As Seen On TV: Kinaesthetic cross-over and the animation of social dance pedagogy

In 1978 Australia’s  music television show, Countdown, hosted a disco dancing contest. Staged on a perspex dance floor lit with coloured lights from beneath, the contestants danced to songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and a large cut-out figure of John Travolta, striking that archetypal disco pose, presided over the event. Predictably enough, the winning contestants were the couple from Sydney who performed the most recognizably accomplished and rigorously choreographed imitation of disco dancing, Saturday Night Fever style. Their prize was a return trip to the United States to meet the Bee Gees, the featured artists on the movie soundtrack. But before they left they were invited to draw a winner from a barrel of entries in an audience competition. The lucky viewer’s prize? A video cassette machine – not only the latest in home entertainment technology but a handy piece of equipment for a budding disco dancer eager to learn the latest dance moves as seen on TV.

Looking back from this moment of disco dissemination to the dance crazes of the sixties and to the Charleston and the Foxtrot earlier in the century, this illustrated paper explores strategies for documenting and mediating movement in the history of social dance pedagogy. Surveying a collection of dance manuals and drawing on archival footage, the paper identifies shifts in pedagogical strategies from follow-the-footsteps diagrams to freeze-frame photo-strips as indicative of ‘kinaesthetic cross-over’, a process whereby Anglo-European social dancing was infused with the movement qualities of African-American dance. The paper argues that the cross-over of an African-American kinaesthetic coincided with the mediation of an ‘animatic’ conception of movement as a sequence of static images which accompanied the proliferation of photography, cinema and television. The paper demonstrates how moving image technologies animated the cultural politics of social dancing during the twentieth century.

Published as Bollen, J. (2007)  ‘As Seen On TV: Kinaesthetic cross-over and the animation of social dance pedagogy’ in Multimedia Histories: From the Magic Lantern to the Internet, eds James Lyons & John Plunkett, Exeter: University of Exeter Press.

Video

 Trailer for Twist (1992), directed by Ronn Man, Sphinx Productions, Canada.

Pictures

‘Hold/-path’ documentation for the Foxtrot, c.1926 (An Expert).

‘Animatic’ documentation for the Charleston, c.1926 (An Expert).

Experimental film strips for the Castle Walk, c.1914 (Castle & Castle).

The Smack, a disco line dance, 1979 (Meloney).

References

  • An Expert. The Modern Ballroom Dance Instructor. London: Geographia, c.1926.
  • Blackford, Andy. Disco Dancing Tonight. London: Octopus Books, 1979.
  • Blake, Dick. Discoteque Dances. Cleveland & New York: The World Publishing Company, 1965.
  • Buckman, Peter. Let’s Dance: Social, Ballroom and Folk Dancing. New York & London: Paddington Press, 1978.
  • Castle, Irene & Vernon Castle. Modern Dancing, New York: World Syndicate Co., c.1914.
  • Countdown, Dir. Ted Emery. Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 30 April 1978.
  • Dancing In The Street: A Rock And Roll History, Episode 1 “Whole Lotta Shakin’”. Dir. David Espar. British Broadcasting Corporation, 1996.
  • Dawson, Jim. The Twist: The Story of the Song and Dance That Changed the World. Boston and London: Faber and Faber, 1995.
  • Guest, Ann Hutchinson. Dance Notation : The Process of Recording Movement on Paper. London: Dance Books, 1984.
  • Meloney, Jennifer. You Can Disco. New York: Exeter Books, 1979.
  • More, Bob & Margaret More. Everybody Dance! It’s Nice ’N’ Easy. London: C. Arthur Pearson Ltd., 1962.
  • Peck, Abe, ed. Dancing Madness, Garden City, NY: Rolling Stone Press & Anchor Books, 1976.
  • Saturday Night Fever. Dir. John Badham. Paramount Pictures, USA, 1977.
  • Silvester, Victor. Modern Ballroom Dancing: History and Practice. London: Stanley Paul, 1977.
  • Stearns, Marshall & Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Da Capo Press, 1994.
  • Twist. Dir. Ron Mann. Sphinx Productions, Canada, 1992.
  • Villari, Jack and Kathleen Sims Villari. The Official Guide to Disco Dance Steps. Sydney: Methuen of Australia, 1979.