The world of dance–like the world of music–is constantly changing, undergoing new revolutions, fads, and revivals as every new generation of people learn to move their bodies. However, there is a beautiful and deep lineage that those new movements draw from, and what might seem like a quaint craze from the distant past is nearer to our modern era than we might realize. Dance styles are often a physical embodiment of history and develop out of out of social and historical events. Look around at popular dance styles today and you’re likely to see classic steps in hiphop that were derived out of The Charleston which was a social dance popularized in African American communities in the 1920s. Dance has always told a story about the world around us and it continues today!
Here’s a look back at some of the many popular dances that have captivated rhythm lovers throughout the ages.
1920s: The Charleston
The roaring 20’s weren’t called that because people lived meekly in that era. In a decade defined by the underground excesses brought on by prohibition, new and exciting forms of music were taking hold in the cultural ferment. African American musicians were gaining popularity with exciting, synchopated beats and rolicking ragtime pianos. One such composer was James P. Johnson, whose 1923 musical Runnin’ Wild contained a hot little tune called The Charleston. The song soon spawned a dance–based on a move first seen in Irving C. Miller’s production of Liza from the previous year–where the heels and toes of the dancers alternate their positions in an exciting tap and swivel motion that practically begged the arms to join in. The dance hit its peak of popularity in the later half of the decade, where thanks to the efforts of masters of the form like Josephine Baker, dance halls and ballrooms from South Carolina to Paris were full of lively crowds dancing The Charleston!
1930s and 1940s: The Age of Swing
Building on the immense popularity of jazz dance music in the 1920s, various new dances started cropping up under what came to be known as the umbrella term “Swing Dancing.” One such dance that has its origins under prohibition is The Lindy Hop, whose name originates with Charles Lindburgh’s famous transatlantic flight in May of 1927. This hop, a couples dance that builds on the twists of the Charleston into a full-on partnered dance with spins, started out in Harlem in the late 1920s but by the 1940s had bloomed into a worldwide sensation. Other popular dances from this era include the uptempo Collegiate Shag and the more conservative, closed position ballroom style known as the Balboa.
1950s: Rockin’ and Boppin’
As the Jazz Age continued the music got faster–bebop was introduced to the world and with it a faster style of dance called Bop. At the same time, an entirely new genre of music started to show up in juke joints and gymnasiums across America; something that drew on the simplicity of blues music and the energy of the newly popular electric guitar. Horn lines started becoming more bombastic and less complex and rhythms changed in a similar fashion. Something called rock n’ roll was being born, and with it a variety of new dances for younger audiences. Dance crazes like The Sock Hop and Boogie Woogie reflected a simpler and more exciting style of music that any kid, anywhere, could dance to!
1960s: Twist and Shout
With the explosion of rock ‘n roll in the late 1950s came a whole new youth culture. Gone were the underground ballrooms and smokey jazz joints from the prohibition and swing era. Kids were dancing in school auditoriums and municipal theaters. Although many new styles of dance came out of this era, from The Mashed Potato to The Watusi both mentioned in Wilson Pickett’s hit song Land of 1000 Dances, nothing quite made the same splash as The Twist. Made famous by Chubby Checker in his explosive performance on Dick Clark’s ‘American Bandstand,’ The Twist is a deceptively simple, hip-based number with just enough gyration to shock the parents of that era. And it’s still a hit with people of all ages today!
1970s: Disco Inferno!
The decade of polyester, bell bottoms, and fat collars was also the time of an exciting new club phenomenon: disco dancing! Propelled by an RnB and funk derivative sound with an undeniable hi-hat-assisted beat, disco dancing stormed the nation, from exclusive New York clubs like Studio 54 to TV shows and even weddings. Some of the popular styles were based on novelty songs like The Hustle and the monumental Y.M.C.A., and some came from moves showcased in movies like the smash hit Saturday Night Fever.
Probably the most enduring dance from that era is the large line-style Electric Slide, although look out: The original 22 step has been challenged by some new contenders, so make sure that everybody’s on the same page!
1980s: Walking on the Moon
Dance music became more synthesized as album productions became blockbusters and a decade of hits and crossovers filled the airwaves. Rap started its climb to the top of the charts, and with it an exciting new style called breakdancing. However, from voguing to walking like an Egyptian, nothing captured the imagination of the nation like The Moonwalk. Michael Jackson took this sweet illusion from the age of Cab Calloway and blew it up to galactic proportions. The appearance of effortlessly gliding backwards across the floor still excites people around the world today!
From new country line dancing sensations like Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart to fresh and funky romps like The Cabbage Patch and the Running Man, 90s kids had their pick of fun novelties and celebratory moves. But nothing quite caught fire like The Macarena, the latin clave beat powered one hit wonder remix by The Bayside Boys of the Los Del Rio hit started a spinning, stepping, hip swinging dance craze that still rumbles through weddings and clubs today.
2000s: Hip Hop Don’t Stop
The 2000s will be remembered as the decade that hip hop, rap, and RnB absolutely dominated popular culture, and with it came a torrent of new dances and club moves. Some of the most popular crazes were built around simple moves performed with the right amount of attitude. Check out the Nae Nae and the Dougie to see what we’re talking about. In the midst of it all a new style emerged from South Central Los Angeles called Krumping. With its freestyle movements and less restricted and more upright moves than breakdancing, Krumping became the style for getting loose to the music.
2010s: The Age of Online
With the rise of social media came new platforms for new artists to get massive exposure and for people around the world to share their moves. And while it’s impossible to give equal airtime to the many dances which emerged on internet sites like YouTube and Facebook, there are a couple which need mentioning for the sheer size of their audience. South Korean producer PSY broke over a billion views in 2012 with his hit song Gangnam Style, which features a goofy and fun hopping dance that seems to embody both a horse and rider at once. Another internet smash from the same era was the Harlem Shake, a revitalized version of an early 1980s NYC club dance that saw itself performed by countless celebrities and athletes and turned into wildly popular memes.
Into the Future: TikTok and Beyond
So far social media trends are showing no sign of slowing down, and arguably the most popular platform for new dances is the video sharing site TikTok. Dance challenges set to songs by contemporary musicians like Megan Thee Stallion and blasts from the past like MC Hammer dominate the discourse, with millions of followers around the world vying to go viral with the next hot move. What will it be? Only one way to find out!
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