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Embodying Resistance: Gendering Public Space in Ragtime Social Dance

  • Holly Maples

Abstract

In this article Holly Maples examines how the controversy surrounding the ragtime dance craze in the United States allowed women to renegotiate acceptable gendered behaviour in the public sphere. In the early 1910s many members of the public performed acts of resistance to convention by dancing in the workplace, on the street, and in public halls. Civic institutions and private organizations sought to censor and control both the public space of the dance hall and the bodies of its participants. The controlling of social dance was an attempt to restrain what those opposed to the dances saw as unrestrained and indecent physical behaviour by the nation's youth, primarily targeting ragtime dancing's ‘moral degradation’ of young women. It was not merely the public nature of the dancing that was seen as dangerous to women, however, but the dances themselves, many of which featured chaotic, off-centred choreography, with either highly sexualized behaviour, as seen in the tango and the apache dance, or clumsy, un-gendered movement, popular in the animal dances of the day. Through ragtime dancing, women performed acts of rupture on their bodies and the urban cityscape, transforming social dancing into public statements of gendered resistance. Holly Maples is a lecturer in Drama at the University of East Anglia. Both a theatre practitioner and a scholar, she trained as an actress at Central School of Speech and Drama in London and completed her PhD in Theatre Studies at Trinity College Dublin. Her book, Culture War: Conflict, Commemoration, and the Contemporary Abbey Theatre, has recently been published in the ‘Reimagining Ireland’ series by Peter Lang.

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