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The Joy of Disco March 6, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Popular Dance, Soul.
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This documentary history of the music genre of disco was broadcast in 2012 on the UK digital terrestrial channel BBC4 as part of a themed night of programmes featuring disco artists and music from the late 1970s. The corporation policy documents set the station the aspiration to “be the most culturally enriching channel in UK broadcasting” and “the channel of distinction for people who love to think” (BBC, 2011: 29). Such lofty ambitions are strongly within the BBC’s tradition as a public service broadcaster. There is an interesting question to be answered about the degree to which pop history documentaries like The Joy of Disco match the ambition.
In this context, this is a programme which seeks to take a much maligned musical genre seriously. The documentary is certainly far more than a string of pop videos of well-known disco numbers. There are interviews with key musicians, singers, producers, DJs and remixers from disco’s heyday, with music journalists, black cultural commentators, and gay and feminist analysts, and with participants who give personal testimony. The programme ranges over the role of gay liberation, feminism and race identity and the shifts in urban politics, and links them strongly to what the programme presents as a hedonistic, sex-driven, drug-influenced music culture. The programme also uses a considerable amount of archive footage, much of it capturing moments in the disco culture of the time, or revealing important insights into contemporaneous politics.
Many of the older viewers, especially those who were young in the days of disco will read the programme name as a pun on a 1970s best-selling book, the Joy of Sex. Even without that direct signification, the programme title suggests that disco is about pleasure, and the politics of pleasure becomes the totalising narrative through which the story of disco is told. The narrative also conforms to the three common tropes inviting the viewer to see the musical form as an under-regarded disruption, a truly revolutionary music, developed in the gay margins of American society, with its roots in black R&B, but moving effectively into the pop mainstream. Summing the programme up the BBC publicity called it a “documentary about how disco music soundtracked gay liberation, foregrounded female desire in the age of feminism and led to the birth of modern club culture as we know it today, before taking the world by storm.” In a swift segue of ideas the programme opens by countering the derision usually applied to disco as a music with personal testament to its joys, before asserting the hyperbolic claim that in the 1970s “it changed the world”, was revolutionary music, located outside mainstream radio and the music industry, based in oppressed gay, black and Porto Rican minority culture, soundtracked by “a never-ending orgasmic music”. A further ten-minute assemblage of archive news footage and personal testimony evidences the veracity of the claim. This is certainly a very different story to the oft held view that disco is a highly commercialised unsophisticated pop music.

In order to flesh this out the programme abruptly switches to the roles of individual party hosts, venues and DJs who are presented at the originators of disco as a culture. It is at this point that the logic of the story starts to spiral out of control, and so the rhetorical devices of the filmmaker are required to anchor the programme materials to the totalising narrative. Although the documentary’s emphasis on a few New York loft party characters is reflected in some of the key studies of the development of post-1970s US dance music culture (for instance Brewster & Broughton, 1999; Lawrence, 2003), these latter studies cover a vast range of examples of DJ-based entertainment. In fact, the Joy of Disco itself later spends nearly five minutes looking at the British Northern Soul subculture, which predates the New York events and did not involve gay or black liberation, but the fact that the section makes no sense within the totalising story is simply ignored. Instead the programmes use documentary clichés – a Brass Band version of Dvorak’s Largo to signal the North of England and jazz to introduce ‘70s down-at-heel New York – to engage us in the narrative, even though the story it tells makes little sense. Much of the material is fascinating. For instance the insight into the technique of one of the key soul drummers, Earl Young, is really informative, but as none of the music that is played from that point onwards uses Young’s approach, it does not really explain anything.

At about half way, The Joy of Disco introduces its second theme. By juxtaposing Donna Summer with a feminist culture critic, the programme proposes that disco was also about female sexual desire. The alternative reading, supported by a later flick through record cover art, that it such music was misogynistic porn chic is ignored. It is the first reading which is emphasised through a montage of interviews and performances from Labelle. When we are offered a nuanced reading of former porn star Andrea True, and the engineer’s unlikely claim that he would not have remixed the record if he knew it had sexual meaning, these points just hang there until anchored by an incomprehensible voiceover about womens’ sexuality, male dominance and 12 inch singles. These are complex political issues, but the programme closes them down, rather than opens them up.

Overall, the music we here hear, the things we see, and the points the interviewees make in the documentary all show that there is actually no coherent thing called disco music. At the simplest level it is just music that is played in a disco, and the issue that really needs answering is about why and how this assortment of dance music, dancers and musical artists was organised into a coherent whole. The answer is there in the sidelines of the documentary, of course. Record companies learnt that records played in discos led to sales, and that music could be effectively targeted at dancers. The last third of the documentary does deal with celebrity disco glamour and the chart success of records now marketed as disco. However, European dance music and Saturday Night Fever appear from nowhere in The Joy of Disco story, even though both have important and comprehensible stories of their own and the power to offer at least a partial explanation to the central question of disco. Instead the programme presents disco as simply the introduction of out gay culture into mainstream culture, even though all their examples were of disco joining other instances of out gay culture in mainstream culture.
If it is true that disco has not been taken seriously for 35 years, there is an interesting bigger question to be asked about the degree to which The Joy of Disco actually takes it seriously. The programme impressively connects the rise of the disco and DJ-based dance music to important liberation struggles, and in doing so challenges the clichés. It is easy to argue, though, that in seeking a simple and accessible story such documentaries about the history of popular music close down thinking about the importance of popular music in our culture and in doing so make culture less rich and less nuanced. Particularly in a programme on a public service station, we could expect a documentary which explores long-held assumptions about disco, rather than replacing them with another set of assumptions.

BBC. (2011). BBC Statements of Programme Policy. London: BBC.
Brewster, B., & Broughton, F. (1999). Last night a DJ saved my life : the history of a Disc Jockey. London: Headline.
Lawrence, T. (2003). Love saves the day : a history of American dance music culture, 1970-1979. Durham, N.C. ; London: Duke University Press.

Ballroom, Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader October 14, 2008

Posted by wallofsound in Popular Dance, Rock 'n' Roll.
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My chapter on fad dances of the 50s and 60s should be out soon. I cover the Madison and the Twist in some detail. I have to say I loved producing this, in large part because Julie Malnig was such a great editor. The book has a great title as well. I haven’t read the other chapters myself yet, but it does look good overall. Amazon are promoting advanced copies here.

This is what the publisher’s publicity has to say:

“An incredibly needed volume for undergraduate and graduate students, teachers, and advisors in the field of dance. These essays afford compelling glimpses into communities dancing in particular places and times; the authors provide nuanced understandings of dancing as a means of forming identity and community.”
Ann Dils, co-editor of Moving History/Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader

“This invaluable volume covers an impressive range of genres, illuminating the liveliness and diversity of social dance. The book makes a unique contribution at a time when the field of dance studies is expanding to include forms other than Euro-American concert dance. An excellent book and a godsend for classroom use.”
Tricia Henry Young, director of the graduate program in American dance studies, Florida State University

This dynamic collection documents the rich and varied history of social dance and the multiple styles it has generated, while drawing on some of the most current forms of critical and theoretical inquiry. The essays cover different historical periods and styles; encompass regional influences from North and South America, Britain, Europe, and Africa; and emphasize a variety of methodological approaches, including ethnography, anthropology, gender studies, and critical race theory. While social dance is defined primarily as dance performed by the public in ballrooms, clubs, dance halls, and other meeting spots, contributors also examine social dance’s symbiotic relationship with popular, theatrical stage dance forms.Contributors are Elizabeth Aldrich, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner, Yvonne Daniel, Sherril Dodds, Lisa Doolittle, David F. Garcia, Jurretta Jordan Heckscher, Constance Valis Hill, Karen W. Hubbard, Tim Lawrence, Julie Malnig, Carol Martin, Juliet McMains, Terry Monaghan, Halifu Osumare, Sally R. Sommer, May Gwin Waggoner, Tim Wall, and Christina Zanfagna.

Dancing, Northern Soul Style December 20, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Northern Soul, Popular Dance.

Here’s some more of my writing on Northern Soul. This time I am posting an extract from some work analysing dance styles on the Northern Soul dancefloor.

Style refers to the manner of expression; it is the particular way certain actions are performed. In his semiotic investigation of style, Dick Hebdige (1979) suggests that style is the active use of available materials, in which each use is interconnected with other uses, to produce a meaningful whole. As such I want to explore dance style as a process of meaning-construction, distinct in its usage of available moves, and linked to other practices that make it meaningful. It is, therefore, far more important to understand how and in what context dancers dance than simply what they dance or how it feels.

I start by identifying a central set of practices which were established in the early 1970s, and (mainly because of the continuity of many of the participants) have remained the predominant way in which dance is organised within the scene. These aspects of style constitute a narrow definition of how music can be danced to, expressed by the scene’s participants as a shared set of competencies or dance techniques and an associated notion of competence.

Competence and dance technique

Ben Malbon, in his analysis of post-House club culture, argues that part of the sociability of dance is the ability of the dancer to demonstrate a number of competencies which, drawing on Goffman (1959), he suggests aim to ‘successfully negotiating the trials of ‘impression management’’ (p. 97). That is to say, it matters what you look like when you move, and it matters what spatial relationships you produce in relation to other dancers. In fact, as I will show, on the Northern scene the idea of competence orders the spacing of dancers and variation in style in a way that it does not seem to in the post-House club culture Malbon investigates.

We will not find an understanding of dance within the scene if we concentrate on the ‘gymnastics’ of back drops, spins and dives that impress the on-looker at a Northern night. They are the most obviously distinctive features, and certainly they give a heroic appellation to the exponents, and a sense of the extraordinary to these dance floors. However, even when (30 years ago) we were younger, fitter and more practiced, only a minority of dancers used these moves, and only at set places in certain records. Today it tends to be the older male dancers who execute them, rather than the large number of younger dancers. I would suggest that it is through this relationship that a sense of the heroic has been established.

Cosgrove tried to put his finger on Northern style by noting that the dancer ‘glides from side to side’ and ‘predict almost every beat and soul clap’ (1982, 38). The predominant ‘glide’ style is achieved through some core characteristics of posture and movement: rigid upper torso, eyes up and looking forward; weight back and pushing down through the hips on to the heels; moving mostly with feet, with fairly straight legs, to propel oneself across the floor (almost always sideways); arms and hands tend to follow the shifting weight of the dancer, or push against it for expressive counter-point. It is this core competency that signals you as an insider, and not a dance tourist. Many – and at an increasing number of Northern nights, most – dancers limit their dance to these core postures and movements. There are some who do not adopt this predominant style, and I will return to them later in this section.

There are also a series of elaborations to the core style that are available to the competent dancer. The most common are to do with the dance steps. The standard steps of the side-to-side dance movement count out the four beats of each bar of the music as a basic repetition: four beats to the right, four beats to the left. This seems to be the easiest way to interpret the steady, even, lightly syncopated beat of the up-town sixties Soul records that characterises the music played at Northern venues. This beat is the main drive of the dancing style because it determines the even time marking which underlies Northern dance style. However, by shifting weight across two beats from the heel to the toe the dancer can momentarily keep their balance on one foot. This allows dancers to undertake steps characteristic of a more practiced participant. Primarily it allows a heavy use of the ankle, rather than leg, to propel the dancer, and to use their other foot for an action that does not require carrying their weight. It is this movement, which makes the dancer seem to glide, while at the same time as allowing leg, and foot movements that counter-point the main beat. This puts considerable stress on the ankles and this is the reason Northern dancefloors are lubricated with talcum powder by the dancers.

It is from these pieces of footstep improvisation and elaboration that the other bodily movements are built. They mostly cover a range of small shifts which within the scene have significance. These would include changes of direction, the interspersing of short and longer sideways strides, twisting the body in a counter direction to the movement of the feet, and shifting the weight around the centre of the hips. These moves are paralleled by hand and arm gestures which play with other aspects of the song, or emphasise them, most notably with the soul clap – an exaggerated wide armed communally-executed clap – which marks out certain beats usually in the bridge of the record. These relatively simple moves are then sometimes built up into more dramatic moves that produce the acrobatic activities of spinning, falling backwards, or diving forwards. At its most elaborated these would be combined so that, for instance, a spin ends in a backdrop, which merges into a kick from the prone position, and a return the vertical ends with a spin to hit the first beat of a new stanza of the music.

However physically demanding such elaborated moves are they are not in themselves valued. There are dancers who can do the gymnastic techniques, but do not dance with competency. Along with all movements, the judgement of competency is applied to the way they are executed. While dancers are allowed quite a degree of variation in the moves that are executed – in fact it is greatly valued – the times when they can be executed is strongly delineated. These structures of what is possible when are related to the musical and performance structure of the recordings themselves. Knowledge of the structure of individual records is therefore central, and thus unites two forms of competence: the ability to do the moves; and the knowledge of when, in a particular record, certain types of moves can be executed.

Competency and scene knowledge

Records have been, and are, valued on the scene because they provide opportunities for the competencies of style to be enacted. Dobie Gray’s ‘Out on the Floor’ is a classic for analysing how musical and dancing competence relate. In many ways it is a basic song form, but not one strong on lyrical content. The introduction is based on a transposition of the lyrical and musical material of the song’s chorus cut down to four three-bar stanzas. ‘Hey, hey, hey’, sing the backing vocalists twice; ‘yeah! yeah! yeah!, everything is out of sight!’ replies Dobie, as we are called to the floor. This is followed by the first verse (four eight bar stanzas), then the chorus (one eight-bar stanzas), the second verse, chorus again (this time two eight-bar stanzas), an extended bridge section built on multiple phrases of eight bars. Moving to the fade out the verse and one stanza chorus are repeated and then the lines of the extended bridge are used with new lyrics.

Dancers use the core techniques described above during the verse, a flourish of extended techniques in the chorus, and quite developed versions of the extended techniques in the elongated bridge. We can start to understand the popularity of the record with dancers for over three decades by relating the playfulness of the musicians and singers with the song structure, with the possibilities for competence they provide. Most of the song is taken at a very brisk tempo, and at key points the tempo is intensified by the drums dramatically increasing the time over the basic beat. The tempo of the backing track contrasts with the generally unhurried nature of the lead singing, which on occasions uses melisima to spread a note over one or two bars. At other times, especially at the start of a verse, Gray is singing ahead of the beat. Even given the overall structure no two stanzas are organised in the same way. Most significant in these variations are the instrumental roles of drums and acoustic piano. The drums (with the other rhythm instruments) keep steady time in the verse, and then break into double time for the last two bars of the final stanza, while the vocal holds one word, pushing us into the chorus. The piano is used for a short motif, which constitutes the song’s secondary hook and is played towards the end of each stanza of verse, usually in the last bar. In the first three lines the motif is played softly and with some improvisation against the vocal. It is not used in the chorus. At other points, notably the answer section of the extended bridge, the motif is played with full attack on the keys. This all creates shifting textures, a playfulness with time, and shifts of emotional intensity in which dancers demonstrate their simultaneous competencies of dance technique as style, knowledge of the recorded music, and the rules of the scene.

If competency in the Northern scene can be understood as relating to stylised movement and knowledge of particular records and how they can be danced to, it is played out in the space of the dance floor. Dance is more than a combination of posture and steps, it obviously also involves moving in a space used by other dancers and marked out for different activities. This constitutes Malbon’s second ‘situation’ of dance: the physical geography, ambience and spacing and orientation of dancers. Given what has preceded it will come as no surprise to learn that the scene has a strong set of rules about how one moves in this space.

Moving in space

The dance spaces of the Northern Soul scene are not the mainstream clubs of youth nightlife, and they have never been so. They are a mixture of old ballrooms, pub function rooms, halls, and social clubs in communities which were increasingly marginalised by the shifting economics of post-war wealth creation. Many early venues did not even have a licenced bar. The most important element was a large wooden dance floor, and contemporary Northern nights are in venues dominated by the dance floor. Bar and sitting areas usually surround the dance space on two or more sides and there is usually a space set aside for selling records and memorabilia, as watching the dancers and buying records and CDs are important secondary activities at Northern nights. The DJ desk is usually raised on a stage at the other end of the room, and all these activities are orientated to the dance floor and the dancers.

Few present day venues have the scale of attendance of Wigan Casino or Blackpool Mecca in the 1970s, and usually will be in the low hundreds, with less than a hundred on the dancefloor at any one time. Even so, so many enthusiastic dancers in a confined space demands some form of regulation. An etiquette of the dancefloor has developed to try and deal with the danger of clashing with another dancer. While some dancers will operate in an area as large as one or two square meters, this space will overlap with other dancers who seek to negotiate the use of the space through some sort of order to their dancing and a high degree of control over their techniques. Dancers with a developed technique and a high degree of competence hardly ever come into contact, and such incidents are usually followed by fulsome apologies. The sorts of orientations apparent in Malbon’s account of ‘post-House club cultures’ are not present on Northern dance floors. Dancers do not face the DJ, or any other common part of the space. Dancers on the outer edges of the floor almost always face inwards, but on the inside of the dance space different dancers face different ways. Although friends often dance in a broadly similar part of the floor, they do not normally form a distinctive group, and dancing between couples is very unusual (and often a subject of comment by on-lookers).

There is a continual churning of dancers, usually based upon preferences for certain records over others. A particularly popular record will quickly fill the floor, but the relatively short length of the records means that there is a change in those dancing every three minutes or so. Dancing is therefore an activity defined not just by the physical relationship to the music, but to the other dancers, and to the wider space through which the dancers shift their activity from dancing, sitting, watching and offering comment. I estimate that dancers today spend far less time on the dance floor than they would have in the 1970s – probably the product of our increasing age – and the composition and operation of the floor has shifted far more than the basic dance itself.

The most notable change is the role that women occupy. Once a minority of dancers, they now constitute a majority. Although one must be careful as the 1970s published photographic records of dancers tend to focus on the acrobatic dancing performed by men, the distribution of the dancing crowd supports the claim that it was men who predominate in numbers, in occupancy of space, and in the spectacle of dance. At a number of present day venues I visited a high proportion of the men occupying the floor kept to the outer edge, and women out numbered men in the centre. Although men tended to be the ones who used the acrobatic elements in their dances, some women included spins, and elaborated dance steps. Secondly, there is far less cohesion to the dancefloor than there used to be. This is most obvious in the division between dancers in their twenties – who construct their dance identities around a revival of the dress and dance of the late 1960 Mod scene – and those in their late thirties, forties (and sometimes fifties) who link themselves much more to the Northern Scene of the late 1970s. The relative proportion of these groups varies from venue to venue, but there was not a venue I visited where the younger group were in the majority. For this reason the dominant meanings of the scene are still derived from the three decades of Northern Soul. There has been some antagonism to Mod-revivalists in the Northern scene since the early 1980s because it is perceived to lack authenticity, and to be a youth fad (see St. Pierre dnk; Winstanley dnk) but this seems to have dissipated if my research is generalisable. Although there is some overlap in which records are danced to, the neo-Mods tend to dominate when certain records are played, and these are usually played within a themed set of early 1960s R&B, rather than the uptown Soul style associated with Detroit or Los Angelis labels. During these sets there are not major differences between dancers as the Northern dancers curtail the more distinctive features of their style. At other times, though, the differences between styles often leads to bodily contact as it is harder to predict the patterns of different, (Northern dancers would say) less disciplined styles.

There is another sense in which the Northern scene has expanded outside its former cultural territory of exclusion, and this has expanded the backgrounds of people at Northern venues. The rare Soul records which were collected and exchanged by DJs and dancers are now widely available on compilation CDs, and they have a wider circulation in radio programmes and on the sound tracks to adverts and TV programmes. Further, the greater prominence of women dancers, and of dancers who do not share the traditions and history of the Northern soul scene, have made the discursive practices of the scene less excluding, and the notions of the in-crowd less pronounced.

My main point here is that Northern Soul dancers are not just involving themselves in a physically pleasurable activity. Ethnographic observation and participation reveals dancing as a physically and psychologically pleasure activity, and the sweat and physical flow of dance, the relationship to music, and physical communality are major reasons dancers dance. However, they cannot explain the distinctiveness of why dance to these records in this way.

The Madison and the Twist [Conclusions and Notes] October 9, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Popular Dance, Rock 'n' Roll.
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The decade from 1955 to 1965 saw some significant changes in social dance. Over the twentieth century the relationships between individual social dancers, the couple, and the community of the dance floor shifted a number of times. The dance fads of the 1950s and 1960s did herald a greater emphasis on the individual that was to come to fruition later in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Perhaps more significantly, they shifted emphasis back to an earlier sense of communal dance, and away from the couple-orientations of most of twentieth century dance up to that point. The meanings of the dance articulated in a significant, but sadly not a profound, way a sense of optimism, both for a culture of youth and for the meanings of ethnic identity. In Europe, black music and black forms were to take on significance for working-class youth, and the British Mod subculture, with its adoration of American jazz and soul, reinterpreted modernism for another society. This passion for black dance music of the 1960s survives to this day in Northern Soul. Record collectors in this peculiarly British scene have a particular veneration for the dance records of Cameo-Parkway. However, you will not hear “The Twist,” or even the “Mashed Potato,” on these dance floors, but instead all those records that fell into obscurity or did not sell first time around.

In these lost records, as in the chart hits, are the dreams of a modern America. Built on ideas of youth and excitement, for a generation of African Americans they were also expressive of the possibility of an integrated society. However, that moment did not last, and the growth of rock music in the mid-1960s with its free form individualistic dance styles and shift to non-dance forms of practice were to take white American music away from African American texts. Black Americans, frustrated with the failure of the civil rights movement to live up to their dreams, shifted their tastes to soul and funk with their articulations of an Afro-centric identity, and a whole new set of dance floor, community-bound dances.

Music, dance, and the media remain central to issues of the politics of identity. We just need to keep making the connections as we move.

I’ve written a short piece on the relationship of the music and dancing on the Northern Soul scene in the UK and African American culture.


1. While some web sites marked the record’s April 12, 1954 New York recording anniversary in 2004, most used 1955 reflecting the March 1955 release of the MGM-produced film, the track’s release as an A-side single, and the single’s number one spot on the Billboard chart in July 5, 1955. See detail at Rockabilly Hall of Fame, “Rock Around the Clock Tribute,” http://www.rockabillyhall.com/RockClockTribute.html (accessed January 2006).

2. Extract from New Musical Express quoted at 100 Rock Moments, “Riots at ‘Blackboard Jungle’ Movie,” http://microsites.nme.com/rock100/site/63.html (accessed January 2006).

3. Mark Abrams, The Teenage Consumer (London: London Press Exchange [for] Incorporated Practitioners in Advertising, 1959).

4. It was ranked at number one or two on the Billboard pop and R&B charts, and on the New Musical Express chart in 1955.

5. Tim Wall, Studying Popular Music Culture (London: Arnold, 2003), 61.

6. Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations (London: University College London Press, 1998), 123-159.

7. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London, New York: Routledge, 1991), 51.

8. Katherine Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin’: The Rise of Social Dance Formations in African-American Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), x.

9. Such as Atlantic, Chess, Duke/Peacock, Imperial, King, Savoy, Modern, and Speciality.

10. Louis Cantor, Wheelin’ on Beale: How WDIA Memphis Became the Nation’s First All-Black Radio Station and Created the Sound That Changed America (New York: Pharos Books, 1992).

11. See “Negotiating Compromise on a Burnished Wood Floor: Social Dancing at the Savoy,” by Karen Hubbard and Terry Monaghan for a full discussion of the derivation of the name Lindy and Lindy Hop.

12. Christian Batchelor, This Thing Called Swing: A Study of Swing Music and the Lindy Hop, the Original Swing Dance (London: Original Lindy Hop Collection, 1997), 86-87; 189-91.

13. These dances are widely referenced in books and web sites dedicated to 1960s dance and received coverage in contemporary national U.S. news magazines.

14. Charlie Gillett, The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll (London: Souvenir Press, 1988), 208.
Marshall Stearns and Jean Stearns, Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York: Schirmer Books, 1968), 5.

15. Ben Malbon, Clubbing: Dancing, Ecstasy and Vitality (London: Routledge, 1999), 86.

16. Robert Pruter, Chicago Soul (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991), 191.

17. Julie Malnig, “Let’s Go to the Hop: Community Values in Televised Teen Dance Programs of the 1950s and Early 1960s” (paper presented at the annual Conference on Research in Dance (CORD), Tallahassee, FL, November 2005), 6.

18. John W. Roberts, From Hucklebuck to Hip Hop: Social dance in the African American community in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Odunde, Inc., 1995), 35-7.

19. Pruter, Chicago Soul, 192.

20. Malnig, “Let’s Go to the Hop.”

21. Ibid., 2.

22. Steve Perry, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: The Politics of Crossover,” in Facing The Music: A Pantheon Guide to Popular Culture, ed. Simon Frith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), 51; 87.

23. Richard Cook, Blue Note Records: The Biography (London: Secker & Warburg, 2001), 194.
Jazz Discography Project, “Ray Bryant Discography,” http://www.jazzdisco.org/bryant/dis/c/ (accessed January 2006).

24. Cited in DCRTV Mailbag, January 11-20, 2001, http://dcrtv.org/mail/mb0101b.html (accessed January 2006).

25. Al Brown’s Tunetoppers’ “The Madison” (probably recorded in 1960).

26. Savoy Central, “Class Overview,” http://www.savoycentral.org/classoverview.html (accessed January 2006). Jitterbuzz.com: Lindy Week Review, “Group Dances of the 1950s,” http://www.jitterbuzz.com/dance50.html (accessed January 2006).

27. William Barlow, Voice Over: The Making of Black Radio (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 134-153.

28. Tony Cummings, The Sound of Philadelphia (London: Methuen, 1975), 55-60. John A. Jackson, American Bandstand: Dick Clark and the Making of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

29. The analysis is based on the Edward Love-choreographed version featured in John Waters’s film Hairspray (1988); on Bob Barrett’s analysis at Friday Folk, St. Albans, “Madison—The Figures,” http://www.fridayfolk.org.uk/madi40.htm (accessed January 2006); and on some personal experimentation.

30. Pruter, Chicago Soul, 191. He makes special note that, “of all the dance records of the 1960s the lyrics of the Madison records were the most specific as to how to do the dance.”

31. Theodor W. Adorno, “On Popular Music,” in On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (London: Routledge, 1990), 312.

32. The analysis is based on the Edward Love-choreographed version featured in John Waters’s film Hairspray (1988); contemporary footage compiled in Ron Mann’s 1992 documentary Twist (DVD, Home Vision Entertainment 2005); interviews with respondents who danced in the 1960s, and some personal experimentation.

33. Gerald Jonas, Dancing: The Pleasure, Power, and Art of Movement (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with Thirteen/WNET, 1998), 181-2. Cynthia Novack, Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 35-37.

34. Hebdige, Subculture, 52.

35. Tim Wall, “Out on the Floor: The Politics of Dancing on the Northern Soul Scene,” Popular Music 25, no. 3 (2007).

Dancing the Madison and Twist October 8, 2007

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


How the Madison and the Twist “Crossed Over” October 5, 2007

Posted by wallofsound in Popular Dance, Rock 'n' Roll.
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The concept of “crossover” describes the economic exploitation of a cultural phenomenon, and describes the sales success of a product aimed at one market being reproduced in another. The stories of the Madison and the Twist offer telling insights into the way that these cultural and economic processes relate. The records associated with both dances reveal the cultural crossover from black adult juke joint, via black teenage disc hops, to white high schools. Ray Bryant’s “Madison Time” was an unlikely teen dance record. Bryant led a jazz piano trio playing hard bop, a music with a strong blues and gospel styling that was then a staple of the black community bar jukeboxes and radio playlists. Checker’s “The Twist,” by contrast, is a sweetened cover of an earlier dance R&B record, recorded and promoted with white teenagers centrally in mind.

The origins of the Madison in black culture, though, go back well before the recording of Bryant’s record in March 1959 in New York. Dance historian Lance Benishek suggests that the Madison started in Chicago in the late 1950s; Pruter indicates the dance was associated in the midwest with a completely different recording. Benishek also claims that it was danced in Cleveland after the Baltimore Colts brought it to Baltimore in 1959. Bryant’s record was clearly adopted for a pre-existing dance within black youth culture, and then picked up within the black entertainment world. This also explains how a hard bop instrumental became a black teen dance record with a vocal, and the reasons it gained novelty status in white teenage culture. Sometime between Bryant’s recording and its play on The Buddy Deane Show, a spoken narration was over-dubbed. This narration was provided by radio DJ Eddie Morrison, whose early 1960s afternoon show on WEBB Baltimore mixed jazz and R&B records with slick raps.

Like most radio DJs of the time Morrison would have also hosted record hops where he would have picked up on the popularity of Bryant’s record and seen how young dancers developed dance moves to fit. He could have easily started calling some of the dance actions executed at these hops on his show. The pace and funk swing of “Madison Time” is certainly ideal for Morrison’s DJ style, which was characteristic of black radio talk of the 1960s. For black dancers it asserted a common culture; to white teenagers his adjectives “wild,” “crazy,” “looking good,” and the abstract verb “hit it” would be as exotic as the musical sounds. Morrison’s lyrics also reference the contemporary television westerns, variety shows, and spectator sports, which were common cultural reference for both black and white teenagers. These cultural resonances were clearly understood in the wider entertainment world because sometime in 1960 Bryant’s recording was licensed by Columbia and, with added talk over, was released as a single aimed at white teenagers. The novelty of the dance and the record, and its local popularity, brought it to the attention of the producers of The Buddy Deane Show and then to other such dance shows across the country. Thus, it reached a broader range of local white dancers.

The crossover of the Twist follows a similar path from black dance culture, but the details of its progress reveal other interesting aspects of the crossover. Most accounts emphasize the manipulations of American Bandstand host Dick Clark who supposedly picked up on the popularity of the dance and its associated record by Hank Ballard and the Moonlighters, among Philadelphia youth. He worked with the Cameo Parkway record label (responsible for helping promote some of the key teen idols of late 1950s) to create a watered down cover record by Chubby Checker, which Clark then hyped into national and international success. The Twist was certainly one of the few fad dances that was taken up beyond teen pop in the U.S. and Europe, and its presentation reflected the novelty status of the Mambo a decade before. However, the central historical implication is probably to be found in the difference between two independent record companies trying to exploit the new bi-racial pop.

The original version of “The Twist” was released by Federal Records using its well-tried strategy for success in the R&B market: combine a dance B-side with a ballad A-side. The record charted in the R&B listings in 1958, and the dance B-side was widely danced to at black record hops during the late 1950s. It did not come to the attention of Dick Clark until early 1960. Chubby Checker’s recording is plainly built on crude commercial opportunism to sell to white youngsters. The artist’s stage name was an adaptation of Fats Domino, and the cover smoothed the gospel vocal recasting the R&B track as a classic piece of bi-racial pop. The Cameo Parkway staff understood the importance of dance culture and television to the youth market in the way Federal, with its roots in an earlier generation of R&B, did not. Cameo, and its more black-orientated Parkway subsidiary, released a whole slew of dance records after 1960–including variations on “The Twist” by Checker and, more notably, Dee De Sharp’s “Mashed Potato” and The Orlons’s “Wah Watusi,” which were to become the staple of black dance in the early 1960s.

White youngsters were clearly attracted to the music and dance of African American culture, and black radio and record companies were clearly adapting to a new youth audience. Television, in its pursuit of a white middle class audience, continued the processes of cultural dissemination that radio had begun. But now white youngsters could both hear black music and see the associated dances. However important though, the meanings of these dances are not to be found primarily in this economic and cultural context but in the movements of the dances, in the new senses of dance competence they worked with, and in their status as fads.

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1960s Dance Fads: the Madison and the Twist October 1, 2007

Posted 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.

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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.
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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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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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