Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Anais Nin: Dancing in 1930s New York City of Rhythm

The writer Anais Nin (1903-77) lived between Paris and New York in the 1930s, and her diaries provide a vivid account of bohemian nightlife in this period. In the latter city, it was the clubs and rent parties of Harlem that were the big draw. The journals describe a 1934 trip with the psychologist Otto Rank:

"Harlem. The Savoy. Music which makes the floor tremble, a vast place, with creamy drinks, dusky lights, and genuine gaiety, with the Negroes dancing like people possessed. The rhythm unleashes everyone as you step on the floor. Rank said he could not dance. 'A new world, a new world,' he murmured, astonished and bewildered. I never imagined that he could not dance, that he had led such a serious life that he could not dance. I said: 'Dance with me.' At first he was stiff, he tripped, he was confused and dizzy. But at the end of the first dance he began to forget himself and dance. It gave him joy. All around us the Negroes danced wildly and grace­fully. And Rank sauntered as if he were learning to walk. I danced, and he danced along with me. I would have liked to dance with the Negroes, who dance so spontaneously and elegantly, but I felt I should give Rank the pleasure of dis­covering freedom of physical motion when he had given me emotional freedom. Give back pleasure, music, self-forgetting for all that he gave me".

A few months later (April 1935) she was back, this time with the writer Rebecca West and the actor Raymond Massey: 'to Harlem, first to a nightclub, to hear some singing, and then to a private apartment. Everyone was dancing and drinking. Half white people, half black, beautiful women, well-dressed men, and jazz, it was intoxicating and magnifiicent, the laughter, the dancing, but I miss the intimacy which grows out of such parties in Paris. Here it is all jokes, banter, evasion'.

Nin's descriptions of black people can certainly be read as patronising, but nevertheless in an era of segregation the very fact of mixed dancing was remarkable.

She perceived a clear link between music and the moods of a modern city. Her night out with Otto Rank concluded 'Driving home the radio in the taxi continues the jazz mood. New York seems conducted by jazz, animated by it. It is essen­tially a city of rhythm".

Later she writes "The radio plays blues. Paris, New York, the two magnetic poles of the world. Paris a sensual city which seduced the body, enlivened the senses, New York unnatural, synthetic; Paris-New York, the two high tension magnetic poles between life, life of the senses of the spirit in Paris, and life in action in New York".

Source: The Journals of Anais Nin, Volume Two: 1934-1939.

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