Invitation to the Dance

American culture has a long and rich tradition of popular dance. From the folk dancing of Appalachia to the urban dance crazes that animated New York City in the 1920s, dance has been an important facet of social life. But dance is more than just boy-meets-girl on the floor. Dance has often been a place of cultural mixing, however indirect at times, and of testing the limits of societal norms. It's a party, yes, but the party has repercussions, which can redefine the codes of conduct that organize everyday life.

In the case of Rock and Roll dance, all of the above holds true. From the moment Elvis Presley's body shook on national television to the moment Allan Freed's program The Big Beat was cancelled because Frankie Lymon, an African-American singer, was seen dancing with a white girl, dance has been a contested zone. In each of the most tumultuous but also meaningful periods of new growth in music culture, whether with Punk's slam dancing or Hip Hop's breakdancing, dance has been a big part of the story. Whenever Rock and Roll was perceived to be threatening in some way, the body, and questions of how to control the body, has been at the center of the controversy. And that body is often on a dance floor.

The lessons in this chapter explore the roots of Rock and Roll dancing, the highlights of Rock and Roll dance — including Chubby Checker's remarkable run of dance-related recordings, which set off more than one craze — and the more recent dance explosions in Disco and Hip Hop. To study the music in isolation from the audience's organized reactions to that music, primarily in dance, is to miss out an a chance to grasp the depth of the music's influence.