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Dancing—rhythmically moving the body, especially the feet, to the sound of music—is a long-treasured social activity and a significant aspect of cultures around the world. People of all ages dance for many reasons: as an act of celebration, at weddings and proms; as an act of recreation or as socialization linked to courtship, in dance halls, nightclubs, discos, and high school gyms; and as a religious or tribal rite, with participants occasionally garbed in elaborate costumes. In the United States, dancing primarily is a social activity. As popular music—and popular culture—evolved through the decades, a range of dance styles and crazes also have emerged.

Immigrants who came to the United States, from the nation's beginnings to the present day, brought with them native dances that remained a rich part of their cultures. Early popular dances included folk dances, most often done in groups, and ballroom dances such as the waltz, which was imported from Europe. All these folk dances and ballroom dances were formal dances, which depended upon learning a pattern of movements or steps. Some dances remain linked to their ethnic origins. For example, Polish Americans perform versions of the polka, a fast-paced dance developed in Bohemia during the early nineteenth century. Polka parties and competitions continue to flourish in Polish American communities to this very day. At the same time, as many early immigrant groups began to meet at social events, their dances became intermingled, leading to the creation of the American square dance. The square dance was a folk dance hybrid that became a primary recreational activity for settlers as they headed west during the nineteenth century. Still other dances originated in North America. One was the cakewalk, created in the nineteenth century by plantation slaves. The cakewalk combined a straight, firm body and a quasi-shuffling movement.

Through the end of the nineteenth century, ballroom and square dances were the most popular American dances. However, with the emergence of ragtime music in the 1890s came a new, less-formal style of dance, based more on freely moving one's body to the sound of the music. One dance employing this style was the one-step, so named because one quick walking step accompanied each beat of the music. The one-step generated other dance variations, including the turkey-trot, the grizzly bear, the bunny hug, and the Boston dip. The celebrated husband-and-wife dance team of Vernon (1887–1918) and Irene (1893–1969) Castle fashioned the one-step into the castle walk, which became popular across America. Another one-step offshoot was the two-step, which was danced to ragtime and, eventually, to swing music.

The most popular early twentieth-century dance, however, was the fox-trot, a one-step variation. The fox-trot became fashionable because it combined slow and quick steps, allowing for an increased diversity of dance-floor movement. With the Roaring Twenties, and America's distancing itself from the prudery (excessive attention to modesty or what is considered proper behavior) of the Victorian Era, came the popularity of the Charleston (see entry under 1920s—The Way We Lived in volume 2), an energetic dance distinguished by a twisting step. The Charleston is as much an artifact of 1920s American culture as Prohibition (the banning of alcohol; see entry under 1920s—The Way We Lived in volume 2) and speakeasies (places where alcohol was illegally sold). The Charleston, along with other dances of the period, including the shimmy and the black bottom, were variations of the fox-trot.

Then in the 1930s, swing music, which evolved from jazz (see entry under 1900s—Music in volume 1), came to the forefront of popular culture. At the time, America was a segregated society (one divided socially by race). Swing music was performed by dance-band orchestras (known as big bands) that were groundbreaking in that they occasionally brought together white and black musicians. Swing music is lively and danceable and, consequently, various dance crazes evolved during its popularity. The first was the lindy hop, an acrobatic dance that originated in Harlem during the late 1920s and was refined by dancers at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. The jitterbug, an even more physically animated dance, grew out of the lindy hop, and was a favorite between the late 1930s and the end of World War II (1939–45). By the 1950s, the popularity of swing music had subsided, yet the jitterbug and its various offshoots still were embraced by teenagers, who danced them to the sounds of early rock and roll (see entry under 1950s—Music in volume 3), music that combined elements of country music and of rhythm and blues (see these entries under 1940s—Music in volume 3)

In the early 1960s, dancing in America was revolutionized by the twist. In 1960, singer Chubby Checker (1941–) recorded a song titled "The Twist," and a dance craze was born. In order to "do the twist," dancers stood in place and rotated shoulders and hips in opposite directions, often switching their weight from one foot to another. However, they did not touch. Before the twist, the act of dancing required a partner, whom you held in your arms while swaying across the dance floor or at least touched while twirling to the beat of the music. Such dancing was the basis for the expression, "It takes two to tango." However, the appeal of the twist signaled a major evolution in dancing. Because of the lack of physical contact, dancing became more of an individual pursuit. Countless 1960s and post-'60s dances were performed by standing in place and moving one's upper body and arms, but not necessarily the feet. Although dance partners maintained eye contact, they hardly touched. The limbo rock, the mashed potato, the watusi, the pony, and the Bristol stomp were a few post-twist dances that, like the twist, won popularity with the emergence of a hit record.

Other favored twentieth-century dances have been Afro-Latin-based. The first was the tango, which created a sensation in 1913 and remained popular off and on through the century. Other Afro-Latin dances include the rumba, the samba, the mambo, the cha-cha, and salsa. In the 1970s, the hustle and disco (the latter not only a dance but an attitude, as well as a style of music and dress) emerged from New York City dance clubs and won widespread popularity. Saturday Night Fever (1977; see entry under 1970s—Film and Theater in volume 4), a smash-hit movie starring John Travolta (1954–), helped to popularizedisco (see entry under 1970s—Music in volume 4). The film and disco itself are as closely linked to late-1970s American culture as the Charleston is to the 1920s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the fashionableness of rap and hip hop (see entry under 1980s—Music in volume 5) music, which originally came forth in opposition to the increasing commercialization of rock music, resulted in the creation of a new dance style, break dancing. In break dancing, solo dancers performed dazzling gymnastic routines that derived from a combination of martial arts and the character of Robot on Soul Train (1971–), an African American music-and-dance-oriented television show. Break dancing quickly became mainstream, however, and was spotlighted in another hit movie, Flashdance (1983).

As the twentieth century came to a close, hip-hop culture continued to generate break dancing variations. Then in the late 1990s, partner dancing and step-dancing enjoyed a revival with a renewed interest in big band (see entry under 1930s—Music in volume 2) music and swing dancing as well as in square dancing and line dancing.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed. International Encyclopedia of Dance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Erenberg, Lewis A. Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Hager, Steven. Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music, and Graffiti. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984.

Stearns, Marshall, and Jean Stearns. Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Stowe, David. Swing Changes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.