Friday, April 13, 2018

The origins of rock 'n' roll dance

Teen dances in the 1950s fell into two categories: slow and fast. The former had couples hold each other close and they moved slowly around the dance floor in a type of box step. This was usually left to the later part of the evening (romantic) as singles began to bond. In Scotland this was referred to ‘the moonie.’

At first dancing to faster tempos took the form of the Jitterbug, a holdover from the big band swing of the '30s and '40s. Again couples touched, if only by hand, and engaged in a variety of fast steps that could include considerable virtuosity and gymnastics.

The genre of Rock’n’Roll did not acquire its name until the mid 50s. The term ‘Rock’ was a common, African -American colloquialism for ‘sex,’ and "Rocking and rolling" was secular black slang for dancing or sex. It first appears on record on Trixie Smith's "My Man Rocks Me with One Steady Roll" (1922).

The defining characteristic of ‘rock and roll’ music was the rhythm i.e. an 8-to-the-bar boogie rhythm set against a heavy "back beat." Usually the accent was from a snare drum, on the 4th and 8th beats of the boogie rhythm, or if written in 4/4 time, on the 2nd and 4th beats. The roots of rock’n’roll lie in gospel, blues, and country and began to emerge through the medium of rhythm and blues (R&B) music or ‘race’ music in the mid to late 40s. The musical style took form after the mass migration of African-Americans to the north of the country in search of work in the larger cities of Chicago, Detroit and New York. It involved a blend of popular African-American music at the White country music of the south.

Rock’n’roll as a musical genre did not really start until Fats Domino’s The Fat Man (1950). Arguably this may represented the first ‘n’ roll song in the musical sense but there were certainly other contenders including Big Joe Turner’s "Roll 'Em Pete" (1939) and many of Sister Rosetta Tharpe early hits contained elements of mid-1950s rock and roll. However most people now accept the first fully formed rock and roll recording was "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats (aka Ike Turner and his band The Kings of Rhythm) (1951).

The origins of Rock’n’Roll (dance) come from the lindy hop which was modified around 1940 to become the boogie woogie and danced to music with a faster tempo. American soldiers introduced dances like the Jitterbug, the Boogie-woogie and the Jive to Europe. From there on both styles evolved in different directions. Jive was added to the Latin ballroom repertoire, leaving out the acrobatics. The Boogie-woogie became what most people today would call 50’s style Rock n’ Roll dancing.

The basic rhythm is Quick, Quick, Slow, Slow. The dance was performed without undue tension with the body and legs left flexible to allow physical rhythmic expression of co-ordination with the musical beats. The music is very fast, between 176 to 208 bpm. The dance had much scope for personal expression and interpretation in style, movement, rhythm, and even in the manner in which the figures are constructed.

There are six basic steps :

Leader starts with left foot kick ball change, kick step (left), kick step (right)
Follower starts with right foot kick ball change, kick step (right), kick step (left)

Rock and roll dance works on the 4/4 measure. One basic comprises six beats and therefore one and a half measures. Differently than the offbeat of rock and roll music, the dance puts stress on the first and third beats of each measure. Acrobatic elements grew more and more dangerous, requiring dress which allowed both freedom of movement and enough durability to avoid tearing. Dancers’ shoes needed soles with both "slip" & "grip" characteristics like rubber soled Keds and sneakers.

Universal interest in the dance style followed the success of the film 'Rock around the Clock' in 1956. Needless to say the popularity of Rock and Roll soon gained a 'bad boy' image.

Rock and Roll was thought to be both the result and the cause of youthful rebellion against the nation's social problems at the time. As a result of parents' complaints, the Rock and Roll industry was told to clean up its act and provide better role models for the youth of the time.

Fear of association with delinquency, the North Americans tried at first to change the name of the dance. However, Europeans continued to use the term Rock and Roll and by the 60s, Rock ‘n’ Roll was rediscovered in the US with the English invasion.

Other dance fads followed and by the mid 60s Acrobatic Rock and Roll dancing was passe. Instead, like Jive. the dance became acrobatic rock ‘n’ roll and is now danced in competition. This requires a lot of skill and stamina and is a highly demanding sport. Kicks and acrobatic elements such as lifts, throws, jumps and flips, are all characteristic of acrobatic Rock and Roll dancing. Although it may have started off as an improvisational and social dance, it is now mainly a performance and competition dance, where routines are choreographed beforehand. Another vital change came from the original 6-basic step being replaced by the 9-basic step that is seen in modern tournaments. Over the years, these changes in Rock and Roll dancing have meant that it now has very little in common with the original movement of the 1950s. Changes have also occurred in the music that the dance is performed to. Although Rock and Roll is danced to a 4/4 beat that is found in Rock and Roll music, the music has an off-beat stressing that the dance does not follow. So instead, contemporary pop and disco music has become a more popular choice due to its high speed and its on-beat stressing.

Read more
Rocket 88: The first rock'n'roll record?

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