What is partnered social dance but a ritualized embodiment of the battle of the sexes? The inevitable symbolism of women and men moving and touching, from 18th-century cotillions and reels, to 19th-century European style waltzes, to the ragtime dances of the early 20th century, has repeatedly ignited accompanying public discourses rife with vexed questions about sexuality, gender roles, class, race, morality, and modernity.
The dramatic metaphoric possibilities of social dance reached one extreme in the danse apache of the early 20th century, which was a stylized imagining of the violent lifestyle of Parisian pimps and prostitutes. Here a male and female dancer participated in a dummy display of violence and sexual attraction, combining one-step dancing with gymnastics and theater.
This dance was appropriated by professionals, often as a cabaret act, and was interpolated into several films—sometimes mistaken for real violence by other characters that try to intervene to comic effect. Pretense or not, the footage of this dance displays an alarming level of violence that makes us fear for the dancers’ well-being.
This according to “Dancing with a vengeance: Ritualized sexual aggression in social dance of the ragtime era and beyond” by Eden E. Kainer, an essay included in Dance and the social city (Birmingham: Society of Dance History Scholars, 2012, pp. 141–148).
Above, souvenirs of a reconstructed danse apache from the early 1950s; below, a film from 1934.
BONUS: A 21st-century version.