Dancing in the 50s and 60s

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Rock and Roll dancing is actually swing dancing. East Coast Swing, West Coast Swing, Jive and Jitterbug, all came to be known as some type of Rock and Roll dancing, mostly thanks to the movie industry and the general media. So in reality, the music was Rock and Roll, and various forms of swing were used to dance to it.
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From it's beginnings, rock and roll has been associated with dancing. Teen dances in the '50s fell into two categories: slow and dance.jpg (5867 bytes)fast. With slow dances couples held each other close and moved slowly around the dance floor in a type of box step. Fast rock and roll dances usually took the form of the Jitterbug, a holdover from the big band swing of the '30s and '40s. Again couples touched, if only by hand, and engaged in a variety of fast steps that could include considerable virtuosity and gymnastics.   

The rock and roll music of the fifties was extremely easy to dance to because it had a steady, straight forward beat. The extraordinary uninhibited nature of the music prompted even the most insecure or self-conscious listener to feel they could join in on the action.    

The dancing  that evolved in response to rock and roll is of black origins. The link between the music and the movement, the music's commanding ability to make the listener get up and dance, are a sign of its black origins.

"Neither the music, the song, nor the dance stands alone in African-American culture"
Benita  Junta Brown   

While the Jitterbug has clearly traceable roots in African-American culture, many other dances that teenagers created to rock and roll songs during the fifties were invented by blacks. Though whites may have popularized them, the dances were often based on steps and body movements of blacks.

Juke Joints

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Many of the places teens hung out at in the fifties, such as ice cream parlors, bowling alleys, roller rinks and diners had jukeboxes with the latest rock and roll records. These jukeboxes were coin operated that played the 45 rpm records that the teen selected. Someplaces, such as a restaurants, had a small, compact tableside device that teens could use the select songs to here as the waited to place their orders and/ or as they ate. Juke joint is not to be confused by the jook joint which was a black music and dance places that emerged just after the Civil War, usually in the rural South.

Sock Hops

One of the places that rock and roll dancing developed was at the local sock hop. The name was given because dances were often held in the local school gyms. Since hard-soled shoes weren't allowed to be worn on the gym's varnished wooden floors, the dancers had to remove their shoes and dance in their shoes. Thus the term became synonymous with record hops and was widely used for any of the 50s rock and roll dance parties. It was here that allowed  the creation, observation and practice dances. It is also why in their earliest forms dances were highly regionalised.                                                                

Slow Dancing

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The dance they did was a slow version of the Slow Fox Trot. Eventually fifties teens did away with almost all of the Fox Trot's traveling figures and foot patterns. They simply stood in place, holding tight to their partner and gently swayed stepped forward, to the side, back and to the side in a box pattern.

The guy put his right hand around the girl's waist. His left hand lightly held hers at shoulder level. The girl's left hand was on his shoulder, while her right hand  was clasping his.The guy lead going forward, while the girl followed, moving backward.

The Fish

The Fish was was an updated version of a dance from the early 1900s, the Slow Drag. in which couples would hold on the each other and grind against each in one spot. When stepping forward forward, the dancer was to drag the left foot. When stepping back, it was the right foot that would be dragged. Moving sideways to the right, the dancer would drag the left foot and and moving sideways to the left, the dancer would drag the left foot.

Boogie Woogie

As a dance style, Boogie Woogie encompassed any kind of swing dancing done fast and was also called "Jump Swing." The Boogie Woogie was usually danced to blues and Boogie Woogie music with fast tempos. This type of fast dancing included jumps, hops, stomping, and even flying feet, all done at considerable speed.

The Bunny Hop

The Bunny Hop became a classic party dance in the early 1950s. Originally, it was danced to the Bunny Hop by Ray Anthony, which came out in 1952 and include all the instructions for what to do. To do the Bunny Hop, all you need is energy to hop away and preferably some people to form a conga line with.

Jitterbug

Jitterbug is an offshoot of the Lindy Hop, a high energy athletic dance that was started by blacks at Harlem Savoy Ballroom in the late 20s. The dance developed in the thirties as competing couples tried to outdo each other with more challenging moves with awe-inspiring speed and energy. In the thirties "jitterbug" was a term that given to the raucous swing music fans. In the early forties, jitterbug was applied to the modified version of the Lindy that people were dancing to the latest swing tunes.

The Jitterbug is a spot dance meaning it does not travel around the floor. The basic step is a syncopated two-step that accentuates the off-beat, followed by a "breakaway" which is the characteristic feature of the dance. It is during the "breakaway" that the dancers get to show off their original moves.

The Jitterbug makes use of three versions of a six-count basic step. Though it is always in a 2/4 or 4/4 time.

The term "jitterbug" was originated in the early '30s, and eventually, it came to be use as an umbrella term to refer to swing in general. Movies like "Rock Around The Clock," "Rock, Rock, Rock," and the "Girl Can't Help It" include Jitterbug dancing in them. By the late 1950s, youth began calling fast dancing by the name. It's easy to learn to do the Jitterbug.

The Jitterbug Basic is counted in six counts of music, but there are only four steps.

How to do the Jitterbug

1) Begin facing your partner with your hands clasped gently in front of you. 2) Press into one another's hands to propel your bodies back. 3)The lead should step back with his left foot, while the follower steps back with her right. 4. Pull one another's hands gently to move closer together, stepping forward with the opposite foot. Together, steps two and three are called the rock step. 5) The leader steps and leans to the left while the follower steps and leans to the right. 6) The leader steps and leans to the right while the follower steps and leans to the left. Repeat steps two through five as many times as desired at a pace of quick, quick, slow, slow

The Jive

The Jive, like the Jitterbug, is a variation of swing dancing. Its origin is American, it has strong Latin and African American influences, and it is known for being fast and fun. The Jive is now one of the official Latin American dance forms in the competition arena, and it is danced the world over in rockabilly joints.

How to do the Jive
The basic Jive dancing step consists of eight weight changes in six beats. Whoever is leading performs a rock step (one foot step back, other foot replace it) for the first two counts. Then, the couple chasses to the left for counts 3 and 4. Chasse to the right for counts 5 and 6, and then you are dancing the Jive! The dance is simple and jovial, and it is a favorite in many American competitions and exhibitions today.

The Cha-Cha

Originally hailing from Cuba, the Cha-Cha is danced to many more songs than just Latin music. The basic step is easy enough; the follower simply mirrors the steps of the lead.

How to do the Cha-Cha
Standing in a closed dance frame, the lead steps forward with the left foot, shifting weight onto it Immediately shift the weight back onto the right foot, doing what's
known as the "rock step" Bring the weight back up to the left, quickly bringing the right foot up next to the left Do another quick weight shift to the right foot, then back to the left (this is the "cha-cha-cha") At the original tempo, shift your weight onto the right as it steps forward Rock back onto the left, and bring the right foot back for another fast "cha-cha-cha" step

Dancers repeat this basic step in between several more complex moves that can be executed by the dancers. Like the other 50s dance moves here, the Cha-Cha can be a dance unto itself or just a quick move to put into any choreography where the music fits.

Hand Jive

The Hand Jive the most clear cut example of the synchronized, choreographed dance of the fifties and perhaps the easiest to do was the Hand Jive. The hand Jive can be done standing up, facing a partner. standing one assumes a slightly hunched over, bent knee position so that your thighs and shoulders are relatively close. This also the makes it easier to do the quick moves.

This dance was made most famous by the movie Grease. The original song was created by Johnny Otis and enjoyed its greatest popularity during the summer of 1958. You can see Otis singing it on YouTube along with his dancers. While they do more complex moves, the basic hand jive can be done using a simple jazz square foot movement accompanied by the following hand motions:

The Hand Jive consists of a series of small gestural actions performed in a steady rhythm, with each move falling directly on the beat of the music.

How to do the Jive
1) Crouch down and slap your palms against your thighs twice. 2) Cross your palms over and under each other, like a referee announcing "safe!" 3)  Make your hands into fists and pound them on top of each other, twice each. 4)  Use your fingers to touch elbows, one at a time "Hitch-hike" by making fists with your thumbs sticking out and pointing them over your shoulder, again twice on each side

The Madison Line Dance
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Dancing the Madison in the Broadway musical Hairspray
Photo Courtesy Joan Marcus/Photoplay

The most intricate of the fifties choreographed group dances was the Madison. It is generally agreed that the Madison originated with Midwestern blacks and was appropriated by white teens nationwide.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Madison line dance gained great popularity. A simple-to-follow dance line and steps that were called for the dancers made it a huge success. The Madison craze spawned several recordings of songs specifically made for the dance with Al Brown's "The Madison" and Ray Bryant's "Madison Time" competing neck in neck on Billboard's Top 40. It was so popular that in 1988 the movie Hairspray featured the dance, and it has become one of those recurring features in movies and series depicting 1950s popular dances.

How to do the Madison
The Madison is done in parallel, horizontal lines  with everyone facing forward. Done to music with a 4/4 meter it consists of a six count basic step that is interspersed with idiosyncratically variations that are preformed in response to the caller. The basic step includes six distinct movements, each done on one beat of the music a touch of the left foot as it reaches diagonally across the right, a touch of the left foot out to the left side, another touch of the left foot diagonally across the right, a step forward on the left on the left touch, a touch of the right foot directly next to the left and a backward step on the right. Hand claps or finger snaps are sometimes added on the fifth count

The Slop

The men would put there hands in their pockets and yank up their pants legs as if showing off their shows. It was danced to a moderate tempo and was done without touching your partner. basic step featuring a shoulder dip and backward diagonal kick, as well as variations that involved swiveling on the balls of the feet and twisting around done by crossing one foot behind the other and making a complete turn. It wasn't danced on Bandstand

Philadelphia Dances

Just because many new dances were introduced on Bandstand, kit is not correct to assume that those dances were created by Bandstand teens. Many of the Bandstand teens got a lot of there moves, steps and styles from watching black teens. Black teen dancing in Philadelphia could be watched on the Milt Thomas show, often described as the black Bandstand. Originally broadcast from Wilmington, Delaware before it moved to a studio in Suburban Station in center-city Philadelphia, it was named after its host, Mitch Thomas.

The Stroll
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The Stroll, Bandstand early 59
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One of the most popular dances of the 50s, the Stroll was a dance popularized on American Bandstand.
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The stroll was introduced on the show by Chuck Willis. The Stroll is a group dance dance done in two parallel. lines , with boys on one side the girls on the other, facing each other. The basic step is a 12-count movement phrase, which is actually a 6-count phrase simply repeated on the other side. the boys start with the left foot, the girls with the right. beginning with the feet together, the boy's side with a left diagonal step ( count 1)and then with a touch of the left foot as it drags as it drags back into place next to the right (count). Next comes a forward diagonal step out onto to the left (count 3) followed by a step onto the right that as it cuts tightly behind the left (count 4) The phrase finishes with a step to the side with the left foot (count 5) and a tough, next to it with the right (count 6). The entire sequence is then repeated with the right foot

The other element is the solo stroll by each couple. While the two lines perform the basic step, a couple formed from the boy and girl at the far end of the line ( the end that is towards the boy's right and the girl's left) dances together down the middle. The pair can then take the opportunity to improvise their steps or execute a forward traveling variation of the basic Stroll step. When the couple reaches the end of the lane, they split apart and replace the boy and girl at the end of the line., as a new couple forms at the opposite end.

How to Stroll
The basic move for the Stroll gradually moves the dancer, foot by foot, up the line until he gets to the very front, at which point the two partners abandon the basic and do their own "shine" dance down the center aisle with everyone clapping and appreciating them.

For Him
Step forward on your left foot. Slide your right foot up even. Move your right foot to the right. Slide your left foot over to meet it. Step back on your right foot.
Slide your left foot back to meet it. Move your left foot to the left. Slide your right foot over to meet it and return to the original position.

For Her
Step back on your right foot. Slide your left foot back even. Move your left foot to the left. Slide your right foot over to meet it. Step forward on your left foot.
Slide your right foot forward to meet it. Move your right foot to the right. Slide your left foot over to meet it and return to the original position..

The Walk

Was done in a Conga line-like formation, with dancers one behind another, holding on to the waist of the person in front. It went around the room with a two-action movement first to one side than the other. the movement involved throwing out the same leg and arm, as the torso opened up to the side and chugging forward slightly on the other leg as the working leg returned to its original position

The Cha-lypso

The Cha-lypso was a combination of the Cha-Cha and the Calypso. Near the end of the '50s, American Bandstand came up with a name for the simplified Cha-Cha steps the teens were dancing to swing rhythms: the Chalypso. While Calypso songs were generally danced to with a mix of Rumba and Samba steps. Somewhere down the line, it got watered down and reinterpreted as simplified cha-cha by the youth. This fun and easy dance style was ideal for dancing to mid-tempo swing songs - not too fast, not too slow.

The Bop

The Bop dance style derives from the Jitterbug and East Coast Swing in the 1950s, but it is not to be confused with the Bop a Lindy -based partner dance that was done by all ages in the black community started in the 40s. The 'Bop' term actually comes from Be-Bop, those fabulous jazzy tunes from the '40s; however, it was not danced to Be-bop but to much faster rockabilly, and rock 'n' roll songs of the era like those of  Gene Vincent.

The Bop was the first rock and roll dance introduced  on American Bandstand in the summer of 1957 by a visiting teenagers from California. The Bop used many of the same moves as swing, including partners moving around each other, but was usually done with almost no touching and much, much faster. The Bop's more carefree, Charleston jumpy-like moves and independent dance style also encouraged dancers to go solo.

Dancing the bop entailed jumping up and down as if on a pogo stick and grinding your heels into the floor each time you landed. It's done with a partner but without holding hands. the bop was a dance from southern California that was being done gene Vincent's Be-Bop-A-Lula

The Philly Bop consisted of a basic jitterbug like step with a breakaway that allowed the partners to improvise steps. The partners stayed together  musically by maintaining the rhythm and basic step. As the dance went on there were transistions back and forth between the basic step and the improvisational breakaways. Hence this dance was called the Bop.

The Twist

Like virtually all American dances, the Twist has it's origins in black culture. the Twist that became that became a sensation was an altered version of the original dance. The Twist was actually a combination of  modifications of two earlier Ballard songs who teens danced to with torso twisting motions. According to Ballard, the dance was derived from the spontaneous twisting motions that his band were doing while playing their instruments They'd Twist their bodies while they would also lift one of their legs in the air. It was these observations that inspired Ballard to write a song about doing the Twist.

The dance that consisted of revolving their hips in quick, half-circle jerks, so their pelvic regions were heaving in time to the music. White teenagers first saw the dance performed at a Ballard concert in Baltimore. From there they took it to various ten dance shows among them American bandstand and the Buddy Dean Dance Show.

There are two difference version of how Clark became aware of the Twist. The first one was that Buddy Deane brought it to Clark's attention. He told of how innovated it was that the teens were dancing to it without touching their partners. That it was sung by Rhythmn and Blues singer Hank Ballard whose songs were fully of rique double entendres.ballard was not the type that clark would have on his show and turned deane down.

In Clark's version he claims he saw a black couple doing it on American Bandstand. He descibed what they were doing as " revolving their hips in quick, half-circle jerks, so their pelvic regions were heaving in time to the music."

Initially Clark would't allow it to be danced on the show because it was "too sugggestive" for his show, but white teenagers were fascinated by it and started imitating it. Clark eventually gave-in to them.

Clark thought it was 'too black' but once he committed to promoting it he went to his friend Bernie Lowe the owner of Cameo-Parkway Records and asked for a cover version. The singer was to be the mild mannered, pudgy singer Ernest Evans who Clark's wife re-named him Chubby Checker. "The Twist" was the beginning  explosion of dance oriented records. "The Twist" is unique in rock and roll history, becoming a #1 hit on two separate occasions (September 1960 and January, 1962). The song and  dance became a national fad, spinning off countless twist records for Checker and others


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Checker doing the Twist
Photo courtesy Photofest

Checker's Twist had no leg lifts but danced with both feet on the ground., one slightly ahead of the other and with knees bent. pretend you are wiping your bottom and putting out a cigarette with both feet. some jerky movements of the arms keeping waist level moving in opposition to your partner, occasionally lift one arm overhead and gesturing as swing a lasso.

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Peppermint Lounge circa 1961
photo courtesy Bettmann/CORBIS

Unlike the other rock and roll  dances of the fifties, which were signs of teen culture the Twist crossed over to  the adults.  You could find it being done at places such as the New York nightclub Peppermint Lounge. House dancers were the Dolly Sisters who would later become better known as the Ronettes. The House band The Starlighters contained the core of musicians that would evolve to be come first the Young Rascals and later simply the Rascals. There you could find both celebrities as well as the working class doing the Twist.

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