From the time it began to flourish on record and on the big screen in the 1930s, to the present day and inescapably beyond, popular music has tapped and swayed to the tune of songs about dance. Less often, songs have not only been about dancing – cheek to cheek or buttock to groin – but have given their name to dances, or have given wide recognition to dance trends previously confined to regional clubs and halls, demonstrating for national or international audiences the spirit and the gestures which serve to define the style. Other songs have acted as useful repositories of dance, suggestively listing some of the dances common across recent decades.
Cole Porter wrote ‘Begin the Beguine’ in 1935, somewhere between Indonesia and Fiji while on a cruise of the Pacific. That October, it was given its first performance by June Knight in the Broadway musical Jubilee, in a production staged at the Imperial Theatre in New York City. Beguines were originally Christian lay women, who in the spirit of the thirteenth century in the Low Countries had lived austere lives devoted to God and the poor. In the creole of Martinique, a Caribbean region of France, the word became a generic term for white women, before being applied to a style of ballroom dance approximating a slow rhumba. Already fashionable in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and parts of France, the influence of Porter’s song caused the Beguine to spread throughout the Americas and Europe.
Bandleader Artie Shaw’s swinging arrangement of ‘Begin the Beguine’ proved hugely popular in 1938, with later interpretations of the song recorded by Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald. Begin the Beguine was chosen as the English title for Volver a Empezar, the 1982 film directed by José Luis Garci which became the first Spanish picture to win an Academy Award. And the song has been referred to in other diverse forms of media, from Disney’s The Little Mermaid to Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Julio Iglesias’, where it proves unbearable to the listening of a wily old sea turtle. In ‘May the Giant Be with You’, the eighth episode of Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer shouts the song’s title as he begins his descent into a sort of ecstatic mania over the death of his daughter.
In the MGM musical Broadway Melody of 1940, Fred Astaire danced alongside Eleanor Powell to ‘Begin the Beguine’, but five years earlier he had briefly popularised another dance with the film adaptation of the Broadway musical Roberta. The song ‘I Won’t Dance’, with music by Jerome Kern, had originally been written in 1934 by Oscar Hammerstein II and Otto Harbach. But the following year it was added to the film musical – which starred Irene Dunne, who headed the cast list above the pairing of Astaire and Ginger Rogers – with new lyrics by Dorothy Fields, which feature the couplet ‘When you dance you’re charming and you’re gentle / ‘specially when you do the Continental’. The Continental, putting together the One-Step and the Foxtrot, was a form of ballroom dance derived from the Carioca: a Samba which had arrived on the big screen as the first dance in Astaire and Rogers’ first ever movie, Flying Down to Rio, which had been released by RKO in 1933.
With the birth of rock and roll, in 1958 Ritchie Valens recorded the best-known version of the Mexican folk song ‘La Bamba’. A classic example of the Son Jarocho style native to the east-Mexican state of Veracruz, which fuses together indigenous, Spanish, and African musical elements, the accompanying dance – still commonplace among wedding couples in the region – features lively, accelerating movement in the manner of the Andalusian Zapateado.
As the 1950s segued into the 1960s, a flurry of fads found their way across dance floors by means of popular song. ‘The Twist’ was originally recorded as a B-side in 1959 by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, before reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960 courtesy of a version by Chubby Checker. Checker became intimately associated with the Twist phenomenon, as teenagers across the United States proved utterly enraptured by the dance with its tilting torso and gyrating hips. Checker followed ‘The Twist’ with ‘Let’s Twist Again’, while the early 1960s also made hits of ‘The Peppermint Twist’ by Joey Dee and the Starliters, and ‘Twist and Shout’ by The Isley Brothers and then The Beatles. Frank Sinatra even had a go with ‘Everybody’s Twistin”, and ‘Twistin’ the Night Away’, from the album of the same name, became one of the biggest successes enjoyed all-too-briefly by Sam Cooke.
The popularity of The Twist encouraged derivatives. The Watusi, featuring flat palms, waving forearms, and a shimmying torso, provided a hit for The Orlons, a vocal quartet from Philadelphia, whose song ‘The Wah-Watusi’ reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962. ‘The Wah-Watusi’ was subsequently covered by Chubby Checker, Smokey Robinson, and The Isley Brothers. And in 1963 the Puerto Rican jazz musician Ray Barretto, hitherto known for his conga playing, recorded his first chart smash with ‘El Watusi’.
At the same time the Mashed Potato, a dance move with pivoting heels made famous by James Brown, also received a peal of tributes in the form of popular song. ‘(Do the) Mashed Potatoes’ – recorded by Brown but credited to the pseudonymous Nat Kendrick and the Swans because Syd Nathan, the head of Brown’s label King Records, had no interest in allowing the singer to release an instrumental – appeared in 1960, followed two years later by Brown’s ‘Mashed Potatoes U.S.A.’. And on her debut album It’s Mashed Potato Time, the R&B singer Dee Dee Sharp offered a veritable ode to the Mashed Potato, featuring the songs ‘Mashed Potato Time’ and ‘Gravy For My Mashed Potatoes’.
In 1965 James Brown for the first time broke the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, as ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag’ rose to peak at number eight. Depicting a middle-aged man boldly unafraid of the dance floor, the lyrics to the seminal funk song incorporate a litany of popular dances, as Brown wails:
‘Come here sister,
Papa’s in the swing.
He ain’t too hip
About that new breed babe,
He ain’t no drag.
He’s doing the Jerk, he’s doing the Fly,
Don’t play him cheap, cause you know he ain’t shy,
He’s doing the Monkey, the Mashed Potatoes,
Jump back Jack, see you later alligator.
He’s doing the Twist, just like this,
He’s doing the Fly, every day and every night,
The thing’s like the Boomerang!’
Likewise for ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’, which had been written by Chris Kenner in 1963, passing through versions by Fats Domino, Cannibal & the Headhunters – who added the ‘na na na na na’ hook – and Danny & the Memories before it became a major hit in 1966 as recorded by Wilson Pickett. Kenner’s original listed sixteen dances, including the Pony, the Mashed Potato, the Alligator, the Watusi, the Twist, the Fly, the Jerk, the Tango, the Yo-Yo, the Sweet Pea, the Hand Jive, the Slop, the Bop, the Fish, and the Popeye. By the time it reached Pickett, ‘Land of a Thousand Dances’ was less detailed but more expressive, as he sang:
‘Got to know how to Pony
Like Bony Moronie
Do The Alligator
Put your hand on your hips, yeah
Let your backbone slip
Do the Watusi
Like my little Lucy
Dancin’ in the alley
With Long Tall Sally
Twistin’ with Lucy
Doin’ the Watusi
Roll over on your back
I like it like that
Do that Jerk, oh
Watch me work, y’all
Ow! Do it!
Wow! Do it!
Just watch me do it!’
In 1973 Roxy Music poked fun at the dance craze songs of the 1960s with ‘Do the Strand’, which advertises an apocryphal ‘new sensation / A fabulous creation / A danceable solution / To the teenage revolution’, encouraging revellers to forego the tango and the fandango and to instead ‘Do the Strand’. Paying homage to Kenner and Pickett at the same time as she was heralding punk, a couple of years later Patti Smith’s ‘Land’ – subtitled ‘Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer(de)’ – ran through dances from the Pony to the Watusi with the Twist, Alligator, and Sweet Pea scatted in between. And in a scene in the 1980 film The Blues Brothers, Ray Charles sang a version of ‘Shake a Tail Feather’ which called upon 1960s dances such as the Twist, the Fly, the Swim, the Monkey, the Watusi, the Mashed Potato, and the Boogaloo.
Amid the searing punk of their debut album, The Ramones too were fond of reminiscing, featuring a cover of ‘Let’s Dance’, the 1962 hit song by Chris Montez which had been written and produced by Jim Lee. As the singer of the song attempts to entice his girl, the lyrics promise ‘We’ll do the Twist, the Stomp, the Mashed Potato too / Any old dance that you wanna do / Well let’s dance!’. But beyond recollections of decades past, the 1970s spurred plenty of dance fads of its own.
‘Do the Funky Chicken’ hit the charts in early 1970, a song by Rufus Thomas for Stax Records which encouraged a fresh batch of youngsters to hit the dance floor flapping their arms in the imitation of poultry. In 1975 the release of ‘The Hustle’ by Van McCoy and the Soul City Symphony saw a surge in popularity for the line dance of the same name, the Hustle’s appeal reaching new heights when the dance was performed by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. And lest we forget, in 1978 Village People gave us ‘Y.M.C.A.’, one of the best selling singles of all time, whose arm gestures remain part of popular culture from nightclubs and karaokes to sporting events.
Less remembered than each of these is Joe Tex’s descriptively titled ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)’, which marked a return to the charts for Tex in 1977 following a five-year absence, and drew its name from the Bump, the tendency for 1970s partygoers to teasingly bounce hips. As with ‘The Hustle’ and ‘Y.M.C.A.’, the setting is the thriving world of disco, and Tex makes his predicament abundantly clear, explaining ‘I wanted to bump, I was rarin’ to go / And this big fat woman bumped me on the floor / She was rarin’ to go, that chick was rarin’ to go / Man she did a dip, almost broke my hip […] Somebody take her / She’s too big for me’, showing that dances could bring with them more than the frisson of danger. Also in the novelty vein in 1977 was ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’, a hit across Europe for the Spanish vocal duo Baccara.
As the 1980s began and hip hop started breaking through, James Brown proved once again a seminal figure. Though neither the title nor the lyrics explicitly name a dance, his song ‘Get on the Good Foot’ has been called the inspiration for early breakdancing by no less an authority than Afrika Bambaataa, who says:
‘When you’re dealing with the b-boys and b-girls, you can take it straight back to the Godfather of Soul. He was flipping his legs from side to side, and doing things with his hands. It was a big dance, everybody was doing the ‘Good Foot’, and you was playing all the James Brown records…and then you expand on it.’
Indirectly Brown encouraged other forms of hip hop dance, as The Electric Boogaloos – a street dance crew founded in Fresno, California in 1977, whose Electric Boogaloo incorporated aspects of popping and locking – took their name from the mention of the Boogaloo in his 1967 song ‘There Was a Time’. As a musical genre the original Boogaloo had grown up in New York City, a product of the coming together of Black Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans, melding the sounds of mambo, samba, soul, and R&B. The dance which became popular in the 1960s as the Boogaloo shared little in common with the Electric Boogaloo, a style more rooted in the rhythms of funk. But whatever the inspiration, dancing was a crucial part of early hip hop culture, a fact made plain in the endless boogie of the hook to The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’.
In 1981 Billy Idol dwelt on one of life’s singular pleasures, finding minor chart success with a remixed version of ‘Dancing with Myself’. And in 1986 The Rolling Stones fared better still thanks to a cover of Bob & Earl’s 1963 hit ‘Harlem Shuffle’. The Stones’ version reached number five on the Billboard Hot 100, its opening lines ‘ You move it to the left and you go for yourself / You move it to the right yeah if it takes all night / Now take it kinda slow with a whole lot of soul’ only beginning to describe the dance which in its full formulation comprises twenty-four steps repeated.
Harlem was also the birthplace of Voguing, whose angular postures and performative gestures had been developing in ballrooms as far back as the 1960s. 1990 brought Voguing to the mainstream, as the dance appeared in the music video for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, and in Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s documentary on the Black, Latino, gay, and transgender ball culture of New York City, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival. Voguing has cropped up ever since in the contexts of rap and R&B, and provided the inspiration in 2015 for the track ‘Figure 8’ by FKA twigs.
Harking back to the silent era for its grandly synchronised, kaleidoscopic dance sequences, on 69 Love Songs The Magnetic Fields offered a couple of odes to Busby Berkeley, the centrepiece of the song ‘Busby Berkeley Dreams’ and mentioned in ‘The Way You Say Goodnight’. But on into the new millennium, songs which name or list dances have typically confined themselves to contemporary trends, with songs increasingly conjuring new dances rather than simply popularising already established forms.
There might have been no better example than ‘Crank That’, the debut rap single by Soulja Boy Tell’em, whose accompanying dance concludes with a mid-flight Superman pose and the cranking of an imaginary motorcycle. From the opening line Soulja Boy devoted the entirety of his song to the unveiling of this new dance, and his music video contained plenty in the way of demonstration, but ‘Crank That’ spawned dozens of other instructional videos as the dance was soon described as the biggest fad since Los del Rio’s ‘Macarena‘, which had stayed in the Hot 100 for a whopping sixty weeks in the mid-1990s. ‘Crank That’ managed seven weeks at number one in the autumn of 2007.
In 2009 ‘You’re a Jerk’ by the New Boyz helped the spread of Jerkin’ – with its relaxed torso, wobbly knees, and quick footwork – along the United States West Coast. Around the same time the Jamaican duo RDX scored dancehall hits with ‘Daggering’ and ‘Bend Over’, referencing the dance which has been described as a cross between dry humping and professional wrestling, Daggering coming to receive wider exposure courtesy of the explicit music video for ‘Pon de Floor’ by Major Lazer. And in 2010 Cali Swag District’s ‘Teach Me How to Dougie’ sent the Dougie viral. The dance originated in Dallas, Texas where three years earlier the rapper Lil’ Wil had found regional fame with ‘My Dougie’, and requires shimmying at the hips while slicking one’s hands alternately through the hair and over the back of the head.
Then in 2012 ‘Gangnam Style’ by the long-established South Korean artist Psy put even the success of ‘Crank That’ firmly in the shade. Psy’s eighteenth K-pop single and the lead from his sixth album, ‘Gangnam Style’ was released in July and by the end of the year had become the first YouTube video to surpass one billion views. A riotously funny satire located in the wealthy Gangnam District of Seoul, Psy has described the related dance as ‘pretending to bounce like riding on an invisible horse’. As with the Soulja Boy and the Dougie, Gangnam Style was adopted by scores of eager celebrities, athletes, and politicians. And just as it finally began to fade from everyday view, in early 2013 the Harlem Shake meme took off, with solo dancers being joined by convulsive hordes on the dropping of the bass in the song by Baauer.
A relatively recent instance of the dance list, the DJ Nate track ‘Gucci Goggles’ contained the line ‘I jack, I ball, I bop, I flex’, an evocation of the Chicago Boppin’ scene soon recalled by Chance The Rapper who on ‘Pusha Man’, from the 2013 mixtape Acid Rap, offered ‘Shouts out to Nate, I jackball and I bop, I flex’. At the end of the following year, Silentó recapitulated recent trends while highlighting two dances in particular courtesy of the song ‘Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)’. And in the waning days of 2015, ‘Look at My Dab’ by the Atlanta trio Migos helped the Dab, the move in which dancers dip their heads into the crooks of their elbows, spread beyond the Dirty South into a world of sport via the NFL and the NBA.