Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance
by Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press
ISBN 9780262044332, hardcover, 552 pages, October 2021, US $39.95
When it comes to White American nostalgia for a better time, the midcentury period, between the end of World War II and the fall of Saigon in 1975, is the goldenest of golden eras. Men were men, girls were girls, and White supremacy was supreme. And Americans exulted in their good fortune by dancing: from tea dances, debutante balls, cotillions, and square dances to the Twist, the Swim, the Mashed Potato, and, ironically enough, dances like the Watusi, the limbo, and the merengue that had origins in intriguing “exotic” cultures and cultures of color.
Musical artists and record labels of the time produced countless albums intended to capitalize on the trends and spawn profitable new ones. In such a saturated market, every album needs a spectacular cover to catch the consumer’s attention, and the designs from that era are dazzling indeed, with vivid colors, groovy graphics, and whimsical typography – including plenty! of! exclamation! marks!, and copious overtones of love and lust.
Authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder parachute into that era with Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance, a survey of the visual culture of American popular-dance records from 1950 to 1970. Dancing is the second volume in their trilogy for MIT Press on the visual culture of vinyl records the period; Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America came out in 2017, and Designed for Success: Better Living with Midcentury Vinyl is slated for 2023.
The authors had thousands of albums to choose from, and the hundreds that made the cut are organized in 27 chapters (plus an introduction) with themes like Let’s Go Out!, Hula, Folk Dances, Fashion, and Time for Dancing. “As dance, like music, happens in time,” they write in that chapter’s introduction, “temporal themes seem apt for dance records. Some urge interrupting the day – quit working, it’s pony time! Many signal the joyous abandon – the losing track of time – that happens when dancing. … Clearly, these records show, any time might be time for dancing.” The beautifully reproduced eye-candy covers make it hard to resist the invitation to shake a tail feather. Taken at face value, the album covers are marvelous examples of the power of visual marketing, and the authors devote a descriptive paragraph to each one.
As academics, Borgerson (Depaul University in Chicago) studies philosophy, gender studies, and international branding, while Schroeder (Rochester Institute of Technology in New York) focuses on branding and identity, media and visual culture. These areas of expertise serve them will in analyzing the albums as sales pitches for popular entertainment and signifiers of dominant values, as when they observe that “gendered representations pulse through these album covers – firmly entrenched visions of sexualized femininity; male ‘leader’ and female ‘follower’ roles; and a keen focus on the apparent links among dancing, heterosexual mating, and marriage.”
But despite the blithe moral certainty encoded in the album art, America’s entrenched leader/follower paradigm was soon to be detonated by the Sexual Revolution and the Civil Rights movement. The giddy, unselfconscious assuredness the albums represent belied a society churning with segregation, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and anticommunist paranoia that led to engagement in Korea and Vietnam. (How much things have changed in the interim is another discussion.) Borgerson and Schroeder touch on several of these topics, particularly on the cultural appropriation inherent in dances like hula, limbo, and the fraught “belly dance” genre: “Depending on the ways in which dances moved out into the wider world and who was credited – and, perhaps more subtly, depending on the racial, ethnic, or class differences between the dancing populations – there was plenty of room for accusations of appropriation, disrespect, and stealing.”
They frequently, and rightly, cite the horrific legacy of slavery and White racism against African Americans, whose contributions to American popular music and dance are inestimable and often uncredited. And some albums represent a reclamation: In their description of Square Dance with Soul, a 1969 album by Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, they quote substantially from an eight-page booklet that came with the record. “Who are we? We are the descendants of slaves,” Kirkpatrick wrote. “We are the heirs of a great and exploited continent known as Africa. We are the heirs of a past of hope, fire, and murder. I am not ashamed for this past.”
But Borgerson and Schroeder are ultimately about the party and the picture. In another era, that might be enough, and perhaps for record collectors and midcentury nostalgists it still is. But the authors are here talking about dance, and American dance today is in a deep and painful reckoning with the White/mainstream/dominant culture the albums reinforce. The “Orientalist fantasies” described in the Belly Dance chapter are not a thing of the past; yellowface is an issue in dance right now. Black dancers and other dancers of color still fight for representation and respect in the dance world and in American society generally, so Kirkpatrick’s words will feel painfully relevant whether their genre is social dance, ballet, modern, hip-hop, tap, or academia.
Borgerson and Schroeder probably wouldn’t want me at their dance party; I might crash the vibe with my heavy trip. But there is more to these album covers than meets the eye, and I hungered for more complexity and a lineage to where things are now. Structuring the book by year, rather than on visual themes, and adding a running timeline of what was happening in American culture as the music was released, would have framed the albums in that deeper, messier, more troubling social matrix, which is the drumbeat of American dance today.