One of the first things that would strike anyone happening on the British rockabilly scene for the first time is the major part that dancing plays in our enjoyment of the music. Most of us who spent our early youth feeling out of touch with the contemporary culture around us will remember the moment we first walked into a decent-sized club and saw a dance floor filled with people who seemed to know exactly what they were doing. The British scene – or at least the London element that I know best – has its own quirks, too. In most venues, even those with a big dance floor, dancing to bands is looked on as a bit square, and we’ve neatly categorised most of the records played into jivers, boppers or strollers. It’s one of the things that regularly catches out newcomers, especially those who’ve come to the scene from dance classes where, if the tempo of a record fits the dance you’ve learned, that’s all that matters. You can only feel sorry for them and their looks of bewilderment as they find themselves jiving merrily away, surrounded by the Paddington Bear stares of angry boppers, furious at the misappropriation of the dance floor. Even amongst the regulars, I’ve seen a degree of friction where a particular record neatly spans the divide between dance styles. However, this isn’t intended as some kind of ‘stop jiving to boppers’ demarcation dispute. In 30-odd years of throwing myself around a dance floor, I’ve often stopped to wonder where ‘our’ dances come from. Having pored over endless You Tube film and social history clips to add to what I’ve read and gathered from friends, I’ve pulled together some thoughts. I don’t for a minute pretend that these will be authoritative, but they might at least give food for thought. It’s incredibly hard to capture dancing in still photography and, having taken out all those better described as ‘Lindy Hop’ or obviously posed, there’s not that much on line, so I’ve illustrated most of this article with links to bits of film that best demonstrate what I’m on about.
On the basis that it’s probably the most UK-specific, ‘made up’ dance and so the easiest to deal with, let’s start with strolling. There’s a long tradition of group dancing, stretching from the Gay Gordons, through the endless 60s dance crazes such as the Madison, Locomotion, March of the Mods (shades of holiday camps of the 60s) and onwards to line dancing and the brief fads that creep back like straw donkeys and rope sandals from overseas holidays to bloom briefly on British dance floors before dying mercifully away (Macarena, anyone?). There was, of course, a dance dubbed ‘The Stroll’ in the 1950s, though its roots seemed closer to square dancing with its steady progression of partners between lines of fellow couples. I can’t find any evidence of our apparently uniquely British version of the Stroll, and am pretty sure that it isn’t the only type to have flourished in rocking clubs; in the late 70s, particularly in more traditional rock’n’roll venues, the standard Stroll was a much simpler affair and I distinctly recall the import of the more complicated dance ‘from London’, even where the distance was only half an hour’s train journey away. For now, one version holds sway and I can’t put a finger on where it originates from; however, having watched the steady popularisation of the so-called ‘Charleston Stroll’ (surely an unnatural mating if ever there was one) over just a few years, it’s easy to see how one day’s made-up group dance is tomorrow’s standard.
Fortunately, the parentage of jiving is a lot more certain, with a distinct descent from 1930s Lindy Hop. My presumption is that it arrived in the UK with wartime GIs, and evolved separately after the war, helped not least by the determination of the many dance schools to tame it into what was dubbed ‘Ballroom Jive’ and taught as part of the Latin syllabus (to differentiate it from ‘proper’ ballroom dancing). It’s interesting to compare films of the 1950s from the UK and US, especially when you can be fairly sure that the dancers in them are real youngsters and not choreographed professionals like the couple in the Bill Haley movies. I think the Hollywood Rock’n’Rollers who appeared in several classic moves – although clearly very good – are nearer the mark of what good 50s jivers would have aspired to (check out the linked clip from Carnival Rock). The US style seems to have seemed more deeply rooted in Lindy, while the British style, particularly amongst ordinary youngsters, evolved into exactly the style we practise in the rocking clubs today. You can see great examples amongst the kids in the film version of 6-5 Special, and amongst the dance hall crowd in ‘We Are the Lambeth Boys’, both from 1958. It also turns up in the Pathe newsreels taken at places like Butlins. Again, my assumption is that the need for a dance that didn’t need a couple to have danced together frequently, let alone have been to classes together, brought about the simple hand signals and patterns that are the staple of the jiving we know. Here’s a few poor screengrabs from some of those movies, but the original clips are better.
And so to what seems to me to be the child of many fathers, bopping. At its most basic, it reflects an age-old tradition of solo dancing, a mixture of the need for individual self expression and the simple fact that not everyone would have someone else to dance with. I think I’ve spotted three main sources for the bopping we’d recognise, with a bunch of other influences thrown in on top to make up what I’d consider a great bopper. Firstly, there’s the kind of clog dancing practised in folk dancing. In the UK, we’d immediately think of Irish or northern dance, but I’ve spotted some fantastic footage on You Tube of bluegrass bopping shot by David Hoffman in the late 50s (it starts 4 mins into the clip); when individual guys take to the floor, you could easily translate that into a club and it wouldn’t look out of place. The other, very similar, source is in the black equivalent, the shuffling jazz dance. At its most refined, that stretches into full-blown tap, and the kind of gymnastics demonstrated by the Nicholas Brothers but, again, film of everyday folk dancing on the porches of southern shacks is very redolent of dance-floor bopping. The third source, though, came as a surprise to me, though it shouldn’t have. BBC4’s recent Arena series, American Epic, contained some wonderful film of black churchgoers dancing in the aisles of their chapel to upbeat sanctified music, and it was pure bopping. That really struck home, as at its very best, dancing to rock’n’roll is about losing yourself in the music and there are some records where the crescendo inspires what can only be described as a ‘Hail Jesus’ moment on the floor. That kind of Shamanic trance-like state is something only the most dedicated boppers would recognise, but it’s a quasi-religious form of physical expression that pops up in cultures all over the world, including – closer to rock’n’roll’s American roots – amongs
t the American Native Indians who, I’m reliably informed, recognise our style of bopping instantly as a variant on their ‘jig’. On top of those basic ingredients, I think we’ve added a bit of icing – some drawn from the masculine hoofing of the likes of Gene Kelly, a dash of air (or, as I’ve more often seen it, leg) guitar, and a hefty dose of 1956 Elvis performing live as he thrashes across the stage.
I wondered for a while whether all this actually meant that 50s teenagers wouldn’t have put these things together into something we’d recognise as rock’n’roll bopping until my You Tube trawling turned up some marvellous home movie footage taken by the Busboom family in 1950s Iowa. In one extended seven-minute film of a family party, you get the lot – couples jiving, young guys and girls bopping and, at about four minutes in two lads in superb shirts hitting the dance floor and jumping around. If only 8mm film came with sound so we could be certain what was on the record player! They’re obviously combining their bopping with acting out some wild scratching; thanks to Big Sandy you can find a looped edit of their dancing , backed by Curley Jim’s ‘Rock’n’Roll Itch’, but our guess is that the tune is Carl Cherry’s ‘The Itch’, recorded just across the border in Omaha. Incidentally, you can also find an edit of more bopping scenes from the party, again courtesy of Big Sandy, with Lightning Hopkins ‘Had a Gal Called Sal’ dubbed over it. Great track, but I’ve got a feeling that’s not a record that would have found its way into the collection of many Mid West teens. As a solo art form, the standards are that much more variable, and I’ve not seen that many enthusiastic young boppers in recent club visits; all I can say is, get stuck in while your knees are still up to it!
So there you go – Clive’s dance frenzy thesis from the University of the Big Beat. I’ll finish with the same caveat I started with that I’m no more an authority on any of this than anyone else who’s spent some of the best times of their life sweating and shaking on a heaving dance floor, so if you’ve spotted some gem of a clip that makes all the pieces fall into place, let’s hear from you. And while you’re pondering, here’s a gallery of the best of the still shots from the archive…
This article first appeared in Now Dig This magazine.