Classical Ballet to Modern Dance: The Cultural Impact on the World of Dance in the American 1920s and 1930s.

The end of the First World War brought with it the beginning of a more expressive, unrestricted culture. This could be seen in the realms of media, fashion, and performing arts, and particularly in dance, in the United States. Though the war had taken place a continent away, America's physical and financial participation irrevocably took a toll on the country and shifted American culture in several ways. For example, prior to World War I, mass production of goods had been consistent, which created a sort of 'aesthetic conformity' across the nation. By 1917, when the United States officially declared war on Germany, many men felt there was an opportunity to break out of that conformity and sign up for a heroic, manly adventure. Patriotism was the prevalent attitude and is deeply rooted within the literature and propaganda of the late 1910s, as authors and film studios grappled with what was to come out of entry into war, who and what was "truly American," and encouraging the most wholesome, moral depictions of American life. By 1919, however, it was evident that the cultural landscape had shifted with an increase in postwar strikes, labor activism, the 'Red Scare' brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and renewed interest in the women's suffrage movements. Americans were turning their focus to individual expression and civil liberties over the pre-war mass conformity.

As the new decade began, it is seen in both literature and theater that writers were attempting to convey the cultural changes as a "schism of generational attitudes," in which the 'lost generation' had no respect for anything. (1) This article explores the ways in which performing arts changed during the 1920s and 1930s, focusing on the transition from ballet to modern dance. Ballet, which came to the U.S. from Europe, was a traditional form of performing arts specifically for the elite to enjoy. There were tight restrictions on both movements and the dancers performing them. (2) Modern dance represented a much more accessible art form, enjoyed by those of the lower-middle class in addition to the upper class, with choreographers being more expressive, using the bodily capabilities of almost any person, regardless of their body type or prior training in dance. Thus, it sprang up as a uniquely American dance form.

Although there are more elements that make up a 'dance culture,' ballet and modern dance are significant because they best reflected the broader American culture, defined here as the similar patterns in the way of living formed by a group of human beings during the inter-war years. This article refers to American culture as pertaining particularly to those who lived in the cities as a lower-middle class to upper-class population, unless otherwise specified. Through books, magazine articles, and newspaper articles, this author contends that popular modern dance stemmed from traditional classical ballet directly because changing forces from outside the world of dance such as in media, technology, and fashion, took traditional ballet and molded it into a new, more accessible, more expressive form of art. This discussion is important because through examining several aspects of the changing society during the 1920s and 1930s, the changes made from ballet to modern dance are understood more clearly.

Dance styles frequently fluctuated yet remained integrated in the makeup of American culture during the 1920s and 1930s. The post-war edginess and experimentation that arose in the 1920s influenced the way the dance audience perceived and enjoyed classical performances. The overarching theme of the decade was to shed the traditions and experiment with all things new, including fashion and dance. This cultural phenomenon is evidenced strongly by the female 'Flappers' of the 1920s who cut their hair short, wore skirts that showed their ankles, and danced to jazz music--all things that the 'wholesome' American culture of the prewar years labeled outrageous and immoral. New dances and methods arose throughout the decade as well, seen in part through various dance marathons popular at that time. The expressive freedom that the 1920s offered--partially due to a blossoming economy--provided the opportunities that choreographers generally needed to broaden their skills of notating dance and skills to sharpen the individuality of their performances. Then, in 1929 the country entered the Great Depression. The multitude of difficulties faced by the United States during this period, including low income-jobs and shockingly high unemployment, impacted the broader culture including media, fashion, mass consumerism, and the performing arts. Americans were forced to be more frugal which in turn meant that the experimentation of the 1920s with new fashions, lavish parties, and consumption of goods was largely halted. Within the performing arts, however, a stable audience base that emerged during the previous decade provided the opportunity for modern dance to remain a part of the culture, and as with most of the popular culture that rose in popularity during the 1920s, provided an escape from the hardships of everyday life for many Americans. The product of a decade of experimentation (the 1920s) and a decade of hard economic times (the 1930s) set the stage for the ballet-to-modern dance transition.

From the beginning of that transition, modern dance sprang up as uniquely American. There was a vision by the pioneers of modern dance, who often came from a background of ballet dancing, to break out of the so-called "sterility" of ballet performances migrating from Europe. (3) Several modern dance pioneers such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and Martha Graham "Americanized" dance, meaning they wanted American troupes to perform ballets which they altered slightly in order to appear as having...

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