Vulgar and amazing at the same time…” (Paris qui Chante, 1903)
It’s been called the Dance of Death. The Tough Dance. The Dance of the Underworld. It is violent; it is the infamous Apache:
Face slaps, body punches, leg sweeps, dragging by the hair, choking, and scary aerials — looks like rage set to music!
What IS this dance?!
- Part Waltz
- Part Tango
- Part Grizzly Bear
- ALL performance
Never heard of the Apache? It wasn’t a passing novelty — in fact, its popularity spanned about 60 years from 1902 to 1960’s. It was so awe-inspiring that it appeared on stages and in movies for decades: a rare feat for any dance.
The Apache evokes images of:
- a heated struggle between two lovers
- a disagreement between a pimp and prostitute
- a member of the rough Parisian street gang, Les Apaches, and his victim
It’s this last example that gave the dance its name. Les Apaches were a brazen gang filled with cut-throat young boys (15 to 22 years old) who specialized in the theft and murder (often at the same time) of high-class French. Strangling, knifing, brass knuckle fights, and shootings were common activities carried out in broad daylight…these were not your friendly neighborhood kids.
[Apaches are] the reason why nearly every young Parisian carries a revolver.” – National Police Gazette, 1905
They were called simply Vauriens – “no good” – until this 1898 headline (penned by a French journalist fascinated with Native Americans) appeared following one nasty gang murder:
Crime Committed by the Apaches of Belleville”
The name stuck to the gang. So did the dance which utilized the gang’s name and seedy reputation for publicity.
How popular was the Apache?
So popular even Popeye did it…twice! Watch as Olive Oyl and Bluto dance the Apache starting at 4:30:
It’s Popeye and Bluto who get into an Apache dance next at the 5:30 mark:
- Martha Graham, one of the most highly regarded modern dancers – known as the “Picasso of Dance” – did the Apache during her start in vaudeville and revue shows.
- Buster Keaton, the famous Charlie Chaplin-style movie star, danced it on film.
- And, interestingly, several classic Tango movie scenes were reportedly just toned-down versions of the Apache …the dancers didn’t really know any Tango.
Many people in the public also tried the Apache, and many got seriously injured; broken bones, broken backs, and broken necks were common.
For the right price you could buy dances with actual Apache gang members; the more notorious the gang member, the more authentic their dancing was assumed to be. It was so lucrative that an Apache gang member — if ‘lucky’ enough to get a major crime notice in the newspaper — could afford to stop their life of crime to become a ‘dancer’ commanding big buck$ to give a rough thrill to bored house wives!
Apache themes were exploding everywhere around Paris. The Jazz Age Club gives a summary of the obsession:
“In the summer of 1909 Paris saw the first of the society Apache Gala Balls given by a prominent Parisienne countess where all guests attended in disguise as Paris hooligans described as a motley crowd of desperate looking ruffians.
Later, in January 1913 Bustanoby’s restaurant in New York also staged an Apache night and decorated the room to look like a typical Apache den with fancy dress compulsory.”
The Apache became a favorite form of party entertainment, like in this scene from Les Vampires:
Thankfully (for doctors everywhere), the general public soon stopped hurting themselves, and instead left it to the professionals as a performance dance. Which is the right place for it; the rigors of the Apache are all about stagecraft and deception — pulled punches, highly-rehearsed aerials, and well planned choreography to maximize the appearance of danger while minimizing chances of injury.
Is it abuse?
Would you believe a woman invented the dance?
Also, it was an expression of liberation for women?
“A common misperception today is that the Apache dance condoned violence against women,” says Richard Powers from Standford University, but instead the woman “was proudly making a statement, that she didn’t have to remain in the cage of the Domestic Sphere, and furthermore, could stand up to a man in a public physical arena […] willingly and enthusiastically.”
This dance was so much about the woman that often the male partner didn’t even get their name in the credits:
The early 1900’s society knew men were capable of great displays of physical prowess in dance, but for a woman to show that she could not only keep up with a man, but outshine him, was a radical new idea in high-brow society.
Women even choreographed some of the most famous Apache scenes. Their ability to make rough sections appear raw and extremely realistic (while being done safely) required advanced techniques that made their choreography impressive even today:
And then there’s this:
. . . the girls said they liked being thrown around.” (Life Magazine, 1946)
In the 1930’s, a new wrinkle was added; the protagonist would often get his butt kicked in the end. You can see an example in the following clip (in addition to some top notch aerials):
The “strong female Apache dancer” appears in Comics too, such as this 1948 Torchy comic featuring Apache dancer scenes which shows women’s increasing social independence and equality off the dance floor too.
From Vintage to Modern
Alright, let’s go old-skool. Like 1902 old-skool, when the wild movements of the “Tough Dance” (a version of the Apache) gave dancers a charged “sexual” energy, and as such was popular with prostitutes.
(Interesting note! Watch for the Apache Turn — later called Apache Whip in West Coast Swing or Texas Tommy in Lindy Hop — which appears several times here)
Dancers: Kid Foley and Sailor Lil, the self professed ‘Tough Dance’ champs of New York.
From the oldest, to the newest; let’s take a look at a modern Apache dance. This one is significantly less violent, with a heavy Tango / Modern influence:
According to the 1946 Life Magazine article on the dance, here’s the outfit you’ll want to get:
- For Women: a tight-fitting striped top, slit skirt, mesh hose, garter, and high heels
- For Men: the Apache gang look is cap, neckerchief, tight-fitting shirt, fitted pants, and comfy shoes (here’s a company specializing in Apache-inspired clothing)
You’ll definitely want to say the name right; it was inspired by the North American Indian tribe (ah-PATCH-ee), but remember this is French, so it’s pronounced ah-PAHSH.
Abiding by hoodlum code of honor, [Apaches] woke up late, spoke obscure slang, and most of all, paid very close attention to their style– particularly their footwear.” (Mess Nessy Chic)
In other words…exactly like the typical Swing dancer today.