Before the internet, music videos, and even music magazines, the only photographs most people saw of their favorite artists were on album covers. The 12 x 12 inch record sleeves had to do it all — grab your attention, stand out in the crowd, convey a distinctive mood, and convince you to buy an album the likes of which you may have never even heard before.
Long before streaming brought the entire world to your fingertips, buying music was an investment in and of itself. You spent money and you spent time with an album as a cohesive work. Once the needle dropped, musicians took you on a journey into their world, and all people had to ground themselves and deepen their connection to the music was the album cover and, if they were lucky, liner notes.
In mid-century America, dance music was the craze — and records were used to bring calypso, rhumba, merengue, mambo, hula, tango, limbo, cha-cha-cha, and many other cultural dances into living rooms across the nation. With the rise of youth culture in the post-war period, leisure became a central force in American life. Dance became the perfect way to let loose and connect with other people. With social mores beginning to relax, dance music created the perfect space for self-expression, romance, and cultural expansion.
In the new book Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance (MIT Press), authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schrader revisit this iconic era of American life, where fantasy, art, and entertainment seamlessly merged into a new realm — and photography played a vital role in the evolution of pop culture.
From Bohemia to Main Street
“Dance records and their informative covers provided entrée into aspects of new worlds through music, movement, and romantic visions,” write authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schrader. “Indeed, the record industry provided raw materials for building midcentury identities, allowing consumers to communicate who they were through the music they sought out, the records they bought, played, and displayed, and the rhythms they danced to.”
Both the music and the photographs occupied a unique space in American life, offering opportunities for appropriation or assimilation depending on your vantage point. Introduced after “race records” by groundbreaking Black American musicians like Duke Ellington and Ma Rainey proved highly profitable, white-owned labels expanded their rosters to bring music from Latin America, the Caribbean, Brazil, the Middle East, Hawaii, and Bohemia to the mainstream.
“Dancing other people’s steps creates the space and occasion for a variety of relations: honor, respect, desire, appropriation, subordination, and mimicry — sometimes insulting — among them,” the authors write. “All of these relations stem from a recognition of difference between the Other whose steps these are and the Self who mimics or imitates.”
A Story to Tell
These questions persist today, making Designed for Dancing all the more insightful as a lens into the past. The colonial mindset, so pervasive in white American life, saw foreign cultures through the lens of exoticism, transforming the “other” into a faddish commodity. For example the limbo, which originated as a funeral rite of the Shango practice in 19th-century Trinidad and Tobago, reimagined the walk of enslaved Africans entering the low galleys of slave ships as that of spirit crossing into the sacred realm.
“The limbo story offers reminders of the difficulties in dancing others’ steps — what gets lost in the quest to move the way others do and how dances change in the popularization process,” the authors write. “At the pinnacle of limbo’s popularity, Wham-O, the company behind the hula hoop and the frisbee, came out with the Limbo Game, which included limbo bar and stand, a 45-rpm limbo record, and some basic instructions. ‘’The Caribbean Fun Fad Is Here,’ it announced, offering another step in a commodification process from tradition to toy.”
At the same time, dance records — and their attendant album photographs — offered a way for immigrants and their children to celebrate their heritage. The musical trends followed immigration patterns as new arrivals from Latin America and the Caribbean made the United States their home. Simultaneously, with the Civil Rights Movement pushing to end segregation, white America discovered “race records” and remade songs like Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” as rock and roll.
Through album art, photography played a pivotal role in the way music was received, helping not only to sell records but also to foster cross-cultural connections that might not have otherwise taken root. “In some cases women photographed on mid century dance covers are not simply models,” the authors write. “For example, the well-known Turkish performer Nejla Ates appears in full belly dance regalia on Dabkie: Exotic Dances of the Middle East. The Latin album Rockin’ Cha features Margo Rodriguez, a celebrated Palladium Ballroom mambo dancer….They, too, have stories to tell.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books and magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance is published by MIT Press, $39.95.