One for the “Record” books | Music

Made for Dance explores the mid-century vinyl era and how it shaped American culture
By Craig Manning | October 16, 2021

Let’s dance.

This is the invitation that authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder extend to readers with their new book, titled Made for Dance: How Mid-Century Records Taught America to Dance and this month on MIT Press.

Made for Dance is the second installment in a trilogy of books that uses vinyl record sleeves as a framework to tell illustrated anthropological stories about the United States in the mid-1900s. The first, Designed for Hi-Fi Living: LP Vinyl in Mid-Century America was released in 2017 and had its release at Brilliant Books of Traverse City.

Michigan roots
Borgerson and Schroeder grew up in Flint, but their respective families spent their summers at Duck Lake and often ventured to Traverse City for day trips or shopping trips.

When in town, the couple say they visit TC record stores, like the long-shuttered Full Moon Records, once a downtown staple, or RPM Records, housed inside the orange building. vivid on Hannah Avenue.

Today, Borgerson and Schroeder are rooted in academia. She is in the middle of a fellowship at the Institute for Business and Professional Ethics at DePaul University; he is professor of communication and researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Despite these busy jobs, the two continued to work together on the Made for… Series.

Album covers as storytellers
When published, Designed for Hi-Fi life was an in-depth look at how everyday American life was encapsulated in record album covers that were made in the aftermath of World War II. Rather than focusing on the iconic album covers of the rock’n’roll era – from artists like Elvis, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones – the book instead explored the covers of compilation albums or records. promotional products mostly forgotten.

For example, it was not uncommon back then for airlines or travel agencies to sponsor vinyl themed albums from destinations like Hawaii, enticing Americans to travel the world. Designed for Hi-Fi life explored American history by examining these types of forgotten covers. Talk to Nord-Express of the book in 2018, Schroeder called it “the story of post-war America told through album covers.”

Designed for dancing goes deeper into the burrow of mid-century album covers, focusing specifically on records around different types of dances. From waltz to hula to tango and twist, covers feature dance records released in the 1950s and 1960s, examining them “as expressions of culture, identity, fantasy and of mid-century desire ”.

“We decided we wanted to do a fairly comprehensive book on social dancing,” Schroeder said. “And we ended up, I think, with 28 chapters. We go from the waltz to the Watusi to the twist. We take it to the ’60s, with what we call a soul and rock’n’roll dance. And then we stop right before the disco, which we think is a whole different story. “
Schroeder says the underlying theme is about how records and dance tell the story of American identity.

“How did people import their ancestral dances to the United States, like the polka? Why Did Americans Learn Latin Dance? ” he said. “What is the difference between a mambo and a merengue?” We set out to find (the answers) and talk about dances, always through the prism of record covers.

In many ways, the book shows how America – and American music and dance in particular – was really the product of a “melting pot” mentality. Borgerson and Schroeder devote an entire chapter to Designed for dancing folk dances, featuring records on the theme of folk dances from Italy, Lebanon, Greece, parts of Africa and the Caribbean, and even Native American tribes.

Not only do these documents tell stories about the various cultural threads that weave the American tapestry, but Borgerson also notes how they reflect the country’s continued consideration with race and cultural appropriation.

“We found out that a lot of these dance records that we had ended up buying over the years, maybe they were exotic or racialized,” Borgerson said. “So we wrote a lot about race and gender in record covers from that era. “

Put it all together
With both books, Borgerson and Schroeder focused on visual content with full-page, color, and high-quality reproductions of the album covers they were discussing.

In some cases, this task has proven to be easier said than done. While Borgerson says there are a few albums of recognizable artists in Designed for dancing – The Supremes, James Brown, Martha and the Vandellas – the majority of the records featured in the book are obscurities that have been out of print for decades.

The good news for the couple was that their record collection – which includes over 5,000 vinyl tracks – already had a fair share of dance-themed records. Many of these documents have reached the final manuscript.

In some cases, however, the condition of the record covers was not up to par, so using auction websites they found more blank copies of the records they wanted to include in the book.

There was also a good deal of research involved. In addition to analyzing the visual elements of each cover, Borgerson and Schroeder wanted to tell the stories of the “photographers, set designers and illustrators” who had helped create each cover. This research led them to the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library – a section, named after the famous choreographer behind “West Side Story,” known to be the world’s largest library and dance archive in the world.

The resulting book explores the many functions that dance discs served in the postwar era. Some were ambitious, allowing American consumers to try out the lifestyle of, say, dancing “in a smoky Parisian cafe”.

Others were expressions of cultural identity, such as the archives that documented folk dances from around the world. Some were even educational – instructional packs that taught listeners how to perform certain dances. Examining these and other ideas, Borgerson and Schroeder uncover revealing facets of mid-twentieth century life and dance as everything from a form of entertainment to a tool for social success.

For Borgerson, a huge appeal of vinyl and its big, bold album covers lies in their ability to tell these kinds of stories – and the fact that outside of the canon of the “greatest of all time” albums. and from their pockets, these stories remain largely unrecognized.

“What we want to continue to do is try to help people understand that album covers… it wasn’t nothing,” Borgerson said of his work with Schroeder. “They were communicating something. And they were trying to communicate with a large group of people, just like podcasts are today. “

About Stuart M. McFarland

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