1960s Dance Fads: the Madison and the Twist October 1, 2007Posted by wallofsound in Popular Dance, Rock 'n' Roll.
A fuller understanding of the cultural dynamics of the “dance fads” of the early 1960s can be gained through an examination of the dances most associated with these fads: the Madison (the first nation-wide fad) and the Twist (the most widespread and prominent). They provide a revealing case study of the way that the disparate elements of 1960s dance culture–as mediation, music, and movement–came together as a meaningful cultural experience.
Like most fad dances of the 1960s, both the Madison and the Twist have a distinctive set of codified dance moves (often like the Twist signified in the dance’s name), they are linked strongly to a particular recording, and they were featured prominently on teen television programs. The Madison is what we would now call a line dance, originated on the Baltimore broadcast The Buddy Deane Show, and was danced primarily to Ray Bryant’s 1959 recording “Madison Time.” The Twist was a non-contact couples’ dance, popularized on the Philadelphia-recorded, and nationally syndicated Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, and danced at this point to Chubby Checker’s recording of the same name.
There is a tendency to explain these dances as pure media-creations, replaced at an increasing rate by the next “new thing,” limited in form compared with the popular dances that preceded them, and so requiring little dancer competence. This is revealed in the “here today, gone tomorrow” sense of the term “fad dance” itself. It is also reflected in Charlie Gillett’s contention that “locally differentiated dancing styles were replaced by a nationally homogeneous set of styles derived from the programs . . . and the increase in turnover of styles modified the meaning of change . . . to mean a relatively minor modification” ; and in the Stearns’s view that “as the dances multiplied the quality deteriorated. Many new dances were simply charades, pantomimes with hand-and-arm gestures and little body or footwork.”
This is an overly simplistic conclusion, however. By re-inserting the dance moves into their cultural and historical location, we can more clearly understand their importance and meanings, and in particular, their relationship to changes in black and white American youth cultures that took place after (but not necessarily because of) the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration on educational segregation.
As case studies, the Madison and the Twist also allow us to rethink exactly what we mean by competence in dancing. Here I draw on work developed by Ben Malbon in exploring more recent dance practice. For Malbon, competence in dance is not an absolute concept, but a relative one. He formulates dancing as “a conceptual language with intrinsic and extrinsic meanings, premised upon physical movement, and with interrelated rules and notions of technique and competency guiding performance across and within different situations.” For Malbon, the meaningfulness of particular dances can be understood in its specific historical and cultural context. In particular, he is interested in the way that dancing produces a construction of self around the binary oppositions of the in-crowd/out-crowd, in the relationships of the individual to the dance space and to other dancers, and to the performance of the dance itself.
Three particular aspects of the Madison and the Twist and their associated dance cultures allow us to explore how, and with what significance, the dances “crossed over” from African American to white American youth culture. First, I explore the role of television in this transmission, primarily to understand the role of late 1950s teen dance television programs in teaching white teenagers how to dance dances that originated in African American communities; second, examine the way dances related to particular records, and how an analysis of the recordings and how they were perceived and then promoted by the record industry helps us to understand the phenomena of cultural “cross-over.” Finally, drawing on Malbon’s approach, I want to examine the sense of competence utilized on the dance floor, and how these dances (and their fad nature) were meaningful as a form of modernism.
Learning the Madison and the Twist
Robert Pruter has argued that both the Madison and the Twist, and those fad dances that followed, had their origins in the African American communities. In this he sees popular dance as exhibiting the same notion of crossover that others have dealt with in relation to music. He explicitly rejects the other, more widely expressed view that the dances were media concoctions linked to trite music conceived only for commercial reasons. “Before any records were made,” he argues, “[the dances] were the spontaneous outcome of the dance experience of black high-school youth.” In this he echoes Carl Belz’s notion that dance was an unconscious exploration of popular music’s meanings, and an expression of up-to-date-ness that constituted the essence of youthful modernism. Nevertheless, Pruter himself identifies an important role for key dance party television shows, such as American Bandstand and The Buddy Deane Show, that are prominent in other historical accounts. Following Pruter then, our examination needs to relate the spontaneous popular culture of dance to its televised mediation.
The shows were based on a simulacrum of a teen disc hop, hosted by a clean cut “older brother” figure, featured lip-synching appearances of the musical artists and the dancing of “ordinary” teenagers. The earliest shows were highly segregated in production most with separate days for different ethnic groups. However, their broadcasts must have had bi-racial domestic audiences as they occasionally featured both black and white social dancers (though never integrated couples), and the teen dance show became a key means for artists and dances from African American culture to “cross over” to white dance culture. There is certainly evidence that the Philadelphia-broadcast, The Mitch Thomas Show, targeted to a black audience, exposed white teenagers to the Bop and associated dances that gradually replaced the Jitterbug in the early 1950s; Robert Pruter has traced the genesis of the Twist from black culture through The Buddy Deane Show and American Bandstand to the wider white audience.
This evidence also shows that before their televised appearances these highly codified dances were passed from city to city through locally organized dances, and through this process copying became a powerful means of transmitting dance moves. Innovation, then, was a product of the culture itself–and not a simple effect of the television programs–and the search for novelty was an expression of a sense of modernity. These dance innovations needed to involve prominent display, and both be quickly mastered and discarded, because they served this modernist sensibility that the new should be embraced, and the old cast out.
Dance historian Julie Malnig observes that the teen dance party programs exhibit the same sense of communality–both in their construction and consumption–that was characteristic of the teenage culture itself. She concludes that these shows were the key way in which young Americans learned to be teenagers. The lesson of the shows, of course, was that a key competence of youthful modernity was the ability to dance the latest dances. This very communality, along with the fact that television gave youngsters access to the physical as well as musical aspects of popular dance, extended the possibilities for cultural exchange and did create a form of youth culture that at some level cut across racial lines. However, dancing to black music was not the same as acting to create an equal society. The black music and dances within the white teen culture meant “modern innovation,” but not “social transformation.” And the teen dance programs used already established familial and high school models of social relationships–the older brother, the record hop–to create “a sense of community, security and familiarity.” These distinctions were certainly apparent to music industry entrepreneurs. As they increasingly focused their attention on the new youth audience, they attempted to assist and exploit this ability of black music and dance to cross over, and television teen dance shows became an important part of record promotion.