What is Dance Craze Music?

The songs that sparked a national dance craze trend

A typical Chubby Checker album
A typical Chubby Checker album.

Although dances popular enough to have songs named after them are older than recorded music, the term "dance craze" usually refers to the first and biggest rock and roll version of the phenomenon, the one touched off by Chubby Checker's 1960 smash "The Twist" and which more or less ended with the British Invasion. As such, a "dance craze" song can be any song built around a popular dance (or looking to start such a dance), but hit dance songs from this particular era usually take one of three forms:

  1. A "girl-group" song, a sort of early pop-soul featuring one or more female singers, usually written by one of the famed Brill Building songwriting teams and produced in New York;
  2. A Philadelphia act, either a novelty artist or teen idol, who was in some way under Dick Clark's control and recording a poppier version of R&B; or
  3. Actual gritty R&B with a heavy backbeat, recorded in one of America's major urban centers (New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago) and usually not making many inroads outside its regional market.

Chubby Checker, having kicked off the craze craze with his crossover reworking of a Hank Ballard and the Midnighters song, is often thought of as the king of this scene, with Gary "U.S." Bonds his main rival and Dee Dee Sharp his female counterpart. However, many major artists jumped on the bandwagon for at least one hit during that time, and the seemingly short-lived fad has been outlasted by the songs themselves. "The Twist" remains the one and only hit to make it back to Number One in its original version (two years later, at that), while "The Loco-Motion" was an inexplicable US Top Five hit in three different versions over the course of three different decades: Little Eva (1962), Grand Funk Railroad (1974), and Kylie Minogue (1988). This, even though the dance itself never made it past the mid-Sixties!

Also Known As: Girl Group, Novelty

Examples of dance craze songs:

"The Twist," Chubby Checker

The classic that started it all, a virtual carbon-copy of a Hank Ballard and the Midnighters hit but with those rough R&B 7th chords sanded down to regular major chords and more generic backing vocals.

"Mashed Potato Time," Dee Dee Sharp

In its day, the mashed potato was arguably the second-biggest dance behind the Twist, at least if judged by the dozens of songs devoted to it (including "Monster Mash")!

"The Loco-Motion," Little Eva

Songwriters Gerry Goffin and Carole King were just another couple talking to their babysitter when she reported on a new dance all the kids were doing... the rest is history, for the dance, the songwriters, and Eva the babysitter herself.

"Wah-Watusi," The Orlons

The Watusi, while not the most politically correct or culturally sensitive concept, was also very popular with teens, and the full-body "tribal" aspect of it helped keep this song and its many covers alive for much of the decade.

"Peppermint Twist," Joey Dee and the Starliters

A novel way to promote your nightclub -- in this case New York's Peppermint Lounge, where the Starliters were the house band. You would come to know them better as the Young Rascals.

"Harlem Shuffle," Bob and Earl

Featuring an intro so dramatic it was later copped by House of Pain for their massive hit "Jump Around," this was a rare minor-key dance promotion later covered by the Rolling Stones.

"Hitch Hike," Marvin Gaye

A real dance, although Gaye's Motown song was typically more about a lost lover and a sexy guy determined to get her back.

Bonds and Checker covered each other's songs, and several other dance hits, in a genial rivalry, but Bonds also applied the chaotic "Norfolk Sound" to his dance craze wax.

"Twistin' The Night Away," Sam Cooke

A song so classically appealing it doesn't even seem to be about a dance at all, or even a certain place in time, Cooke's hit is more about the beatific joy of a truly great party.

"Land Of 1000 Dances," Cannibal and the Headhunters

Endlessly covered itself, it was one of the first songs to mention several different steps (though not, of course, 1000), earning these Chicano pioneers a very special place in pop history.