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When (And Why) Did We All Stop Learning How to Dance?

Blame Reagan, global pessimism and the ever-present specter of men judging other men for expressing themselves

There was a time, before The Killers’ now infamous song lyric, that I would argue we were both human and dancer. The 20th century brimmed with those who could waltz and those who could twist. Either you could polka, tango or Charleston, or you could Cha Cha real smooth. I mean, picture any social setting from any movie set in the 20th century: There’s always a dance scene, and every human on the floor knew how to dance.

But nowadays, apart from the occasional, “this is my song” routine that sees you drag your closest friend to the dance floor for a couple minutes of nodding your head in the direction of the DJ, shaking your ass in a social setting seems like it’s become a lot less coordinated.

So was all of that footloose and fancy-free movement of yore merely a Hollywood myth? Or has society at large simply lost its will to shimmy?

“If you’d take pretty much any demographic, any town, anywhere in America or Western Europe, any time in the 19th century, just about everybody would know how to dance,” says Richard Powers, who’s been teaching historic and contemporary social dance for 40 years, and is currently a full-time instructor at Stanford University’s Dance Division. “It was something you did. You went down into the town hall on a Saturday night, and you all knew how to waltz and polka, and do a quad drill. Some people even knew how to do another 10. So they might know how to do Schottische, Mazurka and Contra dances, things like that, but the point was that the average person knew six or eight different kinds of dances, and that didn’t change for a long time.”

Historian and blogger Walter Nelson also notes, in his post on why men don’t dance anymore, that there was a time in the early 1900s when everyone did. “Every public space had a dance floor and regular live music; most restaurants had dancing; every hotel hosted regular dances; and you couldn’t have a celebration or large social gathering without dancing,” he writes. “When men felt lonely and isolated, they would go to a taxi dance hall and pay women to dance with them. Dancing was central and essential to society and to the way men and women interacted.”

According to Powers, this dance boom began around 1910, just before World War I. “Rich and poor, urban and rural, black and white, everyone knew at least how to do a dance called the One-Step — a partner in your arms and you walk around the room — and probably the Foxtrot, which is very similar, and the Tango, and Hesitation Waltz, and a dance called the Mahesh or the Two-Step,” he says.

So what instigated this generational groove? In a couple of words: Unrequited hope.

According to Powers, at the end of the 19th century, there were great promises for an amazing new century. “You read in so many places that the 20th century was going to be changing into this amazing world, and then what happened? 1900 happened. 1902 happened and people around looked around and everything looked pretty much the same,” he says. “By 1905, things were still pretty much the same. So what happened was an expectation and anticipation of change. Culture tends to be very conservative: Individuals can be progressive, but you can’t change a culture. But here you had everyone wanting to see change, and a little bit of impatience for the change that was promised that hadn’t happened.”

At the same time, Powers points to the emergence of a new kind of music — Ragtime. “You also had a new kind of dancing, which people had never done before. You take somebody in your arms, and you just walk around the room with them. I don’t know why it never occurred to anybody before 1898 in river boats of the Mississippi River, and then catching on about 1910, but it was new.”

Soon enough, the stuffier classes were taking heed. Vernon and Irene Castle, a husband-and-wife team of ballroom dancers who appeared on Broadway and in silent films in the early 20th century, showed off “these steps very elegantly,” says Powers. “You have middle-class [people] saying, ‘Well, they’re people like us having a lot of fun with these dances. So even though I heard rumors that these had really low-class origins, they’re doing it properly. So I can, too.’” Powers compares it to a pressure cooker: “It had been building, and it just burst, and the One-Step was so easy anybody could do it.”

This boom of social dancing continued to evolve and spread all the way through the 1970s, according to Powers.

Dancer, choreographer and ethnodanceologist Yauri Dalencour agrees with Powers, adding that in the 1960s and 1970s there was, especially in the African-American community, a sense of connectedness and upward mobility around dance. “You have the blues, you have all these different things,” she explains. “You go into the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s, you have the Black Panthers, and you have people really embracing blackness and saying things like, ‘I’m Black, and I’m proud,’ embracing what it is to be black. That brings about all of the dance and the music and that sort of narrative all in one.”

Dalencour believes that the proliferation of types of dance during this era emerged at least in part as a form of defiance for many African Americans. “It’s also rebelling, where society is like, ‘We don’t embrace you. You’re not important. You’re not a part of this,’” she says. “Well, we’ll create our own dance to be a part of. We don’t have to be a part of that.”

But by the 1980s and 1990s, when the continued evolution of dances from nearly a century ago began to taper off, there was far less optimism. “Almost every science-fiction movie you could find [from that era] is of a bleak, negative future,” says Powers. “We had almost a universal pessimism. Then 1980 hits and with the Reagan approach, the conservatives’ mindset, the impact of AIDS on gays, that kind of closed down a few of the open doors of optimism and acceptance of otherness, and acceptance of trying out new things. For most people, the future was scary. 9/11 didn’t help that at all, of course.”

Powers cites the end of major cultural fads as another blow to the American dance experience. “Starting in the 1960s, you might have a choice of being a mod or a rocker. You had to make your choice, but there were only two. Then you hit the 1970s and you have the beginning of pluralism: You might have New Wave, you might have the beginning of hip hop. You have disco. You still have rock and roll. You have punk. Those are hugely divergent paths for dancing and music, and then by the 1980s, even more so. With that pluralism, there isn’t one fad to identify with — those five choices become 10 and then become 15. So it’s a lack of this one thing that everybody’s doing.”

Then, of course, came the invention of the internet, which helped increase niche dance culture. “Pluralism expanded, and you got further into this one narrow attraction you were very interested in, but you don’t know a whole lot of other friends who were into this one thing,” says Powers, who, it’s important to note, doesn’t necessarily think this newfound individuality is a bad thing. “At large, they’re good things, but the concept of dancing — or everyone knowing how to dance — became disjointed to the point where it wasn’t as easy to just go and learn something through a friend, because not everyone was doing it anymore.”

Yet another possible reason for the decline of more formalized dancing is the fact that, culturally speaking, dancing eventually became something of a joke. “We became jaded from watching mediocre Broadway musicals and Richard Simmons clones and SNL skits quickly turn our favorite dance moves into punchlines,” writes Heather Havrilesky for The New York Times Magazine. Essentially, the conditions of modernity which aimed to poke fun at everything started to make dancing seem absurd, too. “Moreover, instead of dancing, we are repeatedly encouraged to watch other people dance while we sit still,” Havrilesky continues. “Instead of jumping right into the electric slide with a bunch of kids and grandparents, or hitting the floor at a family gathering when the music starts, most of us are stationary. We don’t experience the latest dance craze firsthand so much as witness it passively as it body-rolls through the culture, our eyes glued to our screens.”

While there’s little doubt that social dancing has been on the decline since the end of the 1970s, it could be argued that men in particular are more to blame for waning dance culture. “I remember back in the 1980s, when we used to go to house parties or even to the clubs people used to actually dance and sweat their asses off all while having fun,” complains one commenter on “Nowadays when you go out, dudes just stare at you and on top of that won’t even buy you a drink.” Another person (presumably another woman) replies, “Yes, my first and last time ever going to a club, me and my friends were trying to dance but people were constantly just walking through or would literally stand in the middle of us. And I hate those guys that run up behind you and hold onto you while you dancing and they just stand there. Like I’m not about to be putting in all the work, get to it or get the fuck off.”

So how come dudes have lost the urge to shimmy? Writing for Psychology Today, dance psychologist Peter Lovatt suggests that, since men associate dancing with mating, they’re less likely to participate once they’ve settled down. A number of men seemed to get to the heart of their reasons for dancing (and not dancing),” writes Lovatt. “For them it is all to do with finding a mate. ‘The only times I have ever danced were to try and pick up women,’ wrote a man in his early 30s and another man of the same age wrote, ‘I do not dance now because I am married with a child.’”

As for the younger crowd, there’s another potential reason why men increasingly despair of the dance floor: Self-consciousness. “One man in his early 30s made the astonishing statement, ‘I think I’m too ugly to dance,’ and several other men expressed similar sentiments (‘I look foolish,’ ‘I look and feel stupid’ and ‘It looks funny when I dance’) concerning how they think they look when they dance,” he writes.

Which, according to Nelson, isn’t entirely unwarranted. “Mocking the failings of male dancers is a mainstay of our popular culture (e.g., The “White Man’s Overbite”), and most men’s greatest fear, surpassing things like spiders, heights and other phobias, is looking ridiculous — being an object of general mockery,” he writes. “While many might be willing to fight through that fear once in a while, for a special occasion or at the specific urging of the women in their lives, they are generally not disposed to do it on a regular basis. Risking ridicule is a major effort, and not one to be undertaken lightly.”

Men judging and shaming other men out of activities they might otherwise enjoy — it’s a depressingly familiar story. Still, despite men currently feeling too “seen” by the bright lights of the dance floor, both Dalencour and Powers are optimistic about the future of social dancing. “We can move back to that place,” says Dalencour. “It takes people like myself being brave enough to say, ‘How can I integrate the use of dance in this day and age with technology or other ways so that it can still engage people and allow people to feel connected, while also be a medium or a modality that people turn to and give respect to?”

As for the dance courses Powers teaches at Stanford, he says he’s noticed an increase in class sizes over the last few years, which he believes is a sign of things to come. “So many people have mentioned that now that we’re in a virtual society of social media, and we’re connecting to somebody through our phone and through screens, that we’ve lost contact with each other,” he says. “That’s one of the motivations for why people sign up for these classes and learn how to do dance, because they know how much time they’re sitting in front of the screen by themselves. They crave human interaction, and here’s a wonderful way to have a creative, playful, stress-free [interaction], where nobody’s judging you. You mess around and play around back-and-forth with these dance forms. It’s needed. It’s a craving.”

Power’s optimism may be enough to at least help encourage his students and their community to dance, dance, dance. But at a time when gloom and distrust blares in the background of every conversation about the future, it’s hard to imagine the masses surrendering themselves to the next popular boogie — should another one break loose.