Various types of swing dances, including the Lindy Hop, Jive, the Big Apple, West Coast Swing, the Whip, the Push, and the East Coast Swing, were referred to as the “jitterbug” dance. Popular in the 1940’s, these Swing dance styles originated two decades earlier in African American dance clubs in and around Harlem, New York. Unflatteringly, the Jitterbug dance term came to be associated with swing dancers who danced without any control or knowledge of proper dance moves, such uncontrolled dance movements because typically the dancers were drunk. In fact, the term jitterbug comes from an early 20th-centry slang term used to describe alcoholics who suffered from the “jitters”.
On March 26, 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened its doors in New York. The infamous Cotton Club jazz club had already been open for three years. The Savoy was an immediate success with its block-long dance floor and a raised double bandstand. Nightly dancing attracted many of the best, most innovative dancers in the New York and surrounding area. Stimulated by the presence of great dancers and the best black bands, music at the Savoy was largely Swinging Jazz and the dance moves seen there were cutting edge for their time.
One dance in particular, the jitterbug dance, was quite popular in the African American community, particularly in the Harlem nightclubs in New York City. Whereas white dances typically involved rigid upper body posture, black dancers incorporated movements from their African heritage which typically consisted of quick legwork and very mobile upper body movement.
The origination of the Lindy Hop jitterbug dance can be traced to one night in 1927. One evening in 1927, following Lindbergh’s flight to Paris, a local dance enthusiast named “Shorty George” Snowden was watching some of the dancing couples. A newspaper reporter asked him what dance they were doing, and it just so happened that there was a newspaper with an article about Lindbergh’s flight sitting on the chair next to them. The title of the article read, “Lindy Hops the Atlantic,” and George just sort of read that and said, “Lindy Hop” and the name stuck.
Popularization of the Dance
The jitterbug swing dance started around 1927 but the term jitterbug was not popularized until 1934. Cab Calloway’s 1934 recording of “Call of the Jitter Bug” (Jitterbug) and the film “Cab Calloway’s Jitterbug Party” popularized use of the word “jitterbug”, and created a strong association between Calloway and jitterbug. Lyrics to “Call of the Jitter Bug” clearly demonstrate the association between the word jitterbug and the consumption of alcohol.
If you’d like to be a jitter bug,
First thing you must do is get a jug,
Put whiskey, wine and gin within,
And shake it all up and then begin.
Grab a cup and start to toss,
You are drinking jitter sauce!
Don’t you worry, you just mug,
And then you’ll be a jitter bug!
Popularity in the African American Community
Calloway’s song brought the jitterbug dance to the forefront of the public eye and it quickly spread from the African American community to the white community and across the United States (and eventually to Europe).
Writing about the Savoy Ballroom, dance critic John Martin of The New York Times wrote the following:
“The white jitterbug is oftener than not uncouth to look at…but his Negro original is quite another matter. His movements are never so exaggerated that they lack control, and there is an unmistakable dignity about his most violent figures…there is a remarkable amount of improvisation…mixed in…with Lindy Hop figures. Of all the ballroom dances these prying eyes have seen, this is unquestionably the finest.”
The Jitterbug was very popular shortly before World War II and continued its craze throughout wartime. American GIs in Europe spread the jitterbug dance to their overseas counterparts (despite loud protests from European officials touting the dance as uncivilized).
Skeptics said the jerk-like dance would never last. On the contrary, the Jitterbug and similar dances became very popular throughout the United States and Eastern Europe during World War II.
How to do the Jitterbug
According to many sources, including films from the period, the early versions of the dance were characterized by fast footwork, with a mixture of partner work which included turns and aerial flips, and breakaways, where the two dancers stood some feet apart, doing various step-footwork combinations distinguished by their loose-legged quality.
In 1939, the Jitterbug dance was described as thus:
“You have to sway, forwards and backwards, with a controlled hip movement, while your shoulders stay level and your feet glide along the floor. Your right hand is held low on the girl’s back, and your left hand down at your side, enclosing her hand.”
- Stand in front of the woman but a little to her right. Stand close enough to the woman so that your upper thigh, hip and up to the middle of your chest touch your partner. Take her right hand in your left and place your right hand on her left shoulder blade.
- Step to the left with your left foot. Pick up your right foot and set it down in the same place.
- Place your left foot in back of the right foot. Pick up your right foot and set it back in the same place.
- Stand in front of the man but a little to his left. Stand close enough to the man so that your upper thigh, hip and up to the middle of your chest touch your partner. Place your right hand in his left and place your left hand on his right shoulder.
- Step to the right with your right foot. Pick up your left foot and set it down in the same place.
- Place your right foot in back of the left foot. Pick up your left foot and set it back in the same place.
Mention in the Wizard of Oz
A number called “The Jitterbug” was written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The “jitterbug” was a bug sent by the Wicked Witch of the West to waylay the heroes by forcing them to do a jitterbug-style dance. Although the number was not included in the final version of the film, the Witch is later heard to tell the flying monkey leader, “I’ve sent a little insect on ahead to take the fight out of them.”