Quarantease and Chill: Rare Photos of 1930s Shake Dancers in D.C.
For the past few weeks, much of the world has been on lockdown due to coronavirus. There are no gigs since most bars, restaurants, and theaters are closed, and many performers have been hosting their own shows and go-go dance sets through social media and third-party websites like Zoom.
I haven't been performing virtually. Since the schools are shut down as well, much of my quarantine life has been focused on home-schooling my son while teleworking and finishing my last few months of library school. While I'm thankful to still have my librarian job during a worldwide pandemic (the unemployment rates are skyrocketing to all-time highs), every day is a haze of toddler reading, writing, and math, virtual reference desk shifts, playtimes, web meetings, cooking, cleaning, studying, homework, exams... I've honestly been quite overwhelmed! My 4-year-old is literally wrapped around my arm and leg as I type this. It's both incredibly annoying and cute, all at once. I need a break, but we are all quarantined for at least the next month! I'm trying to breathe through it all and remain patient and balanced. My heart goes out to everyone struggling right now!
When I'm not juggling literally everything else, I've been doing more shake dancing research. I went to Jo Weldon's amazing Book Proposal Workshop last week. This was my second time taking her book proposal class, and it was still worth every penny! She posts her upcoming classes on her Facebook or her website, so check out both if you're interested. I also watched Dustin Wax of the Burlesque Hall of Fame talk about "How to Research Local Burlesque History" and learned a few new tips and tricks.
I think the most exciting development is that the Smithsonian recently launched a new open access initiative and released nearly 3 million digitized images for free public use, covering the past two centuries. This is great news mostly because all the museums and archives are currently closed. I'm super lucky to live near all the Smithsonian museums and can usually visit old physical copies of photos in person, but with the virus going around that is just not possible right now. So I've been having fun digging deep into their digital collections to see what I can find.
Of note, so far: photos from the 1930s of black shake dancers at Washington D.C.'s legendary (and now permanently closed) Bohemian Caverns on U Street, once the epicenter of African-American jazz. (Fun fact: Gigi Holliday cried when I showed her these photos... as a D.C. native, I think she rightfully feels a strong personal connection to these images. This made me really happy.) Bohemian Caverns used to be called Crystal Caverns, and they've hosted Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis to name a few.
The same studio took all these photos: Scurlock Studio Records, which used to operate right on Florida Avenue until around 1994, from what I can tell.
My next goal is to contact the photographer's grandsons to see if their grandfather kept any records on the names of these shake dancers. I'd imagine many of them still may live in D.C., if they're still alive. Honestly, I tried not to roll my eyes as I viewed these photos -- most of these ladies seem to quite easily pass the paper bag test. I could write a whooooole different blog post about my feelings on that, but I'll save it for another time. For now, I'm just happy this history exists, and I'll keep sharing what I find!
Until next time,