Top 5 Dancing Sheet Music Covers: 1905-1922

1910s 1920s André De Takacs dancing E H Pfeiffer early 1900s John Van Buren Ranck sheet music art sheet music covers Sidney Kent

Where there's music, there will most likely be dancing, so it's easy to conclude that one will inevitably find an abundance of such depictions on sheet music.

Today we will be exploring five of these sheet music covers, ranked in a top 5 list as usual.

Let's get started.

5.) They've Got Me Doin' It Now (art by E. H. Pfeiffer, 1913): By the early 1910s, Tin Pan Alley was a booming industry, and composers and lyricists such as Irving Berlin, E. Ray Goetz, A. Seymour Brown, Edgar Leslie, and Bert Kalmar were spearheading this growth by turning out hit after hit. Also around this time period, dance music became all the rage, and new "animal" dances such as the Grizzly Bear, the Fox Trot, the Horse Trot, and the Bunny Hop were being created and popularized at an unprecedented rate. These dances were performed at informal venues, and were often looked upon with disdain and shock by the upper echelon. Songs from around this time, such as I Can't Stop Doing It Now (1912), Fo' De Law'd's Sake, Play a Waltz (circa. 1912), and this one, likened these wild, racy dancing styles to a drunken stupor in which one loses all self-control. (Or at the very least, bad behavior.) In fact, ragtime, which was enjoying a resurgence in popularity, was often blamed for societal evils. (So now we see that music censorship is nothing new.)

As for the cover itself, (designed by E. H. Pfeiffer, one of my favorite sheet music artists,) it is very playful and lively, and the use of color and line work certainly adds to this effect. Add to this the creative border design elements and the hand lettering, and you've got one eye-popping sheet music cover.

4.) The Doll Girl (1911): Cubsim was just beginning to flourish in the early 1910s, and as with any new art movement, it was initially met with skepticism, shock, and ridicule. A 1911 New York Times article derisively said "What do they mean? Have those responsible for them taken leave of their senses? Is it art or madness? Who knows?" One of the most famous cubist works was Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.

As you can see, this sheet music cover doesn't so much mock dancing as it pokes good-natured fun at the Cubist movement. Evidently, this song was part of a musical from this time period, as indicated by the song list at lower left, as it was standard practice to include these lists on sheet music covers for songs that were primarily featured in musicals and variety shows. Sadly, this, as well as most other such musicals, were a fleeting and elusive zeitgeist, and hence are extremely obscure today, but what I was bale to find out was that this show eventually made it to Broadway, enjoying eighty-eight performances at New York's Globe Theater between August 25 and November 8, 1913. While it would be extremely difficult to find any details of its plot, we can pretty much assume that Cubism played a significant enough role in it to be featured so prominently on art from the show.

At any rate, it is a unique and creative way to depict an age-old pastime.

3.) Casino Lancers (art by Sidney Kent, 1905): Many of us art lovers tend to like a lot of color, and this is the biggest reason why I was instantly drawn to this sheet music cover. Rather than depicting a stuffy, formal ballroom dance, (which it could have done just as easily,) it treats us to a symphony of color by depicting a costume ball instead. Splashes of blue, red, yellow, purple, green, and pink tickle the optic nerve, delight the retina, and stimulate the iris! A wonderful treat for the whole eye!

This sheet music cover was part of a series by British composer Warwick Williams (1846-1915) called Lancers, which he published between the late 1800s and the early 20th century. These were basically long medleys (usually around ten or twelve pages of printed music) of popular tunes arranged for dancing. All of them were illustrated by Sidney Kent, who by now is so obscure that, sadly, next to no information about him can be found online. This is a pity, considering how skillful he was as an illustrator. (I may write an article sometime in the near future about Williams' Lancers covers, but I would have to try and find more information first--something I can't guarantee, given how obscure the topic already is. We'll see if that happens...)

2.) Stumbling (art by John Van Buren Ranck, 1922): John Van Buren Ranck was a multi-talented individual, as he not only designed sheet music covers, but also patented the basic paradigm of the internal combustion rotary engine in 1907.

This cute and comical cover, by extension, is proof that one doesn't have to specialize to be great at something! One thing that drew me to it way back in May of 2019 when I bought a copy, restored it, and made it available in the catalog, was its skillful use of line in depicting the awkward couple "stumbling all around" at the Armory. The use of yellow further accentuates the dark lines in the illustration without overpowering the whole composition. All in all, I think such a well-executed design deserves a high rank, hence it's placement in the number 2 spot.

1.) Ballin' the Jack (art by André De Takacs, 1913): This cover has by far one of the most creative designs I've ever laid eyes on. The dancing figure is juxtaposed with the background in a sort of homage to C. Coles Phillips' famous Fadeaway technique, but we can see that De Takacs deviates from this significantly by reversing the alternating colors within the outline of the dancing man's suit. Effectively, the background pattern becomes a significant part of the overall design in such a way that it instantly draws our attention by playing with our eyes a bit.

That's it for this list. Which dancing sheet music covers do you like the best? Are there any you wish I had included? As always, please let me know in the comments, and we can have a nice chat.

Till next time!

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