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The Magpie Sings the Great Depression:
Selections from DeWitt Clinton High School's Literary Magazine, 1929-1942

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Art of Terpsichore

By Stanley Rogoff

The Magpie, January 1938, v. 22, n. 1., p. 70.

Some old-timers insist there was a time when, upon hearing the band strike up, a fellow's girl closed her eyes and sighed ecstatically, "Waltz me around again, Wallingford!"

Does it seem incredible? Well, we can't blame you for thinking so. For nowadays, when a crew swings into a ditty, the Clintonite's girl sidles up to her swain and commands, "Come on, worm; let's crawl!" Curiously, by some strange orthographical or physical transformation, Wallingford has become a worm, and we have derived a crawl from the waltz. This metamorphosis proves conclusively that Nature has somep'n that we ain't got.

* * *

In the days when the horse and buggy reigned, the waltz was "A-plus ultra." However, as a tribute to the individuality of a great people, let it be said that no two Gentlemen Jacks had the same interpretation of the proper method of dancing the waltz. In the more genteel places, rules stated that a distance of at least two feet was to be maintained between the persons of the boy and girl participating in the dance. But as soon as drowsy chaperons began to doze off, the specie Daring Daniel quickly sized up the situation and eagerly seized the opportunity to shorten the distance to a foot and a half. Gentlemen caught at this demoralizing horse-play were severely chastised, and usually meekly explained that they were merely trying to make room on the floor for another couple. Gentlemen not caught had a whopping good time.

The next type might appropriately be labeled Vincent the Villain. His characteristics were the handle-bar moustache and the weighty gold watch chain; also the suave, ever-present smile. Dapperly, almost negligently, he'd steal dances from exasperated beaux and pirouette gracefully around the floor, stealing the hearts of all the ladies. With his partner's nose buried safely in the nose-gay in his lapel, Vincent would look out over her head and flirt openly with all the handsome belles, who returned his ardent glances in full measure. Thwarted swains lined the dance floor, casting black looks in his direction. Chaperons dared not speak, since Vinnie's "old man" held all the mortgages. Curses!

The Good-Time Charlie is next for consideration. He was also known as a "cut-up," or the "knife of the party." Charlie's dancing was such that you could "spot" him in a moment. He always raised his knee and shot out his foot on the one-beat, giving the effect of Hans Brinker on the ice fighting for the silver skates. He was the type who jammed his elbow into the ribs of unlucky bystanders and howled, "Never a dull moment"! Another of his specialties was reading telegrams at bar-mitzvahs.

Before we leave the gay nineties, let's take a peek into the corner saloon at Moe the Masher. Girls who danced with this lad were in for a thrill. Moe and his partner entwined their arms around each other's necks, arched their spines, and whirled around forehead-to-forehead. Hector the Hero, with budging muscles rippling smoothly beneath his shirt, saved many a girl from an encounter with either Moe or his sophisticated counterpart, Vincent the Villain. Hector knew the book of rules by heart, and his sense of moral responsibility was so great that a girl had an awfully unexciting time when she went out with him. He knew exactly what time she had to be home in bed, and when he danced, the conventional two feet always separated him from his partner.

* * *

But the modern scene is different. Clinton "sharpies" monopolize dance floors all over the city, and the shag is the current favorite, with the waltz merely an old faithful. But modern versions of the same types of dancers are still with us—especially as in the case of a Clintonite that we happened across at a "shindig" in Brooklyn several weeks ago. Well, we started the evening as impartial observers, but by the time this lad had "stepped out" three numbers, we were so engrossed in his technique that we actually began to fear for our reason. He slithered softly out onto the floor, crushed his partner's hand against his chest, and rested his chin on her shoulder. This added weight threw her back so far that she undoubtedly had serious misgivings as to the possible outcome of the adventure, but with a "trust-in-me-and-everything-will-be-fine" smile, he wrestled her around.

The aggressive type is runner-up for eccentricity. This specie is usually the victim of a persecution complex and imagines that the other couples on the floor are all prepared to annoy him. Consequently, he sees to it that he annoys them first. He forgets all technique, rushes violently around the floor crashing into unsuspecting dancers and casting furtive, delighted glances right and left.

How about the "life of the party," or the 1937 equivalent of the Good-time Charlie? (Now we're Clinton gentlemen and don't call him anything.) Since his dancing is decidedly inferior, everything becomes secondary to his attempts to cover it up. He drags his partner through an impossible routine, meanwhile flashing toothly smiles at passing acquaintances. He can imitate Martha Raye and Mussolini passing fair, but is weak on his President Roosevelt.

Rob the Wrestler is interesting because of his unique and interesting breaks. Using his superior strength, he takes advantage of all the women on the floor. It means nothing to him to grab his partner around the waist, swing her in a stupefying arc, dip her through his legs,—and then carry her to the nearest chair.... Usually wears out four girls an evening in this manner.

Last, but not least, is the expert. Waltzing, fox-trotting, trucking, shagging, big-appling, Lindying, Westchestering, Manhattaning, peabodying, and flea hopping are all "duck soup" for him. Women thirst for him and freshmen strive to emulate him. Since he's so rare, a name hasn't as yet been assigned.

That concludes the survey. Unfortunately, we have no idea whatsoever about the future status of the art of Terpischore. You can guarantee, however, that there'll be interesting types on the dance floors of the future just as on those of the past. Watch the fools go by!

The Magpie Sings the Great Depression

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