March 15, 2013 6:11 pm

A dance to the music of time

A visit to Glen Echo, a former theme park in Maryland that had racially segregated dancing until 1961, shows how dramatically social attitudes can shift
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of dancers at Glen Echo Park©Shonagh Rae

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend an “inauguration ball” in Washington. But this was not any glitzy, glamour-soaked event, and the President and First Lady did not make an appearance – or not in human form.

Instead, I went out to Glen Echo, a former theme park located just 10 miles from the White House, where a community swing dance was being held in the park’s Spanish Ballroom. And there, in front of life-size cardboard pictures of Barack and Michelle Obama, an “inauguration dance” was held, with a motley collection of locals: sneaker-clad teenagers, white-haired pensioners, prim ladies dressed in buttoned-up shirts and some distinctly exhibitionist Lotharios.

It was a moving, if not humbling affair. For one thing, there is something wonderfully levelling and unifying about dancing: as everyone tried to do the Charleston, in front of the grinning Obamas, for a brief moment we all melted into a single mass, as we gaily trod on each others’ toes.

But there was a second, less obvious reason why this was a poignant scene. Towards the end of the dance, I happened to stumble on some plaques in the back of the ballroom, which narrate the history of the 120-year-old park. Close inspection revealed a fascinating fact: until 1961, Glen Echo was firmly segregated along racial lines – meaning that blacks were not allowed to enter that Spanish Ballroom, since it was reserved exclusively for whites.

At the time this was not entirely remarkable: segregation was rife across the American south during the early decades of the 20th century, even close to the White House. However, the owners of Glen Echo were apparently so deeply committed to the idea of keeping blacks out of the park – seemingly with their white customers’ support – that they defied civil rights protests for several years. And when they finally buckled, they shut the park down. (It remained shuttered for some time, until later opening as a cultural and arts centre.)

And yet, 50 years later, when the dancers gathered for that 2013 inaugural ball, nobody seemed to think it remotely odd that a cardboard cut-out of a grinning black president was beaming down on the hall. Nor did it seem remarkable that there were some Indian, Chinese and black dancers amid the majority white crowd. Indeed, I suspect that if you had polled them, most people that night would not even have known that the park had ever been segregated at all. (This detail is not on the park’s official website.) The historical irony of the scene had been largely washed away in a tide of forgetting. It is simply a place to dance.

Perhaps that is a bad thing. Four years into the Obama presidency, the world has become so used to seeing a black face in the White House that it has become dangerously easy to forget just how remarkable this is, in historical terms. Irrespective of Obama’s elevation, America remains deeply divided today by wealth and ethnic group. The days of formal segregation might have ended at Glen Echo but a gulf remains between the poorest black districts of Washington and the wealthy (mostly white) enclaves. And across the country as a whole, unemployment and poverty rates for the black population remain higher than for whites, while – shamefully – black offenders account for almost 40 per cent of the prison population. Pew Research Center data shows that African American households have average net assets of about $7,000, compared to $110,000 for the white population. Amazingly, President Obama has not gone out of his way to champion the black population too overtly while in office.

But Glen Echo contains a cheering message too. For if nothing else, it shows the degree to which social attitudes can sometimes shift dramatically over time – even when they seem set in stone. As I left the hall that night, I could not help wondering how the world might look in another 50 years.

Might opposition towards immigration decline, as it becomes clear that America needs more young, taxpaying workers? Might public consumption of sugar and processed food eventually be viewed with the same opprobrium as tobacco? (Fifty years ago, the Glen Echo hall would have undoubtedly been filled with cigarette smoke; these days it is smoke-free.) Right now these are just guesses. But, at a time of gloomy introspection in America, Glen Echo offers one small reminder that change is possible; and sometimes that change delivers good results, even when it has been half-forgotten in a dance hall – and might once have seemed against all odds.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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