The USA has long influenced British popular culture - via things as varied as drinks, famous celebrities and, of course, dances such as the jitterbug. During the Second World War, many Americans signed up to be GIs and, while based in the UK, swept the land girls off their feet as they danced the jitterbug to the sounds of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman.
The jitterbug started life in America, inspired by the music of some of the greatest names in the business - including Cab Calloway, Edwin Swayze, Harry Alexander White and Benny Goodman. Although many believe Cab Calloway coined the term 'jitterbug', it was actually his trumpeter, Edwin Swayzee, who overheard Harry Alexander White using the term and emulated him by entitling his own song 'The Jitterbug'. So - White first used the term, Swayzee emulated it, and Calloway made it famous.
It was thanks to Benny Goodman, however, that the jitterbug craze soared. Goodman had his own band and was a regular radio presenter for New York's National Biscuit Saturday Night radio broadcasts. Goodman's band was eventually signed by the RCA-Victor Records Company in 1934; that summer, the band embarked on a tour of mixed fortunes, playing to quite a few flop houses before finally striking lucky at their final event at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles during August, 1935 where, to Goodman's surprise, kids were spotted lining up in a queue spanning several blocks to hear him play. The people of Los Angeles were gripped and so too were the news reporters who reported that the kids were 'jitterbugging' in the aisles. This was the beginning of the Swing Era: swing bands, the jitterbug and swing dance for white Americans. During the summer of 1936, Goodman was called upon to play at the Paramount theatre in New York and yet again the reporters went crazy reporting similar outbreaks of the jitterbugging craze that had possessed the East coast. By 1938, the jitterbug was established, as Goodman's type of jazz was joined by fancy footwork, elaborate swings and twists and turns on the dancefloor.
What is the jitterbug?
Initially, the word 'jitterbug' is thought to have been used to refer to a man or woman affected by alcoholic or drug-related nerves. It also conjured up images of rather a sexual nature and was used to describe the effects of syphilis - however, many other definitions were more comical and family-friendly, claiming that the term came from the act of bouncing around like bugs.
One interesting story behind the term 'jitterbug' concerns a man named George Snowden (aka 'Shorty George') who called the dance the 'lindyhop' at the Savoy Ballroom in 1926, in reference to Charles Lindbergh's recent 'hop' across the Atlantic. However, in 1936 the name seemed to lose its appeal - mainly because of Lindbergh's racist views, his dislike of the degeneracy of swing era America and finally in 1938, by his acceptance of the highest Nazi civilian medal, ordered by Adolf Hilter. Therefore 'jitterbug' became the more commonly-used word. Still, whatever the definition and whatever the reporters had in mind when they reported on the momentum of the jitterbugging groundswell, the jitterbug itself has become more commonly known as a dance that evolved from the lindyhop.
Unlike the lindyhop, the jitterbug has a more obvious lead (man) - their partner (female) dances around them. The jitterbug is also a slotted dance, which is done to eight counts, appearing under control and gentle. With lots of little body movements such as jerks of the head, it possibly looks more complicated than it actually is. It is also much slower than the lindyhop as the couple take a more upright stance rather than leaning into one another. There are fewer lifts than the lindyhop, making the dance appear more controlled, while the hold in the jitterbug is about counterbalancing your partner, not leaning into each other (as in the lindyhop). Typical routines belonging to the jitterbug are the sugar push (where the woman walks towards the man before being pushed away again) the whip (which involves the woman reversing and swinging away from the man while always facing him ending up shifting her weight outwards as if resting on her heels) and the sweetheart (which involves embracing the partner). Steps in the Jitterbug include:
- 'The Jig Walk'
- 'The Push Spin'
- 'The Boogie Drop'
Today, the Jitterbug may also be known to people as:
- Hollywood Style
- Lindy Hop
- East Coast
- West Coast
- New Yorker
- Rock and Roll
... among many others. The name Jitterbug acts as an umbrella term for all types of swing dance.
At The Movies
During the late 1930s into the 1940s the media used the terms lindyhop, jitterbug, lindy, and swing interchangeably, to describe similar dancing appearing in the ballrooms, streets, contests, night clubs and films. Footage of these dances shown in cinemas held the key to the success of the jitterbug; with the most energetic performances coming from ballrooms in predominantly black neighbourhoods, it was often the only time a white audience could be exposed to the dance, with the first examples of these dances captured in newsreels at the Harvest Moon Ball's competition from 1938 onwards. Soon, Hollywood was gripped and snapped up Dean Collins and those he had taught in Los Angeles to be in their films. Collins's style of dance was instantly recognisable to filmgoers as the 'jitterbug,' which later evolved into 'rock 'n' roll.' During his life, Collins managed to rack up over 100 films as either choreographer or dancer. Having helped develop three different styles of swing1, Dean passed away during the 1980s.
Still, the people of America continued to dance their feet off, whether it was to the lindyhop, jitterbug, swing, or shag. For parents of white college teenagers, the jitterbug was seen as too provocative and some tried to encourage the dance to be transformed into something more acceptable. This transformation took place under the aegis of legendary dance instructor Arthur Murray. However, the youth of the day had other plans for it and rebelled against the changes Arthur Murray and their parents proposed. In the US, as well as abroad, the jitterbug was hugely popular and soon dance halls weren't big enough for all its fans as well as their wild kicks and arm movements. The jitterbug evolved, this time in the form of a 'slotted' dance meaning it became more controlled and gentler, though the man remained the central figure of the dance while the woman danced around him. Yet, even in an evolved form, the jitterbug remains unique enough to be instantly recognisable to anyone who was lucky enough to see it performed in its prime.