- Society Dancing: Fashionable Bodies in England, 1870–1920 by Theresa Jill Buckland
As public fascination with televised ballroom dancing shows such as Strictly Come Dancing (UK) and Dancing with the Stars (US) show no signs of abating, Theresa Buckland’s historical study of ballroom dancing in England provides a timely reminder of an earlier period when couple dancing attracted widespread public and media attention. Drawing on extensive archival research, Buckland traces the history of ballroom dancing in England from the regulated manners of the Victorian ballroom to the 1920s dance floor transformed by war, American influences, and modern conceptions of class, race, gender, and nationality. In doing so, she raises questions about popularity and modernity that should prompt productive discussion among both historians and dance scholars.
Society Dancing is a distinctive contribution to historical research on ballroom dancing, much of which has focused on the United States (for example, Aldrich 1991; Malnig 1992), and, to a lesser extent, continental Europe (for example, Cordova 1999). However, as Buckland points out (3), it was the English style of ballroom dancing that was disseminated worldwide in the early twentieth century, producing the codified vocabulary that would form the core of the global competitive and social ballroom dancing industry in the later twentieth century. Nevertheless, the “English style” did not develop in isolation, and Buckland considers the influence of African-American social dances in the early twentieth century, putting her text into dialogue with existing research on ragtime (Cook 1999; Robinson 2009, 2010), tango (Savigliano 1995), and jazz dance (Stearns and Stearns 1968).
The intersection of English ballroom dancing with these imported dance forms raises questions of race and nationality, as well as gender and sexuality, that Buckland addresses in depth. Yet the book is not primarily driven by theoretical concerns; rather, rich archival details are foregrounded. The excesses and the blind spots of archival dance collections are, therefore, sometimes reflected in the text. In the first four chapters, for example, I grew increasingly hungry for physical dance description, notoriously absent from primary social dance sources. But as the book progressed, the discussion of repertoire and the numerous illustrations lent the archived bodies flesh and movement.
Issues of class loom large in social dance history in this period, and the book addresses these throughout, drawing on both archival research and Norbert Elias’s (1978) and Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) seminal theoretical works on bodily constructions of class. The book’s focus on the social dance practices of elite British “Society” raises provocative questions about the scope of popular dance research and the notion of the “popular” itself. Research into popular culture, particularly that influenced by the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, has been significantly shaped by the Marxist-inflected idea that popular culture is the culture of the working classes. Stuart Hall, for example, acknowledges that, “[t]he term ‘popular’ has very complex relations to the term ‘class,’” but ultimately centers his definition of popular culture on “[t]he culture of the oppressed, the excluded classes: this is the area to which the term ‘popular’ refers us” [End Page 148] (Hall 1998: 452). As Buckland points out (14), research into popular dance was redefined and catalyzed in the 1980s and 1990s by the rapid growth of cultural studies, and although popular dance methodologies tend to be far less obviously influenced by Marxist ideas than those in cultural studies, nevertheless, the distinction between popular dance and “high art” dance remains primarily defined by class. For example, Julie Malnig rightly states, “Popular dance …, like social dance, is generally seen as a counterpoint to what have typically been considered ‘high’ culture or classical forms of dance aimed at privileged audiences” (Malnig 2009: 5). Buckland’s book, therefore, implicitly raises the question: what about the social dance practices of the elites? Can they be defined as “popular” dance?
As John Storey (2003) has clearly demonstrated in his categorization of theories of popular culture, there are many definitions of the popular...