Ideas

Everybody do the Boston—the world’s best dance!

A century ago, the hottest moves hailed from a very unlikely city.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, an organization called the Society of Dancing Masters polled thousands of its members all over the world to find out the answers to two pressing questions: What were the best dances, and what were the worst?

When the results came in, the group announced that the worst dances were “those of a loose character and tending more to epilepsy than grace and suppleness,” according to a New York Times item. But the best dance, they agreed, was the three-time Boston.

Nearly as popular, the article attested, were other variations on this dance: the double Boston and the triple slow Boston. And old dance programs reveal that these were just a few of the Bostons known to the savvy dancer, whose repertoire might also include the Boston dip, the imitative Boston, the cradle Boston, the Spanish Boston, the herring bone Boston, the long Boston, the hesitation Boston, the Philadelphia Boston, and many others.

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What was the Boston? And how did a city better known for a proper education, early bedtimes, and staid Puritan morals come to be known as a hotbed of racy new dance styles? In truth, though the Boston craze did get its start here, the story of this now-vanished dance suggests the city was really the beneficiary of some savvy 19th-century branding, and that behind this explosion of inventive dances were a pack of dance instructors just trying to capture a whiff of that Boston magic.

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As near as anyone can tell, the story of the Boston begins with a waltz. In 1827, a dance instructor from Italy named Lorenzo Papanti had started a fashionable dancing academy that eventually landed in Boston’s Scollay Square. There, he taught wealthy adults and their children all the refined ballroom steps of the day. As journalist Lucius Beebe wrote in his 1935 book “Boston and the Boston Legend,” “All good Boston children went to Papanti’s, where his lean figure, glossy wig and elegant patent leather dancing pumps, and above all his pointed fiddle-bow, used both as an instrument of correction and harmony, struck terror to all juvenile hearts.”

In 1834, Papanti introduced a new dance that had become the rage in Europe. Papanti danced America’s first waltz with the wife of a local Federalist politician. (At least, so goes the lore; the waltz had appeared in England decades earlier, and many experts say it’s unlikely it would have taken this long to reach the United States.) The dance immediately took off in Boston—and soon became known all over the country, thanks to printed dance manuals and the growing popularity of dancing among the urban middle class.

The waltz was at first seen as somewhat scandalous, because many versions involved dancing hip to hip. One 19th-century “book of politeness” sniffed that “the waltz is a dance of quite too loose a character, and unmarried ladies should refrain from it in public and private.” But despite its aura of scandal—or perhaps because of it—America had gone waltz-mad by the middle of the century.

By the 1870s, however, the waltz “was your parents’ dance,” Richard Powers, a social dance historian at Stanford University, explains. “If you’re young in the 1870s, you don’t want to dance like your parents did in the 1840s.” Eager to recapture their customers after the Civil War, instructors came up with a new bag of tricks. One of these was a waltz with a subtle dip added to spice it up, known as the Boston.

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According to turn-of-the-century Boston-based dance instructor Melvin Ballou Gilbert, the style first took off among Harvard men, who called it “the Cambridge waltz.” Not everyone was enamored of it. The prominent dance master Allen Dodworth, in his 1885 manual “Dancing and Its Relations to Education and Social Life,” dismissed the Boston as a “childish [form] of waltzing, scarcely worthy of adults.” Like the traditional waltz, however, the Boston soon grew into respectability.

Those who want to perform the Boston at home in 2012 can find instructions and diagrams in old dance manuals (some of which have been digitized through Google Books). As described in C.H. Cleveland Jr.’s 1878 guidebook “Dancing at Home and Abroad,” one version of the Boston would begin like this: The female partner begins with her heels together and toes turned out. She steps forward with her right foot and bends her left knee, then steps forward with her left foot, rises up onto her toes, and turns to the right, bringing her feet together at the end of the step. The gentleman dancing with her mirrors her steps in reverse.

However, the Boston was ultimately not so much as a precise series of steps as an ever-evolving name for a wide variety of new-fangled dances. As Powers explains it, dance culture is as susceptible to linguistic fads as it is to a good beat. In the 1950s, for example, the word “bop” became ubiquitous, and in the 1970s everyone wanted to call their disco moves “the hustle.” In the late 19th century, the cool kids called many varieties of their moves “the Boston.” Instructors desperate to capture an audience dreamed up “latest and greatest” styles of Boston; some were promoted heavily but rarely danced by anyone other than their inventors.

By the early 19th century, the Boston could also refer to a ragtime step that shared elements with “animal dances” like the turkey trot, according to dance scholar Carrie Stern. By the 1930s, the term “Boston” referred not to a dance step, but to a slower tempo for a waltz. Soon afterward, the word disappeared from the dance floor. “There’s a messiness to it,” Powers concedes of the tangled history of the once prize-winning dance. “Normally fads come and go quickly, but for some reason this term did not....It’s very unusual that a term like that would stay fashionable for that long.”

At least one version of the Boston lives on today as the cross-step waltz, a popular dance among 21st-century waltzers. You can trace the cross-step waltz back to the French Valse Boston, and before that, to the cross-walk Boston, an early 20th-century step. And from there, you can trace it all the way back to Scollay Square, and to a city that, unlikely as it may seem, was once the last word in riotous dancing.

Ruth Graham is a writer in New Hampshire.