Perfect 10: The jive

It may be the last but it is by no means the least. One of the fastest and most energetic dances, the jive developed throughout the 20th century and has been influenced by numerous different styles, which are reflected in the choreography danced today.

By Rachelle Stretch

This article first appeared in a series called Perfect 10 in Dance Today (

It may be the last but it is by no means the least. One of the fastest and most energetic dances, the jive developed throughout the 20th century and has been influenced by numerous different styles, which are reflected in the choreography danced today.

The earliest origins of the jive, like many other Latin American dances, were the native dances of the African-American slaves with triple and single steps. Their music contained strong drumbeats, which had hints of jive rhythms.

There was an affinity with war dances

It is thought that, in the south-east of the US, these African-American dances had an affinity with the war dances of the Native American Indians and similar elements could be found in both. The influence of these African-American dances was seen in the development of lindy hop in Harlem, New York, in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1926, the Savoy Ballroom, which featured the famous jazz band of Fletcher Henderson, opened in the same district. Dancers combined elements of jazz, tap, breakaway, Charleston and the “animal dances” (a group of dances with an African-American influence danced to ragtime) to form a new style to suit jazz music.

Lindy hop is a swing dance combining elements of partner and solo work by using the movements of African-American dances, with the more formal timing structure of partner dances, which were more popular in Europe at that time. It was named after Charles Lindbergh, who made the first non-stop solo transatlantic flight, because, as one theory has it, dancers seemed to spend a long time in the air.

The GIs influenced social life and dance in the UK

During World War II, more than one and a half million American servicemen were stationed in the UK. In the 1940s dance was a key part of social life and dancehalls were focal points for people to meet. The GIs, with their casual, easy-going manner, introduced a new style of dancing to British dancehalls – lindy hop and East Coast swing, which were referred to with the general term “jitterbug”.

The term is thought to come from an early 20th-century slang term to describe alcoholics suffering from the jitters, as the swing dances were seen as “out of control”. Another story is that lindy hoppers in the Savoy Ballroom were described by a jazz singer as “a frenzy of jittering bugs”; either way, the term jitterbug was then referred to in song lyrics and films, which helped to popularise it.

Some owners of dancehalls found the GIs to be too loud and showy and disapproved of the dance, and some felt that, because it was not progressive, it disturbed the other dancers on the floor; “no jitterbugging” signs even began to appear. However, the dance was popular with the younger generations and the jitterbug craze grew.

After the war, boogie music, a style of piano-based blues, grew in popularity. Lindy hop influences were noticeable in the dance that developed in the 1950s, similar to the rock ’n’ roll dancing (without the acrobatics that can be seen in rock ’n’ roll competitions today). However, people still disapproved, thinking it vulgar; Alex Moore, one of the pioneers of ballroom dancing, was reported as saying that he had “never seen anything uglier”.

Swing, boogie woogie, lindy hop, rock’n’ roll all played their part

Swing, boogie woogie, lindy hop, rock ’n’ roll and even the Charleston all played a part in influencing jive style and choreography. British instructors began to develop the jive from these styles and the dance was gradually tamed and lost the acrobatics.

The influence of the other dances can be seen in standardised choreography, as Walter Laird stated in his technique book, “rhythmic interpretation from lindy and rock ’n’ roll can be used to assist the performance of particular movements or introduce a variation in the basic pattern of the dance”.

The chassé is timed as quick-a-quick and can be danced in any direction with or without turn. Lindy and rock ’n’ roll interpretations allow the chassé to be replaced by a single step, a quick-quick-tap-step movement, or kicks.

WDC World Amateur Latin American and UK Amateur Latin champions Neil Jones and Ekaterina Sokolova have spent time learning boogie woogie and lindy hop to understand and develop their jive, which is Neil’s favourite dance. “We always keep our mind open to other dance forms to have a better understanding of dance in general,” they explain. The inclusion of lindy hop figures is obvious in their jive showdance.

Only in 1968 jive was adopted

In 1968, the jive was adopted as the fifth Latin dance in international competitions. The jive is danced to music with a 4/4 time signature and accents the second and fourth beats. Originally the tempo was faster, but it was standardised at 44bpm.

Jive is characterised by the strong leg action, the triple step or chassé, and kicks and flicks. Walter Laird states that throughout jive the weight should be mainly over the balls of the feet. Five-times World Professional Latin champions Alan and Hazel Fletcher describe the most important aspects of the jive as “a rhythmic leg action accentuating the downbeat with a very compact approach, and figures that predominantly feature rotational aspects and are mostly danced in hold or with some contact”.

Alan and Hazel Fletcher believe that there was little change

Although there is agreement of the influences on jive, the origins of the name have been debated. The word “jive” may be derived from “jev” meaning “to talk disparagingly” in a West African language. In the 1930s and 1940s, jazz musicians would use jive as an expression denoting glib or foolish talk or it may be derived from a modification of the English word “jibe”. In the US, the term “swing” is typically used to describe the dance.
Alan and Hazel Fletcher believe that, of the five Latin dances, the jive has changed the least since the 1960s: “This is not a criticism,” they explain, “perhaps its basic structure was good enough so huge change was unnecessary. If you look back at our videos from the 1970s, jive is the most similar in stylisation, musical interpretation and action, whereas many would call the choreography of the other four dances old-fashioned!”

There have been some trends in jive since the 1960s, but these don’t seem to have stayed. As Alan and Hazel explain it, there was an excess of solo or side-by-side figures, which they believe to be out of character for the dance, as the man should be leading his partner. Sometimes the influence of West Coast swing has been used too much or incorrectly, as it has different principles regarding tempo, timing and rhythm. While many successful champions have shown it is possible to steal a West Coast swing figure and use it in jive, such figures need to be danced with jive principles.

Early in jive’s development, there was a time when couples tried to cover too much floor space in the dance, but it did not seem popular with the judges and it meant the characteristic atmosphere of the dancefloor, with couples rotating in a small space, was lost. Alan and Hazel also believe couples have to be careful with gimmicky choreography and tricks: dancers always try to create something unique, but the Fletchers believe there can be a fine line between originality and something that can look crass and senseless. As they put it: “Why try to fix something when it is not broken?”
©Rachelle Stretch

1 comment
  1. I dance both ballroom dances and Lindy hop, and I’m always curious why jive articles and lectures mention Lindy hop as the major influence on jive. Lindy hop is danced (both today and in its heyday) primarily to 1930s and 1940s (i.e. pre-war) swing music, while jive and American Rhythm “swing” are danced primarily to jump blues and rock n’ roll music (as well as pop and techno). There is almost no overlap in the music to which I would comfortably dance Lindy and jive. Nor is the basic movement concept particularly similar (same as with West Coast swing).

    On the other hand, there is a video available on YouTube of Walter Laird and Lorraine Reynolds dancing jive in 1963, and it looks perhaps more like Lindy hop (albeit with somewhat less earthy styling) than the jive dancing of today. I wonder what changed?

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