I recently wrote in this space that I have no idea how kids dance today, and I threatened to burden you with memories of my youthful terpsichorean triumphs. No, I’m not interested in the way adults dance—now or then—let’s save that for the humor section. I’m too old and usually uninterested to go to clubs anymore, and at Coachella, the kids I saw dancing were so crammed together that it looked like they were in various trance states. The way they were packed, I understood that, and it made me wonder if anyone has dance parties any more. Dance parties? I doubt it, but I don’t know. No, I have absolutely no idea how teens dance today. I used to like watching people dance at clubs and shows; I like to see people lose themselves in music, wrapping themselves around a beat. I especially like watching people dance at reggae shows, where the white people down-beat on the two and four and the black people down-beat on the one and three. Heads bopping up and down on different beats? And everyone’s having a good time? C’mon, it’s funny!
So let’s talk about dancing. No, not like Katy Perry or Beyoncé or Bruno Mars or any of the popular performers who use dance troupes and intricately choreographed routines. I admire those routines and the skills they show, and I admire the kids who are taking dance classes. You admire those folks, too, don’t you? You should, and of course I don’t know how old you are, but if you’re older than sixty or so, you might remember some of the dances the Boomers did, and if you’re under sixty, these may surprise you. Ask your parents or grandparents. They’ll enjoy telling you. As will I, and I’ll show them to you. No chuckling out there- I’ll find out. I know people where you live.
For hundreds of years dancing in public had been stiff, formal and strictly regimented. Dances like the waltz and such. Then, starting back in the 1920’s a new form of popular dance emerged; it was a more improvised, individualistic style of dance. The new dances needed at least two people, but they could express themselves freely, physically, in ways that until then hadn’t been permissible in polite society. It came out of Jazz and of course our African-American brothers and sisters led the way. Jazz wasn’t an improvisational exploration until later; what you had by the 1920’s were groups playing increasingly pumped-up, lively music. Replacing tin cans, box-tops, kegs and cartons, drums took their place in the band and suddenly syncopation shot to the top of the charts as joyous, informal, personal dancing ensued. As it would. As it should.
Regional dances had their regional names, and songs often had dances associated with them, like The Charleston, which came from Charleston, South Carolina, and went national. There were others, like the Turkey Trot, the Black Bottom, the Big Apple and the Shag, but what captured and focused the nation’s attention had an historic association. In 1927, one of the best-known pop dancers was asked what he called what they were doing, and as it was just four days after Charles Lindbergh galvanized America and the world’s attention by flying solo across the Atlantic—easily the biggest story of the day— he said it was called “the Lindy Hop.” The kids took it up and it instantly flew across American dance floors and it became the only dance of the hot jazz or Swing era to make into the next generation, where my classmates and I all knew it as “the Lindy.” Yeah, we did the Lindy. My sister and I had a routine.
Here’s why I’m writing: our parents organized and approved of our dance parties after having danced the way we were dancing. They were known as Bobby Soxers back in the 30’s and 40’s, and they’d been dancing to Swing bands and to Frank Sinatra and the other crooners. You could sway and swoon to Frank, but you had to swing to dance to Swing Music. You had to move. In tandem, with a partner. Our parents thought the way we danced was cute because in the Swing years they’d had their crazy dances, most of which evolved from the Charleston. But in the mid-50’s, when rock and roll exploded, the Lindy was the last of the old dances and the first of a series of fast dances we all learned until 1960, when Chubby Checker released the Twist and then everything went crazy. Allow me to explicate.
Dick Clark’s highly rated TV show American Bandstand ran from Philadelphia five afternoons a week, making him the most powerful music influencer of the 1950’s. A cultural touchstone for teens, an astronomical number of them watched Bandstand, where the music, clothing, dancing and hairstyles were avidly observed and copied. Some of the records Clark featured had dance moves associated with them and we learned them and danced them at dance parties. Yes, there were dance parties. Parties for dancing. A lot of it may have been a bit silly in retrospect, but it was fun, and teens and pre-teens have always exhibited a herd mentality and a general lack of inhibitions, so… we danced the silly dances. Didn’t seem silly, then. No judging out there…
The Limbo was a hit and, when spoken slowly and dramatically, the origin of the phrase, “How low can you go?” But it was more of a party game than a dance, so let’s start with “The Stroll.” Guys and girls lined up in a row across from each other for this one. It was a slow dance and the best version I found on YouTube shows some decent Strolling, so here’s Dick Clark to introduce: The Stroll. I was a secret Stroll fiend and I can still do it, but I need a partner. Anyone?
Then there was the Jerk. This video was from Dick Clark’s Saturday night show, so the kids were in seats and weren’t dancing like they did on the afternoon shows, but the kids in the audience were doing about all there was to the Jerk. People would stand in one place, shuffle their feet, and… jerk. Look, there were no cell phones with cameras, so we weren’t afraid of being embarrassed everywhere around the world. I refused to do this one.
Dee Dee Sharp came out with “Mashed Potato Time,” and after you see it I’ll let you guess how it got that name. He’s a guy showing us the Mashed Potatoes and the same guy showing us the Hitch-Hike. We did variations using our arms, of course, but what you see below the belt was all there was to it. It wasn’t easy. I can still do it, but please don’t ask.
Here’s the Swim, and we did this for a week or two, then moved on to the Watusi. The Watusi? Yeah, every few weeks a new song came out and so I guess we needed a new dance, but between my memory and this video, I suspect you could do any move you wanted and say it was the Watusi. It lasted about two weeks. Mercifully, I no longer have any memories about dancing the Watusi.
Another come-and-go dance accompanied the release of “Mickey’s Monkey” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, another example of a dance craze that lasted a week or two in response to a hit song. You can watch the video and wonder what we were thinking when we did this, but it lasted less time than the Maracrena, and how many of you learned that one? Y’see? It was fun for kids and it was harmless. And soon forgotten. Like the Macarena. How many of you will tell your grandkids about the Macarena, and how many of you still do it at family gatherings, giving everyone a good laugh?
For some reason, when you talk about this era with Boomers, the dance they always bring up is the Frug (pronounced “froog”). What I found interesting about this one is that everywhere I looked I found different versions of the Frug, and if I remember correctly, no one back then knew exactly how to do it, either. It seems that if you moved around and flung your arms about, you could call it the Frug. As an example of how misunderstood this dance was, when I tried to find a definitive video, one fellow pronounced it rhyming with shrug. Every video had a different thing going on, so… no Frug for you!
For those in need of a good laugh, I have a brief instructional video of one of the stupidest things people did and might still doing at weddings and such: The Funky Chicken. Yeah, kids could do this, but adults should know better.
At the Hop by Danny & the Juniors didn’t have a dance associated with it that I know of, but I included it here because this was one of my favorite dance songs from that period. It still rocks, and it’s the best example of how we used to dance. And all of this was going on between 1956 and 1962. I also included this because in between silly dance fads, we always went back to the Lindy. It was a dance staple until…
Dick Clark broadcast “American Bandstand” weekdays, showcasing all the hottest songs and singers, and featuring new songs and dancing. Ever hear the phrase, “Well, it has a good beat and you can dance to it…” that’s where it’s from. Anyone? Clark was the man with the most influence on pop music in America when Hank Ballard put out “Teardrops On My Pillow” in 1959, but it was the B-side, “The Twist” that Clark felt would be the hit. Ballard’s only previous hit had been the naughtily suggestive “Work With Me, Annie.” Ballard didn’t help his image any with his next release, “Annie Had A Baby,” so Clark urged a local producer to record “The Twist” with the safer, clean-cut Chubby Checker. An almost note-for-note copy, Checker’s version was released in the summer of 1960 and shot to the top of the charts in the United States and several other countries. Yeah, that fast. And everyone was doing it. Jackie Kennedy did it, man! Everyone was doing the Twist! Of course some parents and church groups thought it was too suggestive, what with swinging your hips like that, but the kids weren’t gonna let it go. Then it wasn’t just the teens doing the Twist. Society wanted in, and then middle America caught on. Dance clubs opened in cities everywhere and called themselves Discotheques. Discotheques sprung up overnight, and the hottest, hippest, the most exclusive discotheque anywhere was, of course, in Manhattan. All of society came. And what was this world-famous discotheque called? Read on.
In the film, “A Hard Day’s Night,” an interviewer asked George Harrison what he called his hairstyle, and he answered “Arthur.” Shortly thereafter, when actor Richard Burton ran off with Elizabeth Taylor, his ex-wife reopened Manhattan’s famous El Morocco nightclub and named it… Arthur. I love a good aside, and I hope you liked that one, but there’s more: I was in Arthur one afternoon while they were closed and I saw some motion off to my right. I looked and saw a man in a tan two-piece suit walking jauntily down the stairs from the office. It was Paul McCartney. A double aside! At no extra cost to you!
The Twist went around the world in 1960 and came back in 1962 to be a hit again for Chubby Checker, and discotheques were full on weekends and everyone was twisting until February, 1964, when the Beatles showed up and swept all the twisting silliness away in favor of a different silliness called Beatlemania. It was a cultural tidal wave, and I don’t remember any new dances after that—other than one—and if by the time it came out we weren’t already past the silliness that preceded it, I believe this one killed any vestigial need to frolic so freely. So I’ll close with what was, to my mind, mercifully the end of the dance craze, the reason for which will be eminently clear with but a click.
Yes, some of the younger kids were still watching American Bandstand, as Clark was booking the hot English acts, and this will be visual proof of why those dance crazes ended. I suppose some guys spent the necessary six seconds to learn this one, and I presume that those were the guys who never got a date through high school. Although who had the last laugh is debatable. Thus, I give you Freddie and the Dreamers, with “Do The Freddie.” And no, I never did this one. Amazingly, they actually had a second hit, with “I’m Telling You Now.” As far as I know, this was the last of the fad dances, praise______.
When you see the way we danced, I’ll understand if you don’t believe we did these voluntarily, and I won’t be mad if you think we were jerks. We were having good, clean fun, so screw the haters.
- Chubby Checker? Was that his real name? No, it was Ernest Evans, but he took the name as a play on the very popular Fats Domino. Chubby, Fats. Domino, Checker.
- In Latin America, the twist caught fire in the early 1960s, fueled by Bill Haley & His Comets, who was trying for a comeback. Their recordings of "The Spanish Twist" and "Florida Twist" were successes, particularly in Mexico. Haley, in interviews, credited Checker and Ballard.
- Coincidentally, Checker appeared in two musicals that took their titles from films Haley made in the 1950s: “Twist Around the Clock” (after Rock Around the Clock) and “Don't Knock the Twist” (after Don't Knock the Rock).
- In 1961, at the height of the craze, patrons at New York's Peppermint Lounge on West 45th
- Street were twisting to the house band, a local group from Jersey, Joey Dee and the Starliters. Their song, "The Peppermint Twist (Part 1)" became number one in the United States for three weeks in January 1962. Some people did a traditional Twist, others did the Peppermint Twist.
- One of the Starlighters’ younger brothers was in the Young Rascals (“Good Lovin’,” etc.).
- Trying to cash in, in 1962 Bo Diddley released his album Bo Diddley's A Twister. He recorded several Twist tracks, including "The Twister", "Bo's Twist", and "Mama Don't Allow No Twistin'", which referenced the objections many parents had to the pelvic motions of the dance.
- A world record was set in DeLand, Florida, on October 11, 2012, when Chubby Checker sang the song live and the crowd danced. An estimated 4,000 people twisted along with Checker, surpassing the previous Guinness World Record for most people twisting in the streets at once.
- Since street shoes and stones might damage the polished wood floors of the school gyms where the dances took place, the students were required to remove their shoes and flop dance in their bobby socks, hence the terms "bobby soxer" and "sock hop".
- If you’ll allow a moment of vanity, here’s Buzz In The System doing “At The Hop” with me on rhythm guitar and lead vocals. Yeah, I really liked this song.
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written three books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, FOOTBALL 101 and God Watches Over Drunks and Fools. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.