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Popular Dance and the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll September 30, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Popular Dance, Rock 'n' Roll.

The story of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll is so well known that it is worth starting by making it strange; by exploring how it developed within British popular culture. The music was first taken up by a small, but culturally significant group of mainly working-class youth, known as The Teddy Boys, whose name referred to their adoption of men’s Edwardian dress styles. They expressed their position as an underclass by combining a European sartorial statement with the music and dance of American youth culture and a stance and attitude picked up in the slew of U.S. youth-oriented high school films like Blackboard Jungle and Rock Around the Clock. In 1955, films like these were important to young Europeans because rock ‘n’ roll could not be heard or seen through the BBC-monopolized broadcast media (there would be no domestic music radio in Britain until 1967, and television made almost no provision for young people). These imported films gave access to the new music, and as importantly, ways of dancing. Watching documentary footage of young Britons “jiving” in the mid-1950s reveals the dances to be British variations on the Lindy Hop dance associated with the popularity of pre-war swing, combined with moves copied from the imported high-school films.

Dick Hebdige has suggested that for the Teds “rock seemed to be spontaneously generated, an immediate expression of youthful energies which was entirely self-explanatory.” This coding of rock ‘n’ roll primarily as “youthful” and “exciting” obscures a set of paradoxical attitudes to the racial politics which contextualized the music in the U.S. On the one hand, there is an undoubted debt to African American culture, signaled in the widespread use of terms from black vernacular speech–for instance the use of the verb “to jive” and the adjective “jiving” as terms used to talk about dance–among British rock ‘n’ roll fans. On the other hand, Teddy Boy subculture was strongly associated with racial conflict with black Caribbean migrants. By contrast, for young black Americans, rock ‘n’ roll was differently coded. The music’s strong R&B origins connected it to the small-scale neighborhood bars or “juke joints” of black urban communities, and back further again to the Southern rural entertainment spots of African American communities, to produce what Katrina Hazzard-Gordon has called the “jook continuum.” This connection is reflected in the way that the key black dances of the early and mid 1950s–the Bop and the Stroll–draw on a lineage of posture, body movement, and proxemics developed within a segregated African American culture.

However, as Ward has demonstrated, the idea of rock ‘n’ roll simultaneously offered teenage African Americans a symbol of an integrated, modern, young America. As the music began to be associated with a bi-racial youth culture by both consumers and industry in the late 1950s, a new hybrid black pop developed in direct conjunction with new forms of dance expression. As we will see, these new dances were created in different spaces (high school rather than juke joint), and performed new cultural functions (the possibility of integration rather than links to the past) for baby-boomer black Americans. Nevertheless, it is instructive to note the many practices the juke joints of the older generation contributed to the wider youth dance culture that developed in both black and white communities from the mid-1950s.

Most emblematic was the jukebox–the relatively cheap, coin-operated, mechanized record player, sounding out R&B music released by small regional record labels. The idea of the jukebox was also the model for the increasingly large number of radio stations that now switched the orientation of their programming to the black community, as their former audience of affluent white Americans and their more costly general programming had been lured away by television. In turn, the playlists of these jukeboxes and radio stations gave white American youth access to musical forms that race politics, culture, and geography usually kept segregated. It was no coincidence that Elvis Presley belonged to the first generation of white Americans who could access African American music on Memphis’s WDIA-radio without leaving their own cultural sphere.

However integrated the market for rock ‘n’ roll music in the U.S., it was consumed in segregated cultural institutions. By adopting black musical forms initially through the radio, teenage white Americans culturally severed the music from the dance practices of the “juke continuum” in which it had developed. This was further reinforced by the way black pop records were used in the “disc hops” which developed as the central institution of the teenage dance fads that followed. These events were most often organized in school halls or recreational facilities and based upon dancing to records rather than the live bands, which had been predominant for earlier generations. Increasingly, they became commercialized and then incorporated into the promotional strategies of radio DJs or record companies. In this context, of white American teenage culture–just as in Europe–rock ‘n’ roll connoted “excitement,” “newness,” and “youthfulness.” White and black American teenagers may have shared a continent, but for most the gulf of cultural segregation was as wide as an ocean. So, while radio and disc hops allowed a sonic cultural exchange, the physicality of dance remained initially separate. White dance forms in the mid 1950s continued to draw on the staples of the pre-war swing-era big band dance culture, rather than the black R&B dances, like the Bop and Stroll, which dominated black teenage dance culture.

The key antecedent of white rock ‘n’ roll dance, therefore, could be traced back to the ballrooms of Harlem in the 1930s and the partner dance, the Lindy Hop. The dance’s name–drawing on Lindberg’s successful transatlantic air flight in 1927–came into widespread American usage to describe the offbeat hop, which formed the basic step. Using a swinging body motion, and the distinctive hop or skip-based step, couples moved within a bounded floor space. In black dance halls it developed in a competitive demonstrative culture to feature “breakaways” in which the dancing partners demonstrated complex footwork and choreographed proxemics and acrobatic twists, partner balances, “air steps,” and throws. By the end of the 1940s, the dance was known as the Jitterbug, and in Europe, as indicated earlier, it was known as the Jive. Its characteristic moves can still be seen in the practices of those dancing in Blackboard Jungle. Thus, while young white dancers of the mid 1950s were dancing to a new music (rock ‘n’ role) their dance moves represented a continuation of movement with origins back to black popular dance of the twentieth century, via 1930s Harlem.

As I will show, by 1960 this was to change, and the dance moves of black youth were to become the most significant influence on white teenage dance. In fact it is possible to identify a transitional popular dance–the Mambo–that grew out of Swing, but also had many of the characteristics of the youth dance culture that was to follow. The Mambo developed in the early 1940s in U.S. Latin American communities and was then copied by first black, and then white, Americans. On the one hand, like the Lindy, it was a couple dance and danced to big band Jazz. On the other, it turned the usual step-beat relationship of earlier social dance on its heads by using pauses where there would formerly have been steps. Latin rhythms, or often just the word “mambo,” were inserted in a range of songs, recordings, and other ephemera, even when they held little resemblance to the dance or the music performed in Spanish Harlem or the south side of Chicago.

The progress of the Mambo from ethnic dance culture, to the night clubs of New York, and later the dance halls of small towns, also reminds us that innovations are always unevenly distributed across different social groups, and residual elements are retained just as emerging practices are incorporated. In segregated America, these dance halls created distinct dance cultures, each with their own practices, which sound recordings could not share. It would not be an over-generalization to argue that these dimensions–white separated from black, urban dancehall adopting the novelties of metropolitan night clubs–were characteristic of the first half-decade of twentieth-century of popular dance.

This was not to remain so for long, though. Just as rock ‘n’ roll shifted the assumptions and meaning of popular music, the developments in teenage culture a few years later were to transform the meanings of popular dance. And just as radio played a significant part in allowing the transmission of black music to white communities in the development of rock ‘n’ roll, television was to have a significant role in the transmission of black moves to white youth a few years later. However, as I will show, our grasp of these innovations are too often lost in the totalizing histories that construct the musical revolutions of rock ‘n’ roll as significant, and the revolutions of dance fads of the late 1950s and 1960s as simply a conformist, novelty-driven, mainstream television conspiracy to exploit youth.

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1. anonymous - June 10, 2010

good to know

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