The Tangled Roots of American Dance Crazes

Some dances that we learned as kids were not at all new, or not nearly as new as we thought they were! Here are the origins of five dances you might have tried at one time or another.

Fight for Your Right to Electric Slide


(image credit: Improv Everywhere)

Many people are too embarrassed to admit they know how to do the electric slide, but Richard Silver isn't one of them. Silver was a fixture of the New York disco scene, and he choreographed the electric slide in 1976. As the dance craze caught on, he was horrified to discover people doing just 18 of his 22-step routine. So he did what any self-righteous dance creator would do ad spent years threatening to sue anyone who bungled his moves. He even made YouTube take down videos of people dancing the slide at their weddings and bar mitzvahs. But Silver never actually sued anyone; he just made threats. In 2007, a civil rights organization called his bluff and sued him on behalf of a man whose dance party clips had been removed from the internet. The incident convinced Silver to stop hounding amateur dancers.

How Low Can You Go? The Soul-Crushing Origins of the Limbo

If you think the limbo was created for middle-aged couples in Hawaiian shirts, you couldn't be more wrong. According to most sources, the dance came to America by way of Trinidad, where West Indian slaves invented it to simulate the descent into a slave ship. The lower a slave went into the ship's hull, the harder it became to break free. Now try enjoying the dance on your next trip to Club Med. (image credit: Flickr user Endlisnis

Striking a Pose, When It Counts

Like breakdancing, voguing began as a competition between African Americans in New York. But in this case, rivals were underground fraternities of gay men in Harlem during the 1930s. Back then, voguing (which involves posing like a model) was simply called "performance" because of the judging it inspired. The dance was renamed "vogue" in the 1970s, after performers began striking poses found in glossy fashion magazines-namely Vogue. (image credit: Flickr user nayrb7)

Breakdancing: Settling it Old School

As innocent as it seems today, breakdancing emerged in the 1970s as a new way for gangs to fight each other. In black neighborhoods in the South Bronx, for instance, gang leaders would dance-off to songs like James Brown's funky "Get on the Good Foot." They'd even settles disputes through these proxy battles. The judging procedure was simple: whoever had the illest moves won.

The Courage to Trot Like a Turkey

In the early 1900s, men and women danced side by side, polka-style. So when kids started doing the Turkey Trot-a dance in which partners face each other-parent just didn't understand. The Trot quickly became the forbidden dance of the ragtime era, and it was outlawed in some states. One unfortunate young lady in New Jersey actually served 50 days in jail just for dancing like a turkey. It should also be noted that the Turkey Trot is only one of many food- or animal-inspired dances that have been accused of corrupting America's youth. There's also the Bunny Hug, the Cakewalk, the Mashed Potato, the Duck Dance, and the Chickle Noodle Soup, just to name a few.

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The article above, written by Adam Rosen, appeared in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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Well, technically, they weren't really face-to-face - but more offset. Each partner would be looking over the other's right shoulder. That way, the legs were not aligned. The difference with the dances in the early 20th century is that the partners were in line with one another - toe-to-toe. (Which, of course, meant that *other* body parts were now in alignment - thus the scandal.)
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Only BLACK gay men ''vogued''? Why only BLACK ones? And you mean to tell me that BLACK homosexuals had a culture of their own and despite all the secrecy, someone actually KNOWS that they ''performed'' and that it looked like ''voguing''?

Wow. That's a lot to take in.

Man, I'm feeling slightly skeptical tonite...
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Ragtimegal, interesting. :) But still, backwards or not, the waltz would still be face-to-face(or, er, -back, not side-to-side. The way the article is phrased makes it sound as if that just was not done.
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@ Tempscire - By the time the animal dances became popular, the waltz had become the "nostalgic" dance of the era. Although, the new way to do it was to guide the lady *gasp!* backwards, thanks to the upwardly-creeping hemlines of the early 20th century. (This could not be done, previously, as the ladies' skirts were too long and volumnous - and they would have been stepping all over hems and falling over in giant pouffs of petticoats and crinolines.)
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