Brief histories of social dance
by Richard Powers
Dances of the Early Renaissance (15th Century)
As the arts and sciences flourished in the European Renaissance, dance quickly rose to preeminence. Dance increased in sophistication and social importance through the 14th century, but unfortunately no choreographic descriptions survive from this century. It is from preserved music tabulatures and literature, such as Boccaccio's Decameron, that we know the names of these lost dances, which include the balli, carola (carole), stampita (estampe, istampita, stantipes), salterello, rotta, trotto and farandole. Only treatises from later centuries give us any hint as to what these 14th century dances might have looked like.
The 15th century is the first period in western history to have dances documented well enough for reconstruction. Several surviving manuscripts describe the dances of the aristocracy, for whom dance was an important courtly pastime. The dances from the northern courts (primarily Burgundy – a large area north of the Alps including some of present-day France, Germany and the Netherlands) tended to be conservative and Gothic. Southern France (Provence) was more innovative, while Italy was the hotbed of the avant garde.
The primary dance of the Burgundian court was the stately Bassedanse. This was a memorized sequence of steps performed as a processional, danced to music in "perfect" (i.e. triple) time. One surviving Burgundian dance source is the beautiful handwritten Brussels manuscript, penned in gold and silver ink by an anonymous scribe. The Italian courts also danced the Bassadanza (as they spelled it), although it was lighter in spirit and somewhat more intricate than the Burgundian Bassedanse. But the epitome of Italian court dance was the Ballo. The 15th century Balli were beautifully designed choreographies for a set number of dancers that featured a wide variety of steps, figures and rhythms. Unlike the Bassadanza, the music and dance phrases of the Balli were inseparable.
Both Bassadanzi and Balli were composed by highly respected dance masters, following specific guidelines of scientific and artistic movement. The first and most important dance master of the Renaissance was Domenico da Piacenza (ca. 1395 - ca. 1465). Two of his students represented the next generation of dance masters: Guglielmo Ebreo (also known as Giovanni Ambrosio) and Antonio Cornazano. Fortunately all three left detailed manuscripts describing dance theory, deportment, specific choreographies and corresponding music.
While these surviving 15th century instruction books described the dances from the highest courts, the dances of the artisans, burghers, lower classes and peasants remained unrecorded until the end of the 16th century.
The hidden story of the Apache dance
Appearances can be misleading
Have you seen the French Apache dance? In Irene Castle's words, this was a dance "in which the male dancer tries to demolish the female dancer, as spectacularly as possible, and usually succeeds." Surprisingly, the Apache remained a popular cabaret act for over sixty years, from shortly after 1900 through the 1960s.
A common misperception today is that the Apache dance was condoned violence against women. Another misconception is that it was male backlash against emerging women's independence and freedoms at the turn of the last century. It's certainly understandable why people might believe these things, given the dramatic appearance of the dance.
The real story is more interesting than that. In fact, the Apache dance was created by a woman, as a statement of independence and empowerment.
If you're a historian, you know that a common pitfall in the field is judging earlier events by today's standards. History is a one-way street that only moves forward, from an earlier perspective, and the only way to understand the motives that propelled events forward is to understand the mindsets of the earlier eras. Women's independence and empowerment have come a long way in the past century, and if you judge the Apache dance by today's standards, you'll miss the significance that this dance had for women back then. So let's go back two hundred years.
In the 19th century, Parisian women were confined by the same restrictions and double standards experienced by women in England, the United States, and pretty much the rest of the world. A married women was considered to be the property of her husband, who also legally owned whatever property she used to have. Many marriages were arranged by fathers. Women were told to be passive, and submissive to men. A double standard allowed a husband to go out at night and mingle with others, while his wife had to stay home and tend the household. This was a part of the code known today as the Separate Spheres. This doctrine established two domains of life: the public and the private, or domestic. Traditionally, the husband would be in charge of the public domain (work, finances, legal and civic matters) while the wife would be in charge of the private domain (cooking, raising children, sewing, running the household). The extension was that men could venture out in public alone, while women had to stay out of the public eye, unless accompanied by a man. Women were even prohibited from crossing a ballroom floor alone, unaccompanied by a man.
In Paris, women were allowed to briefly step outside of these restrictions once a year during Carnival, which was notoriously a time of breaking society's rules. For the few days before Lent, culminating with Mardi Gras, women could speak in an unguarded manner and exchange insults, smoke and drink, travel without accompaniment and dress as a man. Beginning in the 1830s, some of these freedoms were extended to the "bal public" dance gardens of Paris. That's a long story in itself, but essentially the lorettes and the dancers at the bals publics led the way to an emerging women's independence by the end of the 19th century. These women acquired their financial independence, which gave them the freedom to practice many activities which were formerly only allowed for men, such as owning a house, having a political opinion and being able to freely explain it, going out anywhere alone, and writing novels or memoirs for money. They were some of the first Parisian women to treat men as equals, which was why many men were so fond of them—this was new, and more exciting than most women they knew.
One of these women was Mistinguette. She dared to step out of the private domestic sphere into the public eye, performing as a singer and dancer onstage, around 1900. One of her early dance partners was Maurice Chavalier (far right photo), an unknown singer ten years younger than Mistinguette. Side note: In 1909 she changed the spelling of her stage name to Mistinguett, dropping the final e, but we haven't reached that date yet so we're keeping the early spelling.
Let's temporarily leave Mistinguette, to look at the underworld of the Apaches at this time, around 1900. These were members of street gangs in Montmartre, Belleville and the Barrières, who committed crimes of great violence, that were in turn covered sensationally in the local newspapers. These hooligans were mostly young men, who swaggered with an arrogant pride, dressed distinctively and were "handy with a knife."
After a particularly heinous crime in 1902, the newspaper reporter Authur Dupin wrote the headline "Crime Committed by the Apaches of Belleville," referring to the perceived savagery of the American Indians as described in James Fenimore Cooper and Gustave Aimard novels, popular at that time. The French pronounce it ah-PAHSH, and the term stuck.
Now we skip ahead to 1908.
Max Dearly (in the left-side photo) was a Parisian entertainer – an actor and dancer. Maurice Mouvet (in the right-side photo) was an American dancer, born in New York City but working in Paris in 1908. These two men both claimed to have invented the Apache dance in 1908. Plenty of press releases, posters and photos confirm that Max Dearly performed it in 1908 with Mistinguette, in the Moulon Rouge show La Revue du Moulin, as depicted below.
The Apache became a sensation in 1908. At the left above is a poster of Mistinguette and Dearly's 1908 Apache. At the right is a beautiful large sculpture (in my collection) from the same year.
The upper right corner of this sheet music cover says, "The Apach's Dance. Created and arranged by Monsieur Max Dearly." All of the sources that I found, from 1908 to all of today's Web pages on the subject, pass on the story that one of these two men - or both - created the Apache dance.
But when Mistinguett wrote her autobiography later in her life, she claimed that she had created the concept, before 1908, and that Max Dearly was only one of her later partners. Which side was telling the truth?
The hottest dance craze in 1900 Paris was the American Cake Walk. To quote a Parisian magazine article (above center) about Mistinguette, "During last season there was not one concert, not one music-hall which did not feature a Cake Walk."
After Mistinguette added the Cake Walk to her repertoire, she created specialized Cake Walks. But with these, she only used the popular Cake Walk name, which was all the rage, applying it to very different kinds of dances. Mistinguette's "Cake-Walk Parisien" (far right) was a low-class bear-like hugging dance described in a 1903 issue of Paris qui Chante, a magazine of popular music and dance. It might have been influenced by the Bowery Dance (also called the Tough Dance) that was popular in the U.S. a few years earlier. Like a circus act, this was a performed entertainment, usually for cabarets, not an actual social dance.
Then, with a Mr. Paulo as her partner, Mistinguette took the low-class hugging a step further, and invented "The Cake Walk of the Barrières," which was a mock fight-as-dance between a hooligan and a woman from the low-class Barrières (a region of Les Apaches). This new dance was described, with photos, in the same 1903 issue of Paris qui Chante. The illustrations show the street thug violently threatening the woman, and pulling her by her hair. The article described the dance as "vulgar and amazing at the same time."
Like her Cake-Walk Parisien, this mock battle was an entertainment, a fiction. Mistinguette never stated that there was any prototype of men choreographically abusing women in reality.
But unlike her hugging Cake-Walk Parisien, the Cake Walk of the Barrières, with a violent Apache thug, premiered an original concept. Since this was published in early 1903, Mistinguette probably developed the idea in 1902.
This dance also went by another name, La Valse Chaloupee, or Swaying Waltz, and later as La Danse du Pavé, Danse Apache, and Valse Apache. As you recall, the reporter Authur Dupin coined the term Apache for this class of men in 1902, so it took a year or two for that term to spread, becoming the popular name for the hooligans, then for this dance. But it doesn't matter what the dance is called. It's the concept that counts, and Mistinguette created it, five years before she partnered Max Dearly at the Moulin Rouge. And of course Dearly, being in the business of self-promotion, claimed the successful new dance as his own.
Compare the first image from Mistinguette's 1902 original with the photo of Mistinguette's later 1908 version with Max Dearly. I would say that Paulo, in Mistinguette's original version, appeared to be more threatening than Dearly.
In the postcard on the left we see that the name of Mistinguette's innovation quickly evolved from the "Cake Walk of the Barrières" to the "Cake Walk Apache" with both forms illustrated — the newer choreographed fight and the more traditional cake walk style. This postcard has a 1904 calendar printed on the back, and calendars are usually printed at the end of the the previous year, so this illustration is probably from late 1903, still five years before Dearly and Mouvet claimed to have invented the Apache dance. Soon the Cake Walk fad was over, the name became passé, and only the Apache name and the domestic brawl version of the dance remained.
Now on to another important facet of the Apache.
The actress/dancer portraying the Apache's female partner was not a victim of abuse. She was proudly making a statement, that she didn't have to remain in the cage of the Domestic Sphere, and furthermore, could stand up to a man in a physical arena, a public physical arena. She willingly and enthusiastically entered that arena.
Watch one of the earliest Apache films, from the 1916 film Les Vampires, here. You'll notice that the woman is smiling and confident. You'll also see the waltz step, for it was the Valse of the Apache.
Here is the most famous filmed Apache scene, from the 1935 film Charlie Chan in Paris. Dorothy Applebee gives a sly smile at the beginning, then a big smile at the end — a smile of achievement (at least before the Charlie Chan murder plot kicks in). There is pride, physical strength and considerable skill in that performance. And that's how Mistinguette created the dance, as a statement of independence, outside the role that society preferred for women.
If you think that "outsider performance art" is a recent phenomenon, think a century earlier.
One might reply that the man also exhibited strength and skill, which is true, but the only dancer who is announced is the woman, Mademoiselle Nardi, played by Miss Applebee. The male Apache dancer remains anonymous. Not even IMDB lists the dancer who played the male Apache, which wouldn't be the case if this was truly a dance of man's dominance. In the Apache dance, the woman was the star.
I could fill this page with illustrations of the many examples of early Apache publicity that only mentioned the female dancer by name, including the apache in the 1925 film The Masked Bride which only mentions Mae Murray, and never her Apache partner, Buster Keaton. (Again, not even IMDB mentions Keaton's role as the male Apache dancer.)
In the next photo of Apache dancers LaVerne and LaFayette, it appears that she's an unwilling victim of abuse, being strangled, doesn't it? However the inscription that LaVerne hand-wrote on her photo reads, "To my Mother and Daddy. From LaVerne." She's obviously proud of her dance.
If you look at photographs or films of the French Apache, you'll notice that the audience is usually included in the frame. The Apache was a cabaret act based on a fiction, not a re-creation of actual domestic violence, so the audience is an important part of the picture. You'll also notice an equal number of women and men in the audience, contrary to the myth that the Apache catered to male fantasies. In fact, the 1926 silent film The Rat focuses on a woman's response to the Apache dance at the end of the scene.
In the early versions of the Apache, it didn't matter who "won" the brawl. The act aimed at portraying the Apache thug as a cruel brute. But in later versions, from the 1940's on, including Cole Porter's 1953 musical Can Can, filmed in 1960, the woman usually ended up turning the tables and winning the battle.
To conclude, I doubt if Mistinguette intentionally set out to change history, back in 1902. Mistinguette may have come up with the idea of a mock fight-as-a-dance on a whim. She may have been surprised that her mock fight grew into such a sensation. But her concept came from the center of a strong and confident woman, so maybe Mistinguette wouldn't have been surprised that the dance ended up becoming a stage for the empowerment for so many women at that time, when women were not allowed to stand for themselves in the Public Sphere.
Dances of the Late Renaissance (16th Century)
The two centuries which constitute the Renaissance differed significantly from each other. Music, dance, art, literature, technical innovations, commerce, architecture, city planning and fashions had all made notable advancements by the 16th century.
For the privileged few who had leisure time in the late Renaissance, court life became even more refined, often to extremes. Beneath the courtly manners, however, brewed ruthless political and social intrigue. Courtiers had to continually prove themselves through their social skills, especially through dance. Dance was indeed a pleasure, but it was also much more.
Although dancing was occasionally inserted into theatrical entertainments, Renaissance dance was primarily social — danced for and with one's peers — and was not performed by court nobles in the sense that early ballet was performed by professionals two centuries later. Dance was also a courtship ritual, so dancing skills had to be mastered in one's youth. Marriage age was sometimes as early as twelve, so young men and women of the court had to be accomplished dancers before their teens, often beginning tutored training at the age of six.
In contrast to the two dance forms of 15th century courts, a great variety of dances arose in the 16th century. These included a continued evolution of the ancient peasant Branle (Brawl, Brando), Pavan, Spanish Pavan (Pavaniglia) with its intricate footwork, the virtuoso Galliard (Cinque Passi, Cinq Pas, Sinkapace), Tordion, the risqué Volta, the stamping Canario (Canary), Moresque (Mattachins, sword dances), Alman, Coranto, Gavotte, Torneo, Battaglia and many varieties of the Ballo. Some dances, especially the Balli, were constructed mathematically, to appeal to reason and science, which were regarded as arts. Figures traced on the floor had well understood meanings at the time (triangles, spirals, interlocking rings) so that subtle messages could be conveyed through gestures and patterns. Unfortunately, many of these meanings are lost today.
Regional dances were diffused throughout Europe by arranged political marriages and their attendant multicultural festivities. Dances were also exchanged between the courts and countryside: aristocratic dances "sank" into the lower classes over time, much as clothes were handed down as they wore out, and at the same time some of the more interesting peasant Branles, observed in the countryside, were brought into the courts.
As in the 15th century, the favored dance masters were usually Italian. Although the balance of political and commercial power was shifting to England, France and Spain, these courts still preferred to dance in the Italian style. Italian dance had the same prestige in the 16th century that French court dance had in the Baroque era. Dance instruction books continued to be written by professional dance masters (usually Italian) and for the first time were reproduced and distributed widely, due to the advancement of printing methods. Fabritio Caroso of Sermonetta (near Rome) and Cesare Negri of Milan wrote detailed and comprehensive dance manuals, while Livio Lupi of Palermo wrote specialized handbooks on the galliard.
As in the previous century, most surviving dance treatises described the court activities of the aristocracy. An important exception was Orchesography, written by the French cleric Jehan Tabouret (writing under the anagram Thoinot Arbeau). Arbeau was the first to describe the peasant Branles, complete with music, as well as rare descriptions of La Volta, Alman, Gavotte, a 16th century Basse Dance, Coranto, Tordion and the sword dance Buffens.
Music evolved into its next form at the turn of the next century, around 1610, most notably with the compositions of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) which are considered Early Baroque. However dance was slower to change, with the late Renaissance dance forms continuing to about 1625 (or 1650 in the nether regions) until they eventually faded from popularity.
Dances of the Swing Era
Like the Ragtime Era and Jazz Age, the Swing Era is named after a style of music, which in this case, developed in the early 1930s and lasted through the 1940s. As with the two previous musical trends, swing music was initiated primarily by African American musicians, and then caught on with a wider demographic.
Big band swing music at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom caused the original 1920s Lindy hop to evolve into a triple-step version with aerials, which was then seen by more Americans when Herbert "Whitey" White took his Whitey's Lindy Hoppers on tour. The Savoy Ballroom was famously integrated, and thus the Lindy hop also spread to a wider demographic there. One of the Jewish dancers at the Savoy, Sol Ruddosky, developed his own personal style and moved to Los Angeles in 1936, changing his name to Dean Collins, thus transplanting the Lindy Hop to Southern California, and then to Hollywood films.
Social dancing was huge in the Swing Era, continuing from the Ragtime Era and Jazz Age dance booms. Most people in the US danced, and the dance floors were full. Dancing wasn't questioned. It was simply something that most people did back then. Most Americans continued to dance the foxtrot (now spelled as one word, instead of the earlier fox-trot), with the younger dancers adding in some of the new Shag steps to enliven their foxtrotting. During the 1930s, "swing dancing" simply meant dancing to swing music, which for most Americans meant some style of foxtrot, with some waltzes and occasionally the new rumba.
The 1930s are mostly remembered for the Great Depression. As Americans sought an affordable escape from their hardships, the silent films of the twenties had evolved into the Talkies—perfect for music and dance on the silver screen. It cost only a quarter to enter the glamorous world of Hollywood dramas, music and dance. Another affordable escape was provided by thousands of dinner dance clubs. Two dollars would buy an entire evening of dinner and dancing, to a big band dance orchestra, with professional dance exhibitions, in an elegant setting.
The 1930s Depression was also known for its dance marathons, but these actually began in 1923, when a young woman named Alma Cummings danced continuously for 27 hours with six different partners. After she established her record, participants competed in order to break her record. But soon, people competed to win prizes and money. Then during the Great Depression, the unemployed and hungry competitors were fed and housed for as long as the marathon continued, which was a new incentive to compete. Dance marathons were grueling contests, but also an affordable entertainment, as audiences watched the dancers try to stay awake for days, weeks and months.
The late 1930s saw the eruption of several short-term dance fads. In the U.S., the energetic Shag from South Carolina became popular in 1936, then the next year the Big Apple, also from South Carolina, became an even bigger hit, in 1937 to 38. Dancers formed a circle of couples and danced a wide variety of "hot" steps and figures, prompted by a caller. To quote a 1937 description of the Big Apple, "It is often spoken of as a round square dance." The Big Apple was not one set choreography. In fact, no two descriptions were alike. There were many regional versions, and even within one group, the caller would prompt it differently each time. In England, the Lambeth Walk became a huge fad in 1938, followed by the Palais Glide the same year. Both dances also had some degree of success in the U.S. and Europe.
Today, we like to believe that everyone was doing Lindy and jitterbug swing dancing during the 1930s, but the fact is that outside a few specialized venues, most Americans were not aware of swingout-style dancing until the very end of the 1930s, when Americans started to see some Lindy hop and jitterbug in Hollywood films. In the early 1940s, during World War II, American soldiers and sailors exchanged dances in their time off. Many white dancers had started to hear about swing dancing, and some had seen it at the movies, and they finally had a chance to learn it during the war, perhaps from fellow African Americans. Thus Lindy and jitterbug-style swing dancing finally started to take off in the mid to late 1940s.
A musicians union strike had succeeded in raising fees, which was good for the musicians, but it made big bands unaffordable. The 1944 Federal Cabaret Tax of up to 30% on venues with dancing further hampered the Swing Era dance boom. And the new sound of bebop cool jazz was undanceable. Those changes resulted in a shift from dance bands to performances in night clubs and bars, for a seated audience.
Dances of the Baroque Era
King Louis XIV of France was an enthusiastic dancer and had a great influence on the development of a new form of dance. He was known as "The Sun King" because of a ballet role he performed at the age of 14, where he represented the rising sun. During Louis' reign, two kinds of dance developed: social dances for the ballroom and theatrical dances for court entertainments. The two forms shared similar steps and styles, and both were practiced by the nobility. The highest status for a dancer or musician was that of the amateurs (derived from amas, to love) — those who loved their art for the purest reasons, as opposed to paid technicians. The amateurs were indeed the finest dancers and musicians in the early Baroque courts. Balls would feature elaborate entertainments created and performed by fellow members of the aristocracy.
Louis XIV formed the Academie Royale de Danse in 1661 for the creation, refinement and standardization of the new style of dance. It is believed that the Academie required such precision and detail in the new French dances in order to make other dancers dependent on court academicians for further developments in the art.
The few weeks before Lent were especially busy with dancing. Court balls were held every night, often lasting until dawn. No one was allowed to leave the dancing before the King or Duchesse. A formal ball would open with a branle, where couples joined the linked line in an exact social hierarchy that would establish the dancing order for the evening. The most important dances of the ball were next: the many danses à deux, performed by one couple at a time, beginning with those of the highest social rank. These dances included the Menuet, Passepied, Sarabande, Gigue, Bourrée, Gavotte, Allemande, Forlane, Hornpipe, Chaconne, Tarantelle, Rigaudon, Loure and Courante. Following the couple dances, the balls would conclude with the increasingly popular English country dances (Contredanses), brought back to France by Andre Lorin and other dance masters.
French fashions and taste dominated most of European society in the Baroque era. Courts of other countries generally preferred the French dances, and often employed French dance masters. The complex dances were recorded and disseminated through a new system of symbolic dance notation devised by Pierre Beauchamp and/or Raoul Feuillet (there was a court battle over the true authorship of the system, which Feuillet won). The first dance manual in Feuillet notation was published around 1700, followed by many collections of notated dances issued for each social season of the early 18th century.
King Louis XIV died, at 77, in 1715. The dances he helped create lived on through most of the eighteenth century. Aristocrats continued to dance in court entertainments, but there was an increasing trend toward the performance of noble dances by companies of professional dancers. Theatrical dance developed into one of the most refined arts of the 18th century, a tradition that continues today in ballet.
The French Revolution destroyed most of the Baroque high arts in 1789, including the court dances. The removal of the French aristocratic strata uncovered a dance that had been quietly developing in the countryside — a dance that would take the ballrooms by storm in the next century: the waltz.
The Life of a 1950s Teenager
World War II had ended but the world felt far from safe, between the new war in Korea, frightening talk of the Communist menace, and the threat of nuclear war. If there was a national priority in America in the 1950s, it was to create a safe, secure, calm and orderly community in which millions of post-war Americans could start a family.
First phase: marginalization. Sandwiched in between the generations of new postwar families and their boom of babies was a generation of teenagers. Teens were marginalized by the adults, who didn't want to be bothered with the very different values of teenagers. There were a few television shows aimed at young children, nothing for teenagers, and nothing on the radio speaking to teen life. Teenagers felt left out, ignored, disenfranchised.
Then the teens started to hear music about their world — songs about high school sweethearts, wild parties and fast cars, sung by other teens. They were hungry for some recognition of their generation, some validation, and when it came, they embraced it. Momentum started to build as this generation developed their own image and style, combined with the purchasing power of an increasingly influential demographic. The word "teen-ager" was newly coined at this time.
Second phase: condemnation. With the increased teen presence came disapproval, as marginalization and indifference turned into active condemnation of teenagers by parents and local authorities. Teen dances were shut down, rock'n'roll records were banned, and students were expelled for a multitude of rule infractions.
There have always been inter-family conflicts between parents and their adolescent children, but this cultural division was larger. A significant proportion of the adult generation disapproved of the values and lifestyle of the teens, and were doing something about it, including setting new rules, restrictions and prohibitions.
● Boy's hair touching the ears wasn't allowed, punishable by expulsion from school.
● Most girls weren't allowed to wear pants, and boys weren't allowed to wear blue jeans. Even progressive Stanford University prohibited the wearing of jeans in public during the 1950s.
● The new slang bothered most adults. It was part African American, part beatnik and part street gang... an offensive combination in the eyes of the status quo.
● There was alarm about teens dating and "heavy petting." Any talk about sex was taboo and could be punishable.
● Many parents were worried about their daughters adoring black rock musicians, fearing the possibility of racial commingling.
● Hot rods were considered dangerous. All it took was a few fatal accidents and the other 99% of the custom cars and hot rods were considered a menace to public safety.
● Dancing to rock'n'roll music was often banned, with school and teen dances shut down.
John McKeon recalled, "What I remember most about the 50s were rules. Rules, rules, rules... for everything. Rules about clothes — which clothes you could wear when. Rules about church. Rules about streets. Rules about play. The dance rules were different. Dance with girls and hold this hand, but then... you could do whatever you wanted to do! Dance looked like freedom. The only freedom this kid knew."
The older generations were especially worried about "juvenile delinquency." In the 1950s, this didn't mean dealing in street drugs or drive-by shootings, but rather chewing gum in class, souping up a hot rod and talking back to parents.
Rock'n'roll music was attacked on all fronts, with records banned and smashed. Radio DJs were ordered not to play certain songs; rock singers (especially Elvis) were condemned; and the career of rock promoter Alan Freed, the man who named the music rock'n'roll, was destroyed by a government investigation.
To quote Michael Ventura, Gary Stewart and Billy Vera, who were there:
For one thing, for us white kids, the real '50s was only the latter half of the decade, because we didn't have rock'n'roll until well into 1955, and in terms of popular culture the decade would hardly be worth mentioning without rock'n'roll. For another, the feel of the time has not only been forgotten but also erased. And there's no way to grasp the subversive force of this now-innocent-sounding music unless you can feel a little of what it meant to be a kid hearing it as it was played for the first time.
It was music that was made for teenagers and scared the hell out of adults; it was taboo-shattering music about–gasp–sex and racial commingling. That's why records were burned, censorship laws were passed, and some lives were ruined. Because this was the devil's music, and it was threatening the status quo.
But you couldn't stop anything this real. It hit you where you lived. It belonged to the kids and only the kids. It set them apart. It gave them something to believe in. Rock'n' roll was their joy. It was their freedom. It is still so today.
On to the dances of the 1950s
Social Dances of the 19th Century
Following the fall of the Ancien Regime in 1789, social dancing became more natural and egalitarian. Both clothing and dancing became less elaborate and restrictive as the rigid formalities of the Baroque ballroom eased.
19th century social dance can be seen as three eras, each with its unique clothing, manners, music and dances:
The Regency Era This term, referring to the English Prince Regent (1811-1820), is sometimes used informally to refer to the wider period between 1800 and the 1830s. In England and France, the most popular new dance of 1815 was the Quadrille, created from older French Contradanse and Cotillon figures. The Quadrille was performed with a wide variety of rapid, skimming steps, such as the chassé, jeté assemblé and entrechats. English Country Dances, the Scotch Reel and Mazurka also featured intricate steps, and added variety to an evening's dancing. These set dances, done in formations of squares and lines, were joined by an unusual novelty performed by individual couples: the Waltz, which had risen from peasant origins to society assembly rooms. However the Waltz was more often discussed than actually danced at first. After centuries of dancing at arm's length from one's partner, much of genteel society was not ready to accept the closed embrace of the Waltz.
The flowering of the Romantic Era While the Waltz received a great deal of criticism, as "leading to the most licentious of consequences," it slowly made some inroads into the ballroom, aided by the occasional performance by a notable society figure. Waltzing jumped ahead in acceptability when its inherent sensuousness was tempered with a playful exuberance, first by the Galop and then by the Polka. The Polka from Bohemia became an overnight sensation in society ballrooms in 1844, eclipsing the Waltz at the time. The Polka's good-natured quality of wholesome joy finally made closed-couple turning acceptable, introducing thousands of dancers to the pleasure of spinning in the arms of another. Once they tasted this euphoria, dancers quickly developed an appetite for more.
The Polka mania led to a flowering of other couple dances, including the Schottische, Valse à Deux Temps, Redowa, Five-Step Waltz and Varsouvienne, plus new variations on the earlier Waltz, Mazurka and Galop. Meanwhile, the increasing trend toward ease and naturalness in dancing had eliminated the intricate steps from the Quadrille and country dances, reducing their performance to simple walking. The overall spirit of this era's dancing (1840s-1860s) was one of excitement, exuberance and gracious romance. The dances were fresh, inventive, youthful and somewhat daring. Society fashions were rich and elegant, but continued an emphasis on simplicity. By the 1850s, the ballroom had reached its zenith.
The High Victorian Era By 1870, social dances were now those of one's parents, or even grandparents. The ballroom was slowly becoming the domain of high society's Old Guard. As dancing become less exciting, fewer people devoted themselves to mastering the full repertoire of dances. One-by-one, the Mazurka, Schottische, Redowa and Polka began to fade. Dance masters formed professional associations in an attempt to save their trade, but these organizations mostly resulted in the standardization and codification of dance steps, which further dampened the public's enthusiasm. Dance masters invented dozens of new steps in an attempt to revive interest, but the public remained largely indifferent. High society balls shifted their emphasis to the "German" parlor cotillion games, featuring expensive favors (prizes).
Middle class public balls saw the great variety of dances dwindle to just two: the Waltz and Two-Step. By the end of the century, dancers were ready for something completely different. After centuries of innovations created by European leaders of society, they would not have guessed that the next wave of popular dance and music would come from America's lower classes.
Teen Dances of the 1950s
After the Swing Era and World War II, American social dancing cooled down in the late 1940s, in a shift from dance bands to concerts in night clubs. This was due to many factors — musician union fees that made big bands unaffordable, the undanceable aesthetics of bebop cool jazz, and a generation of post-war veterans with the new priority of settling down and raising a family.
But teenagers still liked to dance. Teens' dancing during the 1950s was widely varied in steps and styling. Most of it was still swing-based, but swing had been diverging into local styles and regional variations each decade for thirty years. In one high school it might be low and smooth; in another, wild and angular. In some areas it was constant swing moves, while in others it was dancing with steps in place, simply holding your partner's hand, with no swing moves. Other innovations are listed below.
One incentive for new variations was the rebelliousness of the time—teens didn't want to dance like their parents who were actively disapproving of their lifestyle, so they invented a wide range of step and style replacements. Another motivation for change was the music. Rock'n'roll simply called for different styles of dancing, some of which mirrored the strong backbeat of rock.
Terminology was just as varied as the dancing. This was called jitterbug, or swing, Lindy, the rock'n'roll, boogie-woogie or Bop. The word Bop was new then, so almost everything was called the Bop. But that word usually referred to a family of low swiveling Charleston-like steps danced in place, sometimes without a partner.
Some teens sought out African American sources for new steps and styles, sometimes from their black maids or from the cooks at a summer camp, and especially from black teens at high school and local dances.
Another source of new dance styles was from television. Daily soap operas were finished by 3pm, and local stations needed programming to fill the void until evening shows began. Since teenagers got home at that time, local stations hired radio DJs to play popular teenage music as cameras televised teens dancing. One of the first was Bandstand on Philadelphia's WFIL-TV (1952) hosted by former radio DJ Bob Horn. When he was fired after a drunk driving arrest in 1956, Dick Clark was selected as his replacement.
The increasingly wide regional diversification of dance styles reversed on August 5, 1957, when Clark convinced ABC to broadcast his show nationally, becoming American Bandstand. Suddenly teens from coast to coast were seeing and copying the way the kids in Philadelphia danced, and that regional style soon became a national dance style. Three years later, the same thing would happen with the Twist, and from then on, teenagers got most their dances from television.
Other dances: In addition to the many styles of swing, there was also the Stroll, the solo version of Bop, Chalypso (American Bandstand's name for teen cha-cha), the line dance Madison (soon followed by the Hully-Gully), the Bunny Hop, various kinds of slow dancing, and more. The dance later known as the Twist was also done by teens in the mid-fifties, years before Chubby Checker made it a hit in 1960. (Watch the 1957 film Rock Baby Rock It for a good example.)
Swing dancing changed
As a reference point, the most common style of swing in the late 1940s was:
Counts 1-2: Take a step, to walk through a swing move.
Counts 3-4: Take another step, to finish the swing move.
Count 5: Facing partner, rock back, in place.
Count 6: Replace weight forward, in place.
Timing is slow-slow-quick-quick, 6-count swing. Some began with the rock step.
With slower music, the walking steps could be replaced by triple steps.
Changes made by teens in the 1950s
Change 1) The walking steps were replaced by a tap-step, matching the strong backbeat of rock music.
Change 2) Side-close-side triple steps were replaced by hook-replace-side triples, with the strong side step emphasizing the backbeat.
Change 3) The tradition of executing one swing move after another was replaced by mostly dancing in place, holding one or both hands, with fewer swing moves.
Change 4) Push off with one hand, drifting back away from partner on counts 1-4. Then walk forward to your partner on counts 5-6. (Shown at left.) This replaced the rock step with walking forward.
Change 5) Some teens danced in place on counts 1-4, then traveled forward through a swing move on 5-6, or 4-5-6. This turned the figure inside-out—stationary where it used to travel, then traveling where it used to rock-step in place.
1) Tap in place
2) Step to side
3) Tap 2nd foot in place
4-5-6) Walk forward through a swing move.
A fancier version, in triple-time, shown by several fifties teens:
1) Tap in place
2) Step to side, backing away from partner
3&4) Step back on 2nd foot, close back taking weight, step forward on the 2nd foot.
5-6) Continue walking forward 2 steps, through a swing move.
Note: The 1970s "Latin Hustle" is exactly this same step.
This also became Sugar Push in West Coast Swing. Today WCS dancers usually begin with the above 5-6, with the follow walking forward to him before the same 1950s push-off on the 1,2,3&4 above.
Change 6) While some rock and pop music continued the triple "swung" feeling of blues and big band music, teenagers also danced to straight 4/4 music (similar to cha-cha rhythm)—an innovation from the 1950s which continued into 1970s disco, and then 1980s West Coast Swing.
All six of these changes continued when 1950s teen swing became the Hustle during the 1970s. Some believe that the Latin Hustle was created by Hispanics, from Cuban and Puerto Rican dances. But it was the 1950s rock'n'roll teenagers who invented all of these changes. New York Latinos do deserve credit for keeping this teen swing tradition alive from 1960 to the 1970s, while adding some of their own style, until it was reignited by the Disco scene.
All of these changes also continue today in West Coast Swing. Contrary to claims on some WCS web pages, 1950s teenagers deserve the credit for many or most of the fundamental innovations that defined West Coast Swing thirty years later.
Social Dances of the Ragtime Era
Music: During the 19th century, most of America's music, dances and fashions were imported from Europe, as composers and dance masters emulated the latest styles from Paris and London. At the same time, African Americans were combining their native music with European forms, resulting in their spirituals and "Ethiopian Melodies" that were adopted by minstrel shows and American composers like Foster, Christy and Gottschalk. During the 1890s and early 1900s this unique African American music developed into a new sound – syncopated Ragtime music.
Dance: At the end of the 19th century, many Americans were becoming bored with the old music and dances, which were essentially those of their grandparents. The Twentieth Century was seen as a time to make great changes, so most people were ready for innovations, probably with the expectation that the changes would come from society's cultural leaders. But instead, many Americans began to find it "modern" to dance their Two-Step to the new Ragtime music from the rural South and Midwest. Some high society ballrooms embraced the African American Cake Walk as "the popular fad of popular society." In the early 1900s, Ragtime music gained a wider acceptance and was soon accompanying the new Four-Step (soon to be re-named the One-Step) and a spontaneous menagerie of "animal dances" such as the Grizzly Bear, Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug and Camel Walk, especially among the lower classes. By 1910, the popular phrase was, "Everybody's Doin' It Now," but in fact most of middle and upper class society was only talking about it. Many could not yet accept the new ragtime dances because of lower-class associations.
In 1911 the newlyweds Irene and Vernon Castle found themselves in the right place at the right time, exhibiting their versions of the new American dances in a Parisian dinner club. They became immensely popular in Paris, and their fame spread through Europe. When the Castles returned to Irene's New York home in 1912, their dancing set a new prototype for Americans to follow. The Castles were a young, elegant, attractive, wholesome, married couple who had become the rage of Parisian high society. In a word, they had class. If they could dance the new ragtime dances with propriety, then all levels of society could, and did. The Castles were joined by other exemplars, such as Joan Sawyer, Maurice Mouvet and Florence Walton, all becoming catalysts in an explosive new dance mania. And after two centuries of Americans dancing in the European manner, Europe was now importing the latest music and dances from America.
During the ragtime dance craze, the ballrooms were dominated by the One-Step, a dance where a couple merely walked one step to each beat of the music. Its immense popularity was due primarily to its simplicity, so that even novices could be modern. Those who were especially fond of the new dancing had a wide variety of other steps and styles to choose from. The Argentine Tango, which had been received with great acclaim in Paris, was renowned for its flirtations with sensuality, previously forbidden in public dancing. In contrast, the Hesitation Waltz was characterized by an elegant, almost balletic grace. The Maxixe was a swaying Brazilian two-step (polka) that was thought of as a Brazilian Tango. Vernon and Irene danced the One-Step in a unique style that became known as the Castle Walk. The Half-and Half was an unusual hesitation waltz in 5/4 time, accompanied by even more obscure experiments in 7/4 time. Lastly, the Fox-Trot, which combined slow and quick steps in a wide variety of patterns, was introduced in the last months before "The Great War."
World War I brought an end to the ragtime era dance craze in 1914-15. Dance floors thinned as men in Europe and then America left for war. Vernon Castle joined the Royal Flying Corps. (Click here for a page on Vernon Castle's exploits in aerial combat.) But for a brief four years, the "modern dancing" craze redefined social dancing for the new 20th century, while also changing prototypes for personal relationships, both on and off the dance floor.
The Disco Lifestyle
Rarely does a dance movement fit so precisely within a decade. Seventies Disco was born on Valentine's Day 1970, when David Manusco opened The Loft in New York City, and it rapidly faded in 1980. When the Disco movement peaked in 1978-79, the demographic was predominantly white, heterosexual, urban and suburban middle class. But it didn't begin that way. For the first eight years, Disco was an underground movement. Then the film Saturday Night Fever (December 1977) helped turn the simmering subculture into a mainstream fad, resulting is a 30-fold increase in disco clubs.
Who went to discos, and why?
There wasn't one definitive disco demographic. The seventies saw the emergence of today's pluralism, where individual variety of interests and tastes surpasses mass trends and fads. Thus several different populations were attracted to the disco scene.
One population was the generation of younger baby boomers who felt left out of the sixties counterculture revolution. They were teens during the sixties, perhaps college students, but were bystanders watching the events from the sidelines. Many were wistfully envious of the expanding freedoms which they saw the hippies create, from personal evolution and quests for enlightenment, to the sexual revolution. Especially the sexual revolution.
As Bruce Pollack recalled in 1979, "We had been reminded once too often that we were just not with it. Where they had long hair and Woodstock, we had nothing to clearly call our own. We needed a kind of shared activity, scorned by our elders, which would bring us together as a group. At the disco, we have forged a generational banner. It's great to feel special at last." For a significant population of boomers, the seventies were their turn. With the price of admission to a disco, they could safely purchase a taste of the freedoms which they had only watched during the sixties.
But they adopted a wholly different aesthetic from the counterculture, because an important part of feeling special is being different — in this case different from the hippies. A core element of the new disco scene was sophistication. This meant upscale and classy, but keeping the counterculture emphasis on becoming personally evolved. Sophistication was also defined by what it wasn't — it wasn't rustic country life and dressing down. So the sexual liberation pioneered in the sixties was embraced, but as a glamorous urban version.
There was another reason for the change in aesthetics (the disco look) beyond change for change's sake, and this involved a second disco population: the suburban middle class and blue collar working class. Here we find the same upward mobility which has motivated the middle classes for two centuries.
Disco was appealing because its sophistication was a step up for them, but within reach. All they had to do was dress up and pay the admission and they could live in an elegant, futuristic world for a night. And hopefully mingle with people a step higher on the social ladder.
Disco music mirrored this sophistication, featuring orchestras (the Philadelphia Sound) with large string and brass sections. Quite the opposite of small hard-hitting rock bands. Intentionally opposite.
So for the middle and working class young Americans, the possibility of taking a step up in their lives was more compelling than dressing down. That's essentially the story of Saturday Night Fever — the working class Italian American who was a hardware clerk by day and a Disco King by night.
Significantly, the discos also offered a taste of freedom and self actualization for three other subcultures during the seventies: Gays, Hispanics and African Americans. After decades of marginalization for each of these minorities, they all found a supportive home in the discos.
1) Gays were the first, right from the beginning, when David Manusco opened The Loft, closely followed by The Gallery and the Paradise Garage, all in New York City. After the counter-culture revolution of the sixties, there was now a relatively wider acceptance of gays in the media, followed by some legal freedoms in New York City in 1971.
2) Then New York City Latinos, largely Puerto Rican and Cuban, quickly joined the party with their couple dance traditions of Latinized 1950s rock'n'roll swing. American popular culture had mostly given up partnered "touch" dancing in 1960, when the Twist changed the dynamic of social dancing. But Hispanic dancers in New York had never stopped partnered dancing, partially because it was considered masculine for Latino men to dance, and had been for generations. So for them, partnered couple dancing was preferred over solo dancing.
3) How about the music in 1972? If you were transported back to an early seventies disco you might be surprised to hear only pop, soul and Motown music from the sixties. Then a new sound hit New York in 1973, imported from Africa — the Soul Makossa single by Manu Dibango, which charged the Manhattan disco scene with a new energy. It was stunningly unlike anything else at the time — a repetitious motif with no melody line, or story in the lyrics, and with a steady dance beat. Soon this new sound was filled out with a larger Philly-style orchestral version, funky rhythms, and the next generation of Motown soul, all of which were primarily African-American. Combined together, this became the definitive sound of the disco era.
So one could say that the original disco subculture (1970-77) was a fusion of (1) the gay urban party scene, (2) partnered dancing kept alive by Latinos, and (3) African American music. Then once the ball was rolling, many other populations of Americans were also attracted to Discos, for a wide variety of reasons. From there, Disco quickly spread to Europe and parts of Asia.
Does it seem odd that over a million white, straight, middle class and suburban Americans flocked to discos which were initially gay, black and Latino scenes? No, because a core element of the disco scene was sophistication. Sophistication meant wanting to see oneself as personally evolved. The messages of the 1960s counterculture revolution had received endless press coverage, propagated in hundreds of popular songs, and glamorized in dozens of films. By 1976 it had trickled down to the working class. Rural bigotry was now seen as unsophisticated, as harshly depicted in the 1972 film Deliverance. The term "homophobia" was coined at this time, around 1970, and was pejorative. Both the suburban and blue collar kids liked to see themselves as evolving beyond that. Seventies disco dancers may have been criticized at the time for their pursuit of superficial pleasures, but this was also a time of acceptance of otherness — more so than would be seen in the following decades.
The new freedoms were also expressed on the dance floor. This could be the self expression of solo dancing, or the many shades of the sexual revolution played out in partner dancing, dressed up with disco fashions which often emphasized sexuality, and accompanied by overtly sexual lyrics in the new music... songs celebrating macho men and foxy ladies, love machines and "doing it."
Like most fads, Disco was also a way to be modern. Beyond modern, it was futuristic — a major element of the disco scene. Everything was state-of-the-art, from the latest look in club design to all-new fashions in all-new synthetic polyester fabrics.
Electronic synthesized dance music entered the disco scene in the late 70s, as the perfect match for state-of-the-art sound systems with hanging arrays of super-tweeters above mammoth subwoofers the size of minivans, illuminated with the highest-tech lighting, fog machines, computerized multimedia visuals (that was my job then), animated neon and multicolor lasers. To quote Steve D'Acquisto, "It was like a cross between outer space and a big playhouse."
The dancers felt that Disco was a movement that they created. But that was the original disco scene, before it became a fad. The underground phase lasted a fairly long time – eight years – much longer than the two-year second phase, after Saturday Night Fever launched the discomania, when the number of dance clubs exploded from 1,500 to 45,000. But soon Disco Fever became "last year's fad" – the sure death of any trend – and by 1980 it was proclaimed to be dead.
Disco lasted only a decade but it initiated several traditions that are still with us today, most notably in dance and dance music.
1) While rock music in the 1970s was becoming a sit-down medium, with the stars up on the stage in the lights, and the audience listening in the dark below, Disco reversed this, putting the audience in the spotlight.
2) The music changed to support this figure/ground reversal. Song lyrics became intentionally uninteresting, while the rhythm become more insistently driving. Two decades later, both of these trends would be refined even further in the 1990s rave scene, when minimalist music was given a dance beat, becoming Psy Trance, while House music continued the disco diva tradition.
3) Disco brought the return of partnered dancing, after the drought of the 1960s when the Twist and other solo steps mostly replaced couple dancing. As former disco dancer Joan Walton phrased it, "In the counterculture 60s, the woman's attitude was, You're not going to lead me anywhere, buster! Then people rediscovered that collaborating with a partner to make a neat move happen was fun!" So this was not actually a new change, but rather a correction to the 1960s change.
On to the 1970s Disco dances
Dances of the Jazz Age
Within weeks of the Armistice, both Europeans and Americans were dancing again with renewed enthusiasm. In Paris, the wartime ban on public dancing was still in effect at the end of 1918, but that didn't stop the French from dancing. Many balls were given by the various regiments, with even more "private" tea dances held by the numerous dance teachers. By 1919 dancing in Paris had fully returned to its pre-war frenzy. The Dancing Times reported that Parisians "apparently cannot take a meal or watch a play through without breaking off for a round or two of dancing."
During the pre-war Ragtime Era, many young Americans had been chastised by their elders for a number of violations against decency, including using slang, dancing low-class dances, and enjoying syncopated music with African American influences. Progressive women were especially criticized, for abandoning the corset, wearing shorter skirts that exposed their ankles, and cutting their hair short. During the Roaring Twenties, young Americans responded to this criticism with a backlash, by expanding on all of these "violations," with more outrageous slang, jazzier music and dance, shorter and flimsier dresses and shorter hair. And the efforts of the Suffragettes paid off when the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920. The "separate spheres" of the 19th century had been broken, and the Flapper redefined modern womanhood.
The Jazz Age, a term coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1922, is named after the new style of music that dominated popular culture between the late 19-teens and the early 1930s. It was characterized by stronger and more syncopated rhythms, more complex chords, the introduction of saxophones, and improvised solos. Later, after a new style of cool beat jazz appeared in the 1950s, this first style of jazz was re-named Classic Jazz. As with Ragtime music, both styles of jazz were initiated primarily by African American musicians, and then caught on with a wider demographic.
On the dance floor, the grizzly bear, turkey trot and one-step weren't merely ten years old; they were from an entire era ago — before the war, and thus were out of fashion. The newer fox-trot had never caught on, having been introduced only months before the war started, so the fox-trot escaped the pre-war stigma and became the favorite "new" dance of 1920. The fox-trot developed a smoother style than the trotted ragtime version, or it could be bounced even more vigorously, becoming the toddle. But most dancers still loved the simplicity of the one-step. In other words, they liked the dance but not the old-fashioned name, so many continued to dance the one-step but called it the fashionable new name, fox-trot, much to the annoyance of dance teachers. Music publishers confused the issue further by publishing one-steps, true fox-trots and even tangos as "fox-trots" in order to sell more copies.
When James P. Johnson composed the tune Charleston for the African American-themed Broadway musical Runnin' Wild in 1923, Elida Webb choreographed a dance number for a small chorus of men called the Dancing Redcaps. Although her dance didn't catch on immediately, it evolved during the following year, then became a huge dance craze in 1925 and 26. Charleston contests greatly increased the variety of Charleston variations, when hundreds of amateurs added steps to the creative mix. Then as the Charleston craze began to fade, anxious dance teachers hoped a new fad would revive their business, and thus embraced the newer Black Bottom. But there was more promotional publicity from the effort than actual social dancing of the Black Bottom.
The African American Texas Tommy had traveled from San Francisco to New York City in 1911. Harlem dancers kept the essential concept of the Texas Tommy – a turning Two-Step with swingouts releasing the woman to a single handhold – and simplified the footwork from four different steps to just two. It was renamed Lindy Hop by "Shorty" George Snowden in 1928, and it was soon captured on film when Snowden, his fellow Savoy Ballroom dancers and Chick Webb's band performed it for the 1929 sound film After Seben. Harlem's Savoy Ballroom was integrated throughout its reign, passing the Lindy Hop on to both black and white dancers, but the Lindy Hop didn't become widespread until the late 1930s and 1940s.
Although the fox-trot was the dominant social dance of the Jazz Age, the waltz and tango also continued, with slow waltz becoming a new trend, and exhibition tango adopting a more "gaucho" style under the influence of Rudolph Valentino's tango in the 1921 silent film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Peabody was originally just a new name for the one-step, but it quickly developed into a style of fast fox-trot, as England was developing its similar quickstep. In Brazil, the maxixe had evolved into the samba, which the Brazilian dancer Duque introduced in Paris in 1922, and from there the samba spread worldwide. Blues expanded from a sidenote in 1912 to a major influence in American music and dance during the twenties.
1970s Disco Dances
During the 1960s, New York City Hispanics—largely Puerto Rican and Cuban—kept the 1950s teen tradition of Bandstand-style swing alive, at the St. Mary's Church dances in the Bronx and elsewhere, partially because it had always been considered masculine for Latino men to dance. When the disco scene erupted in New York City in 1970, partnered dancing was revived, with the disco dancers adopting the local teen's style of swing kept alive by Latinos during the sixties. The term Latin Hustle therefore refers to the NYC Hispanics who were still dancing this way, not because it's a from a Latin American country (it's not). The structure, step patterns and figures of disco Hustle are all essentially the same as 1950s American teen jitterbug/bop, which had been mothballed for a decade. However the music was new, as was a more upright walking style, which gave this form of swing an entirely different look and feeling.
Both partnered and solo dancing were done throughout the Disco Era, but the proportions changed dramatically in 1978. During the first eight years, disco dancing was primarily partnered dancing, the living tradition of swing. To quote Maria Torres, a disco dancer from NYC, "The thing which really killed partner dancing was Saturday Night Fever. Disco was originally an underground dance, done mainly by Hispanics, blacks and gays, who could really do partner dancing. They were incredible, but that was an underground thing. Then when Saturday Night Fever came out, the masses flocked to the clubs to experience what they saw in the movie. But what they thought the Hustle was was freestyle, because that's what John Travolta did." Partnered Hustle did continue, but was somewhat overshadowed by freestyle solo dancing in the final two years of the disco craze.
The original script for Saturday Night Fever called for only partnered dancing, as was actually done at the 2001 Odyssey club in the story. But John Travolta felt that a solo dance would better develop the character arc of the storyline, and insisted that the script be changed to feature him doing solo freestyle dancing. Travolta said, "I had to enforce that scene. They were basing this movie on his being the best dancer, and he didn't have a solo. I had to prove to the audience that he was the best." Little did he know that his added scene would change the dynamic of disco dancing.
Another reason for the later increase in freestyle solo dancing was the shift in focus to heavier drinking during the Disco Fever years. 44,000 new disco clubs sprouted up in one year, partially because liquor sales were so profitable, and clubs devised new ways to encourage drinking. Partnered dancing required considerable (and fairly sober) skills, while freestyle and line dancing could be done while intoxicated.
But the partnered Hustle remained the focus of serious disco dancing, and the eighty how-to-disco books that were published after Saturday Night Fever focused on partnered dancing.
Author's note: Your source for this page has first-hand experience. I worked as a media and club designer for a large network of discos (New York, Boston, Ft. Lauderdale, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Houston) in the seventies, from before Saturday Night Fever launched the disco fad, until after it all subsided. I traveled to all of these clubs, participated in the huge NYC disco conventions, and record companies sent me their latest disco recordings as soon as they were released. Thus I had a chance to see all of the phases of the disco craze. In addition, I've reconstructed the dances from 102 disco dance books and LP record descriptions that were published between 1974 and 1981 (see the bibliography at the bottom of this page). Other primary sources include interviews with former disco dancers, and film and video from the 70s.
HUSTLE STEP PATTERNS
Latin Hustle (also called The Hustle, Latin-Swing, New York Hustle, and Manhattan Spanish Hustle)
This was the most commonly described Hustle in the disco dance manuals.
Lead: Tap L foot to the L without weight (or tap in place, or tap crossing behind)
Close L to R with weight
Quick step back R. Quick close L to R with weight
Step forward R
Count: 1 2 3 and 4 5 6.
The Follow steps opposite, beginning R.
The last 3 steps can be done in place, forward or backward, as needed.
There were also several other step patterns called Latin Hustle, varying regionally and over time.
American Hustle (also called The Hustle, New York Toe Hustle, and Easy Hustle)
Lead: Taps L foot to the L without weight (or tap in place, or tap crossing behind)
Close L to R with weight
Tap to the R side without weight
Close R to L with weight either in place or start walking forward R
Step L either in place or rock back or travel forward
Step R either in place or replace or travel forward
The Follow steps opposite, beginning R.
The last 3 steps can be done in place, forward or backward, as needed.
Four-Count Hustle (also called The Hustle, Street Hustle, Rope Hustle, and Disco Merengue)
This was the most common version of Hustle danced in most of the San Francisco discos, except at the Dance Your Ass Off club, which preferred Latin Hustle.
Lead Steps L
Step R (those two steps usually make a swing move)
Rock back L
the Follow steps opposite, beginning R.
The first three steps can be done in place, forward or backward, as needed.
Timing is an even quick-quick-quick-quick.
— Or rock step first —
Lead rocks back L
Betty Lee's timing: The first (rock) step is a quick step, 2 and 3 are slow, 4 is extra slow.
Count: and 1 2 3 hold.
OTHER 1970s DISCO STEP PATTERNS
Disco Swing 1950s Bandstand-style 6-count triple swing done with disco style and attitude.
Hook-step-step, hook-step-step, walk, walk.
Continental Hustle Similar to American Hustle. Side L, tap R closed to L, side R, tap L, walk L, walk R.
New York Hustle Simple 4-count touch-step-touch step in place.
Tango Hustle A Morph of Tango and Hustle.
3-Count Hustle This appeared in only 2 sources, at the very end of the 70s. Then it became mainstream in the 1980s.
Plus many others: Latin Street Hustle, Triple Hustle, Two-Step Hustle, Lindy Hustle, Fox Trot Hustle, Kick Hustle, Cha-Cha Hustle, plus many line dances called Hustle.
WHAT WAS REALLY DANCED
Virtually every disco how-to-dance book and dance studio taught one or more of the above step patterns, carefully fitting each figure into one of these step timings. Then on the actual disco floors (I was there) many dancers simply walked and strutted through the following figures (below), without specific timing patterns, adding occasional step flourishes such as taps, kicks, rock-steps, swivels and poses. Many former disco dancers describe their dancing in this manner, which is confirmed by surviving films of disco dancing in clubs. So both were done: specific step timings, like the Latin Hustle, and simple walking, ornamented by footwork flourishes and poses.
DISCO HUSTLE FIGURES
(only a few of hundreds)
Butterfly (also called Walk Around Turn, Crossover and Passing Turn)
Take an open two-hand hold and walk around each other, turning clockwise or counterclockwise.
Follow's Outside Underarm Turn (also called Arch Turn and Outside Spin)
In Place: She does a CW spot turn in place; he stays in place.
Crossing Over: The Follow passes forward by his left side, turning CW, as in 50s bandstand swing
Follow's Inside Loop Turn (also called Reverse Underarm Turn and Inside Spin)
In Place: She does a CCW spot turn in place; he stays in place.
Crossing Over: The Follow passes forward by his right side, turning CCW.
Waist Slide (also called Belt Scratch)
He raises his free R arm slightly, walks forward toward his left breaking through held hands (scratching his belt buckle into held hands), as she walks forward past his left side.
One version has his R arm raised high. A disco film shows him changing her hand into his R.
2-Hand Loop-De-Loops (also called Wrap Turns, Follow's Walk Around and Loop Pass)
2-hand Follow's Loop Turn followed by 2-hand Waist Slide
Dishrag (also called Crossed Twirl and Twist Turn)
From either open 2-hand hold or crossed hands, he raises both hands to turn her under.
Wrap (also called Sweetheart, Cradle and Cuddle Turn)
From 2-hand hold he wraps her CCW in to his right side.
Once wrapped up, both walk around the other. Whoever is wrapped usually backs up.
Reverse Wrap (also called Wrong-way Sweetheart and Reverse Cuddle)
From 2-hand hold, he leads his R hand inward to wrap her CW in to his R side, as he walks his R arm over her head to her R shoulder. Then he raises his L arm to lead her straight forward under his L arm, then she turns right to face him. Unwind crossed hands with Dishrag.
Lead's Wrap (Lead's Sweetheart)
From 2-hand hold, he raises his R hand and wraps himself CCW in to her R side.
Lead's Wrap and Duck-out
The same followed by a Wheel with him backing followed by his ducking and backing out.
Roll Off the Arm
From the Wrap he releases L, she unwinds to swingout at his right side.
Lateral Dip (only one of many disco dips and drops)
From Rolling Off the Arm, she spins back into Wrap, he lunges side L and she leans into his hip.
Another tradition revived from the late 1950s and early 60s was Line Dancing, where a group of individuals performed a routine of steps, facing in the same direction, without partners. The Madison (circa 1958) faced in only one direction, and it was so complicated, with a dozen figures, that it needed to be called by a prompter. It's believed that the Hully-Gully (circa 1960) was the first short and easy line dance, and it was the first to turn one quarter at the end of the pattern, to repeat facing a different wall. The Continental (Continental Walk) appeared the following year, also sharing these two attributes. After that, most line dances were fairly short four-wall patterns.
The L.A. Hustle was one of the earliest disco line dances (circa 1974), renamed the Bus Stop when it migrated to the East Coast. There were many versions of the Bus Stop. The Hot Chocolate (1978) was a simplified version of the 1961 Hully Gully, then a decade later, the Country Western Electric Slide (1989) was step-for-step identical to the disco Hot Chocolate. Other notable disco line dances were Travolta's Night Fever Line Dance from Saturday Night Fever, the Hollywood Line Hustle, Rollercoaster, the New Yorker, the Pump, and Disco Duck.
John Travolta's 1980 film Urban Cowboy helped launch another dance craze—Country Western, which continued disco's line dancing, but with a cowboy flair.
DISCO BIBLIOGRAPHY The collection of Richard Powers
1974 Dick Blake DISCO DANCES (including 5 early kinds of Hustle) Cleveland
1974 Dick Blake THE NEW DISCO! TOUCH DANCING (many Hustles evolved forward, including Latin and NY Hustle) Cleveland
1975 Kool & the Gang, et. al. HUSTLE HITS! New York
1975 Van McCoy DANSEZ LE HUSTLE Paris
1975 Van McCoy THE HUSTLE (in Japanese) Tokyo
1975 Rolling Stone Magazine Disco Issue (10 articles) NY
1976 Adam VIII Ltd. YOU CAN LEARN TO HUSTLE Instruction Booklet w/ Disco Hustle LP NY
1976 Disco Duck and Others HUSTLE HITS Woodbury, NY
1976 Rosemary "Red" Hallum DISCO AND SOUL DANCES Freeport, NY
1976 The Hustle Factory DO THE HUSTLE - LP with vocal & printed instructions Terre Haute IN
1976 Arthur Murray Schools LET'S DANCE (with disco and Hustle) NY
1976 Rolling Stone, Publisher; Abe Peck, Editor DANCING MADNESS NY
1976 Jeff & Jack Shelley LEARN DISCO DANCING - LP with vocal & printed instructions NY
1976 Jeff & Jack Shelley LEARN DISCO DANCING - 8-track tape instructions NY
1976 Newsweek Magazine THE DISCO WHIRL (cover story) November 8 issue
1976 Tee Vee International, Inc. VOUS POUVEZ APPRENDRE LE HUSTLE Markham, Ontario
1977 Veronica Brewka DISCO 1-2-3 Lansing, MI
1977 Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing DANCING BALLROOM, LATIN AMERICAN AND SOCIAL London
1977 Betty White BETTY WHITE'S HOW TO HUSTLE (book) NY
1977 Betty White HOW TO HUSTLE (LP instructions) NY
1977 Betty White HOW TO LATIN HUSTLE (LP instructions) NY
1977 Grant F. Longley LINE DANCE MANUAL MA
1977 Georgiana Stewart DISCO FOR KIDS Long Branch, NJ
1978 Anon. GET DOWN, FEVER DANCE - mimeographed instructions
1978 Robert Audy JAZZ DANCING with disco dancing moves NY
1978 Skippy Blair DISCO TO TANGO AND BACK, Downey, CA
1978 Alex Brown, Raymond Draper A TO Z OF DISCO & FEVER DANCING Sheffield, England
1978 Keith & Christine Burton DISCO FEVER DANCE BOOK Great Missenden, England
1978 Crane-Norris Marketing SATURDAY NIGHT DISCOMANIA
1978 Ann Czompo DISCO HUSTLE! Homer, NY
1978 Ann Czompo DISCO DANCE 2 Homer, NY
1978 Ann Czompo DISCO DANCE 3: N. Y. Freak, Citie Hustle Homer, NY
1978 Gabbert Elbert "DISCO FEVER" Subject Book (spiral bound notebook) with illustrated Tango Hustle description Birmingham, AL
1978 Uta Fischer-Munstermann JAZZ DANCE including DISCO DANCING NY
1978 Gateway Records HUSTLE, BUS STOP & LINE DANCES - illustrated instructions in LP
1978 Samuel R. George HOW TO GO DANCING (including Hustle and Swing Hustle) Los Angeles
1978 Siegfried Gerstung WARM UP TO DISCO Baltimore, MD
1978 Albert Goldman DISCO NY
1978 Albert Goldman, LIFE Magazine "The Delirium Of Disco" November issue
1978 Rosemary "Red" Hallum DISCO DANCIN' Freeport, NY
1978 Kitty Hanson DISCO FEVER NY
1978 Barbara Hegne DISCO FEVER
1978 Carole Howard THE COMPLEAT GUIDE TO SURVIVAL SOCIAL DANCE (including Disco) Minneapolis
1978 Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing DANCING - STEP BY STEP (including Disco) London
1978 Janet Jasek DISCO LOVERS GUIDE TO DANCE South Bend, IN
1978 K-Tel Records LEARN TO DO THE HOT CHOCOLATE - illustrated instructions in LP NY
1978 Karen Lustgarten THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO DISCO DANCING San Francisco
1978 Roy Madrid DISCO... YOU SHOULD BE DANCING Los Angeles
1978 John Monte FRED ASTAIRE DANCE BOOK including Hustle, Latin Hustle, California Hustle New York
1978 Steve Ramacher LET'S DISCO, A Complete Instructional System for Disco Dancing MN
1978 Shelly Schunick DISCO STEPPIN' - instructions and LPs Baltimore, MD
1978 Time Magazine "Travolta Fever" (cover story) April 3 issue NY
1978 Aurora Villacorta DISCO Danville, IL
1978 Jack & Kathleen Villari THE OFFICIAL GUIDE TO DISCO DANCE STEPS Secaucus, NJ
1978 Lester Wilson DANCE DANCE DANCE
1979 Andy Blackford DISCO DANCING TONIGHT London
1979 Nancy Bruning THE KIDS' BOOK OF DISCO NY
1979 Bill Butler & Elin Schoen JAMMIN', Complete Guide to Roller Disco NY
1979 Joetta Cherry & Gwynne Tomlan DISCO DANCING NY
1979 Dixie L. Coggins A COMPLETE SIX WEEK COURSE IN DISCO DANCE INSTRUCTION Waldwick, NJ
1979 Randy Deats DANCING DISCO NY
1979 Henry "Buzz" Glass, Rosemary AEROBIC DISCO DANCING Freeport, NY
1979 Rosemary "Red" Hallum DISCO DANCIN' FOR KIDS Freeport, NY
1979 Alma Heaton and Don Zimmerman DISCO WITH DONNY & MARIE
1979 Janet Jasek DISCO TEXT - The Complete Book of Disco Dance Instruction Lansing, IL
1979 Ann Kilbride & A. Algoso THE COMPLETE BOOK ON DISCO and Ballroom Dancing Los Alamitos, CA
1979 Kerry Kollmar ROLLER DISCO DANCING (with photos of Kevin Bacon) NY
1979 Jena Lauren DISCO Los Angeles
1979 Lauter Publ Co DISCO STEPPIN' OUT Magazine Vol. 1, No. 1 Hollywood, CA
1979 George Lloyd LEARN DISCO DANCING London
1979 Carter Lovisone DISCO HUSTLE
1979 Karen Lustgarten THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO TOUCH DANCING San Francisco
1979 Karen Lustgarten GUIDE COMPLET, DANSE DISCO Montreal Quebec
1979 Karen Lustgarten DISCO DANCING - EINE DISCO-TANZSCHULE FUR ALLE NEUEN TANZE Munich
1979 Judi McMahon A GUIDE TO DANCING DISCO NY
1979 Jennifer Meloney YOU CAN DISCO NY
1979 Roberta Morgan DISCO NY
1979 Arthur Murray Disco Dance Studio DISCO DANCE LESSON NO. 1 - DISCO SAMBA NY
1979 Arthur Murray Disco Dance Studio DISCO DANCE LESSON NO. 2 - SWING HUSTLE New York
1979 Arthur Murray Disco Dance Studio DISCO DANCE LESSON NO. 3 - BASIC LATIN HUSTLE New York
1979 Arthur Murray Disco Dance Studio DISCO DANCE LESSON NO. 4 - DISCO MERENGUE New York
1979 Arthur Murray Disco Dance Studio DISCO DANCE LESSON NO. 4 - THE ROCK New York
1979 Arthur Murray Disco Dance Studio THE BEST OF DISCOPEDIA - THE FREAK New York
1979 Raymond Nock DISCO DANCE Cammeray, Australia
1979 Newsweek Magazine "Disco Takes Over" cover story April 2, 1979 NY
1979 David Peterson & Laura Trepanier DISCO JUNCTION, Dance Book 1 Minneapolis, MN
1979 Bruce Pollack THE DISCO HANDBOOK NY
1979 Maxine Polley DISCO BASICS Englewood, NJ
1979 Ollie M. Ray DISCOTHEQUE DANCING Whitewater, WI
1979 Rolling Stone Magazine "Disco" April 19, 1979
1979 Brian Sherratt DISCO CHIC NY
1979 Lennart & Marion Strandh THE LATIN HUSTLE
1979 Deney Terrio THE PROFESSIONAL APPROACH TO DISCO INSTRUCTION NY
1979 Lani van Ryzin DISCO NY
1979 Betty White HOW TO DISCO DANCE (with audio cassette) NY
1980 MAD Magazine DISCO - Special issue on disco, with a vinyl parody disco record
1980 Dennis Fallon THE ART OF DISCO DANCING St. Louis, MO
1980 Ronald Lackmann DISCO! DISCO! DISCO!, A Guide to Disco Dancing Middletown, CT
1980 Leonard McGill DISCO DRESSING NJ
1980 Vita Miezitis NIGHT DANCIN' NY
1980 Jerolyn Ann Nentl DISCO DANCING Mankato, MN
1981 Pamela Morton BASICS OF DISCO DANCING Boston