Dance Moves of the 1950s

From the Jitterbug to the Harlem Shuffle

Dancing feet

Andy Farnsworth/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

By the Fifties, many teens had actually learned "fast dancing" — an alternative to classic ballroom dancing that could incorporate all the styles of the music of the time and more — from none other than their parents! It was, however, ABC's nationally televised "American Bandstand" that brought American teens together into one main style of dance, sometimes mistakenly simplified as "rock and roll" dancing.

American Bandstand

"American Band" first aired locally on Philadelphia public television network WFIL-TV on Channel 6 in March of 1950 airing an early form of music video. It wasn't until 1957 that ABC acquired the rights to air the program — running it in the network's 3:30 p.m. time slot — which had evolved to include teens dancing to Top 40 hits.

The wild movements of the Jitterbug were toned down for broadcast, so as to not offend Middle America, and Fifties rock dancing was born. When new dances appeared, they became incorporated into the show, but most were either line dances (The Stroll), imported exotica (Calypso), remnants of earlier dances (The Bop), or dances created by the on-air kids themselves, the most famous of which is the Hand Jive. The Shake, The Walk, The Alligator, and The Dog were also becoming popular dances around this time.

A Resurgence of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Shuffle, Fly, Popeye, Swim, Boogaloo, Shingaling, Funky Broadway, Bristol Stomp, Hitch-hike, Jerk, Locomotion, Monkey, Horse, and even the Funky Chicken are all dances made famous in the late Fifties and Sixties, yet these moves can all be traced back to the Harlem ballrooms of the postwar period.

An extremely hip teenager might be expected to know some of these moves, but most dancers, imitating what they saw on television, stuck to the basic "fast dancing" rock and roll step.

A Step Away From Swing

Although many traditional dances like swing and ballroom persisted in mainstream culture through the 1950s, teenagers of the time wanted to separate themselves from their parent's styles. They updated swing dancing to accommodate for the backbeat of rock music and often times shied further away from "outdated" dances like the Waltz or the Charleston. The swing dance of the 1950s went on to become the Hustle of the 1970s.