In the Beginning: Do a little dance!

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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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
6 Works of Art That Were Hiding in Plain Sight
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, an 1820 facsimile of the Declaration of Independence turned up in Texas. Despite once being owned by James Madison, it had been shuffled among the papers of a family who eventually forgot about its provenance and came to consider it "worthless," at least until its recent authentication. As one of only 200 facsimiles created by printer William Stone, it was a rare document, but what made headlines was a curious footnote in the document’s journey: It had been hidden behind wallpaper during the Civil War as protection.

There’s something tantalizing about a precious object concealed by wallpaper or painted over; it suggests treasures might be hiding anywhere—maybe in our own homes. Here are a few stories of art that's been lost, and found, on the same wall, hidden beneath wallpaper, paint, and plaster.

1. ANGEL MOSAIC // PALESTINE

Conservators who began restoring the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2013 after centuries of neglect were prepared to clean its mosaics from years of soot and grime. They weren’t expecting to find new ones.

Using a thermographic camera, one restoration worker noticed a shape in the plaster walls. When the team started chipping off the material, they found the brilliant glow of mother-of-pearl tiles. Soon an 8-foot-tall angel was revealed, dressed in a flowing white robe, its golden wings and halo as luminescent as when they were installed in the Crusades era. It’s believed that the angel was covered up following an 1830s earthquake, perhaps to hide damage. Now the lost seraph (above) has rejoined the procession of radiant mosaic angels who are walking to the nativity along the church’s historic walls.

2. MEDIEVAL MURALS // WALES

Mediaeval wall paintings, Llancarfan church, Wales
Chris Samuel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During the Reformation, the murals in Catholic churches of the British Isles were often covered with plaster, turning them into more austere Protestant spaces. In covering them so entirely, this art was sometimes inadvertently protected from centuries of decay. In 2010, conservators announced an incredible find in the 800-year-old Church of St Cadoc at Llancarfan in Wales.

Church staff had long been intrigued by a thin red line of paint on the wall. After conservators began the painstaking work of removing 21 layers of limewash, a dramatic painting of St. George slaying a dragon appeared. The discoveries continued with scenes of other popular medieval motifs, such as the Seven Deadly Sins, a royal family, and "Death and the Gallant," in which a rotting corpse with a worm creeping in its rib cage leads an elegantly dressed man to his mortal end. The murals are now on view for all to enjoy.

3. BRETON GIRL SPINNING // FRANCE

Paul Gauguin, "Breton Girl Spinning"
Paul Gauguin, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, French artist Paul Gauguin's 1889 Breton Girl Spinning is an enigmatic fresco of a young girl dancing at a small tree. In one hand, she is spinning wool; in the distance, above the water and shapes of ships, a huge angel with a sword is flying. In part because of this angelic figure, the painting is sometimes called Joan of Arc.

The work was painted right on the plaster dining room wall of La Buvette de la Plage, an inn in Brittany, France. After being forgotten under layers of wallpaper, it and two other murals (one by Gauguin and one by his student Meijer de Haan) were rediscovered in 1924 during some redecorating.

4. MAYA MURALS // GUATEMALA

While updating their kitchen around 2007, Lucas Asicona Ramirez and his family in the Guatemalan village of Chajul discovered some old interior design—Maya murals, hidden for centuries beneath the plaster.

The roughly 300-year-old artworks in the colonial-era home featured figures in both Maya and Spanish attire, representing a moment of European arrival. One may be holding a human heart, or possibly a mask used in a dance. Ramirez hopes to turn the room into a museum, but needs more funding. Other households in Chajul also have historic murals in their homes, and some are striving to conserve these memories of their ancestors even while local preservation resources are limited.

5. WILLIAM MORRIS RED HOUSE MURALS // ENGLAND

The 19th century British artist and writer William Morris is celebrated for his textiles, writing, wallpaper, and other work in the Arts and Crafts movement. The house in Bexleyheath, Kent, that architect Philip Webb designed for him and his wife Jane in 1859 was intended not just as a home, but an incubator for art. The "Red House" became a hub for like-minded artists, and Morris founded “The Firm”—which produced decorative objects such as stained glass and furniture—there in 1861 alongside several other artists. However, the Red House community was short-lived, and financial difficulties forced the family to move out in 1865, never to return.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 2003, they found that the group had left behind some of their artistic experiments. Behind a wardrobe, under layers of paint and wallpaper, the trust made a most extraordinary find: a full wall of almost life-size biblical figures. Researchers believe they were collaboratively painted by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown, all of whom were major artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

6. AMÉRICA TROPICAL // UNITED STATES

Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros had just been expelled from Mexico for his leftist activities when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. Local boosters commissioned him to create a mural on the theme of "Tropical America" on the touristy Olvera Street, which was an idealized vision of a Mexican market, but he had no interest in portraying some folkloric fantasy. “For me, 'America Tropical' was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments,” he said in a 1971 documentary.

His América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos, or Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism, was a moody landscape with gnarled trees clawing at a Maya temple. At the center, an indigenous man is crucified, with an American eagle ominously descending over his head. Innovative techniques such as airbrushing gave the tableau a visceral edge.

The 18-by-82-foot act of subversion was soon whitewashed. Still, many people did not forget it, especially as Siqueiros became recognized as one of the most influential of the early 1900s Mexican muralists. Eight decades after it was painted, the city of Los Angeles, along with the Getty Conservation Institute, began a restoration. The whitewash had protected its details from sun and rain and finally, in 2012, its defiant scene was again revealed to the public. It is now the oldest mural in L.A., and the only one by Siqueiros in its original location.

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