Three popular dances -the Conga, the Mambo, and the Waltz- each have their own reputation in classic movies (up to the mid-1960s). They are treated almost as movie characters, and, consequently, have a role to play in the story.
The Conga, a Cuban carnival march, is a treat to see. Three steps and a kick showcase unbridled fun in the movies. Often it's shown in the Conga Line. Each dancer grabs the waist of the person in front and walks in a line to the rhythm.
The Conga is presented as your best buddy and the life of the party. You might not dance it well, but the Conga doesn't care. Just have fun!
Strike Up the Band (1940)
It Started with Eve (1941)
This film uses the energetic Conga to show the improved health of an older man (Charles Laughton), a man who was lately on his sickbed. Who teaches him the "new" dance? The woman he hopes will become his daughter-in-law - Anne (Deanna Durbin). She's a good match for this family and these two seal their friendship with the Conga.
Ball of Fire (1942)
"DA DA da da DA. BOOM. DA DA da da DA. BOOM," is how Sugarpuss O'Shay (Barbara Stanwyck) counts out the Conga in Ball of Fire (1942). The burlesque dancer teaches stodgy old professors how to jump into the 20th century with both feet. The Conga Line seems to be the perfect choice. The steps are not intricate; you can ruin the dance and no one will care. (At least in the movies.)
My Sister Eileen (1955)
My Sister Eileen (1955) ends with a Conga Line of people. The Cuban Navy is in town and looking for fun. They start an impromptu Conga, scooping up all the main characters and their wacky Greenwich Village neighbors for the finale.
In a home office or out on the street, the Conga in classic movies is used to show likeable people having fun with abandon.
As with the Conga, Cuba is the place of origin for the quick-paced, and relatively complicated Mambo. The dance was invented in the 1940s by Perez Prado to accompany the music which was invented ten years earlier.
The Mambo is the peacock in the room. He will outstrip you with his flourish and spectacle. Just get out of the way, you'll be fine.
Because of the fast pacing, it takes time for people to learn to do it properly. Consequently, the Mambo is used to show division in a movie between the sophisticated and the socially awkward. It's also used to emphasize a character's competitive nature.
Teacher's Pet (1958)
Jim (Clark Gable), a rough-hewn newspaper editor who graduated from the school of hard knocks, is an old-fashioned guy. Erica (Doris Day), young and fresh-faced, is his counterpart - a journalism professor who represents a new way of communicating news.
Jim takes Erica to the floor for a slow Foxtrot. When the band quits the slow tempo and picks up the pace with a cacophony of percussion, Jim is lost. Erica proclaims, "It's the Mambo!" Jim doesn't know that dance.
So here he is at the table, contemplating Erica and her new dance partner, another professor, Dr. Pine (Gig Young), who seems to know everything, including the Mambo. Jim is in stiff competition with this guy, who is besting him in everything, including romance.
The Mambo is just another way to make a distinction between Jim's hardscrabble, boot-strapping reality and Erica's and Dr. Pine's easy, breezy, erudite world of theory.
The Mambo conquers another square.
A divorced couple (Jack Lemmon and Judy Holliday) want gaiety and excitement in their new lives. They each trot down to Arthur Murray's dance studio for classes in the latest terpsichorean craze, neither knowing the other has the same idea.
Later, the ex-spouses accidentally show up to the same nightclub. They are so angry with each other they show off their new skills with a dance-off to a Mambo, pushing the other dancers off the floor with their antics. They make fools of themselves.
In this film, knowing the Mambo is a sign of sophistication. This new worldliness is used to highlight the competitive nature of two people who can no longer stand each other.
West Side Story (1961)
We'll see who's hep, Daddy-o! The Mambo is crazy cool until it gets hot. [Insert your own badly-mangled, mid-20th century slang here.]
Does this challenge settle anything? No. But it looks pretty.
The Mambo's relatively complicated, fast-paced steps make this dance the weapon of choice in classic movies for deciding who's the most up-to-date.
There was a lot of group dancing for "respectable" people, and then came the Waltz. This one-on-one public dance- was a scandal in the early 1800s, often banned for being too intimate.
A couple twirls together. 1-2-3, 1-2-3 (strong accent on 1), and a box step in three-quarter time. It's so beautiful, especially with the voluminous fabrics that people wore at the time swirling around.
As the 20th century slowly turned, so did the Waltz. It turned from too new to too old; too brazen to too square. You could still request the Waltz at a dance during the classic movie era, but it was the stuff of nostalgia by the 1930s, something your grandparents might have preferred.
Because of its advanced age at the time of this new industry called moving pictures, the Waltz tends to be brushed aside in classic movies, or otherwise displayed in mothballs.
It's like your great-great-aunt Agatha who's nice and everything, but you've got nothing in common with her, except you exist on the same planet.
The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
There is a big, fantastic production number devoted to the Waltz in The Big Broadcast of 1938. It's a history of Western dance which recounts the idea that other dances may be fads, but people still dance the Waltz.
"The Waltz lives on," Shirley Ross sings. Though it is respectful of the dance, the song is like when you hear that someone is "still alive." It's slightly cringe-inducing. There is the implication that they might pull the plug at any moment, but, for now, that old Waltz is still hanging in there.
It's a great number, though.
Anchors Aweigh (1945)
They return to the table where Gene Kelly -playing a "wolf," a guy who knows how to seduce women- takes the lady back to the floor. She's swept off her feet by Kelly's charm.
Sinatra goes back to the table to contemplate this male peacock on the dance floor who knows the new "exotic" dances. In this film, the Waltz is for schlubs, for a young guy who cannot function in society.
Harvey Girls (1946)
In the Harvey Girls, women from all over the U.S. are waitresses in the Wild West for the Fred Harvey restaurants. They show something new to the cowboys -a dance "where the fella puts his arms around the lady's waist." Everyone gets excited over this possibility.
Here, the Waltz puts you in the period of the story. It also gives the audience a chuckle that the prospect of not dancing in a group is so thrillingly new.
An American in Paris (1951)
Written in 1936, George and Ira Gershwin's song "By Strauss" is a tribute to and a mocking of the Waltz. The song makes an appearance years later when Georges Guetary, Oscar Levant and Gene Kelly sing it in An American in Paris. They lean heavily on the mocking aspect. According to this film, the waltz is out.
Here they playfully deride a rather stiff, traditional guy:
Kelly: He doesn't like Jazz?
Levant: He's against it.
Kelly: What else is there?
Levant: I know what he likes. He's strictly a three-quarter man.
In a classic movie set in the modern day, the Waltz is often compared to some other form of music or dance; it cannot stand by itself and/or cannot be presented without derision.
And who demonstrates the Waltz as Kelly and friends are yucking it up? A white-haired lady of a certain age. This is the only time they tamp down the jokes and give the least bit of dignity to the Waltz; that's more out of respect for the lady than the dance. The Waltz is in mothballs by the 1950s, and they don't mind saying so.
Flower Drum Song (1961)
There is a party at Mr.Wan's house. The guests perform many popular dances in the U.S., including a Waltz.
After that blast from the past, they "have a ball." The pace picks up and soon Mr. Wan's teenaged son (Patrick Adiarte) and friends take over the floor with modern dance and Jazz, as the older people stand back and observe.
In this film, the Waltz is a charming old piece for grown-ups that is contrasted with, and must make way for, something newer.
The Happiest Millionaire (1967)
It's the 1910s and Cordelia (Lesley Ann Warren) is growing up. She wants to be like all the other girls and know the latest dances.
"The Waltz is for old people," Cordelia exclaims, repeating her father's words earlier. (Her boxing-enthusiast father prefers a lively jig for exercise.) This declaration comes on the heels of the number, "Bye-Yum-Pum-Pum," which rehearses the merits of slinking around to modern, sensuous music -the Tango.
Again, the Waltz is compared unfavorably with something newer in pop culture.
But this Disney movie does not leave the dance defeated; the Waltz makes an awesome comeback. It punches up from the floor and knocks Cordelia out with its grace and poise. She falls in love with Angier (John Davidson) while dancing -gasp!- that old 19th century relic, the Waltz.
The dance regains its dignity. Thank you, Disney.
Though the Waltz is often used in classic movies to mock a character or era for being old fashioned, the gentility of the form still leaves the audience nostalgic.
-------------------------------------------------------------Classic movies use the Conga, the Mambo and the Waltz to categorize a character or an era, sometimes unfairly. Ultimately, they are still a thrill to watch.