Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Popular Culture and Modernity: Dancing in New Zealand Society 1920-1945

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Popular Culture and Modernity: Dancing in New Zealand Society 1920-1945

Article excerpt

  What are we here for anyway? To be a slave to pleasure? No, we are
  here to build character and citizenship.
  Letter signed "Eyewitness" in The New Zealand Listener 'Acts of
  Dancing', 29 December 1944.

In recent years the issue of modernity and its appearance in the twentieth century has captivated the interest of historians. (1) Indeed, the topic has been approached from a number of directions. Arriving shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, a range of new products, changing social attitudes, fashions and methods of travel can all be seen as contributing to a sense of "being modern" after 1918. In the context of New Zealand the issue of modernity has been implicitly located in the work of James Belich who has depicted the decades from the 1890s to the 1960s as a "Great Tightening" of moral values, forces pitched by the inter war decades against the arrival of the modern. More recently, Caroline Daley in her essay "Puritans and Pleasure Seekers" goes some way to challenging Belich's view of the inter-war decades by focusing attention on the acceptance of modern values, whereby New Zealand pleasure seekers celebrated the sexual body through nudist camps, pornography and erotic stage shows. (2)

Given the current climate of interest in modernity, it seems apposite at this juncture to examine further aspects of the Dominion's popular culture in a little more depth, in order to explore popular reactions to modernity. The specific aim of what follows is to explore the moral panic which escalated in relation to a changing dance culture in the Dominion after the First World War. Firstly, why dancing? The place of the dance within popular culture is certainly important, as it represented the leisure time activity alongside cinema, between 1919 and 1939 and beyond. Dancing was clearly an important means of meeting the opposite sex and, as this article will argue, was intrinsically bound up with the process of modernity as it appeared in the 1920s. (3) A study of dancers and dancing also begins to unravel key concerns about modernity and increasing urbanization and the erosion of what by the 1920s could be called 'traditional' society. The arrival of mass culture from overseas was another aspect of the modern which encouraged a rejection of hitherto dominant values.

In her influential study of the "new" journalism of the later Victorian era entitled City of Dreadful Delight, Judith Walkowitz highlighted the ways in which narratives of sexual danger were played out in the London popular press during 1880s. (4) Using new reporting techniques, journalists working on papers such as The Pall Mall Gazette and the Illustrated Police News created lurid headlines which used the modern city as a backdrop to the Ripper Murders of 1888. Indeed, a key feature of the new journalism was the use of narratives constructed around melodrama as a means of selling papers. Walkowitz's work opens up exciting new paths for the social historian and her approach can be usefully employed in the context of transnational diffusion of popular culture in the twentieth century. Indeed, by the early twentieth century New Zealand had its own "expose" journalism in the shape of The New Zealand Truth, a publication which first appeared in 1905 and which has been extensively drawn on for the narrative that follows. What does a close study of this new journalism, which focused more explicitly on popular culture than any other journal or paper, tell the historian about the changing nature of one particular leisure activity in New Zealand's inter-war society?

Dancing in Traditional New Zealand Society c.1860s-1918.

Public dancing had proved a popular activity well before 1914 in a farmer-dominated society. As Dewson has noted, the popularity of both balls and dances held at public venues was a feature of the colonial era, where the predominant dance styles were waltzes and square dances, the latter of which included dances such as the Lancers, the Schottisches and Velettas. …

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