Stepping Into 1920

Jumpin' and Jivin'

In FWIS 192: The Roaring Twenties, we study 1920s culture alongside 1920s literature, so we spend time with some of the most important historico-cultural phenomena of the decade: Prohibition, jazz, and dance. We listen to the music that inspired organized movement and we analyze the frenzied fervor of swinging limbs that became known as the Charleston.

In November 2015, LPAP dance instructor Jackie Nalett choreographed a Charleston partner dance for us, complete with knock-knees, pantomime, improvisation, and dips. Charlestoning together allowed us to close-read the movements of our own bodies as time-traveling dance-texts. This kind of active learning proved an integral part of our reconstruction of 20s aesthetics through 20s culture. Like Midnight in Paris’ main character, Gil Pender, who travels back in time to the ‘20s to dance with Djuna Barnes, drink with Ernest Hemingway, and have Gertrude Stein read his novel, learning the dance enabled us to embody the 20s experience.

Scroll down to see video and photos of our lesson, which was both an education and a blast!

Laura Richardson, Instructor

Neil Seoni and Emily Ashkin (who loves her greens and wants everyone to know it) strike a pose.

Rae Holcomb, already an expert ballroom dancer, shows off her moves.

Something’s puzzling Russell Kielawa, but Amber Dai isn’t fazed.

Sreesh Shenoy didn’t drop Maddie O’Brian once!

Dancing, watching Midnight in Paris, and drinking Laura’s attempt at mocktails in Wiess’ excellent movie room. From the left: Russell Kielawa, Megha Sheth, Neil Seoni, Rick Rivera, Rae Holcomb, Laura Richardson, Jacob Song, Annie Shen, Sreesh Shenoy, Maddie O’Brian, and Amber Dai.

A Modernist Performance

I admit it, when my fabulous FWIS teacher Laura Richardson told us we could present our final project in any format (“Even interpretive dance!” she said, throwing her hands up in a Jazz Age gesture) I took it as a challenge. But who can pass up an opportunity like that?

My FWIS was all about modernism in the 1920s, and there were a few key concepts I wanted to incorporate into my project. First, it seemed obvious that the music for my dance should be jazz. Jazz swept across the country in the 1920s, reinventing music into an accessible and expressive art form that challenged traditional ideas of what music was and who could create it. I selected the song “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, which has a clear musical structure and showcases each instrument in the band through improvisational solos that are prototypical of jazz music. It was important to me to capture the spontaneity of jazz through my movement, so I decided to improvise each part rather than choreograph it ahead of time.

Another commonality among modernist works is to observe the world in a fragmented way, though many perspectives. In my dance, I captured this element by using many camera angles. Through this view, each body part becomes a “character” that experiences the music through a different instrument. Each is an individual, separated from all the others, and yet when merged together they give a more complete understanding of the song. And as a final hat tip to the time before “talkie” films, I decided to record my project in black and white.

Rae Holcomb, McMurtry '19