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In the Beginning: Do a little dance!

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51yai+MKH5L._AA240_.jpgWho said you can't have your cake and eat it too? Our new book In the Beginning's hitting stores in little over a week, and we've got a fat slice of fact waiting for you below. Enjoy!

Dancing (for fun)

Since dance doesn't leave behind artifacts, we can't really tell you who was the first caveman to get up and do a jig. (There's a little evidence of dancing in Egyptian tomb paintings) What we can tell you quite a lot about is...

The Waltz

Picture 2.pngThis dance, which may get its name from the German word for "turn," first picked up speed in Vienna in the 1780s. Exactly where the basic steps came from though is unknown. (Some people think its roots are in the comparatively clumsy German folkdance called the "Landler.") But its quick rise in popularity is much easier to explain: it was absolutely scandalous for its time. After all, it required (gasp!) touching. And one didn't need a dance teacher to learn it, which meant hoi polloi could pick it up "“ although it's worth noting that the first recorded waltzing in America, in Boston in 1834, was performed by a socialite under the guidance of an instructor and was still considered shocking. (The instructor was Italian, which we imagine explains a lot.)

The Polka

It sounds like it should be Polish "“ but hold on, the polka is actually Czech. First embraced in the middle of 19th-century Bohemia, and the name was originally the Czech word pu _ lka, meaning "half-step." So what's the Polish connection? The Czechs changed the name to "polka" around 1830 as a demonstration of solidarity with their neighbors, the Poles, who were fighting Russian rule in the November Uprising at the time.

The Tango

index.2.jpgLike the waltz, the tango was the dirty dancing of its day. Unlike the waltz, however, it was decidedly not created for the upper-crust. The word "tango" may be an African word, or it may be from the Latin tanguere, "to touch." Either way, the dance itself was heavily influenced by African slaves brought to Argentina in the mid-1800s. The country's urban hubs were thriving and hugely multi-cultural, and in the dance halls, polkas, waltzes, and mazurkas got mixed up with Cuban and African rhythms. Eventually, young "compadritos" took their moves back to the seedier parts of Buenos Aires, and the sons of society, who liked to slum there on the weekends, picked up the trend. In the early 1900s, these swells, emboldened with their sexy new dance, made their way to France "“ and by 1913 the first tango in Paris had become a sensation.

The Charleston

Named for the city in South Carolina, the dance was popular among African-American dockworkers but quickly got co-opted by young whites looking for an easy way to express their disdain for Prohibition. Later, it would give rise to Lindy Hop, which in turn was a forerunner of swing. The basic Charleston step, however, was incorporated into both dances. Here's what you need to know: rock left, step right, kick left, step left, kick right, knee right, kick back right, step right. Trust us, it's easier if you just pretend you're a flapper and freestyle it.

The Twist

cole_spencer-twist.jpgSure, Chubby Checker had a #1 hit (twice!) with "The Twist," but the guy who wrote it was actually Hank Ballard, who first released it as a B-side in 1959. The dance, which was created for the song rather than the other way around, was sort of the anti-tango "“ it discouraged kids from touching each other. One of Checker's buddies reportedly described it best: "It's like putting out a cigarette with both feet, and wiping your bottom with a towel, to the beat of the music."

The Lambada

Perhaps appropriately for such a passionate dance, the Lambada has warring factions arguing over who came up with it first. Some think it came from Brazil (where several other dances appear to be its ancestors); others argue that a song from Bolivia started it all. Either way, the 1990 movie Lambada made it an international hit. But don't refer to it as the "Forbidden Dance" when in conversation with a Brazilian or a Bolivian. Lambada dancers prefer to think of their pastime as sensual, not sexual. And whatever you do, don't mix it up with...

La Bamba

la_bamba_175.jpgA traditional Mexican song-and-dance routine most often performed at weddings. The version of the song you know is probably Ritchie Valens' cover from the 1950s "“ unless you happen to be a bride in the state of Veracruz, in which case you might know an updated version of the dance, in which the newlyweds tie a big red bow using only their feet y una poca de gracia.

Can't wait the 8 days for In the Beginning? Pre-order your copy at any of these fine stores today: Amazon, B&N, Borders, Books-A-Million. Oh, and if you e-mail us your proof of purchase at newsletters@mentalfloss.com, we'll send you an autographed sticker to place in the book!

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Courtesy of Nikon
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science
Microscopic Videos Provide a Rare Close-Up Glimpse of the Natural World
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Courtesy of Nikon

Nature’s wonders aren’t always visible to the naked eye. To celebrate the miniature realm, Nikon’s Small World in Motion digital video competition awards prizes to the most stunning microscopic moving images, as filmed and submitted by photographers and scientists. The winners of the seventh annual competition were just announced on September 21—and you can check out the top submissions below.

FIRST PRIZE

Daniel von Wangenheim, a biologist at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, took first place with a time-lapse video of thale cress root growth. For the uninitiated, thale cress—known to scientists as Arabidopsis thalianais a small flowering plant, considered by many to be a weed. Plant and genetics researchers like thale cress because of its fast growth cycle, abundant seed production, ability to pollinate itself, and wild genes, which haven’t been subjected to breeding and artificial selection.

Von Wangenheim’s footage condenses 17 hours of root tip growth into just 10 seconds. Magnified with a confocal microscope, the root appears neon green and pink—but von Wangenheim’s work shouldn’t be appreciated only for its aesthetics, he explains in a Nikon news release.

"Once we have a better understanding of the behavior of plant roots and its underlying mechanisms, we can help them grow deeper into the soil to reach water, or defy gravity in upper areas of the soil to adjust their root branching angle to areas with richer nutrients," said von Wangenheim, who studies how plants perceive and respond to gravity. "One step further, this could finally help to successfully grow plants under microgravity conditions in outer space—to provide food for astronauts in long-lasting missions."

SECOND PRIZE

Second place went to Tsutomu Tomita and Shun Miyazaki, both seasoned micro-photographers. They used a stereomicroscope to create a time-lapse video of a sweating fingertip, resulting in footage that’s both mesmerizing and gross.

To prompt the scene, "Tomita created tension amongst the subjects by showing them a video of daredevils climbing to the top of a skyscraper," according to Nikon. "Sweating is a common part of daily life, but being able to see it at a microscopic level is equal parts enlightening and cringe-worthy."

THIRD PRIZE

Third prize was awarded to Satoshi Nishimura, a professor from Japan’s Jichi Medical University who’s also a photography hobbyist. He filmed leukocyte accumulations and platelet aggregations in injured mouse cells. The rainbow-hued video "provides a rare look at how the body reacts to a puncture wound and begins the healing process by creating a blood clot," Nikon said.

To view the complete list of winners, visit Nikon’s website.

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Art
‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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