by Kimi Eisele
Every Thursday evening, DJ “Mista T,” aka Terry Thomas, of the Tucson Slide Society teaches a line dancing class at the Dunbar Pavilion in Tucson. Highly democratic, the class shares choreography for everyone and furthers a tradition of collective dance that evolved in the United States through European immigrant communities and African-American vernacular traditions.
Chances are, if you’ve ever danced at a wedding, you’ve done a line dance. Think Electric Slide, Macarena, and the Chicken Dance. Even the Hokey Pokey is a line dance, though it’s often done in a circle.
Line dancing may be the simplest and most egalitarian form of community dancing there is. Dancers dance in lines, in unison, without partners, often repeating steps and changing their direction to face all four sides of a room. Usually there’s no contact between dancers, though some dances involve holding hands, shoulder-to-shoulder contact, or a “train” line of people hands-to-waist, as in a conga line.
Line dancing rose to popularity in the United States during the disco era of the 1970s and ’80s, says Kate Alexander, an ethnomusicologist and assistant professor on the Honors College Interdisciplinary faculty at the University of Arizona.
“It was the next big dance craze,” she says, sparked in part by movies like Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Urban Cowboy (1980), both of which starred John Travolta.
When disco died, people started doing line dancing to Country and Western music. “A lot of disco clubs became Country and Western clubs,” Alexander says. “Everyone just bought boots and hats.”
The tradition of line dancing in the United States traces back to European traditions such as German and Polish folk dances and to African-American vernacular forms such stepping, tap, and hand dancing. The Chicken Dance, for example, comes out of the German traditions of Oktoberfest. Originally the “Duck Dance,” it arrived in the United States in 1974.
In the American West, early forms of line dancing happened when European immigrants and African Americans came together in dance halls or social clubs. “It was people from all different traditions making up dances so they could dance together,” Alexander says. “The American West was far more diverse than we’re taught through movie Westerns and school books. There was more sharing there than we tend to think.”
Junious Brickhouse, a Maryland-based dancer and choreographer who practices and studies urban dance forms of the African diaspora, notes the influence of Charles “Cholly” Atkins, known as the creator of the line dance style dubbed “vocal choreography,” in which singers used dance steps to enhance their performances. Here’s a video of Cholly teaching choreography to the Temptations.
“This changed the game for many African American dancers, especially in urban areas of the United States,” Brickhouse says.
Like the Bay Area, California. “In the 1970s dance groups and clubs took their solo forms known as Robottin’ and Boogaloo and formed lines. It’s how we got Struttin,” Brickhouse says.
Struttin’ is a form of stepping, in which dancers in a line make synchronistic moves using precision, unison, and domino effects. Medea Sirkus is a dance group known for Struttin, as seen here. More recently, other Bay Area groups like the Playboys, Inc. and The Assassins, are Struttin’ in competitions and showcases.
Worth mentioning, too, are the CPDRC dancers, a collective of inmates in the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, a maximum security prison in Cebu, Philippines. The inmates perform elaborate line dance routines as part of their exercise program. Many of them can be found online.
Tucson Slide Society classes meet Thursdays at 6 pm at the Dunbar Pavilion, 325 W. Second St., Tucson, AZ.
Here’s a ThoughtCo. piece on The History of Line Dancing.