by Harold & Meredith Sears
4 beats/measure; 28-34 meas/min
At the beginning of the 20th Century, few in the US danced. Those who did danced the Waltz, Polka, and Two Step. But in 1910, ragtime music was bringing unprecedented numbers of dancers into the dance halls. Especially, a whole flock of "animal dances" were briefly popular, formed out of the earlier Two Step. There was the Squirrel, in which dancers took small, mincing steps, a Duck Waddle involving quick walks and sways of the upper body to the left and right, a Snake, where dancers walked sinuously to banjo with a dip and then to sidecar. There was the Lame Duck, Chicken Scratch, Kangaroo Hop, a Horse Canter, and a Horse Trot. And of course, there was the Fox Trot.
However, the Fox Trot might not actually have started as an "animal dance." One story tells of Harry Fox, a burlesque comic and a part of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1913, who worked on a stage scattered with scantily clad women in static poses. His act involved a fast, comical dance to 4/4 ragtime music from one woman to the next where he would deliver his jokes. The act was popular, the music was widely marketed, and Fox's "Trot" became popular in dance halls and dance studios. It was introduced to members of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing in London in 1915.
In these earliest days, the Fox Trot was not the smooth: slow, quick, quick, of today (which if you think about it, is nothing like a "trot"). Back then dancers might have taken four slow steps down line and then eight quicks with just a little bit of a prance. They walked in a circle. There was a lunge, close, lunge, close; producing a full turn. There were hops, kicks, and capers. There was a definite strutting or trotting look. One of the first "definitions" of the rhythm came from an American teacher who said, "There are but two things to remember; first a slow walk, two counts to a step; second a trot or run, one count to each step."
But Vernon and Irene Castle and other teachers wrote new figures for the rhythm, and by 1916, the Fox Trot had evolved into the Foxtrot, a slower, more elegant, floating kind of dance.
During the Jazz Age of the 20s, the Foxtrot was sped up again. It acquired some of the jazzy hops and skips of the Charleston and became our present-day Quickstep. Of course, the Quickstep didn't replace the Foxtrot, but joined it, a close cousin. The existence of the Quickstep maybe allowed the Foxtrot itself to slow back down. In England, the Foxtrot was danced at 48 measures per minute in 1927, at 42 in 1928, and between 38 and 42 in 1929. The Quickstep was being danced at 54 to 56. By 1932, the Foxtrot tempo was down to 36 measures per minute.
Foxtrot uses long passing steps that keep the dancer up, stretched, and extended. It has a gentle rise and fall but not as much as that of Waltz, where the third closing step causes you to lower more dramatically. (Where Waltz is "mountains and valleys," Foxtrot is "rolling hills," and Tango is "as flat as Kansas.") In three steps, we step heel, toe rising, toe, toe, heel lowering again.
The passing steps encourage us to keep moving, too. We want fluidity, continuity; a graceful, steady glide. Even when checking a movement or when in a picture figure, where your feet have stopped, we keep the body flowing. We introduce sway, change the sway, change it again if we have the time, incorporate arm and hand movements that extend these body movements, and then flow right on out into the next figure. The long, gliding steps of the slow Foxtrot give an impression of elegant ease, but control and balance are required to maintain that smooth flow.
Still another sophisticated feature that developeed in Foxtrot involved angled bodies so that dancers aren't directly facing or backing the line of progression; they are angling or slicing down the hall. I think of a barge plowing forward, directly into the wind and current, "breasting" the waves. The Foxtrot doesn't do that. Dancers progress at a graceful angle, slicing through, with one or the other side leading.
The slow, elegant, gliding Foxtrot is a rich and sophisticated rhythm and is one of the most popular dances ever. The Foxtrot seems more sustainable, less intense, than the Waltz for instance. Maybe it is the slow count that gives us a little rest in each measure. Certainly, the "slow, quick, quick" rhythm and the more subtle downbeats on 1 and 3 (and upbeats on 2 and 4) provide more variety and interest than the steady "1, 2, 3" and strong, regular downbeat on 1 that we find in Waltz. Where the feel of waltz music has been described as "BOOM, cha, cha," the feel of foxtrot is more like "BOOM-cha, BOOM-cha." Maybe it is the soaring glide of Foxtrot that feels so good, compared to Waltz's more dramatic rise and fall.
Regardless of your personal reaction, the Foxtrot has developed and matured over the last hundred years into a wonderful and engaging rhythm, and if we occasionally think back to the silly and slightly bawdy beginnings with Harry Fox, we might have even more fun.