

As was the fashion in Paris in the 1920s, the Lead starts with the right foot and the Follow starts with the left foot. However, in this dance, you'll often find yourself on the other foot, and in fact, there's a whole category of steps (see "Changements de Pas") specifically designed to change from one foot to the other.

The names for the figures in the original sources are in bold; my nicknames for them are in italics.

Following the convention of Professor André Peter's, our most prolific source for 20s Blues, we'll count based on the quick counts, so the fundamental slow count that is used in the basic and in most variations will be counted as 1, 3, 5, 7.

The Music

Blues music.

The tempo was described as being slower than Fox Trot [AM21, AP23c, BH26].

One source said that the "accepted tempo" for dancing Blues was 152 bpm [AP24d], but the "real tempo" for dancing Blues was 116 bpm [AP24d]. Another gave the faster tempo the name "Fox-Blues" and the slower tempo the name "Blues" [DC26]. Given that the basic walking step takes two beats per step, this translates to an "accepted tempo" of 76 steps per minute (for "Fox-Blues"), and a "real tempo" of 58 steps per minute (for "Le Blues").

Another source noted that it can be danced to "slow, medium, and fast" rhythms, but regardless of the tempo, the steps remain the same [PB28].

Below, you'll find a playlist of 1920s Blues recordings in the tempo range from 116 to 152 bpm:


Sources


© 2021 Nick Enge


If you or your community is interested in learning 1920s Blues, .


For more, see our two books on dancing:
Waltzing: A Manual for Dancing and Living (2013) by Richard Powers and Nick Enge,
and Cross-Step Waltz: A Dancer's Guide (2019) by Richard Powers and Nick & Melissa Enge.


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