A Landscape of Slow Drag

It’s easy when thinking about a social dance, like slow drag, to think of it as more specific and more narrowly-defined than it is. In learning a dance, we want to understand it, and we may look for clear-cut rules of what defines a particular dance.

But to quote dance historian Richard Powers, when it comes to social dances, “no one was in charge of steps or terminology…Often I see beginners in dance history being over-specific, saying… ‘The slow drag looked this way.’ But actually what was going on is many different ways of dancing were called that name and one way of dancing would have many different names… It was the perfect mess.”[1]

And jazz performer Chester Whitmore said, “You could take a step, and then every 15, 20 years, it changes. The step is still the same step but it changes because the rhythm of the music changes. It was a dance and it was a step.”[2]

As we seek to understand the boundaries and definitions of slow drag and other social dances, it’s important to leave room for the variations and differences that could have been part of it. This is particularly relevant for dances like slow drag, which persisted across more than a century, in several different communities, contexts, and to different styles of music.

Since slow drag is one of the more well-documented dances in the blues family, this article explores several examples of slow drag from film, writing, and interviews, to help us more easily understand some of the similarities and differences within slow drag across time and location. The sections of this article are the examples themselves, followed by some analysis by me, and then some concluding thoughts.

Examples

What follows is a collection of descriptions and recordings of slow drag. I’m providing the direct quotations and film clips where possible, so you (the reader) can also pick out details and more easily do some analysis yourself.

1870s, Louisiana:

“While in New Orleans in 1959, we were invited to visit Mrs. Alice Zeno, the ninety-five-year-old mother of clarinetist George Lewis…. ‘As a girl, let me see, back around 1878, I believe I danced the Mazurka, the Polka, the Waltz, and of course, the Quadrille. I don’t remember the Irish Reel, and I certainly never danced the Slow Drag.’ (In a tactless moment, we had mentioned the Slow Drag, which is danced with Congo hip movements.)”[3]

1890-1900s, Louisiana:

“Charlie Love, born later in 1885…recalled playing a different kind of music—’more raggy’—for less fashionable groups in town, where the Eagle Rock, the Buzzard Lope, and the Slow Drag were the favorite dances. ‘They did the Slow Drag all over Louisiana,’ said Mr. Love; ‘couples would hang onto each other and just grind back and forth in one spot all night.’”[4]

1901, Birmingham, AL:

Coot Grant describes observing people dancing in her father’s honky-tonk in 1901: “I had already cut out a peephole in the wall so I could watch the dancers in the back room. They did everything. I remember the Slow Drag, of course, that was very popular—hanging on each other and just barely moving.”[5]

Early 1900s, Writer Lived & Traveled the South & St. Louis, Before Settling in New York, NY:

Composer Scott Joplin wrote “Directions for the Slow Drag,” which were choreographic notes for the number “A Real Slow Drag,” the final number of his opera Treemonisha:

“1. The slow drag must begin on the first beat of each measure.
2. When moving forward, drag the left foot; when moving backward, drag the right foot.
3. When moving sideways to the right, drag the left foot; when moving sideways to the left, drag the right foot.
4. When prancing, your steps must come on each beat of the measure.
5. When marching, and when sliding, your steps must come on the first and third beat of each measure.
6. Hop and skip on second beat of measure. Double the Schottische step to fit the slow music.”[6]

Early 1900s, Traveling Show:

The main characters onstage, portraying an older couple, towards the end of the show: “That’s when they do the slow drag,” says Pigmeat [Markham] “with plenty of grinds, and after that, the Pull It, leaning back and arching their bodies like the breakaway in the Lindy.”[7]

Era Unknown (Speaker b. 1916), Galveston County, TX:

“Up & down the Santa Fe tracks in those days was known as the barrelhouse joints. They danced all night long…. It settled down to the slow, low-down blues, and the slow drag” —Buster Pickens, pianist[8] 

1929, Filmed in Astoria, Queens, NY:

“St. Louis Blues,” short film starring Bessie Smith. Full film viewable on YouTube, slow drag at 3:35-3:41 and 12:23-13:15:

Cited as 1925/Published 1961, Info Likely from Harlem, NY Dancers:

SlowGrind.png

“SLOW GRIND. This movement (1925) which is also known as the Slow Drag is a one-step with exaggerated hip twisting.”[9]

1930s or Later, Likely Refers to Dancing in Harlem, NY:

“A slow drag is…like back in the old days when they made recordings, they would tell—it might say on the recording ‘foxtrot,’ ‘fast foxtrot,’ it might say ‘slow drag’ or ‘slow number’ or something like that…. So you were just doing what we actually called a drag, because all you’re doing is just dragging your feet along the floor.” —Frankie Manning[10]

Around 1940s-1950s, Likely Refers to Dancing in Harlem, NY:

“Now when you started doing the slow drag, a lot of times you might use more body movement in your dancing, instead of this [his hands move straight up & down], it’s this [his hands & body move in curves, smoother]. It’s the body movement. You hear the accent. When you start dancing, you’re breathing. When you dance, you breath.” —Sonny Allen[11]

Era Unknown/Various Eras, Sources from Chicago and/or San Francisco, Possibly Others:

“It’s a mostly sideways, mostly in-place dance through most of its history, with a push to the side and a dragging of the leg. How big that drag was, how big that push was could be anywhere from four inches to a foot and a half. Sometimes the dance traveled around a lot, particularly in more sort of ballroom areas, where you had the space to travel. But in the juke joints and places like that, it was really sort of an in-the-spot dance.” —Damon Stone[12]

Also a dancing example from Damon Stone and Heidi Fite[13]

Referenced Era Unknown, New York, NY:

“The slow drag was a very slow motion, moving, and you drag your partner across. It’s really sensuous and it’s really precision. Now that also come from the bodies, real close together. Like in Ballroom, you lead your partner with your chest. This is really low, really gutbucket down here. It’s with your chest and your whole body, and that’s how you slow drag your partner back. That’s what that was.

“You also hear the slow drag of the dance step going side to side. Now that came out of a thing called ring dances or ring circles, which is really out of the spirituals…

“My first experiences with the slow drag was some of the stuff with the Hessians[spelling unknown]. I used to perform with Jim and Marsha Hessian, and they would play all these slow numbers. I said, ‘Where did you learn all this?’ He said, ‘From my mentor.’ I said, ‘Who was your mentor?’ It was Eubie Blake (1887-1983)…around 70, and I got a chance to meet with him…and he said, ‘Oh no, the dance isn’t slow drag across the floor. And it was really gutbucket, had a bottle of gin in her hand and he’d do all kinds of stuff” —Chester Whitmore[14]

Era Unknown, Mississippi Delta Region:

“This rhythmic source was reinforced by the feet of the couples who packed the steamy room and were performing the blues, also called the slow drag, a name that well describes it…. The couples, glued together in a belly-to-belly, loin-to-loin embrace, approximated sexual intercourse as closely as their vertical postures, their clothing, and the crowd around them would allow. Slowly, with bent knees and with the whole shoe flat on the floor, the dragged their feet along its surface, emphasizing the off-beat, so that the whole house vibrated like a drum.”[15]

1962, Chicago, IL:

“When I was a teenager…at Herb Kent’s Friday night dance party held at St. Phillips High School…While the music made the couples dance smooth and dignified in style giving them a musical personality, as they travel gracefully around, it was a rhythmic tidal wave of faces that had me spellbound and stuck to that balcony railing. I stood there enchanted by a vortex of elegant movement and enchanting music below my feet. The couples in the center danced their Slow Drag Dance, moving ever so slowly, around and around on themselves. Giving the circle a center of permanence.”[16]

1968, Musical Group from Philadelphia:

Among the lyrics from “Slow Drag” by The Intruders, released in 1968: “I like to get close to the one I love, so I slow drag… Hold me close, hold me closer to you”[17]

2012, Harlem, NY:

Lesson & interview from Savoy Ballroom to Blues:

[18]

These next examples are secondary (second-hand) descriptions, or examples where it’s unclear whether they’re first-hand or second-hand.

“Early observers noted the fox trot and one step and dancing to ‘the blues.’ This latter type of dancing would have been marginally acceptable Slow Drag. Based on a very close-hold technique and writhing hip movements, in a private party setting it tended to be stationary with the girls’ arms around the boy’s neck and the boy’s arms placed around her waist, sometimes sliding onto her buttocks. The dance was otherwise known as Dancing-on-a-Dime, or more recently as the Grind, and the Savoy bouncers insisted the couples keep moving.”[19]

[Slow drag was] “a couple dance in which a man and a woman press their bodies tightly together in a smooth bump and grind as they kept the rhythm of the music”[20]

“Slow drag was popular in the southern juke joints and occurred late at night by dancers exhausted from hours of fast-paced dancing. Couples would hold each other tight and slow grind to the slow, erotic music. When moving in any direction, the first foot stepped and the second dragged to join it, illustrating a slow, a delayed sensuality. The couple might move away from each other slightly and then come back in and grind until the end of the evening.”[21]

“…the Slow Drag, which originated in New Orleans in the late nineteenth century, where it was danced by couples close together, with sensual hip movements.”[22]

Analysis

To start with, here are visualizations I created of some aspects described in these examples, and which examples include which aspects. For a table view of the same information, see here.

This first diagram includes examples that specified dancing in one spot:

 

dancinginonespot.jpg

 

This diagram includes examples that specified dancing that moved across the floor:

 

movedacrossfloor

 

This last diagram includes examples where in-place vs moving across the floor was not specified:

Fixeddiagramforslowdragarticle

 

Now to dive into some details that I see and find interesting!

Partner connection

In both film examples, partners are connected torso-to-torso, and many of the written or spoken examples describe it as a “close” dance, leading “with your chest,” and “bodies pressed together.” Though not all examples describe the partner connection, I haven’t found descriptions counter to that. The exception is this: “The couple might move away from each other slightly and then come back in and grind until the end of the evening.”[23] It’s unclear if this is a first-hand or second-hand account, or what locations and eras it’s referencing.

An interesting detail from both film examples is that you can see one partner or the other leaning back with their belly or lower torso pressed into their partner. The instructor in Savoy Ballroom to Blues even instructs the followers to “push forward, lean back,” though their connection is in more of a V (with the follower more on the corner of the leader’s chest) than Bessie and Jimmy’s more straight-on connection. In slight contrast, Chester Whitmore says, “You lead your partner with your chest…it’s with your chest and your whole body,” which could imply a more full-torso connection, though that’s conjecture. So close partner connection is a trend across examples, but with variety in the details.

Interestingly, the Al Minns/Leon James photo from Ebony is of a solo dancer, and it doesn’t mention partnering. The position of his arms could be mimicking an imagined partner, or this could be an example of a solo-step version, versus a partner-dance version.

Hip & body movement

Many of these examples describe or show body movement, hip movement, or use words like “grind” which imply hip or body movement. We see this in the examples from 1890s Louisiana, the Al Minns/Leon James Ebony magazine version, and Sonny Allen’s and Chester Whitmore’s descriptions, and Alan Lomax’s. You can see hip and body movement in both film examples, but to my eye, it looks relatively subtle. It’s worth mentioning that both film examples are not in a fully social context—one is for a movie (though portraying a social setting), and the other is a classroom setting—which could affect aspects of the dance being displayed.

The “Drag” Part

I see variations in what “drags” in slow drag, across these examples. The 1911 Joplin instance, the interview with Frankie Manning, Alan Lomax’s recollection, and the interview with Damon Stone all mention dragging of the feet. With Chester Whitmore, it’s “how you slow drag your partner back” (emphasis added). In the Whitmore and Sonny Allen interviews, the speakers also often lengthened the word “drag” (“draaaaag”) which could imply a dragging of time, a lengthening of the beats.

The Al Minns/Leon James example doesn’t mention any type of drag; in that example the primary name is “slow grind,” though slow drag is given as an alternate name.

‘Across the Floor’ or ‘Barely Moving’

It seems that there were differences in how much the dance moved across the floor. Some versions moved “across” or “back” (Whitmore, Harlem), some were on the spot “barely moving” (Grant, Birmingham), and some “moving ever so slowly, around and around on themselves” (Allen, Chicago).

A nice laying out out of this difference is made clear in Chester Whitmore’s interview. Whitmore first describes a version where you “drag your partner across” the floor and “drag your partner back,” and then also talks about another slow drag “going side to side,” where Eubie Blake told him it “isn’t slow drag across the floor” (emphasis added). This aligns with the differences that Damon Stone speaks of as well, with versions traveling across the floor in ballrooms and more dancing on the spot in juke joints and other smaller spaces.

Basic Rhythm

In these examples, the rhythm for stepping is often not addressed directly. We can see the rhythm in the film examples—St. Louis Blues is a dragged-out (through time) or ‘slow’ step (a step that takes two beats), and Savoy Ballroom to Blues is a drag-step on each beat. There is one moment in St. Louis Blues where Jimmy does a rhythmic variation, with a scoop or loop back, with the rhythm of ‘1 and 2.’

The other examples that do specify rhythm are the Ebony magazine, Damon Stone, and Alan Lomax. Ebony magazine calls it a “one-step,” which could mean either a one-beat step or a two-beat step, based on my encountering that term both formally and colloquially. Damon Stone specifies that the dance keeps one rhythm. Alan Lomax specifies that the off-beat is emphasized (which I’m assuming means the second and fourth beats), but he doesn’t specify how or with what part of the body.

Overall, these don’t seem particularly contradictory. My interpretation is that either there are different versions, some that are always one-beat steps and some that are always two-beat steps, and/or each version could be one-beat steps or two-beat steps varying from song-to-song or partner-to-partner.

Alternate Names

In the various descriptions, there are several alternate names offered, including “drag” (Frankie Manning, Harlem), “slow grind” (Ebony article), “Grind” and “Dancing on a Dime” (Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake). It’s also interesting to note than in both Jazz Dance by Marshall and Jean Stearns and Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake, the index includes a reference to “the Drag” listed in the index under Slow Drag.

Overlap with “Grind”

In addition to the naming overlap with “grind” and “slow grind,” another interesting observation comes when Frankie Manning is describing grinding. During the same interview referenced previously, he says, about grind, “You know what’s so funny, I remember when I was a… youngster…I was at least 15 years old… I remember we used to, when the music started playing slow, first I remember you’d be dancing with the young lady and you’d be trying to get close to her, you know…and she would bend over you, you know. So we were bending back as she was bending over you. And I remember gradually, the dance started straightening up and you was almost bending over her.” You can actually see the first part of this type of interaction happen in St. Louis Blues with Bessie and Jimmy as well, which I find really interesting.

Even when “grind” or “slow grind” isn’t offered as an alternate name, the descriptions sometimes contain the word “grind,” “grinds,” or “grinding.”

Vibe

A lot of the examples—particularly in party or juke joint settings—depict this as a couples’ dance, romantic or sexual in nature. Both contexts of slow drag in St. Louis Blues are certainly of that nature as well. Anecdotally, I’ve also heard some elders describe slow drag as romantic or sexual couple dancing, grinding, even a type of foreplay. Now, how we apply this when we’re in a different dance context (if we’re dancing with people with whom we don’t intend to be sexually or romantically entangled) is a separate issue. But these examples show that multiple people who danced slow drag did so with sexual or romantic overtones. This is a statement of ‘was/is,’ not a statement of ‘should.’

We also have some implications of this being less ‘proper,’ based on Mrs. Zeno’s tone while mentioning the slow drag (“certainly never danced”), the description of it being “marginally acceptable” in the early days of the Savoy, and Charlie Love’s description of this being for “less fashionable” groups.

I do see a slight difference in the descriptions from Whitmore and Sonny Allen—both New York dancers, it might be worth noting. From them, it’s not explicitly stated as a sexual or romantic dance, but Whitmore does describe it as “sensuous” and his addition of “precision” brings a tone of skill-displaying as well, in my read. Manning, another New York dancer, doesn’t address the vibe of the dance at all or give any clues with his tone of delivery.

Overall Thoughts, Impressions, Conclusions, and Open Questions

So how do I, personally, fit all these pieces together in my mind? At a high-level, I think of slow drag as a range of things, from grinding hips slowly with a partner, to sweetly shuffling across the floor while close to someone, to sensual and rhythmic body movement with a partner dragging back or in place–maybe with a touch of showing off rhythmic prowess to a partner. To me, the group overall involves dancing close, some degree of body movement, a range of pulses & ways of connecting to the rhythm, a simple stepping rhythm, and dragging of the foot more as a result of not thinking about it than as an intentional feature. I would not be surprised to find exceptions to these either. Across the group, it seems that many close embrace connections are in scope, as well as many varieties of pulse.

The Scott Joplin example is most different from the others, but also had a very different context, being choreography directions for a stage show. My assumption is that the choreography was more adjacent to the social dance, rather than being a more direct representation of the social dance.

Since there are so many examples that also use the words “grind,” “grinds,” or “grinding” in the description (or as alternate names), I’ve also started thinking of slow drag as overlapping with other dances called Grind. For example, it seems possible that if some people were doing what they would call slow drag, particular a variety with lots of hip-to-hip movement, someone from another place might look at it and say, “that’s grind.” That’s how I’ve started to frame it in my mind, but this is also somewhat of an open question, to me.

I also have a theory on the development of across-the-floor slow drag, specifically at the Savoy. As described by Hubbard and Monaghan, couples dancing slow drag on-the-spot were made to keep moving around the floor by the Savoy bouncers. This seems that it could have lead to some later versions of slow drag at the ballroom, where traveling across the floor was built into the dance, as we see in Savoy Ballroom to Blues and as described by Chester Whitmore, especially since those examples seem later in history. I’d be interested to find examples of across-the-floor slow drag from locations other than New York or from earlier in history.

Concluding Thoughts

It’s out of scope for this article to discuss what ‘accuracy’ means when we’re understanding or executing a social dance like slow drag. What is clear, however, is that we’d be missing out if we were to flatten out the variety that is obviously there across time and place. A more flexible model of thought allows for conflicting or seemingly-conflicting information, offering breadth within our definitions.

If you hear conflicting information about slow drag, dive deeper. See where people are getting their information. It could be that different people have different interpretations of the same information, or they could be learning different styles from different times or places. Or it could be the inevitable game of telephone where information changes as it’s repeated farther and farther from the sources. Whenever you can, go to the sources.

It does not escape me that some people who dance slow drag would find it absurd that I’ve given this level of analysis to a dance that, to them, was slow dancing with your honey. And I heartily acknowledge that point of view. I do think the details are interesting as well, and there is a lot of richness in these details. Since we have multiple examples here, it was also an easy example to show a general framework for understanding social dances—that they have variations, different versions, and can sometimes feel contradictory. For understanding social dances in general, I encourage everyone to look at the details, look at the contexts, talk to people who do or did these dances originally, but to embrace the “perfect mess” as well.

 

Endnotes
[1] [Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Richard Powers. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.]

[2] Lindybeige. “What Is Slow Drag?.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Aug 2018.

[3] Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21-23.

[4] Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. pp 21.

[5] Hazzard-Gordon, Katrina. Jookin. Publisher, date. pp 87-88.

[6] Joplin, Scott. A Real Slow Drag. Musical composition.

[7] ibid. p 67.

[8] Stearns, Marshall and Jean. Jazz Dance. First Da Capo Press, 1994. p 23.

[9] “Cakewalk to the Watusi: history of American social dancing.” Ebony. Aug 1961. p 34. Print. https://books.google.com/books?id=oDe4dSJt_6YC&lpg=PA1&pg=PA32&hl=en#v=onepage&q=texas%20hop&f=false]

[10] Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Frankie Manning. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.

[11] ibid. Perf. Sonny Allen.

[12] Where We Danced. Dir. Brian Skillen. Perf. Damon Stone. 1881 Productions, 2011. Documentary.

[13] GargleBlasterBlues. “Vintage Blues Demo” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 3 Apr 2007. 27 Aug, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwXbXhv0aeY

[14] Lindybeige. “What Is Slow Drag?.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Oct 2011. Web. 22 Aug 2018. https://youtu.be/8VZAeJ5N9pM

[15] Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. The New Press, 1993. pp 363-364.

[16] Allen, Andrew Antonio. “The Chicago Style Walk.” The History of Steppin Project, http://www.steppershistory.org/personal-recollections.htm.

[17] The Intruders. “Slow Drag.” Cowboys to Girls. Gamble, 1968.

[18] usgodsson. “Savoy Ballroom to Blues Dance Theater Presents A Introduction to Slow Drag: Part I.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube Oct 5, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGUoVdThYO0&t=152s

[19] Hubbard, Karen and Terry Monaghan. “Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor: Social Dancing at the Savoy.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. pp 129-130. Print.

[20] Perpener, John O. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. University of Illinois Press, 2001, p. 37.

[21] George-Graves, Nadine. “Just Like Being at the Zoo: Primitivity and Ragtime Dance.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. p 58-58. Print.

[22] Haskins, James. Black Dance in America: A History Through Its People. Thomas Y. Cromwell Junior Books, 1941. p 155.

[23] George-Graves, Nadine. “Just Like Being at the Zoo: Primitivity and Ragtime Dance.” Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake : a social and popular dance reader. Ed. Julie Malnig. University of Illinois Press, 2009. p 58-58. Print.

JulieBrown2
Julie’s expressive dancing and joyful, playful connection are known throughout the country. With a background in performance and solo dance, she is best known for her solo blues, artistic choreography, and seamlessly integrating following with expression. As a teacher, Julie presents material with a caring and often light-hearted tone. She carefully crafts her classes and continuously tailors her material to fit the crowd at hand. Julie teaches regularly in her hometown of Boston, and has taught workshops everywhere from California to London.

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