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A History of Line Dancing
Think of the Wild West and the imagination runs away with itself. Myth, mystery and a healthy supply of romantic fiction conjure up a satisfying picture of gun toting Clint Eastwood's, head hunting Apaches, and stressed out sheriffs trying to enforce the rule of law. The very fact that the genre of spaghetti westerns was inspired by an Italian should set alarm bells ringing.
It's understandable that line dancers would like to see their own history within the same frontier fairy tale but the reality, if a little boring, is somewhat different. As Cathy Hellier, dance historian at the Williamsberg Research Foundation in Virginia points out, rather puzzled by our phone call, "line dance is a modern form of dancing, isn't it?"
Conditions on the western frontier in the 18th and 19th centuries were severe. True, the early settlers were predominantly men but line dance didn't evolve just because they weren't too keen on dancing cheek to cheek. Survival was the main priority, and any "free" time would most likely have been spent lying very still with their eyes closed. It's not possible to plot line dance on a continuous graph. But what the settlers did bring with them were their own national traditions of dancing that form the basis of what we all enjoy today. The original Schottische arrived from Poland. German settlers introduced "clogging", while Cajun influences not surprisingly can be laid squarely at the doorstep of the French. None of these guys did the Tush Push, Cajun Mambo Walk or Roll Back The Rug. In the first place, they wouldn't have known what a "tush" was. You have to take a leap into this century to discover the first sightings of line dance, which in its recognisable form swung in on the coat tails of rock and roll. There emerged what can be described as "fad" dances like the Stroll and later the Madison, and as disco music took hold in the 70s the Hustle craze started followed by a distinct line dance called the Bus Stop, which closely resembled the Electric Slide. The film industry was an important boost, classically Grease (remember the Hand Jive?) and the movie Urban Cowboy in the early 80s, which sparked a trend in country clubs doing Cotton Eyed Joe, Two Step, Waltz, Swing and about three or four line dances. If you had taken the floor back then, most likely you would have found yourself learning the Tush Push, Four Corners, the Stomp, and something very like Elvira or Texas Freeze. Originally line dances were choreographed to all kinds of music. The Tush Push, written by Jim Ferrazzano in 1980, was first intended for big band music at a speed of 140 bpm! A lot of dances were done as folk dances or party mixers that were adapted to country music and given "cutesy" country titles by ex-ballroom teachers. The Cowboy Charleston was by no means a country dance, and neither was the Alley Cat. The Barn Dance Mixer (Wild, Wild, West) was a Merengue or Paso Doble party mixer.
Line dance climbed into bed with country music when Billy Ray Cyrus wrote Achy Breaky Heart in 1992. A clever marketing trick, Melanie Greenwood's dance was written to promote the song. Five years later and Achy Breaky Heart has snowballed into the biggest dance craze ever, line dancing choreographed to country music. Not the legacy of bold frontier settlers with the American Dream in their hearts, but an ingenious ploy to sell records. Bang goes the fairy tale. Enjoyable, straightforward to learn and not requiring a partner, line dance was bound to spread. In many countries, particularly across continental Europe, the US military laid the first foundations, sharing line and country dance with the locals. A long standing affection for country music in the UK was a powerful springboard, and line dance rapidly became a part of the holiday camp country music scene.
And so we've gone an international full circle, with different nations of dancers now adding their own ideas and interpretations, just like they've always done. That's the best way to see line dance and its history, as a family of dance styles, pieced together from a jigsaw puzzle of nations. The spaghetti western theory may make a better story line but that's Hollywood for you. You don't have to believe us if you don't want to.
From the Western Square Dancing Web page. Copyright notice.
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