Social Dances and Styles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

by Morgan Matthews Pennington

Put your glad rags on and join me, hon! The rhythm dance theme for the 2024-25 season has been chosen and it’s one meant to get everyone up on their feet: Social Dances and Styles of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This includes dances such as Rock n’ Roll, Jitterbug, Twist, and Disco—dances that have long been seen at clubs, parties, weddings, and celebrations. By choosing this theme for the 2024-25 season, the ISU subtly nodded to the need to make ice dance more light hearted and approachable to audiences. And baby boomers, who represent one of the largest demographics of figure skating fans, will get to take a walk down memory lane with this rhythm dance theme. 

The history behind the social dances of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s predates social media and music streaming services. It goes back to a time when radio dictated which songs everyone listened to and American Bandstand showed viewers how to dance to those songs through their television screens. These dances were fun, approachable, and had a major influence on culture at the time. Below is a little walk through the history of these dances.

Lindy Hop
One would be remiss to discuss the social dances of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s without mentioning Lindy Hop. While Lindy Hop was popular prior to the 1950s, as early as the 1920s, many of the dances of the social dances of the 1950s-1970s were born out of the Lindy Hop. 

The Lindy Hop came to be in the African American Communities of Harlem, New York City and became very popular during the 1930s swing era. From there, variations developed as the Lindy Hop spread to different cities and other parts of the US. The Lindy Hop combined movements from improvisational African American dances with the more formal eight-count structure of European partner dances. In 1943, Lindy Hop was featured on the cover of Life magazine, supplanting it as America’s folk dance of the time and paving the way for the variations below that swept the country in the decades to follow. 

Gabrielle Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s 2017 Short Dance, which included both swing dance and Lindy Hop elements in the second half, provides a hint at how teams might incorporate moves from the social dances of the 1950s into their 2024-25 rhythm dance programs. Papadakis and Cizeron’s 2017 program even included a Lindy Hop move called the “Lindy Flip” towards the end that Lindy Hop fans applauded. 

Jitterbug is a type of social swing dance that looks similar to Lindy hop, but due to its social, improvisational nature can include elements of other swing dance styles such as jive. The term jitterbug was originally a slur by black patrons of multiracial dance clubs against white patrons who started to dance the Lindy Hop, but did so in a more quick and jittery nature than the Lindy Hop style called for. The term “Jitterbug” eventually lost its negative connotation when it was featured in films and on Broadway, starring the swing dance group “Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers.” 

Jitterbug developed at African American juke joints and dance halls, eventually making its way to the famous cross-cultural venue, the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. The Savoy Ballroom was immensely popular, with its double bandstand and block-wide dance floor, and attracted some of the best dancers in New York City as a result. The Jitterbug combined rapid footwork with bold, swinging upper body movements and dance holds. Cab Calloway’s 1935 hit, Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party brought the Jitterbug to audiences outside the black community and paved the way for the Jitterbug’s popularity in the US and eventually Europe in the late 1940s and beyond. 

Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto’s 2004 Original Dance included a genuine interpretation of the jitterbug in the first half. Belbin’s polka dot dress and Agosto’s zoot suit inspired costume played on a mix of 1940s and 1950s social dance culture. The team’s jumpy steps, rapid kicks, and bubbly energy in this program are a quintessential example of jitterbug in ice dance.

Rock n’ Roll
Rock n’ Roll originated from African American music such as jazz, blues, gospel, and country music in the 1920s under the “rhythm and blues” genre, which was aimed at black audiences. The equivalent early genre targeted at white audiences was called “country boogie.” Music released under the “rhythm and blues” and the “country boogie” genres built and refined the rock and roll sound but kept rock and roll audiences segregated until artists like Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard swept the nation and gained a multiracial following in the 1950s. 

In 1955, Elvis Presley released his single, Heartbreak Hotel, and it became a worldwide hit. In 1955 the record, Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and His Comets swept the nation. Millions of records were sold and, along with the subsequent 1956 movie by the same name starring the band, it inspired new dance moves that teens learned and began to perform at social dances. 

The dance moves combined Lindy Hop and Jitterbug steps with more acrobatic type lifts and swings. The rock and roll dance style gained further popularity when it was performed on the television program American Bandstand, which was a music performance and dance television program that aired regularly from 1952-1989. On the television program, teens danced in couples to rock and roll hits, among other dance genres, by Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and His Comets, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. 

While the rock and roll music genre has morphed significantly over time, the rock and roll dance maintains classic characteristics that pair with rock and roll music from the 1950s and early 1960s. Characteristics of the dance include kicks, acrobatic lifts and flips paired with Elvis-style deep, swaying knees along with a nine, six, or four step rhythm, depending on the variation. The rock and roll dance style is energetic and requires great stamina, so it was especially popular among youth crowds during its heyday. 

There have been a number of iconic rock and roll ice dance programs throughout the decades, including Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean’s 1983 OSP (Original Set Pattern Dance—a precursor to the current rhythm dance event), which included a wild mix of kicks, swings, pull throughs, twisting moves, and around the back dance holds. In 2003, Belbin and Agosto charmed fans with their Elvis Medley FD. In 2015, Sinead Kerr and John Kerr performed a theatrical rendition of Little Richard’s, Good Golly, Miss Molly, complete with blue jeans and a letterman jacket for John, a poodle skirt for Sinead, and a rock and roll bar set for the television program, Shall We Dance On Ice. And of course, there was also my 2004 rendition of the dance style. Ice dance is no stranger to rock and roll, so it will be fun to see how ice dancers in 2024-25 build on these past examples. 

Taking inspiration from rock and roll music, the Twist gained popularity as a social dance in the late 1950s through the 1960s. Meanwhile, as was the case with many dances in the era, the dance drew critics who expressed concern that the dance was too provocative. Hank Ballard and The Midnighters included The Twist on the b-side of their 1959 single, Teardrops On Your Letter. Chubby Checker re-recorded the song in 1959 and it became a chart topping hit in 1960. The dance is performed as it sounds, by twisting one’s hips back and forth while facing one’s partner. The lower body movements are often paired by light hearted arm gestures such as swimming, drowning, and arm swings. Unlike other popular dance moves of the era, in the twist partners barely ever touch each other despite performing insinuating hip and shoulder gyrations. The dance was simple and could be performed by any caliber of dancer, which made it especially popular among the masses at parties, celebrations, and other social gatherings. 

The Boogaloo
Also known as Funk Dance, the Boogaloo started as an improvisational street dance practiced by African American teenagers in Chicago. The Boogaloo gathered popularity among social dancers in the late 1960s, adding a totally new flavor to the social dance scene. The robot-like movements and popping in The Boogaloo contrasted with the looseness of earlier swing-type social dances. A number of soul dance records were inspired by The Boogaloo, including Robert Tharpe and Jerry Murray’s Boo-Ga-Loo and James Brown’s 1966 single, James Brown’s Boogaloo. 

Oakland, California became the center of several variations of The Boogaloo including The Italian, Animation, and The Robot. The Robot, created by Boogaloo dancer John Murphy and influenced by the robot in the 1954 movie, Tabor The Great, spread organically as Murphy performed The Robot at talent shows in Oakland, California and taught his moves to famous dancers within the Boogaloo community. Before TikTok, this is the way dance crazes spread—through live performances and word of mouth. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Oakland, California received U.S. federal funding for community development, which the town partially used to hold talent shows across the city where Boogaloo dancers would perform to live music. 

Rock music and the rise of cross-cultural social dancing in night clubs in the 1960s gave rise to a new dance style, called Disco, that was steeped in even greater countercultural energy than 1960s rock and roll. Disco brought together African Americans, Latino Americans, gay Americans, and Italian Americans in the dance clubs of New York City and Philadelphia starting in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Musical artists such as ABBA, Donna Summer, The Jacksons, Earth Wind and Fire, and The Bee Gees pumped out disco hits throughout the 1970s that pulsed with four-on-the-flour beets, syncopated baselines, synthesizers, and electric piano. The dance style that club goers created to match with this new musical style included mostly freestyle moves punctuated by hip pops and a lot of finger pointing. Disco could be performed solo, in pairs, or in large groups making it an especially welcoming dance style for people of all kinds. Several popular dance moves and styles sprang from disco, including The Hustle, The Get Down, The Bump, The Snap, and The Bus Stop. 

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker’s iconic disco rhythm dance to the Bee Gee’s, Stayin Alive, is a prime example of how disco translates well to ice dance. Throughout the program, Hawayek and Baker exude crepuscular flare while performing classic ice dance steps with a strutting quality that just screams disco from start to finish. Hawayek and Baker’s disco rhythm dance provides an excellent starting example for ice dancer’s who choose disco music for their 2024-25 rhythm dance.

The Hustle 
Among the dance moves and styles that were created out of the disco movement, The Hustle was perhaps the most popular. The Hustle is a partnered disco dance with steps in common with mambo and salsa. The Hustle was originally a 5-step-count dance created by Puerto Rican teenagers in the early 1970s. The dance evolved and gained a broader following as several musical acts picked up on the trend, including James Brown with his 1975 album, Everybody’s Doin’ The Hustle & Dead On The Double Bump, and Van McCoy and The Soul City Symphony who recorded the dances namesake song, The Hustle, in the same year. The hustle made its place in cultural history when it was featured in the 1977 disco film Saturday Night Fever, which starred John Travolta. 

One cannot discuss the music and social dance styles of the 1950s, 1960, and 1970s without mentioning the fashion trends that sprang from them. From polka dots to miniskirts to bell bottoms, many fashions of the 1950s-1970s were built for the dance floor. In the 1950s, girls wore bobby socks and poodle skirts to social dance gatherings. The skirts flared out to show a peek of leg when girls performed twists and kicks synonymous with the swing dance styles of the 1950s. During the 1960s, mini skirts and flare jeans embodied the rebellious nature of rock and roll music and dance. And the bold disco fashion of the 1970s brought together far flung styles like jumpsuits, silk, sequins, and most notably, a blending of men’s and women’s fashion that mirrored the unifying nature of disco both as a dance style and cultural movement. One can be certain that these fashions will be on bold display during the rhythm dance events this upcoming 2024-25 season. 

From the Lindy Hop to The Bump, social dance styles of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s marked a cultural revolution that brought people of all different ethnicities and backgrounds together for the love of dance. One can only hope that next season’s rhythm dance theme has a similar impact on the ice dance community. Surely it will be a joy to see how ice dance teams and solo ice dancers choose to interpret these dance styles which we here at IDC eagerly anticipate.