I was recently given a copy of this brand-new book on the social dance history of Lowell, Massachusetts, as a gift, perfectly timed for a spate of long-distance travel. Twirling Jennies: A History of Social Dance (and other mischief) in the City of Spindles 1820-1920 (Takoma Park, MD: Misenchanted Press, September 2015) was written by dancer-researcher Ruth Evans, with her husband Charles Worsley as co-researcher. I've met the two of them a few times at balls and festivals; they're beautiful dancers and lovely people. I'd seen the book's promotional website and was quite excited to get to read it.
I should note that this was a gift from a family member, who bought it in the normal way, rather than a free review copy.
In general, Twirling Jennies well repaid my anticipation. It is not a book of dance reconstructions, though there are discussions of steps and figures here and there, or an academic work. It is popular history with more technical detail than average that puts social dance in context over the course of a century in a specific community. And it does a splendid job of it. Evans takes you through the history of Lowell from its founding and effectively places its famous mill girls and other inhabitants into the social and physical settings in which they danced. Some chapters focus on particular types of dancing while others move outward to discuss the city's ballrooms, trolley parks, and factories and their pertinence to dancing. A chapter on the city's old dance halls, now (alas!) mostly vanished or converted to other uses, could be used as a guide for an interesting walking tour of Lowell.
The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and other ephemera from newspapers, historical societies, and the author's own collection, which must be astonishing. Familiar illustrations from dance manuals (and a few not so familiar!) are mixed with postcards, ball invitations, advertisements for dances and accessories, dance cards, and occasional songs and poems. There are extensive quotations from articles and letters describing dance events, opinions about dancing, and related occurrences, such as a hilarious "tango trial" in which a pair of policemen were forced to demonstrate in court the offending moves of the dancers on trial.
As a historian, I am delighted that the author carefully cites her sources. The book includes a list of the origins of all the illustrations, endnote citations for all the quotations, and a full bibliography. There are a few other resources and links on the book's website as well. This level of care is sadly lacking in far too many popular histories of social dance.
The one place where the book falls down a bit is, oddly enough, in the details of dance history, which vary from wonderfully correct to weirdly wrong. That is not the sort of thing that's going to matter to people who are reading it purely as social history, but I'm a different sort of reader, so I notice these details. For example:
The polka is given the "hop-slide-cut-leap" footwork of the era's dance manuals rather than the casual modern footwork (hurrah!), and the valse à deux temps is accurately described -- a rarity!
But the Lancers Quadrille dates from the late 1810s, not 1850, and the Elias Howe (1820-1895) who was the dance caller, publisher, and author was not the same as the other Elias Howe (1819-1867) who famously invented the modern sewing machine. I've made the latter error in the past myself, so I'm sympathetic, but this is not new information!
The contra (country) dance history is also a bit fuzzy around the edges. The author accurately traces some of the changes in particular figures, which I find refreshing, but she misses the big-picture change of particular figures becoming associated with tunes and picking up their names. It's not that a dance called "Money Musk" changed over time, it's that the two versions in her illustrations are totally different sets of figures for the same tune. That's fairly cutting-edge information as dance research goes, and more known among country dance researchers than in "vintage dance" circles in the United States, which tend to focus much more heavily on couple dances and on the mid-19th century onward. Specific factual errors like the two listed above are more bothersome.
Recommending this book is a little bit complicated, since I can see it having several potential audiences. And I never know who will come across this review. Breaking it down:
Despite the occasional errors, this is still a extremely useful work for serious dance historians because of the sheer quantity of valuable primary source material it collects. I've already found fresh information and ideas for my own research, and I expect it to be one of those books I go back to over and over again. And any dance historian capable of detecting the errors is probably also knowledgeable enough to correct them!
For historical dancers who want to develop their knowledge of the social and physical setting of the dances they do for fun and who will already have enough experience to understand the occasional forays into technical details of dancing, this book is perfect. It should be on the holiday gift lists of everyone in that category.
For people who just want an interesting book of social history centered around dancing, this is probably a bit too much information, but it's still an interesting overview that brings a particular aspect of social history colorfully to life. They will probably enjoy the anecdotes and historical background and can scoot past the bits that go too heavily into the technical details.
You can purchase the book from Amazon at the link below and find more information about it on its website.