Before I dive into the dance music that shaped my life, here’s a brief overview of the history of African American social dances, presented by Camille A. Brown for TED Ed in 2016.
My dancing days likely started in the womb. My mom and dad were born in 1918-19, and they grew up during a dance craze called the Lindy hop. While most people these days think of jazz as a cerebral, sit-down-and-listen sort of music, back in the day, jazz got you up and dancing.
Jumptown Swing has a brief introduction to the Lindy Hop.
The Lindy Hop is a partnered social dance that originated in the African-American communities of Harlem, New York City, in the 1920s and 1930s. It evolved with the swingin’ jazz music popular at the time.
Improvised sets of moves made their way into energetic social dancing and competitions in the Savoy Ballroom, a grand two-tiered ballroom in Harlem. It stood at 596 Lenox Avenue, spanning from 140th to 141st Streets and was a famed nightspot and hub for lindy hop. Unusually for ballrooms at the time, the Savoy was integrated.
Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers were a professional performance troupe of African-American dancers from the Savoy Ballroom. Founded in 1935 by Herbert ‘Whitey’ White, the group performed nationally and internationally, and appeared in Broadway productions and several feature films (for example, A Day At the Races in 1937 and Hellzapoppin’ in 1941). The group was ultimately disbanded around 1943 when most of its top male dancers were drafted to the US war effort.
Enjoy this short clip of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers in 1941’s “Hellzapoppin’.”
By the time I was a preteen, my older cousins were still doing versions of the Lindy. They lived in Philadelphia, home to top Black DJs like Georgie Woods, who I wrote about last summer. It seemed like every week in Philly there was a new dance, tied to a new record being played on the radio. When I sat down to start listing all the dance crazes and accompanying tunes for this piece, the list got longer, and longer, and longer, with my husband adding more. I soon realized that it would be impossible to include them all.
While making my list, a tune that described its length perfectly popped in my head: “Land of 1000 Dances.” Written and performed by New Orleans singer/songwriter Chris Kenner, it was released in 1962, followed by a cover version from Mexican American Los Angeles rock band Cannibal And The Headhunters. The song then became a huge hit for Wilson Pickett in 1966. According to Songfacts, dances mentioned in the lyrics include the “Pony, Mashed Potato, Alligator, Twist, Watusi, The Yo-Yo, Sweet Pea, Fly, Hand Jive, Slop, Chicken, Bop, Fish, Slow Twist, Tango, and the Popeye. Pickett’s version mentions The Pony, Mashed Potato, Alligator, Twist, Watusi, and Jerk.”
Here’s Pickett’s hit version.
Pickett didn’t just wow listeners in the United States. I can’t stop watching him perform “1000 Dances” live in Ghana in 1971.
My friends and I knew how to dance every single one of those dances listed, and more, thanks to television shows that spread each new dance across the nation. While we know Chubby Checker got the nation to do the Twist, he also popularized the Pony.
Watching the Larks perform “The Jerk” on American Bandstand in 1964, the cutaways to the audience, all jerking along, made me grin.
The Jerk, The Larks, and group founder and lead singer Don Julian are profiles on One Hit Wonders.
Don happened on to a new dance in his sister’s front room. “I went over to my sister’s; the kids were dancing to Martha & The Vandelas’ “Dancin’ In The Street,’” Julian recalled to Goldmine’s Steve Propes. “I said, ‘Hey, what’s that you’re doing?‘ One of the kids said, ‘The Jerk.’ I asked her what it was and she said, ‘If you don’t know how to do it, come on, I’ll teach you.’”
Don dashed home, wrote up some lyrics, and reassembled his Larks/Meadowlarks. (At this point, the “Meadowlarks” name was used to refer to the vocal group’s back-up musicians; “The Larks” referred to the singers themselves.) The Larks now consisted of Julian plus two L.A. lads, Charles Morrison and Ted Waters.
Once “The Jerk” appeared on the Money label and started climbing the charts, a mess of competition rushed in to stomp out their own Jerk tunes and hopefully grab a piece of the action. Before the dust had settled, Bob & Earl (“Everybody Jerk”), THE CAPITOLS (“Cool Jerk”), Clyde & The Blues Jays (“TheBig Jerk”), THE CONTOURS (“Can You Jerk Like Me?”), the Dukays (“The Jerk”), the Miracles (“Come On And Do The Jerk”), Jackie Ross (“Jerk And Twine”) and a mess of other acts had worn the craze out. There seemed no need for Don and his duo to keep jerking: it had all been said and done.
The Watusi, or “The Wah Watusi” by the Orlons, a group from Philly, sparked a dance craze in 1962.
A political side note, from pop culture writer Carl Anthony: The dance craze was the source of a nickname for a White House resident. “LBJ’s youngest, Luci Baines Johnson, inherited his love of shaking it up,” Anthony writes. “Entering the White House at 16 years old, the teenager of the Sixties became popular for demonstrating current fad dances and was nicknamed “Watusi Luci” for it.”
Another contribution to the dance list came from Philly’s Dee Dee Sharp; her “Mashed Potato Time” was food for the soul.
YouTuber John1948ThreeC, whose channel focuses on archiving music and culture from the 1950s and 1960s, offers this concise bio:
Dee Dee Sharp hit the biggest with her first record for the Cameo/Parkway label, a blessing that pigeonholed the Philly songstress as a teenybopper forever to be identified with her number one smash from 1962, “Mashed Potato Time.” Living in Philadelphia, the home of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand, helped her career; she appeared on the syndicated teen dance show many times from 1962 to 1981. The first black female teen idol, Sharp also became a fixture on Clark’s Caravan of Stars tours, and a familiar face in the popular 16 Magazine.
Born Dione LaRue on September 9, 1945, she played piano from an early age, and directed choirs at her grandfather’s and other churches in Philadelphia. After her mother suffered debilitating injuries from a car accident when LaRue was only 13, she gained a job as a background singer and developed the skills to work on sessions by Lloyd Price, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Jackie Wilson, and Chubby Checker. Lady luck helped when her vocals were added to Chubby Checker’s “Slow Twistin'” (1962), making it a duet. Her first solo session was scheduled the next day — the “Mashed Potato Time” session — and at 17, Dione LaRue was became an overnight sensation. Producers Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe didn’t like LaRue’s name so they created Dee Dee Sharp, since everyone called her D and she sang in D sharp.
I hope that everyone has gotten a chance to see the Questlove documentary Summer of Soul, as well as one of my all-time favorite Black music concert films—1972’s Wattstax. The event featured the sheer soul-filled enthusiasm of a stadium packed with Black folks, dancing in their seats, which you can feel and see when watching Rufus Thomas do the Breakdown and the Funky Chicken.
What does not get mentioned in “Land of 1000 Dances” is the intersection and influence of Afro-Latin dances and rhythms introduced into Black American social dance culture.
It was 1959 when Sam Cooke released what would become one of his biggest hits, “Everybody Likes (Loves) to Cha Cha Cha.”
Growing up in New York City, I hung out with and partied with Puerto Rican friends and family, so I loved not only the cha cha, but also the mambo, and the rumba. I spent a lot of time dancing with mixed crowds of Puerto Rican, Black, and white young folks who perfected what became known as salsa.
That New York blended culture is accurately and lovingly portrayed in the 1972 Fania Records documentary, Our Latin Thing.
And there was also Latin “boogaloo,” as documented in the film, We Like it Like That. Fania’s YouTube channel offers this context to viewers of the trailer:
Latin boogaloo is New York City. It is a product of the melting pot, a colorful expression of 1960s Latino soul, straight from the streets of El Barrio, the South Bronx and Brooklyn. Starring Latin boogaloo legends like Joe Bataan, Johnny Colon and Pete Rodriguez, We Like It Like That explores this lesser-known, but pivotal moment in Latin music history, through original interviews, music recordings, live performances, dancing and rare archival footage and images.From its origins to its recent resurgence in popularity, We Like It Like That tells the story of a sound that redefined a generation and was too funky to keep down.
“Too funky to keep down,” indeed.
In the 1970s, disco reigned supreme, and it led to what would become known as the Latin (or Spanish) Hustle, blending a Black social dance called “the Hustle”—which evolved out of the Lindy—with the partnered dance moves of what evolved out of “Palladium style” Latin dancing.
Though most non-New Yorkers think of John Travolta’s Latin Hustle in the 1977 disco movie Saturday Night Fever, he would have never won a dance contest in our crowd.
Check out the Fatback Band’s 1976 club hit “Spanish Hustle,” and then Van McCoy’s 1975 hit “The Hustle.”
Other dance forms required a little less footwork and artistry, making participation easier for young and old—making them favorites at weddings and other social events.
My earliest memories of line dancing were of doing the Madison, which Black culture writer and storyteller Azizi Powell documents. Powell presents several theories about just where the dance got started—most of them point to Ohio.
“Madison Time,” from the Ray Bryant Trio, brought the Philly jazz pianist and jazz riffs back into popular dance music. Ed Berger, writing for JazzTimes, tells the story of the song.
In 1959, Jo Jones approached Bryant and his brother, Tommy, about forming a trio. Bryant learned some valuable lessons from the venerable drummer: “He could sense when you weren’t relaxed and would say, ‘Take your time and breathe!’ He also taught me about pacing a set. I still use his format today.”
After leaving Jones, Bryant formed his own trio, and in 1960 John Hammond, the legendary talent scout and indefatigable jazz booster, signed him to Columbia. “We had more than just a producer-artist relationship,” says Bryant. “I felt like I was almost a member of his family.” Bryant’s first album for the label contained his huge hit “Little Susie.” “It was born during my days with Jo Jones,” he recalls. “We had no theme song, so he said, ‘Just play some blues,’ and I ended up with this little theme which evolved into ‘Little Susie.’”
Soon afterward, Hammond took Bryant to Baltimore, where a new dance, the Madison, was beginning to take off. The producer asked the pianist if he could come up with some appropriate music. “Years before in Philadelphia I’d written a little R&B thing which Percy Heath suggested I call ‘Shuckin’ and Jivin’.’ When I saw the dance I remembered it.” The piece was a perfect fit and, as “Madison Time,” became another hit for Bryant. (In 1988, it enjoyed a second life in the John Waters film Hairspray.)
It’s “Madison Time!”
Soul Train, of course, was famous for its Black dance lines.
I get a real kick out of The Washington Post‘s Jonathon Capehart on Twitter; there, he regularly posts Soul Train dance line clips.
While there is a long history of line dances, and nowadays, versions of the Electric Slide and the Bus Stop are ubiquitous at weddings, it was cool to see Black slides in combination with the cha cha, as brought to us in 2000 by Willie Perry Jr., better known as DJ Casper.
There are hundreds upon hundreds more tunes I’d love to talk about today, and dance to as well. Be sure to join me in the comments for even more great music.
But before I go, as promised, here’s our beloved John Lewis, getting down and beamingly happy.
Seriously: The congressman and civil rights hero could not resist dancing to this song.
We miss you, ancestor brother John!
I guess the only way to close things out is with the full Pharrell Williams hit.
Get down, get happy, and dance your way to the comments for even more fun on my birthday.