Dance Craze and the American Conciousness

Boogaloo: To dance wildly, as though outside of oneself.

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When James Brown demands of his audience, "'Scuse me while I do the boogaloo," he is asking permission to step outside the bounds of normal discourse. "I know you’re here to hear me sing, but I’m goin’ to step outside of our normal relationship for a minute or two," he seems to be saying. He then promptly does so, frenetic feet lost in dance steps that could only come from some outside inspiration. Dancing, he has stepped outside the world that we live in day to day and has entered one where the boogaloo’s rhythm and jerk make sense. While not all Americans dance as well as the Godfather of Soul, what happens when he does the boogaloo is essentially what happens when we do the same. "Dance your troubles away," the old advice goes, and in many ways it works. Dance provides a unique opportunity for escape, and so it is that just as one might excuse himself from the table, he may also, through dance, excuse himself from present situation and circumstance.

In this light, then, we can see how valuable is an examination of what dances Americans actually do and in what situations they do them. In those cases when the entire nation is engaged in a dance craze, it can be indicative of a national attitude. With the body as the most basic tool for expression, dance is a medium in which everyone, regardless of social standing or education, can participate. This site examines dance and its democratic nature and the ways that it can then offer people the opportunity to step outside of their own social situation, however temporarily. It follows the national dance crazes of the Cakewalk in the 1890’s, the Lindy Hop or Jitterbug in the late 20’s, Rock’n’Roll dances as seen on American Bandstand in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the urban breakdancing of the 80’s. In every case, these dances that captured the nations’ attentions and hips are inexorably tied to issues of social class and race. In terms of dance, they are consistent in their rebellion against accepted forms of dance, but more importantly they are in rebellion against the social structures which are represented by those forms.

Through dance, music and feting, the social ladder is actually even reversed from time to time. We see this in such phenomenon as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Carnevale in Brazil. Mobs in the streets don lavish masks and costumes, becoming the royalty of the festival, in essence becoming other people. This notion is known as carnival, and is on a larger scale exactly what we see in the dance habits of many Americans. Mr. Brown’s request, "’Scuse me while I do the boogaloo," then, is one which should perhaps be raplaced with, "’Scuse me while I reestablish the social order."

That a South Philly teenager doing the swim in 1962 or a 1920’s Harlemite in mid air-step was making any profound sociopolitical statement is not likely, but the environment that got him dancing in the first place is one from which much can be learned. Americans can be an uptight crowd, but when we do cut loose and cut a rug, we exercise a form of expression that is in tune with some of the most important issues of our country’s consciousness.

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Created by Will Lucas for the American Studies Program

University of Virginia

Spring 2002

Last updated August 15, 2002