Whatever Happened to the Peabody?

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When I first started dancing, I remember a teacher showing us the American Smooth Syllabus and a mysterious dance listed in the far back.

“What’s Peabody?,” we asked.

“Oh, you don’t need to learn Peabody,” our teacher laughed.

And we left it at that.

Years later, at a college competition, I recall Peabody listed in the program as a novelty dance. I made sure to be in the room for the event because I was anxious to find out what the dance looked like. No dice. Not a single couple had registered. When asked, the judges declined to even demonstrate it. “Don’t they know what it is either?,” whispered a dancer next to me.

Peabody is an odd duck, no denying it. It’s one of a variety of dances invented around 1915. (See also such forgotten dances as The Grizzly Bear and The Bunny Hug.) It has a lot in common with Foxtrot and Charleston, which were invented around the same time. It’s a jumpy, energetic dance usually done to ragtime music. It’s danced primarily in outside partner position, rather than a true closed position. For some reason, it managed to stick around while these other fad dances died off. And somehow it managed to get itself canonized in the American Smooth Syllabus.

Here’s a great video that gives you an idea what Peabody looks like (with some Charleston thrown in):

I think it’s rather curious how dances become part of the ballroom canon, and other dances don’t. Peabody is pretty much ignored today, but at one point it must have been taken much more seriously–people clearly danced it socially and, since it’s in the Syllabus, they must have competed it too.  Just think–if Fred Astaire had chosen Peabody as his signature dance, we all might be dancing it today.

Just for yucks, here’s The Grizzly Bear. Imagine if THIS fad dance had stuck around:

7 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to the Peabody?

  1. suburbaknght

    I’ve seen Peabody at a few competitions, plus showcases and some novelty lessons. My theory is that the main reason it died out is the music never really caught on after the ragtime era ended. Once a dance stops being danceable to popular music, it needs a devoted following to remain alive and vibrant. Ballroom tango manages because of the mystique and allure associated with the dance, but even when reading about popular dances from the time, no one seems enthralled to be dancing Peabody (or the Castle Walk either, for what it’s worth).

    One of the misconceptions of Peabody is that it was the “fifth” competitive smooth style, but while it’s still taught as part of smooth (USISTD still includes it in the smooth syllabus and tests it in their full smooth exam; competitions that include Peabody run it in the smooth heats), it was never danced alongside waltz, tango, foxtrot, and Viennese, but simply during the same time period, much like how American samba and west coast swing are often danced during the rhythm heats.

    • caityrosey

      Good point. It would be an interesting experiment to try to reintroduce Peabody at social dances. And maybe try to find more current music to dance it to. I bet we could do it if we were creative about it.

      • Hmm… not a whole lot from my grand collection of 12 Peabody songs but here goes.

        Modern music:
        Polka Power – Weird Al Yankovic
        Enter Sandman – Richard Cheese (cover)

        New music in older styles:
        Girl With the Crimson Hair – Imperial Swing Orchestra
        Got My Own Thing Now – Squirrel Nut Zippers
        Ghost of Stephen Foster – Squirrel Nut Zippers
        Simple Songs – Big Bad Voodoo Daddy
        Yes Sir, That’s My Baby – Jerry Jenkins & His Band of Angels
        When I Change Your Mind – Cherry Poppin’ Daddies

        I will occasionally play Peabodies when I DJ, but I usually list them as Peabody/Jitterbug, so I tend to get an overwhelming majority of couples doing swing in the middle of the floor and a single couple doing outside partner flip flops around the perimeter. It’s like the reactions to quickstep, but even more so.

  2. Hmm I never saw Peabody being danced so lovely as in the above video. But it looks like their dancing is a mix of Peabody moves and Charleston moves. I have not seen a good Peabody performed in local dance shows, so I did not care. But it certainly looks like it deserves more respect.

    Music wise, I do not want to dance to Cajun style music at all. But I like ragtime music. Problem is there is no particular place to learn and socially dance anymore. But the above performance is quite good.

    My question in response to the article is “Whatever happened to the Polka?” I like polka. But they hardly ever play polka at ballroom studios anymore.

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