Slow drag (dance)

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The Slow drag is an American ragtime jazz musical form and the social dance for which the music was written. It has been resurrected as part of blues dancing. Music written for the dance is often short-handed into the song title as a "Drag"


Slow drag or "Drag" has a history both in the music written for the dance, and the dance itself. The music has endured in many jazz standards, while the dance as it was originally performed has all but faded from modern performance.

In music[edit]

Ragtime composers, including Scott Joplin, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and others, wrote a number of slow-tempo tunes appropriate for the dance.

A cornetist who played during the 1890s described the music where the Slow drag was done, in the "less fashionable groups in town", as "more raggy" than the music that was played for the more "high-toned" dances. "They did the Slow drag all over Louisiana."[1][2]

Slow drag was one of ten dance themes Joplin included in "The Ragtime Dance." "The Ragtime Dance" was written in 1899 and consisted of a vocal introduction followed by a series of dance themes introduced by a vocalist.

"Let me see you do the rag-time dance,

Turn left and do the cakewalk prance,
Turn the other way and do the slow drag -
Now take you lady to the World's Fair
And do the rag-time dance."[3]

"The Ragtime Dance" was performed once in Sedalia in 1903 with four couples dressed in their own most festive clothing performing the steps to Joplin on the piano playing with a small orchestra.[4]

Joplin also included a Slow drag in his opera Treemonisha, also choreographing the work. His "Directions for the Slow drag" were:

  • 1. The Slow drag must begin on the first beat of each measure.
  • 2. When moving forward, drag the left foot; when moving backward, drag the right foot.
  • 3. When moving sideways to the right, drag the left foot; when moving sideways to the left, drag the right foot.
  • 4. When prancing, your steps must come on each beat of the measure.
  • 5. When marching, and when sliding, your steps must come on the first and third beat of each measure.
  • 6. Hop and skip on second beat of measure. Double the Schottische step to fit the slow music.[5]

Another Joplin composition, written with Scott Hayden, is "Sun Flower Slow drag", written in 1901.[6]

Sheet music published in 1906 juxtaposes rural blacks with the music in "The Watermelon Trust; A slow drag" written by Harry Thompson.[7] "A down home shout; Characteristic slow-drag two step" by Herman Carle was published in 1907.[8]

Fats Waller recorded "Viper's Drag", a popular slow drag song of its day that was a slow-tempo stride piano tune, which has been played by practitioners of the art of stride over the decades. It was revived for the Grammy-nominated 1980 Progressive Records album, Two Handed Stride, by the modern stride pianist, Judy Carmichael.[9]

In the late 1930s, Jelly Roll Morton's music was considered old-fashioned and obsolete. Morton recorded "Slow Drag" ragtime songs that were by then out of step with mainstream jazz by the time Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines recorded together in 1928. Morton's creole melodies and rhythms are closely connected to the Caribbean, with its mixture of African, French, Spanish and Mexican people.

"The Dream" (c. 1880) is a slow drag, whorehouse number; popular with the musicians of the generation before Morton. They called it "Spanish" because of its tango or habanera beat. The habanera had previously arrived in the Caribbean from West Africa.[10]

In dance[edit]

"They would just hang onto each other and just grind back and forth in one spot all night".[1][2]

Another description of the dance, by a woman born in the 1890s was "hanging on each other and barely moving."[11]

In the decades that followed, it spread throughout the American South and was most popular in semi-rural juke joints, where it was danced to the blues. Buster Pickens, who was born in 1916, described people doing the slow drag to "slow low-down dirty blues" in barrelhouse joints.[12]

In 1929, the slow drag became the first African American social dance to be introduced to Broadway audiences, in the play Harlem.

One description of the dance as performed in the play was "a couple dance in which a man and a woman press their bodies tightly together in a smooth bump and grind as they kept the rhythm of the music". It scandalized white critics with its raw sensuality. Many members of the black community were incensed by this picture of the underside of black urban life.[13][14]

The intimacy of the Slow drag never garnered it the popularity of other dances derived from African American dance forms, such as the Charleston. Few films of the dance survive.

Dancers from Philadelphia stated that the dance was often used to announce a special relationship between the couples who danced it, "you didn't just slow drag with anyone."[15]

The "cling and sway" characteristic of the slow drag reappeared in rock and roll movies from the late 1950s, when intimate public dancing with more sexual overtones became more socially acceptable. It was also popular in the 1960s when dancing without touching was more popular than "partner dancing", and remains popular. In these cases it is referred to as "slow dancing".[16]

The swing revival helped renew interest in the slow drag. A version of the slow drag is taught today in blues dancing.


  1. ^ a b Marshall Winslow Stearns, Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance, Da Capo Press, 1994, p. 21. ISBN 0-306-80553-7
  2. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-11-12. Retrieved 2016-10-23.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans: A History, W. W. Norton & Company, 1997, pa. 321. SBN 393 02156 4
  4. ^ James Haskins with Kathleen Benson, Scott Joplin: The Man Who Made Ragtime, Doubleday and Company, 1978, pp. 103, 104. ISBN 0-385-11155-X
  5. ^ Haskins and Benson, Scott Joplin (1978), p. 177.
  6. ^ "Sun Flower Slow Drag, by S. Joplin (1868–1917)". Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  7. ^ "The watermelon trust; A slow drag".
  8. ^ "A down home shout; Characteristic slow-drag two step".
  9. ^ "Two Handed Stride - Judy Carmichael - Songs, Reviews, Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  10. ^ "Ry Cooder - Jazz - (Ry Cooder discography)". Retrieved 6 November 2018.
  11. ^ Stearns, Jazz Dance (1994), p. 24.
  12. ^ Stearns, Jazz Dance (1994), p. 23.
  13. ^ John O. Perpener. African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. University of Illinois Press, 2001, p. 37. ISBN 0-252-02675-6
  14. ^ Perpener, John (2001). African-American Concert Dance: The Harlem Renaissance and Beyond. University of Illinois Press. p. 37. ISBN 0252026756.
  15. ^ John W. Roberts. Hucklebuck to Hip Hop. Odunde, Inc., 1995, pp. 63, 64. ISBN 1-885066-11-2
  16. ^ Shawn and Joanna Trautman, Picture Yourself Dancing. Thomson Course Technology PTR. 2006, p. 62. ISBN 1-59863-246-9

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