:: The articles in this series were originally published
:: in the online magazine Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


What F. Scott Fitzgerald knew about maxixe

A young novelist looks back on a dance fad.

Daniella Thompson

28 February 2006

Jazz Age dancers by John Held, Jr.

In his short life, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) published nearly 160 short stories. In his introductory essay to the story collection Flappers and Philosophers, Fitzgerald’s biographer, Arthur Mizener, noted that “[t]here is scarecly a three-month period in [Fitzgerald’s] career not represented by a story (the main exception is the period between June, 1937 and July, 1939, when he was working in Hollywood), so that in these stories we can follow, almost month by month, the slow and fascinating maturing of his imagination.”

Short stories were Fitzgerald’s bread and butter. Following the extraordinary success of his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), his output found a ready place in popular magazines such as The Smart Set, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Metropolitan Magazine. It’s natural that the pressure to produce on a regular basis, coupled with the expectations of the marketplace, made Fitzgerald resort to formulas. Early on, he carved out a niche for himself as the chronicler of the Jazz Age. His 1920s protagonists were spoiled yellow-haired girls, often flappers and invariably nineteen, and their affluent Joe College beaux—the same set illustrated so memorably by John Held, Jr.

Class was important. So was fashion. Being “in” was dictated by both. The most fun was to be had by dancing and drinking at the country club. An orchestra would play the latest dance rhythms, and the most up-to-date society cats assiduously learned the new dances as soon as they appeared.

Heel position in the maxixe, arranged by Fred W. Sutor, dance instructor at the Newman Studio, Philadelphia (from Dances of To-day by Albert W. Newman)

One of the dance fads of the 1910s was the Brazilian maxixe. In no fewer than four of his 1920s works, Fitzgerald points to the maxixe as an indicator of fashion, viewed in retrospect. The dance makes its earliest appearance in the story “Benediction,” published in The Smart Set in February 1920. In this story, young Lois visits her Jesuit brother Kieth [sic] in the seminary where he has lived for many years.

“I want Kieth’s sister to show us what the shimmy is,” demanded one young man with a broad grin.

Lois laughed.

“I’m afraid the Father Rector would send me shimmying out the gate. Besides, I’m not an expert.”

“I’m sure it wouldn’t be best for Jimmy’s soul anyway,” said Kieth solemnly. “He’s inclined to brood about things like shimmys. They were just starting to do the—maxixe, wasn’t it, Jimmy?—when he became a monk, and it haunted him his whole first year. You’d see him when he was peeling potatoes, putting his arm around the bucket and making irreligious motions with his feet.”

Two years later, the novel The Beautiful and Damned was published. Chapter 2 described the following scene, which takes place in November or December of 1913:

On Thursday afternoon Gloria and Anthony had tea together in the grill room at the Plaza. Her fur-trimmed suit was gray—“because with gray you have to wear a lot of paint,” she explained—and a small toque sat rakishly on her head, allowing yellow ripples of hair to wave out in jaunty glory. In the higher light it seemed to Anthony that her personality was infinitely softer—she seemed so young, scarcely eighteen; her form under the tight sheath, known then as a hobble-skirt, was amazingly supple and slender, and her hands, neither “artistic” nor stubby, were small as a child’s hands should be.

As they entered, the orchestra were sounding the preliminary whimpers to a maxixe, a tune full of castanets and facile faintly languorous violin harmonies, appropriate to the crowded winter grill teeming with an excited college crowd, high-spirited at the approach of the holidays.

What were castanets doing here? Fitzgerald knew little about the technical aspects of music, yet in this case he wasn’t too far off the mark. The Ernesto Nazareth expert Alexandre Dias told me about four different recordings of “Dengoso” that feature castanets. However, since Fitzgerald was an acute social observer, his descriptions might help pinpoint the arrival of maxixe on the American scene, or at least its adoption by the early birds of fashion. An unrealistically early date for the start of the maxixe fad is given in the story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which appeared in Collier’s magazine on 27 May 1922.

Benjamin’s growing unhappiness at home was compensated for by his many new interests. He took up golf and made a great success of it. He went in for dancing: in 1906 he was an expert at “The Boston,” and in 1908 he was considered proficient at the “Maxixe,” while in 1909 his “Castle Walk” was the envy of every young man in town.

The Boston, now known as the American Waltz, had been around since the 1830s. The Castle Walk, on the other hand, was not introduced until 1912. Could Fitzgerald have erred in the maxixe as well?

His final mention of the dance gives no clue. In 1928, the writer returned to the maxixe in the story “The Captured Shadow, ” published in The Saturday Evening Post on 29 December.

“Why, I understand—” said Basil. “Why, I heard from somewhere that she’s gone up to have some kind of an appendicitis—that is—” He ran down to a pitch of inaudibility as Andy Lockheart at the piano began playing a succession of thoughtful chords, which resolved itself into the maxixe, an eccentric stepchild of the tango. Kicking back a rug and lifting her skirts a little, Evelyn fluently tapped out a circle with her heels around the floor.

StreetSwing’s Dance History Archives gives the following information on the maxixe. It is to be hoped that its entries on the Boston and the Castle Walk are more rigorously correct.

The Maxixe (Max-ish) was also known as the Brazilian Tango or Mattchiche (similar dance) and came from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in the 1870s and was named after the prickly part of a cactus. The Maxixe has its roots in the Polca, Lundu and Habanera. The original Maxixe was a mixture of the Two Step and certain Tango steps and patterns (enchainements). Mmes. Derminy & Paule Morley danced the Maxixe in 1905. Delirio and Luis danced a Maxixe named after them entitled “Rio Brazilian Maxixe” in the U.S. in 1910 and was introduced to Paris in 1912. Maurice Mouvet introduced the Brazilian Maxixe to New York in the spring of 1913. The Castles did what they called a Brazilian Maxixe that was similar to the Samba, (some say the precursor to the Samba) while some of the dancers danced the Maxixe more like a tango. [...] The Maxixe was mainly an exhibition dance that later became popular among Café Society in the early 1910s.

Maxixe danced the Brazilian way (illustration by Kalixto)

What isn’t correct? The pronunciation (say mah-she-she); the vegetal origin (maxixe is the bur gherkin Cucumis anguria, not a cactus); the steps (who knows how the maxixe was danced in the Cidade Nova of the late 19th century, except that the couples were tightly enlaced?); and the type of dance it was (the maxixe was never an exhibition dance until it left Brazil).

Back to the dates. The information about the introduction of the maxixe in Paris (1912) and in New York (spring of 1913) originates in the testimony of the famous exhibition dancer Maurice Mouvet (1888–1927), whose dance instruction manual The Tango and the New Dances for Ballroom and Home was published by Laird & Lee, Inc. of Chicago around 1914.

The publisher’s introduction to The Tango and the New Dances tells us:

Monsieur Maurice is without question one of the most wonderful dancers of modern times. With his equally talented partner, Miss Florence Walton (the stage name still used by his wife), he has literally danced his way around the globe. They introduced in London and in New York the famous Tango Teas which soon became an established craze. He is the most popular dancing instructor society ever engaged. Most of the four hundred who took up the latest dances took private instructions from him. In this series of articles Maurice takes up the Tango, the Brazilian Maxixe, the Hesitation waltz, the one-step and various other modern dances.

In The Tango and the New Dances, Maurice Mouvet devoted a lengthy chapter to the maxixe. In addition to describing the technical aspects of eight maxixe dance figures, he waxes enthusiastic about the beauty of the dance:

The Brazilian maxixe can be danced to any two-step, whereas the tango can be danced only to tango music.

The maxixe is peculiarly adapted to the American temperament. It is full of snap and life, while the tango is slow and languorous.

But the maxixe proves popular because of its very beauty. [...] One will have to go back to the end of the eighteenth century to find as picturesque a dance as this national dance of Brazil. [...]

Although the maxixe is not difficult to learn, it requires a good deal of strength to execute. It is not a dance for obese people, although if conscientiously practiced by them it might prove a valuable reducing medium.

As the tango is the national dance of the Argentine Republic, so the maxixe is the national dance of Brazil. There the children on the street are seen executing its graceful numbers, and its influence is seen in the graceful carriage of the people.

The maxixe is splendid physical exercise for the waist and hips, and in fact, there is hardly a muscle in the body which is not splendidly developed in the inveterate maxixe dancer. [...]

I have not found the slightest trouble in teaching the maxixe to children of five and six and I don’t believe there is a more charming dance for children that this South American composition affords.

When it was introduced in Paris in the winter of 1912 and 1913 it met with instant approval, and when Miss Walton and I presented it in New York for the first time, in the spring of 1913, it was likewise received with the greatest enthusiasm.

The fact that it can be danced to any two step music will be a strong factor in popularizing it.

Had Maurice personally observed Brazilian children dancing the maxixe? One must wonder where he obtained his information, since there’s no record of his ever having traveled to Brazil. In fact, the maxixe was long considered the lewdest and lowliest of dances (the name maxixe was conferred on it to indicate its low stature), to the extent that composers such as Chiquinha Gonzaga and Ernesto Nazareth baptized their creations “Brazilian tango” in order to render them sufficiently respectable for the bourgeois family parlor. There’s no indication that by 1914 the maxixe was perceived as tame enough for the Brazilian child. Naturally, such stigma did not accompany the dance in the U.S. and in Europe, as can be observed by looking at the innocent card above.

The Tango and the New Dances for Ballroom and Home was not the only dance instruction manual of the period to include the maxixe. The Library of Congress displays on its website four other manuals by celebrated ballroom dancers or dance teachers, all published in 1914. The latter include Modern Dancing by Vernon & Irene Castle; Dances of To-day by Albert W. Newman; The Tango and Other Up-to-Date Dances by J. S. Hopkins; and Social Dancing of To-day by John Murray Anderson.

Source: Library of Congress
Source: Library of Congress

Vernon and Irene Castle, the most famous dancing couple before Astaire and Rogers (who portrayed them in a 1939 movie), are seen above right demonstrating some of the Back Two Step (left column) and Two Step (right column) figures of the maxixe in a series of film frames published in their book Modern Dancing. Although not sure of the pronunciation of the name, they are certain about the popularity of the dance in the U.S. in the year 1914:

The Maxixe Brésilienne is, up to the time of writing this, the latest modern dance. There is only one great question to be decided, and that is how do you pronounce the name. Should it be pronounced Maxeks, Maxesse, Mattchsche, or Mattchsche? I know how to do the dance, but the name I have not yet quite mastered. I only know that nearly all the South American pieces of music have “Tango Brésilien” written on them, and a few have the mystic word “Maxixe.” The Brazilians themselves pronounce the word Mashish, with a slight accent in the second syllable.

But the dance, which is the main thing, is beautiful, and, like most beautiful dances, requires a considerable amount of grace. The steps themselves are not difficult; on the contrary, they are childishly simple; it is the easiest dance of all to do, and I think the hardest of all to do well.

J. S. Hopkins confirms the Castles’ assertion in his manual The Tango and Other Up-to-Date Dances:

No doubt we have all seen or at least heard about the new dances which have become the craze all over the United States, England, France, and Germany within such a short period of time. [...]

From the Argentine Republic we get several of the native dances called the Tango; from Brazil, the Maxixe; from Paris the more refined and stately Tangos; [...]

The only note of skepticism regarding the maxixe’s future in the United States was uttered by by Albert W. Newman, member of the Imperial Society Masters of Dancing, London, and the owner of a dance studio in Philadelphia, who wrote in the chapter The Maxixe or Brazilian Mattchichi of the manual Dances of To-day:

This is danced to charmingly capricious music, and is exceptionally graceful and rhythmic, so that it might be called an ornamental dance. This alone may interfere with its becoming generally a popular dance, as many people decline to make themselves conspicuous in the ballroom by a dance more appropriate for an exhibition.

That the graceful bending of the body is extremely beneficial goes without saying.

If five major dance manuals were all published in 1914, imagine the number of sheet music scores that came out in that fateful year. Not a day goes by without an old maxixe score being offered for sale on eBay. The majority were published in 1914. Alexandre Dias, who keeps an eye on maxixe scores, has collected eleven U.S. editions of “Dengoso” (spelled “Dengozo” in those days) published by eight houses between 1914 and 1916. All carry Nazareth’s name, although his authorship of this tune has never been established.

Maxixe sheet music published in the U.S. often emphasized the French connection, no doubt as a mark of elegance and le dernier cri in fashion. The 1913 score shown at right, although published by Chappell & Co. in New York, reproduces the French edition wholesale, from the headline Le vrai tango brésilien (the real Brazilian tango) to the French caption that states, “Danced by the exquisite Arlette Dorgère and the celebrated Professor L. Duque.” The composer’s name (Juca Storoni) was an anagram of Costa Júnior, artistic name of João José da Costa Júnior (1868–1917).

And who made le vrai tango brésilien all the rage in Paris? Certainly not the singer Félis Mayol (1872–1941), who in 1905 launched his first of five recordings of “La Matchiche,” a march/paso-doble adapted by the composer Charles Borel-Clerc (1879–1959) from a Spanish zarzuela that in turn quoted Carlos Gomes’ opera O Guarani. It was a huge success and is famous to this day, but maxixe it is not. Nor was it the duo Os Geraldos, who came to Paris in 1908 with their hit tango-chula (read: maxixe) “Vem Cá, Mulata” (Arquimedes de Oliveira/Bastos Tigre).

This 1913 score cover of “Amapa” by J. Storoni features a photo of Duque and Arlette Dorgère demonstrating the dance.

By all accounts, the responsible party was the Bahian dentist-turned-dancer Duque (Antônio Lopes de Amorim Diniz, 1884–1953), who in 1909 traveled to Paris as the sales representative of a pharmaceutical company. Having noticed that exotic dances—chief among them the Argentine tango—were in vogue, Duque soon abandoned the drug trade and began dancing the maxixe in public with Maria Lina, also offering dance lessons in the vrai tango brésilien. The fad caught on, leading to engagements in popular cabarets such as Café de Paris, Alhambra, Olympia, Alcazar d’Été, Chantecler, and Théâtre des Capucins.

The Brazilian writer Luís Edmundo, who visited Paris in 1913, described the maxixe fad in his memoirs: “In the clubs of Montparnasse and the cabarets of Montmartre, in the cafés and restaurants of the Champs Elysées and the Grands Boulevards, from the Porte d’Orléans to the Porte de Clignancourt, from Saint-Cloud to Villette, the orchestras never stop playing le tango brésilien, a little disfigured by the French musicians who don’t succeed in giving it the desired texture and have no idea how to use a chocalho, reco-reco, and cuíca.”

Duque soon opened the Tango Duque Cabaret on rue Fontaine, and in January 1914 inaugurated a dance hall at the Luna Park in Porte Maillot, with the French President Raymond Poincaré in attendance. It is to him that the maxixe owes its transformation from a vulgar dance of the carioca lower classes to the tony pastime of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s smart set.

Fitzgerald was seventeen when the maxixe burst upon the scene, so he must have known it firsthand and perhaps even danced it. But I suspect that the real reason for his repeated allusions to it in his stories is that he liked the way the word looked on the page.

Copyright © 2006–2017 Daniella Thompson. All rights reserved.