Dancing the night away

Feb. 9, 2004, midnight | By Olivia Bevacqua | 16 years, 11 months ago

Dance fads captivate Blazers over the decades

Torsos twist, feet glide and arms swing in a gym crammed with Blazers swaying to the beat of the Vic French band. Female Blazers prance across the floor in poodle skirts and cardigan sweaters beneath swaths of crepe paper that festoon the ceiling. The year is 1956, and Blair's Sweater-Sock Hop has just begun.

The 1956 sock hop is merely a taste of Blair's vast variety of dances that spans over six decades. Blair dances evolved tremendously between the early 40s and 70s, shifting and shuffling like the feet of young dance couples. From proms to sock hops, the dances were shaped by the times: War, peace and social turmoil permeated every square inch of the cultural fabric.

Tearin' up the floor with the jitterbug

The most popular Blair dances in the early 1940s were the sock hops. Because Blair's gym accommodated nearly all school activities, dancers had to remove their shoes to avoid ruining the gym floor, according to alumnus Johnny Benedict (class of 1943). While the occasional fox trot or waltz was slipped into the mix, the main craze of the day was a foot-scuffling, partner-twirling couple dance called the jitterbug.

The jitterbug sometimes inspired feats of near gymnastic proportions, according to alumni. "Some [jitterbuggers] would throw their partners up in the air and catch 'em," recalls Harriet "Bucky" Haynes ('42). "We had a lovely, lovely time."

The Glenn Miller Orchestra was the favorite among early jitterbuggers. Miller's vibrant, airy sound commanded people to dance, whether the beat was fast, like that of "String of Pearls," or subdued, as in "Moonlight Serenade," says Benedict.

Blair dances of the early 40s provided an element of fun for students in a nation entering war, according to Imogene Hopkins (formerly Ms. Pletcher, '43). "It was a sad time," comments Hopkins. "We didn't have much to do except dance."

"Just the fact that resources were so sparse caused us to enjoy the dances when we had them," affirms Haynes. "Sugar, silk stockings and gasoline were rationed—teachers didn't encourage too many school activities."

Though Miller's music was often played through phonographs at sock hops, live bands also provided entertainment. Alumnus Max Calloway's band, comprised of Blair students, played at dances the most frequently, according to Benedict. Blazers shed their shoes and shyness for nights of innocent fun in the crowded gym.

Swingin' at the sweater-sock hops

Poodle skirts, saddle shoes and hot fudge sundaes were all hallmarks of the 1950s. The jitterbug rage of the 1940s continued to be a favorite, though swing dancing grew in popularity during the latter half of the decade. Students spun and swung to songs such as "Wheel of Fortune" by Kay Starr or the "Bye Bye Blues" by Les Paul and Mary Ford. Songs like Johnny Ray's "Cry" provided slow beats for equally popular "snuggling-up slow dances," according to David Forward ('52).

Blair boasted a variety of dances during this time, among them the Sweater-Sock Hop, the Farewell Dance and, most notably, the Vice Versa Dance. A 1952 Silverlogue describes a Sweater Dance in which dancers wore cardigans; the "steadies" donned matching sweaters. The Farewell Dance was held in June and characterized by a ring-turning ceremony in which seniors would pass under a flowered arch and have their graduation rings turned by their dates; couples kissed afterward. And the Vice Versa Dance was an event made special by the fact that girls asked boys to the dance, paid for their date's ticket and made him a corsage.

The corsages that girls put together for the Vice Versa Dance were no ordinary corsages. "The sillier, the better," confirms Haynes.

"When I was a sophomore, I was invited to the Vice Versa by our minister's daughter, Janet Johnson. The corsage was indeed memorable; it was made of carrots!" exclaims Dave Barr ('52).

Many times, the corsage was specialized to the wearer, says Pat Norton ('60). "One year I went, my date was a football player, so I made him a board decorated like a football field, complete with a ball and team," she reminisces.

Humorous or conventional, corsages were an important tradition in high school dances, says Virginia Dildine (formerly Ms. Barwick, '53). "Orchids were rare; getting them for a corsage was a big thing, so wearing them to the dances was pretty cool," she says.

Dances of the 1950s were characterized by tradition and formalities, and attended by nearly everybody, according to Dildine. "I think there was more romance in the whole high school dance scene than there is now," she says.

Forward agrees and says that if he was taking a girl to a dance, he would always dress up, buy her a corsage and pick her up beforehand. Once they arrived at the dance, the gym would often be decorated to fit the theme such as St. Patrick's Day or autumn in New York (both were themes of 1956).

As a member of the 1952 Dance Committee, Forward spent many hours decorating the gym. One dance he remembers had a country motif, in which students set up a barn-like entrance with bales of hay. "We'd spend all day putting up the decorations," he says. "It was an awful lot of fun."

Once the music started, Blazers experimented with jitterbug steps and fad dances such as the bunny hop. Joanne Richards (formerly Ms. Murray, '58) bursts into laughter as she recalls this dance. "If you haven't done the bunny hop, you haven't lived!" she chortles.

Twistin' the night away

Pop culture's trends morphed from poodle skirts to bellbottoms as the 1960s swept over America. Musical groups such as the Beatles and colorful artists like Peter Max influenced millions of Americans. Everything, including the dancing, had to be trendy and edgy.

The signature dance of the early 60s was the Twist, popularized by the Peppermint Lounge in New York City. The Twist was the first dance that allowed for the dynamic movement of two people not dancing as a couple. The new distance between dancers enabled more gyrations and "outlandish" behaviors that people weren't used to seeing, according to Steve Jeweler ('65).

"It was very risqué for the time," says Barbara Wilson (formerly Ms. Livshin, '61). "We were coming off an era of Frank Sinatra-type singing, so this was borderline dirty. That wild, hip-gyrating thing—it just did not go over well [with parents]."

Other 60s dance fads that followed the Twist were the Mashed Potatoes, the Frug, the Monkey, the Jerk, the Watusi, the Swim and the Bump. Slow dancing was less popular but still an ingrained part of school dances. One well-liked band for slow dances was the Platters, according to Jerry Ricucci ('62). "When the Platters came on, you'd either be dancing with your best girl or whoever you wanted to be your best girl," he says with a chuckle.

The only Blair dances that were decorated for themes were class parties, according to Ricucci. Class parties were held for upperclassmen culminating each year; dancing was always a highlight. The themes from Ricucci's upperclassman years were Jungle Safari and the Roaring Twenties. During the safari dance, the gym was decorated with fake palm trees, village huts and a huge cooking pot filled with dry ice. The gym was not the only element decorated to fit the theme—students attended the dance in costume and voted on the best-dressed. As seniors, Ricucci and his date, Bonnie Williams ('62), won the Best Costume title for Ricucci's 1920s gangster garb and Williams' flapper dress.

Dazed and confused

By the early 1970s, America had already plunged headfirst into the Vietnam War, an age of chaos and unrest. Dances were rejected and nearly discarded amid the social turmoil. Alumni describe a sense of being caught in an undercurrent of change. "The period of innocence was, in my opinion, just slipping away in our society," says Camilla Schlegel (formerly Ms. Phillips, '70).

Popular music featured artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. Increased availability of drugs, coupled with the first widespread access to the birth control pill, perpetuated a culture of pervasive drug use and promiscuous sex that was reflected in the music. "It was really that kind of music where you just stood and rocked your body, groovin' with the music, feelin' the music," says Alanna Zahirapour ('71). "Of course, it helped a lot if you were stoned."

In a counterculture scornful of rules and tradition, school dances were rejected as being part of the establishment. "The whole atmosphere in the country was revolutionary—revolting against the draft, Vietnam, school rules. It was a turbulent time," says Zahirapour. "Dances and other traditions were not important or to be adhered to."

Ricucci eventually taught at Blair between 1967 and 1974. He remembers the social contrast between his years as a student and as a teacher. "When I went to school, the dance was the main destination for students. When I taught, students saw it as just a place to stop by," he says.

Blair dances were less frequent due partly to lack of interest but also to "fear of trouble," according to Ricucci. Integration at Blair was in full swing by the late 60s, and racial tensions were high. Fights would sometimes erupt in the school parking lot during dances. "The black civil rights movement was flexing its muscles. The entire country was adjusting to its emergence, and fights at school were an effect of that experience," says Ricucci.

As teens increasingly rejected the social institutions and values of the previous generation, many Blazers did not attend their own prom. Zahirapour is one such student. "People weren't interested in prom," she says. "War controlled the mood and fervor of the country. If you knew you were gonna get drafted, you'd go crazy and do whatever you wanted."

Blair faculty could not change the lagging attendance at school functions. Senior class parties and banquets, both well-attended when Ricucci was a student less than 10 years earlier, were eliminated by the time he was teaching.

The beat goes on

For decades, Blazers have rocked the dance floor with the latest moves, stepping to the rhythm of America's heartbeat. They swayed and twisted to the songs of many eras, donning clothes—bobby socks, cardigans and tie-dyed shirts—that are now symbols of past worlds. Periods of war, peace and chaos shaped and colored the dances that graced Blair floors. From sock hops to hip hop, Blair dances will continue to shift with the times.

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