Joan Sawyer Discusses the “Congo Trot” with the El Paso Herald, 1914

Dancer, teacher and innovator Joan Sawyer “exclusively” discusses a dance of her own invention with Anne Lisle and the El Paso Herald, called the “Congo Trot.”  The article features pictures of Ms. Sawyer demonstrating the Congo Trot with her partner, Nigel Barrie.

El Paso herald., October 24, 1914, HOME EDITION, Comic Section, Page 5, Image 21

El Paso herald., October 24, 1914, HOME EDITION, Comic Section, Page 5, Image 21

Mr. Barrie is described in the article as “cleverest of all the partners [Joan Sawyer] has ever had.”  As it turns out, Miss Sawyer had several partners, so this is no small claim.

In her initial, generalized description of the Congo Trot movement, Miss Sawyer encourages a strongly emphasized first and third beat, and de-emphasized second and fourth beat.  She advises the dancer to “swing into the movement from the hips,” while maintaining pointed toes and relaxed body.

Miss Sawyer then describes, and she and Mr. Barrie demonstrate, five Congo Trot Steps: the Dip Step, Polka Tango Step, Minuet Circle, Spin, and Pendulum Dip.   Unusually, Miss Sawyer describes the dance from the follow’s perspective, with the assumption that the gentleman will mirror the ladies’ steps.  Also unusually, she sometimes asks the lady to initiate a sequence starting on her left foot.  I will briefly summarize the steps as described by Miss Sawyer, but encourage you to read her description in full.  Miss Sawyer writes with great attention to detail and with the technician in mind.

My best estimation is as follows:

(1) Dip Step:  The partners begin facing one another.  The lady dips right on the first beat (“in a smooth gliding manner”), followed by three running steps forward, one on each beat, “in ordinary Congo Trot manner, with a little raise and lift to them.”  According to the article, this movement swings her to the right of her partner.  The step is then reversed, with the lady dipping to the left, and running backwards.  Miss Sawyer advises that this sequence can be repeated indefinitely.

Miss Sawyer suggests dividing sequences or units of the Congo Trot with a spin, described thusly:

“Between each set of steps a spin is made.  For this the girl’s left and the man’s right arms drop to their sides and, with her lifted right hand in his left, she spins to the left with her weight on her left foot and that foot in advance to catch the weight which shifts from the right as she starts.”

This spin is referenced as concluding each subsequent step (discussed below).

(2) Polka Tango Step: This starts with a “polka tango step” in half time, the lady starting backwards on her right foot.  Miss Sawyer describes what I understand to be the the polka tango step as follows:

“The girl starts back on her right foot during the first two counts, going to the right of her partner and making a half turn and starting forward to the left of her partner for the third and fourth counts of the bar.”

The lady backs four steps, and pivots with her partner for two bars with “old fashioned waltz steps.”  Like the Dip Step, the Polka Tango Step ends with a lady’s spin discussed above.  At the end of the spin, the partners finish as depicted in figure 2, with the lady’s back is to her partner.

From this position, the partners execute a series of hops and points.  According to the article, “The partners take exactly the same steps this figure but the bodies sway in opposite directions.”

The step is completed with a lady’s spin into the next figure.

(3) Minuet Circle: From the spin, the dancers assume the position shown in illustration 3, with the lady and gentleman facing each other and holding hands cross body.  The gentleman begins a slow pivot to the left, changing weight on each beat.  The lady “throws her weight” onto her left foot on count one. She then catches her weight on her right on the next half count, and steps forward again on the left in double time.  The rhythm, I think, goes like this: Slow – Quick – Slow, or One – and – Two.

On counts three and four the lady turns under her left arm (gent’s right)

These four counts are repeated for at least 4 measures, or for as long as it takes to make a complete rotation around the gentleman.  A spin is again used to transition to the next step.

(4) The Spin: Both partners slide to the right on count 1, as shown in the diagram (lady’s back to partner), with the left foot drawing to the right on count 2.  This is repeated on counts 3 and 4.

The lady then executes the spin utilized at the end of each step (under her right arm, weight on her left foot).

This unit is repeated 2 – 4 times, moving to the right the entire time.

(5) Pendulum Dip: Per the article, the gentleman remains stationary for two (?) counts.  The lady spins on counts 1 and 2 to end up directly in front of her partner.  With outspread arms, the lady leans to the right on counts 3 and 4, while the gentleman leans to the left.  They balance, exchanging positions 4 times.  The figure finishes with a spin back into position for the first figure.

Joan Sawyer was, by all accounts, an unusual woman.  While the Castles, her biggest competitors, were married, with Mr. Castle (at least nominally) authoring most of their technical dance instruction in print, Miss Sawyer was an independent woman.  She cycled through a number of dance partners, ran her own business, composed some of her own music, and assembled her own band.  Several people have written articles and blog posts discussing her that are readily available, though minimally sourced.  These can be found here, and here, and here.  She merits an article of her own on this site.  Perhaps I will attempt it one of these days.

The article discussed above was provided by Chronicling America, as was the featured image of this post.


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