The Jive: A Revolution on the Dance Floor

In the Jive old meets new.  It combines the shaman’s tam-tam with the kinetic charm of a four-stroke engine. This sparkling mix is intoxicating and makes the dancer’s arms and legs move ferociously. His partner is just an abstract fixed point in the room and completely unerotic. In a cultural history perspective, Jive can be compared to an abstract painting by Picasso.

A Detailed History of the Jive

The Jive grew out of the Blues and has many names: Boogie Woogie, Jitterbug, Bebop and Rock`n`Roll. They all mean almost the same and can only be separated by slight timely differences in their development stage. The Jive combines these styles. Its beginning can be traced to the end of the roaring twenties, a decade still surrounded by a legendary, almost mythical aura. After the First World War, revolution and chaos, people were ready to devote themselves entirely to music, dance and happiness. This is why this decade has had such an influence on the dance culture until today. With Black Friday in 1929, the beginning of a worldwide economical depression, this legendary decade came to a sudden end.

In the USA, the era of Swing began around the same time. This was a kind of music which had nothing in common with the dance and music styles known from the twenties. Until then, all music styles were “two-beat rhythms“. These either put the stress on the 1st and 3rd or the 2nd and 4th beat. The Swing, on the other hand, used the African off-beat technique. This uses different instruments to accentuate all beats. Out of this grows a homogeneous and evenly stressed four-beat rhythm; almost like the sound of a four-stroke engine. The skillful alternation between hard and soft stressing of the four beats with different instruments generates this tingling “Swing”.

Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Elington, Count Basey  – they all had great success  with this ancient technique. The Swing was in every way the transition into a new musical era. True, the Swing also influenced the Foxtrot and the Quickstep from 1930 on, but it couldn’t really change the character of these dances anymore. So this new musical style was practically screaming for its own dance. This dance, also called Swing, quickly conquered the western world. Except for Germany which at the same time sank into darkness under the Nazis. The Swing took over the basic step of Blues, the crossing Chassé.

This step became the starting point for a complete new way of dancing. The Swing was, like its music, hard and gentle at the same time. GIs first brought it to Germany in 1945, and the Germans welcomed it warmly. Not because it was so popular at the time, but because of an

understandable need to catch up. The Swing had long been out-dated.

It was the Boogie Woogie that met the spirit of the time. This dance didn’t become known throughout the world until around 1938, although it had been created by the step dancer “Pine Top Smith“ as early as 1930. The Boogie-rhythm was tough like a machine, even metallic. It was originally the piano base accompaniment for the Blues, ticking monotonously like a clock. This rhythm is characteristic for the Boogie Woogie. Around 1945 the Bebop followed the Boogie. Another new music style. You couldn’t dance to the Bebop, however, it was too abstract, made up only of sound fragments and with no clear, danceable rhythm. The new dance, originating from the Boogie in New York, was the Jitterbug; in England the Jive developed out of this. From 1945 on, the dance was also called Bebop, not the same as the Bebop music, however, and since 1955 Rock`n’ Roll. In continental Europe, however, its old name “Boogie“ was still used.  It was the true “folk dance“ for young people – and they danced this somewhat hard and mechanic dance in a very playful way. On the other hand, this dynamic dance cannot and will not hide its black roots.

The Jive as we know it today was born in Harlem, New York’s black ghetto. Here, at the famous Harvest Moon Ball, a lot of very old dance elements had been kept alive. It had been common practice to lift and lower the female partner for a long time there. You could also see  a lot of saltos, jumps and kicks; just about everything that makes you happy and keeps you in high spirits while dancing and all characteristics of today’s Rock`n’ Roll. The Boogie Woogie doesn’t stick to defined steps and rigid figures. Being open to new variations is one of its features; it doesn’t exclude risky experiments and daring figures. It is made for improvisation. This still caused an uproar around 1940. But  Rock’n’Roll  had been born and could no longer be done away with. It was the embodiment of its time; it was revolutionary, wild, untamed, and the cultural expression for the new post-war generation, looking for new perspectives. For this new young generation, their parents’ dances were no longer fitting as a means of expression; and so they indulged to the whirl of the new time.

For the parents, this new “movement“ was about the most horrible thing you could do to the dance floor.  Searching for harmony, they could not comprehend what they saw. The music of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and Little Richards confirmed this; this music sounded like noise from a factory. Its monotonous rhythm brought their children to ecstasy. This made them afraid. Soon there were also rock bands taking apart their sacred ballrooms. There was talk of “rockers” riding their motor cycles and making the area unsafe. An understandable reaction from people who had experienced two world wars. To them, this had nothing to do with music and dance anymore. But one can’t really blame the music for young people’s search for new ways to be heard.

The Jive is the untamed version of this wild time. It isn’t an easy dance. Due to its history, it is full of contradictions. Cool, hot, ecstatic and mechanic at the same time. Of all the modern dances this dance causes the highest degree of ecstasy. It is an unerotic dance, though, based completely on the play of the limbs, flying through the room in awkward positions, a room which the dancers seem to have pretty much to themselves. There is no orientation in the room, up or down is not important. The partner is only a helpful bond in the room. Subtle eroticism is not wanted here. What counts are spectacular show effects in form and color; this is really typical American. In this way it could be easily compared with an abstract Pablo Picasso painting. The Jive has been in the Competition Program since 1968 and in the World Dance Program since 1968.