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Rocking Around The Clock: Teenage Dance Fads 1955 to 1965 September 19, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Popular Dance, Rock 'n' Roll, Soul.
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The year 2005 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the chart success of Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock,” and the fifty-first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark declaration that segregated schooling for black and white pupils was inherently unequal. The media featured prominent commemorations of 1955 as the start of rock ‘n’ roll, the “birth of the teenager,” and the rebirth of popular dance. Far less attention was given to the milestone in civil rights, and yet both the musical recording and the legal decision were intertwined.

Haley’s recording reached a wider audience as the soundtrack to the opening and closing credits of the 1955 film Blackboard Jungle; an exploration of juvenile delinquency and race in U.S. urban high schools. In Britain, the film’s screening was linked in newspapers to stories about riots in cinemas and of young people “jiving” in the aisles. The following year the record’s title was recycled as the title for a film starring Bill Haley, in which his fusion of white country and black R&B works as a metonym of an integrated world of teenage culture. By juxtaposing music, dancing, and the politics of race these films tied together youthful rebellion with dreams of racial integration. The commercial success of the films and the record demonstrated that the new prosperity of young people could be exploited if one only understood the meanings of this teenage culture.

Dancing was a central form of music consumption in this new teenage culture, and so it is no coincidence that dancers and dances are featured prominently in the films and television programs aimed at the new teen market and dominated the post-rock ‘n’ roll music released on record and played on radio over the next ten years. During this period there were hundreds of dances, each strongly related to one or two recordings, and most only securing popularity for a few months at best. It is possible to piece together a basic cultural history of the period covering the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, with its roots in black R&B and white country music, its dissemination through radio, the simplification of the earlier dance forms, and the representation of all of this in film. I will touch on this history as well as the related issues of the growth of black teenage dances (like the Slop, the Walk, and the Bop) in the late 1950s in tandem with the development of a new black pop; the wider media profiles of dance and black pop in youth television shows; the dissemination of black dances and records to white culture as dance fads (starting with the Madison and Twist in 1960), and finally, the decline of dance within white culture and its renaissance in black communities in the late 1960s.

All too often, the significance of teenage dance culture–the dances and their relationship to music, youth culture, and the politics of race–is most often reduced to an indicator of the perceived triviality of the moment. Almost all histories see this period as an interregnum between the excitement of early rock ‘n’ roll and more sophisticated rock music that would form in the late 1960s. As I will show, these accounts tend to emphasize the music as watered-down pop, the media and record industry as manipulators of naive teenagers, exploiting the power of good-looking teen idols over musical originality, and fad dances as ephemera. Even those celebrations of the period–like John Waters’s film Hairspray, or dance-fan websites–present its dance culture through the restricted lens of post-modern kitsch.

If we replace these subjective aesthetic judgments with the view of a cooler eye, we can see that music and dance were profoundly linked in new forms of social organization that transformed the key assumptions of the music industry about popular music culture. The earlier record industry “rule of thumb” that different communities purchased different types of music became an increasingly poor guide to recording and selling music. “Rock Around the Clock” sold strongly among white and black Americans, and Europeans, and by 1963 the long-running chart for sales among black consumers had been discontinued. Mid-1950s rock ‘n’ roll records like Haley’s dispensed with the entire major record company infrastructure of A&R (Artists & Repertoire) departments, songwriters, arrangers, and trained musicians. Sheet music publishing became incidental as record sales became the primary source of revenue; radio, film, and then television became the key means through which records were promoted. Musically, the genre categories of white mainstream pop, white country, and black R&B became blurred as songs were covered by artists from other traditions, or crossed over from one market to another.
Historian Brian Ward sees this bi-racial youth market–in which black artists accounted for an unprecedented proportion of pop hits among white record buyers and the young black audience bought white pop–as a profoundly different expression of mass black consciousness from the R&B music that preceded it and soul music that followed. He explicitly links this new consciousness, and its musical expression, to the campaigns against racial segregation. Ward documents the widely held view among African Americans in this period that the success of black artists with white audiences heralded a significant shift in attitudes to race; that the popularity of white rock ‘n’ roll stars with black teenagers represented an important inter-racial sensibility (Haley’s enthusiasm for black R&B was welcomed in black journals like the Birmingham World and Chicago Defender) and that black artists saw the new black pop as a realization of their cultural and commercial ambitions.

As I will show, dancing was far more than a simple way to consume this new bi-racial pop, but held a central place in the way that this music was meaningful to its young audiences. Teenagers from different communities related to dance and music in different ways, and for different cultural ends, even when they danced to the same music with the same moves. However, as symbolic of an aspiration for integration as the new black pop was, it did not represent actual integration, nor did ideas of “youthfulness” overcome racial inequalities.

Of course a comprehensive study of all the dances, music, venues, media, and their associated tributaries of popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s would demand a volume of its own. Here, then, I attempt to bring out a few of the most telling threads from the more complex history. To produce this historiography, I have drawn on secondary accounts; an analysis of dancing represented in contemporary media sources; as well as films and fan websites which recreate the time. I start with a discussion of the growth of youth-oriented dance in the 1950s before developing a case study of two of the key dances of the 1960s: the Madison and the Twist. I end with some conclusions about dance in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

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