In this contribution to ISRF Bulletin 23, Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder discuss what the covers of dance records can tell us about the history of racial identity in the United States.
Rochester Institute of Technology
Main image: covers of two midcentury records
Communities come into being in the midst of dancing. Bodies move together, respond to and address other bodies: It’s a way of getting to know each other, flirt, and embrace. In this sense, the social emerges from relations formed through dancing. Dance halls, and other spaces for dance, become sites of meaningful and productive social relations. What happens on the dance floor, happens in society, including broader social mixing; and social dance as an engine of various forms of integration was not lost on those who have worked to keep dance venues and dance floors segregated.
During the midcentury period—roughly from the 1940s to the 1960s—social dancing underwent a powerful transformation in the United States. Earlier forms like the Waltz, Lindy, and Polka made way for popular Latin dances, including the Mambo and the Rhumba, which were in turn eclipsed by rock and roll dances like the Twist and the Frug in the 1960s. Midcentury dance records from a wide array of record companies and labels reached out to a panoply of listeners, providing dance lessons, as well as lessons in how to dress, date, and discover diverse musical styles, opening spaces for fashion, romance, and cultural understanding. Records also helped open the horizons of dancing, including new ways of engaging friends and family, as well as wider communities in one’s home town and in countries around the globe.
Records for dancing oscillate between modernity—dancing the latest steps—and tradition—dancing ancestral steps—as they narrate a history of cultural influences, popular styles, and trends. Thus, midcentury dance records address broad cultural themes, often in surprising ways, and tell a story of American identity. Dance records can also be seen as important material objects of assimilation: American products that nevertheless portray homelands left behind, commemorate national (and ethnic) identities, and preserve memories and aspects of another life.
American history and dance are inextricably intertwined: Christopher Columbus was greeted with dance by indigenous tribes; European immigrants introduced their social dance traditions; and African people captured and held as slaves preserved dance practices from their homelands. Multiple influences and mixtures laid foundations for dance in the so-called New World. As rhythms and steps were adapted and adopted, some dances maintained recognisable elements, while others merged and developed into something new entirely.
Dance records communicate clues about race and ethnicity, as well as proper and improper protocol, creating markers for who the dancers are, where they come from, and why they dance. One genre of dance records focuses on “American” dances, including square dancing and Native American dances. Then, there is “ethnic” dancing, such as belly dancing, the Hula, and the Polka. Belly dance records often feature musicians—some Syrian, some Turkish, for example—who played the burgeoning nightclub circuit that promised “an evening in the exotic orient” with your “ethnic” dinner. Such records were often simply a way to introduce music unfamiliar to most Americans through a veil of exotic dance.
Other dance LPs feature “hot” Latin rhythms. What was “Latin” about them? Why were they “hot”? And, how did United States dancers start dancing “Latin” dances? Such questions tend to lead back to this: Many Latin dance records feature Afro-Cuban rhythms and dances, and their liner notes often include condensed histories of slavery. Not unrelated to that story’s context—and the “primitiveness” and “passion” attributed to Latin dances—Afro-Cuban and Latin drumming and dancing sometimes were presented as a threat to order, on the dance floor and in society at large. Historically, conservative religious groups, government officials, and owners of enslaved people tended to perceive such dances and accompanying instruments as signaling liberatory movement, unwelcome for a number of reasons. The dances and drums were often banned—lending the beat a certain rebellious racialised tone.
Embedded in national and international struggles over narrative control, dances and their album liner note origin stories reveal political positioning. Some narratives approach accuracy; some speculate; and others are based on misunderstandings, deceptions, even calculated lies. To be sure, governments, rulers, and politicians have played roles in strategically disrupting cultural elements—forbidding all speech in a native language, taking away musical instruments, and banning dance—that provide community continuity, worth, and resistance to unwelcome change or devastating erasure. Governing bodies and overseers have also worked to promote so-called folk traditions that work in tandem with their own particular visions of political malleability and expedient group identity. What does it mean to claim affiliation and identities in such a context? Midcentury record album covers express these struggles.
Dancing Other People’s Steps
Movements and meanings emerging directly from social dance communities traveled beyond their local origins, sometimes becoming popular dances at the national and even international level. Depending upon the ways in which dances moved out into the wider world, and who was credited—and perhaps more subtly, the racial, ethnic, or class differences between the dancing populations—there was plenty of room for accusations of appropriation, disrespect, and stealing. White dance floors became infamous spaces for appropriation, as “adapted” dance steps from the Spanish countryside or Trinidadian religious rituals found their way to country clubs and middle-class rec rooms. Altered rural dance traditions moved into ballrooms; and Manhattan’s “high society” legendarily high-jacked the Twist. Dance appropriation occurs between traditionally oppressed groups, as well, as the so-called Mardi Gras Indians demonstrate, with long-standing African-American traditions of dressing and dancing as Native Americans during Mardi Gras festival ceremonies and parades. A key issue remains—who is able to benefit from such appropriation, whether financially or reputationally.
Dancing other people’s steps creates the space and occasion for a variety of relations: honour, respect, desire, appropriation, subordination, or mimicry—sometimes insulting—among them. All of these relations stem from a recognition of difference between the Other whose steps these are, and a Self who mimics or imitates, enacting a difference in doing steps that are not the Self’s own. This cements identities—notions of who one is and who one is not—and even in the closeness of embodying the dance, places the Other at an exotic distance, characterised by the Self, and frozen as such. In this process, the Self becomes something, someone, not possible otherwise. Dancing other people’s steps produces a variety of identity formations, often informed by colonialism, made visible on midcentury dance record covers.
What do people mean when they say other people’s dances were adapted for the White dance floor? One answer suggests that White dancers wanted other people’s steps, but tailored for them. In other words, Black, Latin, or native dances for White dancers. Similar processes occurred again and again over the decades, and rock and roll served up another example, with a debt to rhythm and blues and dance moves linked to Lindy Hop, deeply steeped in African-American traditions.
The transformation of the Limbo from a Trinidadian ritual concerned with death and rebirth to the next in a long line of US dance fads offers lessons in cultural appropriation—how rituals shake off deeper social significance as they gain in popularity and make the shift from a community-based tradition to a mass media phenomenon, tourist attraction, and dance floor fad. The Limbo story offers reminders of the difficulties in dancing others’ steps—what gets lost in the quest to move the way others do, and how dances change in the popularisation process. Thus, the lyrics of what came to be known as the Limbo Song that urge listeners to “Limbo, Limbo, Limbo like me” form a complex and contested demand.
The Limbo, as featured on midcentury dance records, generally stresses “fun,” yet liner notes often include details about slavery, mourning, and death. Along with popular versions of Calypso, the space between Limbo the dance fad and Limbo the cultural ritual is wide. Limbo records that mention links to slavery generally adopt a matter-of-fact tone, arguably minimising the human impact. The offhand way that liner notes present slavery, as a context for dance innovation, as just one detail in the story of Limbo, normalises and trivialises the institution of slavery and the situation of enslaved people. However, given the erasure and marginalisation of enslaved peoples’ existence in popular culture—and textbooks—of the time, the mere mention of slavery on Limbo records seems noteworthy.
The flaming limbo bar and handheld bottle torches fire up the atmosphere around the Julia Edwards Dance Group on Limbo from Trinidad. Julia Edwards is credited with bringing the Limbo to the world. She apparently also invented the burning limbo bar. Working with carnival costume designer Helen Humphrey to shift the “mournful black and white” attire to something more vibrant—the bold red and black seen here—Edwards and her troupe moved what in recent memory had been a multi-day funerary ritual into realms of mainstream dance and high-energy entertainment. The theatrical costumes impacted visions of Limbo attire worldwide. Chains around the female dancers’ necks evoke a history of slavery that contributes explanations of Limbo movement. The rough skin drum head, the outdoor setting, and associations of flame with unsettling rituals, puts this cover scenario into the realm of the primitive.
The Home of Happy Feet
The Home of Happy Feet features an illustrated montage of images linked to the renowned Savoy Ballroom in New York City. A smiley Lindy Hopping couple dominates the image, surrounded by a band’s horn section, more dancers, and a line of patrons waiting to get in. In the background, the Savoy’s illuminated marquee announces Van Alexander and His Orchestra, who provide the music for the album, “a swinging salute to the great bands and tunes featured in New York’s legendary Savoy Ballroom.” The Savoy Ballroom, which was sadly demolished in 1958 during a fit of urban renewal, was located on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets in Harlem. During its heyday, it was the place for creative, interrelated Black musical and dance forms.
Bought at a local supermarket, department store, or specialty record shop and brought into the home, midcentury dance records visualised the fashions, environments, and accoutrements of dancing. These vinyl artifacts reveal untold stories of US identity, and offer a compelling, colourful catalog of the dances, music, and entertainers that inspired postwar America.
Our work at the intersections of consumption, identity, and representation has led us to write about advertising, brands, photography, and the commodification of skin. We’ve focused on gender and race primarily, in both historical and contemporary contexts. We draw upon critical race theory, feminist theory, and social psychology to develop what we have called an ethics of representation. A recurring theme in our research has been to critically examine record album covers for their representational power and insights into identity, framing vinyl as midcentury media.
In 2017, we published a book, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America, that discussed record album design and its contribution to postwar American consumer culture. We argued that album covers are not just decorated cardboard that protected the vinyl disks within; rather, record album covers in the 1950s and 1960s served ideological, pedagogical, and rhetorical purposes. In our forthcoming book, Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance, we reflect on the role of dance records and their covers in the midcentury imagination.
 Robert Krulwich, “How Columbus Said Hello: He Tried Dancing,” National Geographic 4 February 2016, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/how-to-greet-an-alien-true-case-studies.
 Janet Borgerson & Jonathan Schroeder, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (Cambridge, MA 2017: MIT Press).
 Janet Borgerson & Jonathan Schroeder, Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance (Cambridge, MA 2021: MIT Press).
Janet Borgerson is a Wicklander Fellow at the Center for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University. She hold degrees in philosophy and Islamic studies. Her research has appeared in a range of journals, including Body & Society, The C.L.R. James Journal, Consumption Markets & Culture, and Philosophy Today. She is author of Caring and Power in Female Leadership: A Philosophical Approach (Newcastle upon Tyne, Cambridge Scholars Press, 2018) and co-author of Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (MIT Press, 2017). See https://www.designedforhifiliving.com/
Jonathan Schroeder is the William A. Kern Professor in the School of Communication at Rochester Institute of Technology. He has published widely on branding, communication, identity, and visual culture. He is the author of Visual Consumption (Routledge, 2002), and co-author of Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America (MIT Press, 2017). See https://www.rit.edu/kern/