Great Depression's Influence on American Vernacular Dance

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How did the Great Depression influence the evolution of American vernacular dance?

In the Great Depression, the American dream had become a nightmare. What was once the land of opportunity was now the land of desperation. The Great Depression was an economic slump in North America, Europe, and other industrialized areas of the world that began in 1929 and lasted until about 1939. It was the longest and most severe depression ever experienced by the industrialized Western world. Nevertheless, it had immense impact on the evolution of American vernacular dance by bringing jazz music and dance to the masses, raising the nation’s spirit through music and dance. The Great Depression hit hard, but it hit African Americans the hardest. They had been on the bottom rung of the economic ladder already before the Depression hit, and, although most had precious little to lose, prospects for even subsistence work were especially poor once the Depression was under way. Many poor southern migrants continued to come north, crowding into neighborhoods already packed with people, competing for the fast-dwindling number of jobs. Black businesses failed, crushing the entrepreneurial spirit that had been an essential element of the Negro Renaissance until then. In the mid-1930s, as the Great Depression stubbornly refused to lift, jazz came as close as it has ever come to being America's popular music. It had a new name now, Swing, and its impact was revolutionary. Swing, which had grown up in the dancehalls of Harlem, would become the defining music for an entire generation of Americans. Record sales slowly started to increase as Americans began frequenting establishments with jukeboxes. Radio continued to be an important source of entertainment, but motion pictures were no doubt the favorite escapist entertainment. By mid-decade, Hollywood musicals would gain great popularity, which continued unabated into the 1940s. Jazz took a hard blow, as the rest of the country did, during the first half of the 1930s. Although there was still work to be had, especially for the best musicians in New York, those in other areas of the country “scuffled,” eking out a meager existence. Bandleaders, whose orchestras were filled with great jazz musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, would continue to find employment, although their repertoire would include a liberal amount of popular songs. Things would begin to change by 1935, the year that marked the beginning of the “Swing Era.” Swing music reached new, white audiences when musicians like Benny Goodman began playing swing in ballrooms and theaters in major cities in the 1930s. Following Goodman’s success, other bandleaders began featuring more jazz arrangements and jazz solos. Soon the country was swing crazy. Trombonist Tommy Dorsey had a million-seller record with Irving Berlin’s tune “Marie.” Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman’s clarinet rival, had a million-seller with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” Dancing is a very big part of swing music. A person rarely ever thinks of swing music without swing dancing. It became popular at every event from New York's swankiest nightclubs to school proms. Every portion of society found some form of swing music suitable for their dancing. The term “swing dance” is commonly used to refer to a group of dances that developed concurrently with the style of jazz music in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. The black community, while dancing to contemporary Jazz music, discovered dances such as the Black Bottom, Charleston and tap dance, which travelled north with Dixieland jazz to New York, Kansas City, and Chicago in the Great African American Migration of the 1920s, when rural blacks travelled north to escape persecution, Jim Crow laws, lynching and unemployment in the South due to the Great Depression. Popular dances like the “Lindy”, “Lindy Hop” and “Jitterbug” appeared in popular nightclubs, Broadway musicals and movies like "A...
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