Friday, April 7, 2017

Dancing Plague: Choreomania

Between the 13th to 16th century large populations of Europe were afflicted with frenzied dancing. People would gather together and dance until they dropped with exhaustion or sometimes death. The Dancing Plague or choreomania was a significant challenge to public health as it pervaded through the populations of Germany, Holland and Italy for three centuries.

First described medically by Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541). The cause of the dancing plague (or dancing mania) remains unknown. Paracelsus, Philippus Aureolus, was a Swiss physician, chemist, alchemist and metallurgist, he gained wide popularity, although his contemporaries often opposed him. Paracelsus classified variants of the disorder according to whether the underlying cause was lust, an abnormal mental state, or some unidentified physical factor. Davidson (1867) later defined the condition of choreomania as a psycho-physical disease in which the will, intellectual faculties, and moral feelings are more or less perverted, with an irresistible impulse to motion, and an insane love of music, often sporadic, but with a tendency in certain circumstances to become epidemic. The essential features of the disease were it could occur sporadically or in epidemics. It was a psychological disease distinguishable from modern chorea, and from organic nervous diseases.

Choreomania was always characterised by an uncontrollable impulse to dance, and a morbid love of music. Physical contact with an affected person was not a prerequisite for contracting the disease (the sight or sound of someone already afflicted could be sufficient). In its epidemic form, an attack was generally preceded by premonitory nervous symptoms and the disease was commonly manifest by physical symptoms including death. Many claims were made as to the actual cause including demonic possession, epilepsy, tarantula bites, ergot poisoning as well as social adversity. It is unlikely to have been caused by any one single event but instead due to multiple factors combined with predisposition such as cultural background, and triggered by adverse circumstances. (Donaldson, Cavanagh and Rankin, 1997).

Corrupt clergy claimed baptism prevented the disease and hence, by reverse logic, claims were made the dancing plague was caused by demonic possession. Because the involuntary movements during an epileptic seizure appeared similar to dance like movement many contemporaries confused the condition but it is unlikely the dancing plague had any connection with epilepsy.

In Italy from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries as deforestation took place a large population of tarantulas appeared in the Apulian region. Many claimed spider bites were the cause of choreomania but due to the nature of the disease this is also thought unlikely.

The most plausible cause was poisoning due to eating rye contaminated with a fungus, claviceps purpura. This resulted in ergot poisoning which gave symptoms such as nausea, abdominal cramps, itching, muscle pain, spasms, and visual and hearing disturbances, all of which may precede epileptic convulsions. Larger quantities of rye were consumed during periods of hardship when people could not afford meat. The Christian church was determined to stamp out old and pagan religions and would brand previous forms of worship as the behaviour of the ill and disturbed. Another reason for the Dancing Plague was a spontaneous release from the bleakness of the Middle Ages. The Church realised the danger of dancing and a council meeting in Paris (1212) declared that "dancing was a worse crime then ploughing the soil on Sunday" (Hennig, 1995).

By the sixteenth century court dancing was well established and the tune Green Sleeves was popular at this time. Green Sleeves is considered by many to be the oldest dance tune to have survived in modern times.

During the 14th to the 16th century in Europe there was an important ritual called the Dance of Death. The parade was led by a figure representing death and became established after the Black Death in 1373. It is thought the dance of death reflected rituals performed by primitive peoples, who had also danced to acknowledge the passing of the seasons of the year and of a human life on Earth. Other dances in the Middle Ages did the same.

In the spring dances, village people performed fertility dances including Morris Dancing and during certain saints' day women danced in churches. Battle dances including the sword dances were performed throughout Europe.

Apart from ceremonial shoes which were found in tribal dancing from North America to Australia there appears to be no special shoe requirement for European dancing until after the 11th Century in Europe where more and more social dancing became the prerogative of aristocracy.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A brief history of the Sock Hop (or Record Hop)

In the mid 40s, Record Hops became popular in North America. These were usually informal dance events for teenagers, held by the American Junior Red Cross to raise funds for the War effort. The school gym or cafeteria at high schools and other educational institutions was the preferred venue. However, to protect the varnished floor surfaces, the dancers were required to remove their hard-soled shoes, and bop in their stocking feet. The absence of young men at War meant a dearth of live entertainers and the young dancers usually jived to vinyl records presented by a disc jockey.

Unlike today, teenagers were neglected socially and expected to be seen but not heard. All that began to change at the beginning of the 20th century when psychologists identified adolescence as a concrete life stage. Teenagers began to be treated as a group psychologically distinct from children and adults. During the war years, it was important to keep ‘spirits up,’ and the mind of teenagers occupied. The focus on supervised school dances with the swirl of skirts, crinkle of lettermen's jackets and the soft scuffle of socked feet across a wooden gym floor to the sound of their favourite pop stars was very effective.

Teenage girls wore white socks which were either ankle length or collected at the ankle. These were called bobby sox and soon the term was used to describe teenage girls who went to the sox (sock) hop.

The fashion started with young Frank ‘The Voice’ Sinatra fans, who publically swooned at the prospect of his live performances. Swooning was a public display of infatuation and involved girls groaning and dramatically flailing their arms before placing their hands on their foreheads or cheeks and ultimately falling to the ground, overwhelmed. The Sinatra fans were collectively called "bobby-soxers" in reference to the white, folded-over ankle socks they wore. The term soon was adopted to describe all female adolescents.

By the 50s and introduction of television, teenagers could now see their favourite musicians performing live and the wild new incarnation of fandom was forged. Sock hops became associated with Rock ‘n Roll where live groups replaced vinyl records. The new, bobby-soxers wore ankle socks with saddle shoes, penny loafers or ballet-style slippers. A Shetland sweater with cuffed blue jeans or a poodle skirt, along with a trendy identification bracelet bearing a girl's name or initials, completed the outfit. Boy’s footwear of choice were chucks.

Sock hops evolved into ‘Discos,’ by the early 60s, as older teenagers with disposable income, flocked to more intimate night club settings.

There was a brief revival of sock hops in the UK during the 80s, when rockabilly became vogue.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The C-Walk

Crips is the name of a street gang formed in Los Angles in 1969 by a 15-year-old malcontent called Raymond Washington. Gang activities were first reported on the campus of Washington High School in South-central Los Angles where they had a reputation for violence and extortion around school campuses. The delinquents adopted school colours as a means of identification. The Crips were originally called the Baby Avenues but the name evolved to Avenue Crips then was shortened to Crips. No one is sure of the origins of the name Crips and there are several competing theories.

Some believe Crips was an acronym for Community Revolution In Progress or Community Resources for Independent People. The gang was started as a power to the people reaction brought on by ever increasing police harassment of ethnic groups. However, despite Raymond Washington’s interest in the Black Panther movement of the 60s, this is considered a rather romantic notion. Instead many think Crips was derived from the term Crib (reference to the young age of the gang members). More than likely, Crips came from a misprint in the newspaper the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1972, when it was used to describe an assault by young men with walking canes. Similar to 17th century, Dandies of London, LA gangs carried walking sticks as weapons, this outwardly gave the impression to all they were physically challenged or crippled.

A similar thing happened in Australia in the 18th century when a newspaper reporter misheard evidence in court and labelled a ruffian, a Larrikin. What was said by the policeman giving evidence was the accused had been “larking (about),” in any event the name stuck.

The term “crip” was written on his Converse tennis shoes. As the Crips became established LA street gangs the movement grew and branched out with new subsidiary and or realigned with existing gangs. Crip culture now can be found in nearly every US city and beyond and sets are heavily involved in urban warfare, drug sales, protection and violent take-over robberies and warehouse burglaries. At first the Crips were predominately Black or Hispanic but many other ethnic groups have subsequently adopted the Crip tag.

Crip sets (gangs) traditionally have arch enemies called the Bloods. In most instances, Crips, have affiliated to the Folk Nation and Bloods are aligned with the People Nation. There is no national leader controlling the sets which makes detection by law enforcement agencies very difficult. The age of gang members ranges from 15 to 35 years. Some sets have three groupings; the "Old Gangster" are likely to be the originators of the set; "Gangsters", who are the hard-core members and the most violent; and "BGs" (baby gangsters) or TGs (tiny gangsters), who are the younger juvenile members. Similar subdivisions were identified in the Glasgow gangs of the 1960s. Older members with 'earned' reputations will often control younger members. For this reason, they are referred to as "Shot Callers."

Individuals are rarely known by their own names and have an alias or tag. Gang initiation ceremonies can involve being physically beaten by other gang members, which is referred to as the “kangaroo walk” or “bullpen”. The initiation process is often called “courting” and is designed to show courage and gang loyalty. Most codes of conduct require lifetime allegiance to the group.

Colours have played an important role in gang clothing and blue (in several shades) featured initially in Crips’ sartorial, whereas the Bloods preferred red. Crips would initially wear a blue bandana hanging from their left back pocket of their jeans. Crips also wore personal accessories to identify their affiliations such as hats, handkerchiefs, shoelaces, and belts. Fila jogging suits, Adidas sweatshirts with lids (caps) and professional sports team jackets with the names of Los Angeles teams, preferred. Dickey brand cotton work pants or bib-style overalls are worn LA Sag style i.e. loose fitting below the hips and revealing fanny (backside) cleavage. Nike trainers and British Knights (BKs) shoes were also popular.

The bacronym , BK represented "Blood Killers,” which had particular bravado appeal. The shoes were particularly recognisable by their chunky sole design, large tongue and inclusion of multiple "BK" logos on the heel, toe guard and upper. The brand was featured prominently in hip hop and dance music videos by artists such as Public Enemy, Technology and Beats International.

Many leading sport shoe companies deliberately court the patronage of youth culture and examples where they have breached good taste by affiliation with drug and gang activities is well documented. Sometimes this bad boy image adversely affects the fortunes of the companies themselves and when it was rumoured a company were contemplating releasing a shoe called Christian Knights (CK or Crip Killer) then many high schools and universities banned footwear previously associated with gangs.

Crips have made much less use of colours as a means of identification, since it was drawing too much attention from police. Now gang members use body tattoos, similar to the Japanese Yakuza. Crips have developed intricate communication systems that involve not only graffiti to mark territorial boundaries, but also the use of hand signals, called flashing. Much of this symbolism is caught in tagging and tattoo designs. Some popular West Coast rappers have close ties to Crips gangs in L.A. and will include reference to them in their songs. On rapper WC’s song "The Streets, he and Snoop Dogg rap about the C-walks , a popular dance with Crips.

Another song with a similar instance is "Not a Dance," by Spider Loc, Young Buck and C-Bo .

British Knights featured in "Back in the Day" by Missy Elliott featuring Jay Z and again in Robbie Williams’ hit “The 80’s.”

Perhaps the most up front reference to Clip’s sartoria came in Michael Jackson's Extended Music Video The way you make me feel. The video starts with the Crip Walk and Michael Jackson is seen wearing a blue shirt.

The Crip walk has now become part of youth street culture and features commonly in hip hop routines, with no particular meaning. Initially, controlled gait included body movements which spelt out certain words and co-ordinated hand movements demonstrating sacred gang signs. Typically the choreographed steps were performed to West Coast gangsta rap and G-funk. Soon pro crip rappers like Ice Cube and WC transformed the street cred steps into boogie for their stage performances. If you would like to learn how to do the crip Walk there are several websites but below is a good start with a simple set of instructions to start you trucking right.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Sunday, November 6, 2016

La belle Epoque and knicker elastic

During La Belle Époque philosophers and artists were in abundance as a new order of civilization was born. In cities like Paris all manner of excess was in evidence and whilst polite society accepted revelers drinking Champaign from a lady’s slipper the mere sight of bare footed woman caused riots whenever they featured in plays. The Paris of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) had embraced sex with a vengeance and prostitution was raised to a commercial art form. Themed bordellos prevailed with every sort of variation openly catered for.


There was even ‘A guide to’ booklet for the more discerning gentleman. In these days this cost many Francs, which would indicate the demographic was favored by the affluent. Purely for academic interests, your intrepid reporter can report the Foot Lover was catered for. (Oh, the things I do in the name of research). Promiscuity was found at all levels of society and the term Le Demi Monde (morality and manners) was coined by Alexander Dumas (1855) to describe a woman whose marital infidelity or careless behavior had cast her outside the boundaries of respectable society. Many of the girls were actresses by day and some pretty prominent, too.

The Madams such as La Paiva, Caroline Otero, and the cockney Cora Pearl became well known figures in Paris Society. Not all philosophers approved and Nietzsche and Proust were outspoken against this side of woman. By the middle of the nineteenth century the polka piqué became extremely popular in Paris dance halls. Girls kicked their legs as high as possible and although condemned by the moralists this was loved by those interested in catching site of frothy knickers on show. The quadrille naturaliste was a fairly simple dance which required a series of high kicks: the woman kicked over the heads of their partners then grasped an ankle high above their heads, dancing on one foot. The pleasure of the dance was the display of shapely legs in black stockings, lace petticoats, and perhaps a glimpse of bare thigh below the black silk knickers. A risqué version was to polka piqué with no underwear on, which was more often than not the case. A version of the popular polka was converted a stage chorography by a soloist or more often, a group or chorus. The polka piqué combined with the quadrille naturaliste to become the Robert Macaire then the Chabut before emerging as the Can Can.

Decidedly ‘naughty’ this was a good excuse for high kicks and flashing the underwear. Can Can sans culottes was the ultimate fantasy for the lads of the time. It was a dance perhaps more notorious than evident though there is no doubt it was performed. However rest easy, the Can Can could not have taken place historically before the invention of vulcanized rubber and the introduction of elastic, which to this day keeps the famous dance, respectable.

Anonymous 1996 The pretty women of Paris Hertfordshire :Wordsworth Editions p34
Batterberry M &A 1977 Mirror mirror: a social history of fashion New York: Holt Rinehart & Winston
Parker D & J 1975 The natural history of the chorus girl Melbourne: Landsdowne Press.

Reviewed 7/11/2016

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A decade of viral dance moves

Dancers from around North America perform the most popular dance moves of the past decade.

Thursday, September 8, 2016