Why do we, and why did we, dance the way we do, and did?
Because someone, once upon a time, told us it was cool, and because the dance steps were new, and popular. There have been such dance crazes since before the advent of recorded music — the minuet was probably such a popular fad in its day — but television, AM radio and the availability of 45 rpm singles and LPs seemed to kick the phenomenon into overdrive.
Growing up in a rural area of the Midwest, and not having school dances except on very special occasions until the high school years, my exposure to the dance crazes was limited to American Bandstand (a topic for another day). But we heard the music that went with the new dance steps on AM radio (mostly WLS out of Chicago), and those recordings often sold a lot of 45s and got a lot of airplay.
The first dance craze I remember was the Twist, which surfaced about the time I started listening to pop/rock. Chubby Checker, arguably the king of dance fads — he popularized enough of them that he felt he was becoming typecast — had a No. 9 hit (per the Billboard Top 100) with it in 1960.
Checker wasn’t done, nor was the Twist. He had a No. 67 hit with “Let’s Twist Again” the following year; Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Dear Lady Twist” was No. 48 in 1961.
In 1962 — when he had a No. 37 with “Pony Time” (which also was paired with a dance craze), he hit No. 1 with the same recording of “The Twist.” That was in fact the Year of the Twist — the No. 1 single that followed Checker’s was Joey Dee and the Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist – Part 1.”
Later in ’62, Chubby and Dee Dee Sharp combined for the year’s No. 64 record, “Slow Twistin.’” Sam Cooke’s “Twisting the Night Away” was the No. 12, and King Curtis and the Noble Knights ended up at No. 37 with “Soul Twist.” (The No. 8 hit, the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” was about something other than dancing, at least of the vertical kind.)
Nineteen sixty-two also could be said to be the Year of the Dance Craze — Sixties Edition, anyway. Besides the Twist and the Pony, songs associated with dance steps included Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time,” “The Wah Watusi” by the Orlons, Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” and Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash.” (The last two of those hit No. 1 that year.) And in case that wasn’t enough encouragement to get out on the floor, the No. 29 record of the year was “Let’s Dance” by Chris Montez.
Also in the Top 100 that year was Checker’s “Limbo Rock,” but Cashbox Top Singles had that as the No. 1 seller in 1963. That was the year that I won the limbo contest at the Janesville Consolidated State Graded School’s eighth-grade graduation party, going under the bar at (I believe it was) 17 inches. I probably couldn’t crawl under a bar at that height now, but that’s what 52 years will do to you …
I danced those crazes at sock hops and mixers in high school, and one of my favorite songs for shakin’ it my senior year was Cannibal and the Headhunters’ “Land of a Thousand Dances.” (That, and “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians.”) The three-minute 45-rpm format didn’t allow enough time to list all 1,000, even if there actually had been that many; while the original version of the song listed 16 dance crazes, by the time Cannibal covered it, that had been discounted to a handful.
I lost track of the dance craze thing not too long after that, not being that much of a dancer in the first place. Other than the occasional class reunion or wedding dance, I don’t see what steps people are doing.
So I checked out a couple lists of the top dance crazes, and found that the craziness has continued without me — although I’m not sure the hits have continued to move the moves, or vice versa, whichever was the case back then. But my random sample seems weighted towards the latter days, and included things that I wouldn’t have considered dance crazes.
In Rant Lifestyle’s top 23, the Sixties are only represented by the Twist. Most of the dances listed in Pop Dust’s Top 40 all-time crazes are 1980s and later vintage; the steps from the Seventies included some that I was unaware of (the Bump, the Pogo, Time Warp, the Robot).
But two of the top 12 were from those craze-y days of the early 1960s. Most Baby Boomers would agree, though, that the Loco-Motion (No. 12) and the Twist (No. 4) should rank even higher.