Flappers, Gatsby, & the Lingua Franca of Youthful Rebellion

Judith Mackrell

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Baz Luhrmann’s screen adaptation of The Great Gatsby turned out to be an anathema to most devotees of the 1925 novel, a hyperactive, candy-coloured spectacle that violated the delicate texture of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose. Yet whatever quarrels I personally had with the movie’s style, I found myself hooked by Luhrmann’s attempt to re-invent the period’s Jazz Age energy through a hip hop-driven score.

Today, when we look back to the dance and music of the 1920s, they seem quaintly picturesque, preserved in the aspic of a bygone glamour. At the time, however they had as ubiquitous and fast-changing a vibe as rap and street dance do now. Jazz was dangerous then, as a picture hung in London’s Royal Academy revealed. John Souter’s 1926 painting titled Breakdown showed a black musician playing a saxophone while seated astride a fallen statue of Minerva (the classical goddess of wisdom), with a naked white woman dancing the Charleston next to him.  In that simple juxtaposition was represented such a world of controversy that the picture had to be removed from the Academy’s walls. Souter had adroitly satirized the terrors felt by an older generation who saw Western civilisation on the brink of moral collapse, who regarded jazz as the music of the urban jungle and jazz dancing as the wild, indecent “capering of savages.”

When I was researching my latest book, Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation, I was struck over and over again by the 1920s obsession with dancing: not only the new movement crazes that spread in waves across the nightclubs and dance halls of America and Europe but the social threat they represented.

Even before the war, the more decorous culture of ragtime had begun to cause anxious parents and politicians serious concern. Driven by the syncopated rhythms of ragtime music, dances like the Bunny Hug, the Turkey Trot, and the Grisly Bear represented a provocative deviation from the formalities of the ballroom. Young women were no longer guided around the floor in the arms of their attendant men: they kicked up their feet, swayed their hips, and pressed their pelvises against their partners. In 1914, the Vatican issued a formal denunciation of ragtime’s “animalistic” dance language; in New Jersey, one enthusiastic turkey trotter was sentenced to fifty days in jail.

For many young women, however, these dances were a doorway into a new and dangerous world. Lady Diana Cooper (nee Manners) was the daughter of the eighth Duke of Rutland; socially, she was just one rung below a princess and was expected to behave as such. But, in 1912, as London saw the first nightclubs opening, Diana would slip away to dark and crowded basement clubs where, in defiance of her parents’ edicts, she smoked and drank in public, wore lipstick, gambled, and danced till the early hours.

It was only after the war, however, that jazz became fully established as the lingua franca of rebellious youth. The dances of the 1920s grew more explicit and exhibitionist: the wayward jangle and bounce of the Charleston and the pert naughtiness of the Black Bottom were both electric with sexual static. Zelda Fizgerald, muse and wife to F. Scott Fitzgerald, was one of the most famously uninhibited exponents of these dances, her hips “going wild,” her skirts lifted high above her waist to reveal what Ernest Hemingway was pleased to call her “long nigger legs.”

The buzz surrounding these dances was intimately associated with the consumption of alcohol (illegal in prohibition America) and of drugs (cocaine sniffed from silver teaspoons, hashish pellets dissolved into gin fizzes). To an apprehensive older generation these dances were also associated with an alarming breakdown in sexual codes of behaviour.

The jazz generation was certainly dabbling in a new promiscuity. Between 1914 and 1929 the divorce rate doubled in America and extra-marital sex was rising even faster. Most dangerous of all was the apparent lack of shame among sexually active young women after the war. A critical number of these women had lost all hope of finding a husband after the carnage of World War I (in Britain it was put as high as ninety percent). And there was real alarm at what these “superfluous females” might get up to without the ‘stabilising’ influences of marriage and motherhood.

If jazz dancing was implicated in the decade’s new sexual laxity, it was also associated with the breaching of racial taboos. The 1920s saw a mass emigration of black American musicians and dancers into the cities of Europe, creating a historic mix of black and white cultures.  Ada “Bricktop” Smith, a cabaret singer from West Virginia, became doyenne of the Paris nightclubs, giving Charleston lessons to everyone from Nancy Cunard to the Prince of Wales. When Josephine Baker, a skinny chorus girl from St. Louis, was shipped over to Paris in 1925 to perform in the fashionable Revue Nègre, her subversively inventive dancing was hailed as pure genius by the city’s artists and intellectuals. Such was the impact of her dancing that Josephine became elevated to an aesthetic ideal; Picasso called her the “Nefertiti of now”. After a lifetime of racial abuse and discrimination back home, Baker was now being used to advertise beauty products, as white women tried to mimic her glossy cropped hair, her burnished skin, and supple silhouette.

It was an astonishing turnaround for Josephine, but it was also symptomatic of the power with which jazz cut through social barriers of the age. Today, we see close parallels with hip hop. What was originally the culture of young, socially dispossessed blacks, has come to exert a worldwide influence on dance, music, and fashion. For Luhrmann to put Jay-Z’s musical mix at the centre of his Gatsby film was simply to state the obvious: hip hop is the jazz of the 21st century.

Judith Mackrell is a celebrated dance critic, writing first for The Independent and now for The Guardian. Her biography of the Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, Bloomsbury Ballerina, was short-listed for the Costa Biography Award. She has also appeared on television and radio, and is the coauthor of The Oxford Dictionary of Dance. She lives in London with her family.