Television and the Twist: Rock and Roll Dance Goes Mainstream

Essential Question

How did teen dance shows and the Twist influence American culture?

Overview

As Rock and Roll became increasingly popular in the mid-1950s, so too did television. By the end of the decade, more than 67 million American households owned a television set. Television programmers sought to draw in the newly emerging teenage market by capitalizing on the growing demand for all things Rock and Roll . Teen dance shows, airing in the late afternoons as the target audience came home from school and featuring fresh-faced teens dancing to the latest hits, soon became common among television’s offerings.

At the head of the pack was American Bandstand, which originated as Bandstand, a local show in Philadelphia in 1952, but went national in 1957 on the ABC network. Local shows abounded as well, from Baltimore’s Buddy Deane Show to Steubenville, Ohio’s Teen Time. The shows brought Rock and Roll into America’s living rooms and had a profound impact on the way teenagers viewed themselves and their world.

Shows such as American Bandstand had the power to create new trends and establish hit records. In 1960, a relatively unknown artist named Chubby Checker was invited to perform the song “The Twist” on American Bandstand, when Hank Ballard, who wrote and had originally recorded the song, was unavailable. Checker’s performance propelled the song to number one and ignited a national dance craze that would last several years. (“The Twist” would reach number one a second time, only two years later.)

As a dance, the Twist was easy enough for almost anyone to do. If performed by an African-American artist and based on African-American dance traditions, it proved enormously popular with white audiences. Despite this cultural cross-fertilization, most TV dance shows remained segregated during the height of the song’s popularity, often featuring white teens dancing to the performances of African-American artists.

The Twist caught on as a fashion. It broke down age barriers, becoming popular among adults. It inspired a new freedom of movement that defied the traditional male-female roles of earlier dance forms. And, as Elvis Presley had several years earlier, it invoked the wrath of critics who labeled its liberal hip-shaking “vulgar” and “obscene.”

In this lesson, students will investigate the vast cultural impact on American culture of teen dance shows in general, and the Twist in particular.

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Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The rising popularity of television and its growing power as a cultural force in 1950s America
    • The popularity and influence of televised dance shows aimed at teenage audiences
    • The influence of the “Twist” dance craze on popular American culture.
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Evaluate how television shows reflect and influence the values and norms of the society in which they are shown
    • Analyze popular dance and how it reflects the historical period from which it emerged
    • Common Core: Students will study primary sources, both written and visual, to write a short paragraph explaining the influence of televised dance shows (CCSS Writing 2; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)
    • Common Core: Students will read a newspaper article and summarize the key supporting ideas in response to discussion questions (CCSS Reading 2)