A couple of months ago I described the late 19th-century waltz-time move known as the York, which incorporated mazurka-style heel-clicks and was considered a variation of the polka mazurka. At the time, the earliest source I had located was M.B. Gilbert's Round Dancing, published in 1890, where the dance was included "by permission of E.W. Masters," possibly its creator. An interesting article from The New York Times, dated September 9, 1885, both brings the date of the dance back a few years and provides an amusing anecdote about the dance's possible origin.
The article is titled:
In and About the City
Teaching Professors to Dance
Imparting New Steps and Reminiscences to Each Other
and describes a meeting of the American Society of Professors of Dancing at the New York City academy of Laurence De Garmo Brookes, described as "the oldest Professor of dancing in this city and country," on the previous day. Among the dancing masters present was one Mr. Spink, who described the York to an attentive audience:
The new dance which attracted the most attention was the "York" invented by Mr. Spink, of Providence. "It is a combination of the old trois temps and the polka mazurka," he explained, as 14 gentlemen eager to be trained stood up, while a plaintive fiddle wooed them to the tempting exercise.
So was Mr. Spink the inventor rather than Mr. Masters? It's a bit complicated and involves one of those annoying busybody parents that are the bane of dance teachers then and now:
"I'll tell you how I came to get a hold of the dance," said Mr. Spink as 28 legs hung limply inactive and 14 bodies craved repose. "The mother of two of my most charming pupils came in one day. I disliked her most cordially, as she was frightfully high-toned. Up she came to me while I was engaged with other pupils and said she 'Of course you don't know any nice new dances.' I felt angry, so I replied, on the spur of the moment, 'Yes I do.' But I didn't. Said she, 'Do you know the York?' I had committed myself, so I replied that I knew it very well. 'It's pretty, isn't?' she said, and she commenced to dance. I took it all in and replied indifferently, 'yes, and very easy.' 'Teach it to your class, then,' said she. I told her I would do so next week. In the meantime I thoroughly investigated the step and the following week, every one of my class could dance the York."
If what he was teaching was what the mother demonstrated, he might be better called the discoverer of the dance than the inventor, though the above could also be interpreted as him having spent the week between classes simply making something up after having trapped himself into teaching it.
What did the other dancing masters think of this tale? Presumably they'd all been in a similar position at some point:
A peal of laughter greeted this narration...
The dance itself was not accepted uncritically. A certain Mr. S. Asher, of Philadelphia, disliked one aspect of it, resulting in an entertaining little debate:
[Mr. Asher] "There is only one fault to be found about the York, and that is there is too much dancing on the heels."
"That's the beauty of it," said Mr. Spink reproachfully.
"But suppose a lady has no heels and wears pumps?" persisted Mr. Asher.
"Then," was the stern reply, "she must dance on the place where the heels ought to be."
But does this article refer to the York as found in Gilbert, Lopp, and other manuals of the last decade of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth? Or is it discussing another variation with the same name? It's hard to say. The polka mazurka connection is suggestive, but the York as described elsewhere (and the descriptions are quite consistent) in no way incorporates the trois temps. And it's not clear what "dancing on the heels" means in this context, when most dancing of the day would be performed on the ball of the foot. It might refer to the heel-clicking ornamentation. But Mr. Spink's tale makes an amusing anecdote even if its value as documentation is debatable.
The entire original article, which is well worth reading for its humor value, may be found here, courtesy of The New York Times online archives.
Special thanks to Irene Urban for bringing this article to my attention.