Rock & Roll Repast: Dance Crazes

Posted: December 7th, 2023 | Filed under: Music, Rock & Roll Rewind, Ruminations | No Comments »

I’m a rock & roll lifer. I got stories. Lots of stories. Here’s another.

When it comes to 50s and 60s dance crazes — a cultural phenomenon long ago far away — I have a singular personal if somewhat fuzzy memory.

At an Atherton High School sock hop — that’s what we used to call dance parties, kids — Jenni Lehman and I were doing the Twist.

Russell Garth, an old school principal if ever there was one, came up to us, wagging his finger, ordering us to cease and desist immediately. Actually, given my memory lapses, it might have been his right hand man, Mr. Tague, JMA’s Guidance Counselor, who neither guided nor counseled.

“We don’t dance like that at our school.”

So much for our act of “rebellion.”

The Twist was made famous by a guy born Ernest Evans, whom Dick Clark later dubbed Chubby Checker, an ersatz Fats Domino. The single charted twice to #1 — in ’60 again in ’61 — the only ever to do that other than Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

A personal pique, I never liked Chubby Checker. Stole his name. Stole the song. “The Twist” was written and originally recorded by Hank Ballard.

What got me thinking about those different dance trends in the formative years of rock & roll was hearing a couple of songs on the car radio the last week or so.

One, Major Lance’s “The Matador” which I hadn’t heard in many decades. The Dollyrots’ version of “Turkey Trot.” Mack Rice’s “The Whip,” of which I have no remembrance.

It was an era when we danced. We didn’t sit in our seats. Or move and groove alone or alongside while facing the band.

I do recall when the change came about. The onset of the counter culture.

There was a “hippie” club in Old Louisville. Changes Unlimited. No bar. Alcohol was not necessary for inebriation.

I forget the band. But remember there were people just sitting on the floor in front of the stage staring at the musicians. Maybe nodding their heads. A few were off to the side, moving a little in rhythm.

How odd, I thought. Nobody’s dancing.

Anyhow, before then, it seemed like there was a new “craze” every few days, fueled by the latest dance tune, and what the teens were doing on American Bandstand and later in the 70s, Soul Train.

The Frug. Which for some reason I’ve never known was called The Big B in Louisville. The Madison. Mashed Potato. The Pony. The Locomotion, recorded by Carol King’s and Jerry Goffin’s babysitter, Eva Boyd, Little Eva. The Watusi. The Swim. And oh so very many more.

One of the most memorable was the Alligator, or Gator. Because, well, because it was essentially going face down on the floor, writhing around and humping it. Suffice it to say, I never saw a girl do it. And, despite its notoriety, a guy only once at a dance at the Highland Post.

There was the Dog. Rufus Thomas milked the phenomena by following up the original tune with “Walking the Dog.” It too was a naughty dance. When I saw Thomas do it decades later at the King Biscuit Festival in Helena, Arkansas, it was X-rated. I’ll leave the description at that.

Then there was the tune about the crazes. Cannibal & The Headhunters “Land of a Thousand Dances.”

Oh what a simple fun time it was, he writes wistfully.

— c d kaplan

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