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This dance originated with the Black People in the South East of U.S.A., where it had an affinity with the war dances of the Seminole Indians in Florida. One reference suggests that the Africans copied it from the Indians 7). Another suggests that the Indians copied it from the Africans, who brought the dance from Africa. The latter is more likely, as the word "Jive" is probably derived from "Jev" meaning "to talk disparagingly" in the West African Wolof language. The word "Jive" also has a similar meaning in african slang : "misleading talk, exaggerations", although this could have been derived from a modification of the English word "jibe". The word has several other slang meanings : "gaudy merchandise", "marijuana", and "sexual intercourse". It is unclear whether any of these meanings predated the use of the term for the dance, and hence which is a metaphor for which.

In the 1880's, the dance was performed competitively amongst the Africans in the South, and the prize was frequently a cake, so the dance became known as the Cake Walk.

A couple in their finest 'rags' doing the cakewalk
on the cover of one of Scott Joplin's musical pieces.


It often consisted of two parts performed alternately : a solemn procession of couples, and an energetic display dance, all done in finest clothes. The associated music became known as Ragtime, possibly because the participants dressed up in their best "rags" or clothes, or possibly because the music was syncopated and "ragged". The music and dances subsequently became popular amongst the African-Americans in Chicago and New York.

This exuberant dancing and music contrasted with the limited and dour dancing of the upper white classes of the U.S.A. and U.K. in the wake of Prince Albert's death in 1861. With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, English speaking society perhaps felt more free to engage in more and energetic dancing, and a series of simple dances based on those of the Africans become popular in white society e.g.: the Yankee Tangle, the Texas Rag, the Fanny Bump, the Funky Butt, the Squat, the Itch, the Grind and the Mooche. Many had animal names, betraying perhaps a rural and pantomimic origin : Turkey Trot, Horse Trot, Eagle Rock, Crab Step, Buzzard Lope, Fish Walk, Camel Walk, Lame Duck, Bunny Hop, Kangaroo Dip, Grizzly Bear, and the Bunny Hug. The current Jive still has a Bunny Hug as one of the standard steps. The dances were all done to 4/4 Ragtime music, with stress on beats 2 and 4, and have syncopated rhythms. They all used the same elements: couples doing a walk, rock, swoop, bounce or sway. The closed position was considered by many to be indecent, and sometimes the lady wore "bumpers" to preclude body contac.

An interesting change occured around 1910, when the individual dances were brought together, and the dancers encouraged to do these in an arbitrary order. It made every male dancer into an instant choreographer. The change was described as a change of interest from steps to rhythm. It coincided with the publication of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1910, which rapidly became a worldwide hit.

As Ragtime evolved into Swing through the 1920's, new dances became popular. The Foxtrot was invented by Harry Fox for a stage show in New York in 1913. The Charleston was said to have originated in the Cape Verde Islands. It evolved into a round dance done by Negro dock workers in the port of Charleston, and became popular in white society after inclusion in the stage show "Running Wild" in 1923 by the Ziegfield Follies, which toured U.S.A.. It subsequently became so popular worldwide that many sedate ballrooms put up notices saying simply "PCQ" , standing for "Please Charleston Quietly.

The Charleston
Life Magazine Cover, Feb. 18 1926, by John Held Jr.


The Black Bottom became popular after inclusion in the stage show: George White's 'Scandals of 1926'. Various authors have said it originated in New York, or in Nashville, or in New Orleans, but it seems more likely that it originated in the a suburb of Detroit of the same name.

In 1927, the Savoy Ballroom opened in Harlem in New York with the famous jazz band of Fletcher Henderson. The dancers there soon combined the Foxtrot, Charleston, Black Bottom, and the various animal steps to form a new dance to fit with the jazz music. This dance soon became known as the b>Lindy Hop, after Charles Lindbergh who made the first solo non-stop transatlantic flight that year, because of the amount of time the dancers appeared to spend in the air. In 1934, the dance at the Savoy in Harlem was described by Cab Calloway as "like the frenzy of jittering bugs", so it soon became known as the Jitterbug.

The current version called the Jive has basic steps composed of a fast syncopated chasse (side, close, side) to the left followed by another to the right (right then left for the lady) followed by a slower break back and replace forward. The hips are moved half a beat after each of the steps, and the weight is kept well forward with all steps being taken on the toes. In the chasses, by keeping the leading foot high on the ball of the foot, and the trailing foot fairly flat, an optical illusion is created called the "moonwalk", which gives dancer an attractive weightless appearance.

In its beginnings, in 1927, the dance became equated with youth. Older adults disapproved of it and tried to ban it from dance halls by the rationalisation that because Jive was non-progressive, it disturbed the other dancers who were progressing anti-clockwise around the dance floor.

The association between youth and this dance has continued through its subsequent metamorphoses as Swing , Boogie-Woogie , B-Bop ( Beach Bop ) , b>Rock & Roll , Twist , Disco , b>Hustle and Ceroc. Young adults have always been inclined to feel alienated by insecurity from parental criticism, and inadequacy from lacks in understanding and coordination. From time to time throughout history, they have obtained emotional satisfaction by identifying with peers in a cult of dancing. Of the various responses possible to alienation such as illness, crime, rebellion and cult, a dancing cult is the most benign.

As always, dance is involved in the deepest emotional responses of our personalities, and hence with the foundations of society.

Don Herbison-Evans
Technical Report 323 
Basser Department of Computer Science
University of Sydney
(revised 4 March 2002)
References have been removed for easier reading.