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Dancing the Madison and Twist October 8, 2007

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

The basics of the Madison are easy to explain. The dancers stand in parallel lines facing outwards with ground movement bounded to forward and backward steps. A basic figure of sweeping feet and a step/clap combination are broken up by a series of figures–tracing out letters with the foot, or stylized choreographed actions like throwing an imaginary basketball–responding to a spoken narration on the record. However, the execution requires more skill and cultural competence than this description suggests. For instance, although Bryant’s record is a R&B mid-paced boogie shuffle in 4/4 time, the main Madison step is based on a six-beat pattern, and the shifting weight, sweeping feet, and controlled trunk feel counter-intuitive to the propulsion of the music without the reinforcing communal experience of the line. Each “chorus” figure is built around very different movements combining steps derived from the Stroll, turns and upper body mimes, which produce pleasurable senses of symmetry and contrast. These pleasures are reinforced by the music’s “behind the beat” time, echoed in the improvised timing of the spoken narration, and its direction of the dance moves trigger by a repeated verbal motif of “hit it.”

Contrary to an often-expressed view, the narration does not instruct dancers how to do the Madison or describe the basic Madison figure; the other figures are merely suggested, and, as I show later, its role relates far more to sub-cultural competences. While the technical mastery required to perform the dance is somewhat less than that required in earlier popular dance forms, competence in the 1960s dance crazes means something different to that of the Savoy Lindy dancer. Rather than individual display and partner interaction, the Madison is built on a communal activity in which the group shaping across the whole floor produces a sense of participation and belonging. Yet the dancers are more than “rhythmically obedient” music consumers. The dance is a communal and individual display of cultural competence achieved, in part, through a mastery of the figures, the unconventional timing, the knowledge of the cultural references in the narration, and their interpretation as stylized movement imbued with the insolence and understated swagger of youth.

The Twist, by contrast, is more obviously a partner dance with no real steps. As the name suggests, its basic form is focused on a twisting of the body created by swinging the knees in parallel in one direction around the pivot of the ball of the foot, while swinging the upper body through the arms in the counter direction. It is performed with a strong sense of swing to a mainly up-tempo, syncopated beat. The dancers often execute shifts of balance that undermine the symmetry of the Twist in three main figure categories: lowering the body gradually through the bending of the knees; transferring weight to one leg, and then the other, often accompanied by the raising of the un-weighted leg from the knee; and incorporating elements of other dances such as steps, partner turns, or upper body moves.

In the historical development of social dance the Twist seems to be a move towards the individualistic dancing of the later 1960s and the first move from couple-based dances. This is largely because the coupling of the dancers is based on an orientation, rather than physical contact or holding. However, the moves of individual dancers are performed with reference to other couples, either in mirrored solidarity, or dexterous competition. This creates some of the same communality produced in the Madison, underscored by a similar performance of “attitude,” but with a greater emphasis on command of swing and balance as a key element of competence.

Both the Madison and the Twist, then, mark a significant break from the social etiquette that had governed social dance up until the 1950s, and we can speculate that these changes represented shifts in cultural attitudes and identity associated with post-war youth culture. While the dancing couple had been the center of the social organization of popular dance, and remained the structure in which the individualism of the Lindy-hopper played out, the Madison and the Twist place a heavier emphasis on the social group, and on processes of shadowing and mimicking one’s peers. While both created the possibility for the more individualized dancing that was to be characteristic of the dances of the later 1960s, they were themselves strongly orientated towards group solidarity, even when they contained elements of individual display or competitive competence.

The early 1960s dances were swiftly superseded by a series of other dance fads. In the five years from the Twist and Madison, scores of new dances–including the Horse, the Pony, the Continental, the Roach, the Watusi, the Hully Gully, the Popeye, the Roach, and the Mashed Potato–were established and disseminated across major urban centers. All these dances shared an emphasis on prominent body movements and on communalism, and most represented the same cultural trajectory of black to white dissemination that was a key feature of the Madison and the Twist. This transmission did create a bi-racial pop and possibly a new regard among young whites for black culture but it did not, of course, deliver the dream of integration. The speed with which they were taken up and discarded was not a characteristic of the involvement of television, or manipulative record companies (although they were very important), but of the modernist cultural drive among American teenagers for the “new thing,” and of the desire to be one of “the in-crowd.”




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